I was speaking recently at a seminar in Switzerland about leadership in the age of digital disruption, and an interesting question came up. Someone asked me why I was propagating the need for strong, decisive leadership and at the same time talking about open source era. “Isn’t open source about getting results without a clear (singular) leadership?" he asked while citing examples of open source operating systems (OS) like Linux, social movements like the Arab Spring and the recent rise of cryptocurrencies.

This gentleman went on to say he was really confused. “Not only does your claim about the need for strong leadership in the open source era go against the very essence of open source systems, you go to the extent of advocating autocratic leadership?"

At first glance, the argument seems fair, isn’t it? After all, the open source era is all about the amazing freedom and empowerment that ordinary people enjoy. In fact, we’ve never been more empowered as much as this before in human history. So, who needs strong leadership in today’s environment?

But if you look at it more closely, it becomes clear that the need for strong, decisive leadership is far greater in the open source era. In fact, it turns out that pure, leaderless open source systems and movements don’t work or sustain beyond their initial hype.

Let’s consider some examples, starting with Linux, the free software OS. Linux has been around since the 1990s, and even to date, its market share is less than 4%. If it is free, and if it is as good as it claims to be, why do people still prefer to pay hefty fees for Microsoft Windows OS, which commands an impressive 72% market share? And why do a majority of Linux users themselves prefer to pay for the version provided by Red Hat, even though the original system can be installed and operated for free? The logic doesn’t seem to add up.

The problem with the free version of Linux is that there is no one central place to go to for updates or support. On the contrary with Windows, if a user faces any issues, they can at any point contact Microsoft 24/7/365 for support. It is in fact this very point of weakness at Linux that gave Red Hat a leadership opportunity. It recognized the issue and began to offer clients a one-stop-shop solution for all things Linux. Only when Red Hat established itself as the custodian (leader) of Linux updates and support, did the OS start gaining favour among enterprise users. It is, at least in part, by filling the leadership vacuum in an open source system that Red Hat managed a valuation of $33 billion.

Now, let’s look at the Arab Spring. After starting in Tunisia in 2010, it was expected that the wave of revolutionary contagion would spread across West Asia and put an end to oppressive regimes. Eight years later, however, the movement was all but dead, with worst dictatorships in place in some countries.

Another example of an idea that came out of the open source era is cryptocurrency. Ten years into its existence, yet cryptocurrencies are not mainstream. Most people find it difficult to trust a system created by an unknown person or persons, with nowhere to go if you need help. Would you rather put your life savings in a banking system controlled and regulated by central banks, or in a digital currency mining and trading system that very few people understand, and no one regulates? For cryptocurrencies to go mainstream, we need someone visible to step in, just like Red Hat did for Linux.

Today’s open source era is one of speed and empowerment. On the one hand, things move at breakneck speed, and any person or organization which cannot keep up with that speed is marginalized quickly. On the other hand, thanks to 24/7 connectivity, everyone has an empowered voice, and anyone can join any debate, making consensus almost impossible. Add to this the threats of cybercrime and the near-death of privacy, and you have the perfect storm. In such a reality, people need effective leadership for direction, safety and support more than ever before. It is the intangible leverage that enables business to stand out from its competition, customers to experience added value, and everyone to remain engaged and focused on execution. Hence, positive autocracy that I advocate, is the need of the hour.

21st Century Leadership is a column that rewrites the rules of leadership for the all-digital open source era. This is the last column .

Rajeev Peshawaria is author of Open Source Leadership, and CEO, Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre, Malaysia.

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