cover art by: Peter Wocken
What is leadership in DAOs? 23 qualitative interviews were conducted to explore this question. This article shares details about the study, its findings, and implications.
"Leadership in DAOs can come in a lot of different ways. It's not traditional, like top-down leadership, but it's just creating a system where people's voices can be heard, and creating clarity as to where those systems are. I think that's much more important in DAOs is having the structure rather than having the person.” – Gloria, Gitcoin DAO
The intention of this article is to share the findings from 23 interviews conducted at the end of 2022 and early 2023 exploring the topic of what is leadership in DAOs? This is Phase 2 of a multi-phase approach (check out Phase 1).
This is a long read and is meant to provide valuable insight into the “social transformation” of the DAO ecosystem. This article serves as a vessel for the rich language, perspectives, and stories shared on a timeless topic in a nascent space. Pseudonyms are used throughout to protect the anonymity of certain participants, while others have shared their first name or pseudonym - each participant's views are their own.
This effort is meant to provide a scientifically-based foundational framing for further practice and research – to invite more questions and to ignite a richer conversation around the humans that are still very much at the center of DAOs.
Looking for a TLDR? - check out the visual summary at the very bottom, which integrates findings from Phase 1 and 2. Read through, review, or reference this piece however you find it valuable.
Overview of the Study
entering into DAOs
what leadership in DAOs feels like
describing leadership in DAOs
how participants developed themselves
what people need to lead in DAOs
what DAOs need to enable people to lead
pitfalls to avoid
what actively developing leadership might look like
how thinking on leadership in DAOs has evolved with experience
advice for entering and leading in DAOs
defining leadership in DAOs
describing leadership in DAOs
mojo over ego
leadership behaviors according to research
leadership in the DAO context
In nearly every definition of leadership is an acknowledgement of its intertwined nature with influence. Leadership enables the efforts of individuals, teams, and organizations toward collective goals (Carter, 2015) and certain leadership behaviors improve productivity (Knotts et al., 2021) task performance (Banks et al., 2017), motivation (Koh et al., 2019), engagement, satisfaction, and the quality of relationships (Hoch et al., 2016). Decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) are rapidly evolving and benefit from cultivating leadership to enhance these desired outcomes.
DAOs are described by some as just another toolset or a coordination mechanism, and yet are hailed by others as social transformation at work and nothing short of a philosophy for moving through the world. Vitalik Buterin published a paper in 2014 outlining the difference between DAOs and decentralized organizations (DOs), stating
“The obvious difference between a DO and a DAO, and the one inherent in the language, is the word “autonomous”; that is, in a DO the humans are the ones making the decisions, and a DAO is something that, in some fashion, makes decisions for itself.”
Vitalik connects this way of organizing to the open source concept of code at the center, humans at the edges. And while this still may be the promise of DAOs, it is clear after six years, that we apply the term DAO very liberally and have not realized the promise yet on the journey to autonomous organizations where code really is at the center.
Closer to what Vitalik outlined as a DO, our DAO successes, failures, and pivots trace back to individuals or groups of people, discerning and shaping the direction of the DAO. Humans are still very clearly at the center, which is precisely why exploring what, how, and why leadership is happening and being developed is important. As one participant put it, “There's just different rules for DAOs that I think are much more subtle that people have different expectations.”
One thing is clear, DAOs are far from leaderless, yet may serve as the best attempt at creating “leader-full” organizations.
The study of leadership is nothing new. As one participant put it, “I don’t think more ink has been spilled over a topic.” And yet, DAOs present an opportunity to explore the phenomenon of leadership through an emergent and novel contextual lens.
Some of our participants shared the sentiment that "leadership is leadership" and that leadership in DAOs is nothing different than leading in any organization - if you can listen, learn, and adapt in web2 you can do it in web3.
On the other hand, other participants shared the sentiment that leadership in DAOs feels quite different - it's even the reason they're building and leading in this space!
