Fire your rockstars
By James Belchamber | Mon Mar 29 2021
This week, the Free (Libre) and Open Source Software community are attempting to remove an activist (known for their repugnant and bigoted views) from the board of the Free Software Foundation, an important institution in the FLOSS community. The activist - Richard Stallman - founded the organisation and is widely considered to be the founder of the Free Software movement.
He is also something of a cult figure amongst many, who respect his achievements and follow his leadership in all walks of life - something of a problem with leaders that (in a most charitable reading) are thoughtless about who they harm when they speak.
Every community starts with one person - as such, it's tempting to think that these "rockstars" are an inevitable and innate risk. But what if we re-framed the role of a leader - not as a big personality that led from the front, becoming an embodiment of the community they created - but with an expectation that they create communities that quickly outgrow them, and build the processes and institutions that don't need them?
What if we expected all leaders to become quickly unnecessary, before some of them become embedded and toxic?
A very relevant detour (I promise)
One of the most impactful things I've ever read was this blog, about a company going through organisational change. Okay, that's a weird thing to say - but hear me out.
The story is fairly simple: company hires a talented person ("Rick"), puts them on a team and starts work on a project. "Rick" (due to his talent/personality/both) lands up being the only real contributor, with the rest of the team just letting him take over. "Rick" is venerated - he works 12 hours a day to deliver on something, he is the go-to person to ask questions about the project.
Rick is a rockstar.
We join the story two years later, as the author is sent in to troubleshoot the constant delays and failure in that team, and finds a toxic environment - and a project that was basically built around "Rick". After attempts to extricate the project from this "leader" (with intense pushback), they did what few people are willing to do.
They fired Rick.
What happened next was fairly magical:
It took about a week for the dust to settle. It took time for the shocked team to gather themselves after losing their embattled guru. Then I saw them huddled around a whiteboard. They collaborated.
The team had to start almost from scratch, but - absent the toxic presence of this "linchpin" leader - they worked together, and they delivered what Rick could never quite achieve by himself. They then moved on to other projects, and fixed those too - yes, none of them could do it alone, but none of them needed to. They worked as a team, and they did it together.
In this story we see something very important, and which is not given nearly enough respect: it was far more important to enable a team to sustainably work towards a goal, than it is for a single person to have extraordinary output. When we value the latter over the former, we are likely to create toxicity - which is definitely what happened in this instance. "Rick" wasn't seriously challenged on his behaviour, because of his contributions - and "Rick" learned that so long as he kept his contributions high (or, at least, ensured nobody else could seriously contribute) he could carry on with his bad behaviour.
Have you ever met a "Rick"?
The activist and the super-activist
For anyone in the FLOSS community there are clear parallels between "Rick" and Stallman - massive contributions forgiving toxic behaviour that ultimately damages the wider cause. But it's not exclusive to tech - many people have experienced this, indeed it's probably a cultural norm.
In the Liberal Democrats there is the concept of a super-activist - somebody that single-handedly builds up activism in an area or on an issue. This has been an important part of Lib Dem successes, and in many parts of the country the presence of the Lib Dems is down to the work of a tiny amount of people.
These people should of course be congratulated - but it's clear that this model is also a limit on success. In many places the Lib Dems are almost impossible to shift, but are also not in danger of taking the council (or the constituency) simply because those achievements are usually beyond the reach of a single, super-active person - and they haven't developed the processes and culture to grow meaningfully beyond this.
In fact: does that situation - big early successes followed by medium-term loss of momentum - create a culture that turns a well-meaning and hard-working person into a "Rick"?
Rick isn't the only problem
One thing identified by commentary in the tech community around that blog post was that "Rick" wasn't created in a vacuum. Indeed, a lot of people had empathy for "Rick" - trying to hold together a project while management failed at their job of managing him and the team around him. Some people are definitely ready to become a rockstar, but it's a community (workplace, political party, whatever) and their values that create rockstars. In that, there's a lesson for both the tech community and the political community - fire your rock stars - and stop creating new ones.
All that, of course, does not absolve people of their actions or their choices. This article started by talking about Richard Stallman, who created a community around his belief that software should be free - that people should be able to study, distribute and modify the code that runs on their computers, their phones, their fridges and in their cars. In demanding that freedom over 40 years ago, Stallman showed unparalleled prescience. Today, many companies deliberately lock us out of the code that dictates our lives and our lifestyles, and that freedom is something we must demand and that we must win back.
I believe the FLOSS community will survive him, and the efforts to grow beyond his legacy sustain that hope. But in his stubborn drive to return to the board of the FSF he has put the community he created - the community I love - in almost existential danger. This old man seems intent to leave scorched earth in his arrogant insistence that he's done nothing wrong, and might yet destroy our cause in the process.
Learn these lessons in your own communities - and fire your rockstars, before it's too late.