Do open-source projects need strong leaders?

GNOME, the popular Linux desktop interface, took a hit today. Its popular leader Stormy Peters left GNOME for Mozilla to work on the open Web. GNOME, which has been struggling with getting its critical 3.0 release out the door, will be the poorer for her absence.

This got me thinking. How important our "leaders" to open-source projects? We tend to think of open-source projects being lead by top developers. Sometimes that's true. Without Linus Torvalds, the top developer, would we have Linux, the major operating system or, as is the case the BSD Unix family, a handful of relatively minor operating systems? I don't think so.

I'm not saying, just to get this out of the way, that FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, and the other BSDs are technically great and that they're not used in many important sites. They are darn good and many top Websites and data centers use them. All that said though there are probably a hundred Linux users to every BSD user.

Without Linus though, I think "Linux" would just be another somewhat obscure Unix-like operating system. But do you have to be a coding wizard to lead an open-source project to success?

It certainly helps. To take another example, while I'm still not a huge fan of KDE 4.x, I've gotten fonder of it over time and there's no question in my mind that it's a huge achievement. Would it have gotten so far without Aaron J. Seigo to lead the way? I can't imagine it.

That said, I would also say no. that while any large open-source project needs a strong leader, he or she doesn't have to be a star programmer.

Look at Ubuntu for example. As many Debian developers will tell you, Ubuntu is largely Debian. So why is it that Ubuntu is so much more popular? The answer is that its leader, Mark Shuttleworth, may not be a stellar programmer, but he is a strong leader with a clear vision.

Without such a leader, programs tend to wander and to lose their way. For instance, D-Bus isn't that big a project at all, but it is essential for Linux desktop interprocess communications (IPC). Unfortunately, the project has been rudderless for some time now. It's important but without leadership it's stagnating.

Or, take the case of MeeGo, Intel and Nokia's embedded Linux love-child. MeeGo has the lofty twin goals of being an Android rival and being the embedded Linux of choice for cars and numerous other devices. MeeGo's 1.1 release was only made the other day after months of delay. Could that have been because its leader, Nokia's Ari Jaaksi had resigned to head to HP to head up its Web OS division. I'd bet on it.

If you want an open-source project to really move forward, you might be able to pull it off without a superstar programmer leader. But without a top-dog, whether they can program their way out of a paper bag or not, that can lead developers to creating great work, you're in trouble. Here's hoping that both GNOME and MeeGo find new, strong leadership blood soon.

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