"you lead in a DAO less by telling people specifically what to do, and more by leading through example" - Stanley, LabDAO
Contextual factors like porous infrastructures, unknown/lack of regulations, the role of governance and tokens, unclear workers’ rights and agreements, and the web3 culture and ethos, championing a greater decentralization provide a unique environment of study for working and leading.
Additional contextual factors like the crypto/digital-native, anonymous/pseudonymous, and permissionless culture, paired with ongoing high levels of experimentation, and the heightened expectations from others of partaking in a more autonomous, code-driven, decentralized, and transparent way of working, influence how leadership is thought about and practiced. Further research is needed to understand the impact, or not, of how the convergence of these contextual factors influences how leadership is manifesting, developing, and evolving.
As a step along this path, this article presents primary research as part of a broader inquiry, building upon Phase 1, which reviewed scientific literature from the past 25 years on shared, distributed, and collective leadership, representing approximately 5,400 primary studies. Perhaps, one of the most relevant findings is that to have shared leadership emerge, organizations first need to establish shared purpose, social support, and voice, or the ability for participants to impact the future of the organization (Wu, 2020).
The purpose of this Phase 2, was to complete in-depth qualitative interviews and gain an intimate understanding of how leadership manifests directly from people within the DAO context. The study contributes to a growing body of knowledge on DAOs and what it means to practice leadership in the more decentralized world of work. The study also serves as foundational research for other researchers to challenge and build upon.
To explore leadership in the DAO context, we first need to unearth how leadership is happening in this context, how leadership is being developed, and other key insights that incite collective reflection and inquiry (Lundgren et al., 2017). With this aim, the study interviewed 23 awesome people making the evolution and revolution happen on: What is leadership in DAOs?
This section provides additional details on the participants, research process, and interview questions used in the study.
The 23 awesome people who participated in this study reflected on experiences at these 33 diverse DAOs and other organizations in the DAO ecosystem:
MakerDAO, MolochDAO, RaidGuild, MetaCartel, DAOHaus, BANKLESS, GitcoinDAO, Yearn, SuperUMAns, UMA, Bright Moments DAO, ApeSwap, Giveth, Aragon, The Commons Stack, Meta Gamma Delta, ConstitutionDAO, Seed Club, Crypto Sapiens, AndinoDAO, Cabin, Blu3 DAO, Token Engineering Commons, RnDAO, LabDAO, MirrorDAO, Lobby3 DAO, NewAtlantisDAO, talentDAO, Coordinape, MoonDAO, Wonderverse, DreamDAO, and PolygonDAO.
We intentionally recruited individuals who had at least a year of experience, with leadership accountabilities across a variety of DAOs (protocol, service, social, operating systems/tooling, grants, investment, media, and science DAOs were all represented) to help us adequately explore leadership across the DAO ecosystem.
The following visuals depict the demographic data of our participant group:
The participant group was fairly gender-balanced. This took effort and definitely did not happen by chance - most referrals were for men, unless our team explicitly asked for women. The participants ranged in ages from 19 to 50+, with the average age being approximately 33.
11+ countries of origin, 9+ countries of residence and various ethnic backgrounds were represented across the group. Some participants opted out of certain demographic questions and offered less traditionally thought of locations like “unclear” and “nomad” for location of residence. The group primarily resides in North America, South America, and Europe. Future research would benefit from expanding representation and looking at different intersections of people and experiences.
The group ranged from 1-11 years in the crypto-blockchain space (averaging 4.8 years) and ranged from 1-6 years in DAOs (averaging 2.4 years). Many were co-founders at some point and shared that their founding teams came in sizes as small as 1-2 and as large as 10+, with 3-5 being the most common size.
