Digital Leadership in Open Source

What does leadership look like when participation is voluntary? This question came to mind as I was recently reading about leadership attributes. In one of my professional contexts, I work as a maintainer and community leader for an open source school platform called Gibbon. In this open source context, the people who choose to contribute their time and expertise to build the project are there of their own volition. I wondered: what attributes of leadership are the most essential in this situation? Throughout my readings, I used this question as a lens to examine and consider digital leadership in an open source context.

Trust is a cornerstone of open source communities, since many members join the community as strangers. In a blog post about digital leadership, Sheninger (2014) states that “it all begins with trust” (para. 6). He urges digital leaders to “give up control” in order to “unleash creativity and passion” in others (para. 6). This can be a difficult yet essential step for open source leaders. At some point, there’s too much work to be done by one person, and a leader needs to share the load. However, since members there there voluntarily and many have never met in person, it can be a tricky position to trust them, and in turn be trusted by them. In this way, trust is a two-fold attribute: both trusting—the capacity to place belief and reliance in others, and trustworthiness—the “ability to be relied on as honest or truthful” (“Trustworthiness”, n.d.). Kouzes and Posner (2011) suggest “the simple truth is that trusting other people encourages them to trust you, and distrusting others makes them more likely to distrust you” (p. 78). With this leadership attribute in mind, it may not be possible to build an open source community without some fundamental level of trust.

Leadership in an open source context should also be adaptive and flexible. Khan (2017) highlights how adaptive leadership provides a greater responsiveness towards change and increased motivation in followers. Her research finds that adaptive leadership is beneficial “in complex situations where the leader-follower relationship is attended to, but so are all environmental, cultural, and societal factors that will affect leaders and followers” (p. 180). Open source communities are fundamentally complex: their members may be anywhere in the world, speak different languages, and have different values. Paying attention to the leader-follower relationship in an open source community is also crucial because the organization structure may not follow a standard top-down hierarchy. Transactional reward-based leadership may be less effective because community members are already participating voluntarily, and their motivation is likely to be intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Adaptive leadership, with its flexibility and responsiveness towards complex factors, becomes an essential approach for digital leadership in open source communities.

Transparency and communication may also be essential leadership attributes for situations where participation is voluntary. Sheninger (2014) numbers communication as the first of seven Pillars of Digital Leadership in Education. He states that “digital leadership is about engaging all stakeholders in two-way communication” (para. 9). I think two-way communication is a logical foundation for open source communities: leaders may not see much headway by giving directives or commands one-way. “Static, one-way methods such as newsletters and websites [no longer] suffice” (Sheninger, 2014, para. 9). Community members are there voluntarily, and their motivation to contribute is likely tied to their having a voice in the project. For open source leaders to build a thriving community, they may need to build channels of communication that foster active two-way participation in the project.

What other leadership attributes are essential to a context where community members are voluntary, distributed globally, and motivated intrinsically? As I continue to research leadership and change in this course I hope to revisit the ideas in this blog post, and I’m curious to hear what leadership attributes my cohort members might suggest adding to this list.


Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or transactional leadership in current higher education: A brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(3), 178–183.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Engender Trust. In Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from

Sheninger, E. (2014). Pillars of Digital Leadership. International Center for Leadership in Education, 4. Retrieved from

Trustworthiness. (n.d.). In Lexico by Oxford University Press (OUP). Retrieved from

Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay

2 thoughts on “Digital Leadership in Open Source

  1. Hi Sandra,

    I find your post very interesting! Great question – “What does leadership look like when participation is voluntary?” Contemplating leadership in a voluntary, open source context is indeed thought-provoking. I found all of the attributes that you listed for leadership in this context to be quite reasonable, and what I would similarly identify as essential attributes. You identified these essential attributes as trust, adaptive and flexible, and transparent in communication. Like you, I came back to what “trust” would look like in an open source context where leadership is not only voluntary, but also established “on-line” or virtually. When I think of the various settings that I have experienced “trust-building” situations and actions while interacting with “leaders,” I naturally most refer to in-person, face-to-face experiences — more so than any of the other attributes that you have listed.

    How does one establish and maintain trust in an online setting? Is it by consistently sharing authentic, quality content? Is it by providing respectful and productive feedback? Is it by promoting and actively encouraging a “safe space” to share innovative ideas and resources? I have been involved in some asynchronous and synchronous discussions where different opinions or new ideas were “shut down,” or received a particularly negative or defensive reaction by the leaders in the conversation.

    I think you have an interesting question to grapple with! And in the context of the development of open source resources, I believe “trust” is a challenging attribute to define in action, or perhaps would just take longer to establish in the absence of face-to-face interactions.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Hi Sandra,

    Thank you for your post. As with Leigh, I found your post to be quite thoughtful and brought a valuable perspective. Leadership in the context of volunteers, certainly requires a nuanced approached. Your assessment that a standard top-down approach will not work, is an important one. Having been an active volunteer in a variety of contexts, from my own experience, this resonated. A few other leadership attributes that I believe would be important in this context, would be caring and cooperative. These attributes would be integral in building motivation, community and connection, particularly in volunteer work.

    I would love to understand within in your context – with voluntary participation, has there have been an articulation of what people would like to see from a leader? What motivates the volunteers? You mentioned the importance of having a voice in the project and intrinsic motivations – has there been specific feedback as to what this looks like for participants? Is it the nature of the work? Passion and interest? Sense of community? This piece around motivation struck a chord with me, as I think it is central to any leadership context. Perhaps, investing more in understanding motivations, even within a paid context, would result in stronger desired outcomes that leaders are seeking.

    – Sanjay

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