For those who have not seen it yet, on June 13th the third installment in a
series of regular blog posts by the members of the Wikimedia Foundation
Board of Trustees was posted on the Wikimedia blog. This month’s post was
written by Board member Bishakha Datta on the topic of leadership within
the complex structures of the Wikimedia Foundation. The post is available
in English.


Through Thick And Thin

Posted by Bishakha Datta on June 13, 2014

*This post is part of an ongoing series of monthly blog posts by members of
the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees that aims to shed light on the
function, responsibilities and inner workings of the Board.*

I’ve often thought you need the thin skin of an amphibian and the thick
hide of a rhinoceros to be a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation. Your skin
must be thin enough to allow different ideas, voices, thoughts and
perspectives to permeate, including those most distant or different from
your own – openness is an inherent aspect of leadership. At the same time,
it must be thick enough to weed out distractions and inessentials. And of
course, your mind must be capable of knowing the difference.

What makes leadership complex in Wikimedia is its vast, diverse and
decentralized nature. Like the movement itself, the 10 of us on the
Wikimedia Foundation board come from different cultures, continents,
backgrounds and experiences – all of which shape how we understand power
and leadership. And all of which determine, to some extent, the kinds of
leaders we aspire to be or will become.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into this. In companies or corporations where the
notion of hierarchy is accepted, power can flow directly up or down in a
straight line. In academics, the teacher-learner dynamic provides cues for
the exercise of power and leadership. In the women’s rights movement, which
is part of my background, power is a dirty word and erasing power
inequalities between genders is an explicit goal. Thus leadership here
cannot be overt or heavy-handed; it has to be subtle and implicit, more
circular and collective, sometimes even veiled. In the sex workers’ rights
movement, of which I am a long-time ally, we turn power on its head and
equip unlettered sex workers or the ‘powerless’ to become leaders. This
requires supportive ‘outsiders’ to consciously step back and transfer some
of their own skills and power to ‘insiders’.

As WMF trustees, we exercise leadership through a mix of methods, from the
invisible to the visible, the implicit to the explicit and the subtle to
the evident. One of our most commonplace, yet most profound, acts of
leadership is upholding shared values and principles, an everyday act that
we take almost for granted. Let’s take consensus, which is a movement-wide
principle. [1] On the WMF board, we regularly strive for consensus in our
decision-making, while understanding that consensus is not unanimity. This
is done through certain routinely followed processes. For example, at our
board meetings, virtual or physical, each trustee is given a chance to
speak on each agenda item. This may sound basic, but this is essential to
give everyone a voice. This round-robin technique ensures that newer
trustees are not hesitant to speak, brings diverse views to the table,
prevents any one trustee or viewpoint from dominating the discussion, or
the formation of cliques or lobbies advocating a particular perspective.
And it ensures we don’t get entrenched in our individual positions – as
long as we are honest enough to admit we may not have all the answers in
our heads. And open enough to changing our minds in the face of better
evidence, arguments and insights.

And as each trustee voices his or her thoughts, never repeating what has
already been said, but plus-oneing, adding, sifting, sorting, shading,
unconsidered points and nuances appear on the table, the conversation
starts to round out – and commonalities, or the building blocks of
consensus, start to emerge. I find this process almost magical – and
Wikipedian in the sense that our collective decisions are built through our
individual contributions that we share with one another, just like our

Another way we exercise leadership is by using our influence, but this is
done sparingly, modestly and in a peer-to-peer manner that fosters equality
in keeping with our values. An encouraging nod, supportive email or helping
hand where it can make a difference, a candid behind-the-scenes
conversation when it’s called for, sometimes calling a spade a spade, or a
banana a banana rather than an elongated yellow fruit. There is
satisfaction at having done the right thing, even though no one may be
there to witness it.

Leadership is often misunderstood only as flaunting one’s power, but it is
as much about recognizing and accepting the impact, and the limits of
power. As WMF trustees, we entrust the Executive Director to make or
implement certain decisions; that is what delegation of power is all about.
In theory, delegating power is easy, like building consensus. In practice,
it means exercising a different kind of leadership, one which knows how and
when to step back just as much as it knows when and how to step forward.
You have to keep moving between the spotlight and the shadows to be an
effective leader.

In this sense, good leadership also means allowing others to lead and
creating the space and conditions to do so; as Board liaisons or observers
to Board-created committees such as the Affiliations Committee or the Funds
Dissemination Committee we must constantly ensure that our presence
encourages accountability but does not prevent others from exercising their
leadership. At the same time, we must know when to step in and provide
needed guidance or suggest improvements. Ask tough questions when they must
be asked. And explain Board decisions that may not be popular but that we,
as trustees, consider meaningful for the movement.

All in all, leadership is a balancing act, a bit like walking on a
tightrope. Lean too far ahead and you’re too much of a leader. Lean too far
back and you’re not enough of a leader. How can one command leadership
while continually deconstructing hierarchies of power? How can one
challenge thinking that has fossilized and inspire others to think in
different ways? How can one bring one’s personal experiences and influences
to the boardroom while putting aside one’s personal agendas? How can one
have skin that is both thick and thin? How can one see the trees without
missing the woods – or the big picture – in the same gaze? And finally, how
can we think not just of the needs of today, but also those of tomorrow?

As trustees the ultimate challenge before us is to be many-splendoured
things, as per this Buddhist model of leadership: sometimes “visionary (or
mission-driven, mission above all else, including constituent interests and
noise),” sometimes “role model (exemplary figure, does what he says,
someone who can be respected and emulated, lead by example),” sometimes
balanced “(impartiality in judgement rather than resolving conflict),”
sometimes “manager (ability to delegate),” sometimes “protector (of the
movement, wellbeing of the community),” sometimes “showing the way (inspire
others to their full potential).” [2] Or as one 11-year-old girl simplified
it to her mother: “Leadership is helping others, particularly through
difficult times. They need to show that this is the way you could go for
your future.” [3] I’ll plus one her on that.

*Bishakha Datta (User:Bishdatta) has been serving on the WMF Board of
Trustees since 2010. *
Carlos Monterrey
Communications Associate
Wikimedia Foundation
+1.415.839.6885 ext 6881
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