Participants reflected on "DAOs becoming a catch-all term", with some clarifying that while they are a part of the DAO ecosystem, they are not technically in a DAO. DAO tooling like Coordinape serves the community, but is not a DAO itself and Token Engineering Commons is a commons that exists in service of many organizations and doesn’t claim the “O” of DAO. Other participants reflected on how they are technically not decentralized, autonomous, or on-chain yet, but are on the path of progressive decentralization, relying on a “small core team approach” to start, “set up”, and sustain the organization.
Everything in DAOs is still evolving, which is why a constructivist grounded theory approach was used for this study. Basically, it means we built a sense of what is going on from the participants' words. It’s a flexible and directed, intentional but unrestricted approach that allows for the constant comparison of emerging data (Charmaz, 2006) – a particularly appropriate fit for the emergent DAO context where there are no best practices yet, but perhaps best-for-now practices.
The process required researchers to continually ask, “what’s happening here?” to get a sense of the interconnections, omissions, and patterns from the data.
Each interview was recorded, transcribed by otter.ai, assigned a pseudonym to protect anonymity and confidentiality, and scrubbed for accuracy. Both primary researchers coded line-by-line (assigning summary phrases to lines of text), then reassigned those codes for the focused coding round, and finally each question’s focused codes were analyzed to produce summary codes. The findings of these rounds of analysis are shared in the following section, with specific excerpts using the pseudonym and a select DAO of the participant.
Participants shared their reflections to the interview questions shown in the visual below during a one-hour virtual session.
This section provides the summarized findings from each of the interview questions and shares excerpts from participant responses to provide a more nuanced and textured understanding of leadership in DAOs.
Prompt: Briefly describe your role in your DAO.
“DAO roles are liquid.” - Charlotte, People Ops Guild
When asked to describe their role, participants responded with titles like co-founder, general accountabilities like shaping vision, and more specific activities like treasury management.
When using titles, the majority of participants articulated their status as a founder/co-founder, steward/co-steward, or founding member, which was often followed by the mention of “wearing many hats”. Other titles given in response were, “head of”…, community manager, governance lead, operations lead, culture lead, project champion, coordination wizard, which all focused on leading within a specific area/function, group of people, or body of work. Only two participants used more traditional executive titles, like “CEO” and “CTO” as a way to anchor their titles or descriptions. Most participants have taken on numerous roles and titles within various DAOs at various stages, with a few serving in advisory roles for other DAOs.
When reflecting on accountabilities, participants shared having a clear priority or primary DAO, while remaining active at other DAOs, and loosely connected to many, including prior DAOs. Accountabilities were shared that showed a dedication to the DAO, its mission, and its people. The overarching accountability was on forwarding the vision and mission of the DAO, like "I do what the DAO needs me to do to keep pushing forward” or "Making sure the DAO keeps moving". Here is a visual summary of various accountabilities participants shared:
Specific activities were also mentioned by participants. These responses were nuanced and very contextually based on the needs of the DAO or the background of the individual. For example, focusing on setting up and aligning a subDAO infrastructure with the parent DAO to ease transitions and convert contributions between the two. Or taking deep dives into community development literature over the course of recent history.
Overall, accountabilities and titles were primarily used to briefly describe their roles. Regardless of the role description it is evident there is leadership in DAOs and people emerging as leaders with a sense of accountability to propel the DAO forward.
Prompt: Tell me about how you first came to engage in a DAO.
“The first project that I built was a DAO. But we didn't have that language yet. Nor did we have the tools to be able to engage communities in the way that we do today.”- Humpty, Crypto Sapiens
Many participants first learned about DAOs via someone in their network directly introducing them to it "Sold on the idea", or their own general exploration in the web3/crypto/blockchain space with a couple instances of it being introduced by their employer.
