When Nuance Is Lost: The Perils of Digital Leadership

Leading an organization is already a deeply challenging thing, but it becomes even tougher when you’re doing it mostly through digital interfaces. The recent decision by Linux creator Linus Torvalds to take a break to work on his personal conduct speaks to the fundamental nature of this challenge.

Getting mad online has become something pretty close to a national sport—arguments are easy to get into and hard to get out of.

And as more and more of our communication happens online, this is increasingly a leadership concern. It’s not just about avoiding saying something stupid online, either—you may be leading primarily in a text-based format, communicating with employees who are increasingly remote, and the wrong demeanor could have disastrous consequences.

What has me thinking about this is the story of Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. The Linux operating system is nearly 30 years old, and Torvalds has been at its center for nearly all of that time. And because of the way that open-source software works, he largely communicates through text-based interfaces—a format that has earned Torvalds a reputation as a “hothead,” not unlike other major technology icons such as Steve Jobs. If Torvalds didn’t like the way your software worked, he wasn’t afraid to tell you off. (I’m not going to link it because it’s profane, but a great example of this on YouTube involves him criticizing the graphics card maker Nvidia during a presentation. Look it up.)

For years, this was his mode of operation, and it shaped the way that Linux was built. Despite the system’s success, the complaints about Torvalds’ written behavior got to the point that The New Yorker started asking whether his conduct was scaring people off from working on the Linux kernel, particularly women.

Torvalds surprised everyone last month when he announced he would step aside from the project temporarily, explaining in a post on the Linux mailing list that he realized he “really had been ignoring some fairly deep-seated feelings in the community.”

“I am very proud of the Linux code that I invented and the impact it has had on the world,” he told The New Yorker. “I am not, however, always proud of my inability to communicate well with others—this is a lifelong struggle for me. To anyone whose feelings I have hurt, I am deeply sorry.”

Torvalds put a deputy in charge and is working on steps to improve his own behavior, a big step for any leader. Nonetheless, the situation is messy. Around the same time, he approved a new code of conduct for the community, with the goal of creating a more “open and welcoming environment”—a move that has arguably been more controversial than Torvalds’ decision to step aside. To critics, it feels like the culture wars are hitting the most famous and fundamental of open-source projects.

The two issues are related, but separate. Torvalds’ leadership style colors the organization and influences the way the people in it communicate. That, in turn, has affected how many in the broader Linux community work, leading to cultural issues that the organization’s leaders have moved to fix. Agree or disagree with the code of conduct changes, it seems fair to wonder whether this course correction might have happened sooner if the communication format wasn’t largely digital.

In a letter to the BBC, Torvalds acknowledged a need for change while pledging to hold firm to his tough standards:

Will everybody be happy? No. People who don’t like my blunt behavior even when I’m not being actively nasty about it will just see that as ‘look, nothing changed.’ I’m trying to get rid of my outbursts, and be more polite about things, but technically wrong is still technically wrong, and I won’t start accepting bad code just to make people feel better about themselves.

But if people at least realize that I’m not part of the disgusting underbelly of the internet that thinks it’s OK to show the kind of behavior you will find if you really have been reading up on the ‘discussions’ about the code of conduct, then even that will be a really good thing.

Torvalds might be one of the first leaders, whether inside or outside of technology, who mostly found his footing through the use of text-based interfaces such as email. There are more like him now, and there will be more in the future. We work in a remote world, and at some point phone calls and videoconferencing get in the way of the task at hand.

At the same time, I think that even leaders who are usually in the same room as their team could take something away from the Torvalds case. Tone is a tough thing to get right, and it’s especially tough when you have none of the verbal or physical cues that make leadership work easier to manage.

It means you have to work harder to make sure the things you say aren’t being misread. Getting mad online is easy, thanks to all of the nuance that can be lost in digital communication. Today’s leaders will do well to make that realization sooner, rather than later.

Your organization’s digital culture could be at stake.

Linux creator and lead programmer Linus Torvalds, center. (Ted Conference/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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