Users Groups, leadership, life & death and the wife of Julius Caesar

Leadership in Users Groups has always been a difficult task. Very few people in sane consciousness wants to be a community leader, to carry on the flag. Too much volunteer work, takes up a lot of a person’s time: away from family and friends, for nights, weekends, holidays and often one can not meet all the interests of the Greeks and Trojans, so often someone is really upset with you.

On the other hand (and everybody knows this) it is cool, is rewarding, you have community recognition, your ego is scratched, and your maturity, networking and knowledge is increased.

So, at the same time a person loves and hates being a community leader at the same time. Every week you promise to give up but suddenly receive an email from someone you didn’t know personally, but you know is a member of your group, just saying “Thank you” because your community work helped him to xxx (you fill the blank) so we carry on, until the next time.

Unfortunately for the group the “dark side of” this type of leadership is too dependent on one person. When the leader moves to another job or city the group usually dies. Until, a couple of years later after someone, upset with this situation, recreates the group and the loop starts again.

During my 15 years as a JUG Leader, I have seen in my own country 27 Users Groups simply vanish. More than 50% of JUGs disappeared during this period. [1] When I asked the leaders what happened, frequently the answers were: a – I gave up, b – I became interested in another subject (technology) or c – moved to another city/country.

Why does this happen? Why is it so difficult to substitute a leaving leader?

It’s not because we are a band of selfish or arrogant people, but because, once again, nobody wants to be the leader. We are always looking for someone to be the next one, just to allow us to take some holiday with our family or have the right to have a belly ache. We usually have a couple of names up our sleeve for future leaders, and we train, nurture, mentor and coach them, but people only accept being helpers, coordinators, supporters, you name it, but nobody wants to have the responsibility of the group. They usually say that they have a lot of responsibilities in their daily life and they don’t want to add another one. They are in your group to learn, to help, for fun or to do some community or social work. They support you doing volunteer work, when they can, when they have time but, we know… somebody must carry the flag.

In “Leaders Emerge by Talking First and Most Often” [2] Jeremy Dean suggests that leaders become leaders because they have a big mouth. “Put some random people in a group, give them a task and soon enough a leader will emerge”. Why? Because a dominant person usually offers more suggestions to the group and become seen by the group as a competent person “by making greater verbal contributions to discussions”.

How people emerge as leaders?

In another paper called “Why Do Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-to-Face Groups” [3], I was looking for clues to help me understand the role of leadership in Users Groups and my reflections about this article made me remember something attributed to Caesar (but that he actually never said ;-), “It is not enough for Caesar’s wife to be honest, she must also look honest”.[4]

Anderson and Kilduff, research based on two lab studies, concluded that people with high dominance traits influence the group because “they behave in ways that make them appear more competent”. Like Pompeia (Caesar’s wife) a leader does not necessarily have to have competence in order to become a leader but must appear to the community that s/he has competence.

Usually we think that “Individuals high in trait dominance are assertive and motivated to lead, and thus take control through the force of their personality”. But, the process of becoming a Leader is much more subtle than using brute force, their research shows us that a leader tends to appear competent to fellow group members, “because of acting in ways that caused them to be perceived as more competent, despite not actually being more competent than their less dominant counterparts”, “even if they actually lack competence”.

Anderson and Kilduff’s research shows us that comparing competence, between leaders and their members, leaders provide first and more answers but the quality of their responses was not better than that provided by the people they lead. They show us that leaders dominance is based on the influence they build up inside the group, on signalling behaviours like, been helpful, confident and initiative-taking.

The community trusts its leaders and they usually ends up having the same opinion. My own research among 43 Brazilian Users Groups and their 191 leaders [5] gave me clues that the “health” of a Users Group can be measured by comparing the synchronicity of opinion of the group of Leaders and the group of the members when answering the same questions. I found that regardless of the question, the opinion of the leaders is quite the same as that of the community (with small maximum variation of 6.1%). Compared with a control group, developers which does not participate in users groups, the result remained the same, with a variation nearly 6.5%.

Graphic for Blog 2

As we can see above, when leaders speak the same language as the group members or (in other words) when members hear what they want to hear from their leaders, we have a “healthy” community. I believe the analysis of this kind of synchronicity between leaders and led can be a strong indicator (or predictor) of the life & death of the Users Groups.

JUG Leader / Founding Java Champion

1 – Video Dr. JUG
2 – 16 February 2009. Visited 23 June 2013
3 – Anderson, Cameron, and Gavin J. Kilduff (2009), “Why Do Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-to-Face Groups? The Competence-Signaling Effects of Trait Dominance”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 491-503.
4 –úlio_César Visited 23 June 2013
5 – Oliveira, Daniel. Comunidades de prática: um estudo dos grupos de usuários Java brasileiros. Brasília: Universidade Católica de Brasília, 2005.