After learning about DAOs or being invited to join one, many recollected engaging with DAOs as starting “down the rabbithole”, which was elaborated on as researching, learning, and thinking about web3: crypto/blockchain/DAOs and its implications, almost obsessively. To many, engaging in DAOs was a way to learn about web3, solve problems, experiment, and explore the potential. Some found their way to DAOs by "searching for solutions based on the issues I was having in my current career." and engaged with DAOs as a way to explore career or working alternatives. For some who were already investing in the crypto/blockchain space, engaging in DAOs coincided with a personal shift in focus from speculating to contributing. One particular participant was working on an idea in web2, then brought it to web3 after evaluating use-case and DAO structure fit. Another participant summarized their experience as, "I found myself continually being pointed in the direction of a DAO".
Zakku shared some specifics around his experience:
“hearing the BANKLESS episode with Kevin Owocki and Ameen Soleimani about Slaying Moloch and just the meme of Moloch was really compelling to me. Then getting involved in Yearn was just like, it really was, you know, if you show up and have something to contribute that the community actually wants, then you can start doing it. And this sort of porous membrane is really fascinating to me.”
Lenny recollected his venture pioneering DAOs:
“This was before DAOs were really like, popular, so this was 2018, or 2019. Everyone was kind of in this like post, or PTSD, kind of, after the big DAO failed. There was a couple different projects working on DAOs, but it was a very kind of niche-of-niche, group of people. And what we did was [start a group using] crypto technology…we started a multisig with the three of us on it and we kind of decided to run it similar to a co-op. We weren't really even calling it a DAO yet, although all we did was talk about DAOs. But we would put all our money into a multi-sig. We all had different roles, like one of us is mainly a designer. One of us mainly is an ops person, and one that's mainly a developer. And so we were doing different work for different clients putting all our money into a single pool and just sharing it equally under this kind of, it was an LLC, but we were running it kind of through all these crypto tools, all on multi-sig, two of three, just super small.”
“That's when I think we were first thinking about like, okay, well this, how does this turn into something that others can do? Because it's working really well for us. The thing that we noticed, and this is more a freelancer thing was like, once you combine forces with other freelancers, you get the network effects, because now you're like helping each other with different projects. You're getting introduced to new clients. You're building a reputation together and a brand together. And so we thought that it was working really well and it was working really well in the crypto space. We were starting to find different opportunities to do some work for clients and picking up grants and then doing some open source work. So that was our first kind of initial like dipping our toe into DAOs.”
Many participants mentioned working in organizations that were essentially “DAOs before there were DAOs” or proto-DAOs as how they first truly came to engage in a DAO. Companies like Consensys were mentioned as having a flat structure that focused on DAO principles like decentralization. Others cited experiences pre-dating the crypto/blockchain space, like cooperatives, start-ups, open-source development communities, anarchist movements, organized religions, and social clubs, as having been their true first exposure to decentralized, autonomous, organizations.
“It's kind of funny, because on some level, I think that daos are taking social patterns that exist and trying to memorialize them. And so on some level, I think back to like, when I was a little kid, I participated in a local makerspace. And the makerspace was very community driven. So it was kind of like, you didn't get your spot in the community by paying for it, but by showing up, by contributing positive things, positive energy.”
“I think the term is easily more widely applied than just like orgs that would call themselves DAOs. And I mean, I would say my first experiences with DAO-ish entities were in activism circles. In my youth long before I had heard about DAOs, let alone blockchain anything.”
“…even some earlier entities I was involved in, I was involved in religious organizations, which I think sometimes are the easiest institutional comparison to DAOs these days where you have that sense of like, morale and purpose aligned to a destiny and like a curving the arc of the universe in one direction, as well as this day to day - we put our hands into the work together…So I really would credit those with being my first DAO experiences, even though they weren't called DAOs. But even now, what we call DAOs is really wide.”
Rafa described these proto-DAO experiences as "Paving the way to work in DAOs". DAOs differ from the proto-DAOs in the sense that they straddle both the prior, even ancestral, ways of organizing with the more prevalent hype-narrative of a super-techy-cyberpunk-cutting-edge world of work. Justice summarized getting more deeply engaged in DAOs as "satisfying my deepest longings for living in the future".
Actions like “Joining a Discord”, “cruising Twitter”, “investing in blockchain” were often connected to early stage engagement. Contributing in an anonymous, pseudonymous space encouraging a permissionless culture with other “DAO pilled” peers carried sentiments of passion and excitement, along with the feeling that DAOs were quite ambiguous and even chaotic.
After first engaging, participants reflected on, experimenting and progressively getting more involved. Participants “DAO-fied actions”, found a place to plug-in, aligned their interests and work, while developing their base of DAO knowledge. Participants reflected on their entry into the space by becoming a signer on a multi-sig, embracing permissionlessness, at times getting “caught up in the casino”, and a lot of learning through conversations and experience.
"It was like a startup on steroids…I couldn't describe it any better than it just being insane." – reflecting on Constitution DAO
“this type of like social community leadership that I've always done…creating that good social tapestry that we all enjoy in our local communities, but actually organizing a project in a very different way than what I was used to.” – Stanley reflecting on Bright Moments DAO
More tenured participants reflected on the lack of DAO tooling and as Kina from MakerDAO shared, “there was no playbook”. Being likable, ethos-aligned, taking initiative, consistently contributing, and just doing then showing your work, were mentioned when people reflected on being invited or asked to take on additional responsibilities by others. While DAOs tout simply “hopping in” and setting up autonomous structures, there is clearly still a human-to-human network of people encouraging and nudging each other to participate or consider certain opportunities. Alicia from Meta Gamma Delta shared, "When you join a DAO, and you're just like in a Discord and you don't know anybody, it's a little scary and so you don't really know how to get involved. I think leadership has to also reach out and create those paths.”
"Leadership is also about encouraging people to take actions" was a very prevalent theme in how nearly all our participants first came to engage in a DAO – someone encouraged them.
Many participants also reflected on an overarching journey of coming to DAOs. First, coming to DAOs with excitement and motivation for being on the “wild ride” filled with possibilities and an increasing sense of agency. Then, experiencing limitations, their own and the DAOs, which led to burnout, overwhelm, disillusionment, or doubt. Participants shared disappointment in realizing DAOs were not as decentralized and autonomous as they initially hoped and doubt about their own ability to impact their own DAO or the DAO ecosystem-at-large.
For some participants the duration of this progression was a matter of days, for others weeks, and for others months. Participants eventually regained a sense of agency by practicing selection, narrowing to one or two DAOs to focus on, and shifting their efforts to identify, pursue, and contribute to opportunities aligned to their personal purpose, mission, and interests.
A summary of the prototypical journey participants shared is depicted below:
Prompt: Tell me about when you first felt you were leading within the DAO.
At various moments throughout the interviews participants reflected on being voted/elected into, opted into, inheriting, simply having found themselves in, or having created leadership roles for themselves with many participants having started DAOs themselves. However the question tell me about when you first felt you were leading in a DAO offered nuanced insight into the essence of how leadership in DAOs is experienced. The response to this question was rarely articulated as having obtained a title or a certain position, rather participants offered responses like:
not a "specific moment" – Grendel, PolygonDAO
"When people trusted me to make sound decisions" – Humpty, Crypto Sapiens
"I was leading when I stopped thinking I was dumb" – Livia, Token Engineering Commons
Renee detailed her experience, which represented what many of our participants shared:
“The first time I felt like I was leading was probably when a lot of people started valuing my feedback and asking for my opinion. So like, when I first started at BanklessDAO, I didn't really have any web3 history up till then. It wasn't like I was well known at all. And I would just try to chime in on different Discord informed discussions with my ideas or my feedback. And then eventually, people would start tagging me in posts or be like, oh, what does she think about this? Or maybe we should get Renee's opinion about this. And just seeing that behavior from other people was validating to me. It was kind of like a social signal that, people value what I'm doing, and they want me to lead certain things. So I think, when people start asking for your advice and start looking to you to lead is when you're leading. I definitely think it's more about respect and reputation, then it is power and influence.”
Lenny shared his response:
“People reaching out to me. There was never like me putting myself in a position of being like, ‘Hey, I'm the one that answers the questions.’ But there was an initial engagement. It was really important when someone would stumble into our community, because they had some alignment with our purpose, to just reach out one-on-one and be like, ‘Hey, you know, this shits a little weird. It's not for everyone. But this is how things work. If you ever have questions, or you need any help, you can always reach out to me.’ So I think that started setting up, where then people actually would take advantage of that. And that's where it kind of leads into the other things of helping people get through tensions, realizing when it's more something that should be escalated to everyone else, and talking about how that could work. And then also like, enabling people to pursue whatever their personal passion is.”
Responses also included external validation like recognition, additional responsibility, compensation, and gestures of extending trust and internal validation of knowing you influenced an outcome or improved a result and simply feeling confident in your ability to shape outcomes.
There were a couple of people who mentioned being pulled into leadership and reflected on experiences that were not positive or a good fit. Moving into leadership can happen serendipitously, emerging out of timing and circumstance, where people are “thrown into it”. Nina reflected on her experience, “I didn't necessarily want to, but I recognized that there was a need.”
Other moments participants reflected on included when they started having and advocating a perspective, organizing work, generating results, impactful contributions, and influencing the DAO in a positive way. Getting questions, feedback, direct messages, interest from others were all aspects mentioned as part of others now “looking to you” and feeling a responsibility to the DAO or community. This moment for many of our participants aligned with a sense of ownership or an inability to think and say "this isn't my concern". As people felt like they were leading in the space, new questions of how to effectively remove themselves, make themselves redundant, or simply “get out of the way” became more prominent reflections.
This visual summarizes an underlying pattern shared across many of the responses on how participants engaged with a DAO and the first steps toward leading within the DAO context.
Prompt: what is leadership in DAOs?
The entire set of interview questions was designed to inquire into this larger, admittedly impossible to answer with consensus inquiry, what is leadership in DAOs. However it was important to give each participant their own opportunity to reflect on and articulate how they would go about answering our central research question. Here are some responses that reflect the multi-faceted nature of leadership, which is often studied through a personal, relational, and organizational lens:
personal - "ultimately, leadership in DAOs is really about somebody stepping up to do what they are excellent or world class at that provides a lot of value for the DAO." – Cynthia, Blu3DAO & Dtravel
relational - “providing courage and clarity to other participants in terms of how they can actually act within the community.” – Rafa, Mirror
organizational - “enabling work teams to be autonomous and productive” – Renee, talentDAO
Ashley from UMA summarized what many of our participants’ responses eluded to:
“Leadership in DAOs is quite difficult to communicate, because leadership in traditional organizations tends to be something which is quite static, and is delegated in some way. And within DAOs you have a very different dynamic. So anyone can take actions and thereby demonstrate leadership in whatever way. So the key element is that leadership actually becomes decentralized to those who take actions that are well supported by the philosophy, vision, and values of the DAO.”
She elaborates on this by clarifying the importance of anyone leading in a DAO is actually opting into the active participation of decentralizing and distributing power and authority throughout the DAO, closing it out by stating:
“In web 3, leadership is actually about eliminating the dependency on you.”
Miles from MoonDAO shared his perspective, emphasizing leadership as a process versus a static title or role:
“There are multiple leaders…I'm a follower in some parts of the dao, I'm a leader in other parts of the dao. But it's not like it's a hierarchical pyramid structure, anything like that. It's not like a command and control sort of thing. It's more of a circle and a network and people talking and maybe someone's a leader in some aspects, and then they're not in others.”
Apeguru from ApeSwap added context on why this question is valuable, yet currently unattainable:
“TBD. I think the world still doesn’t know what is leadership in DAOs? …it's like an eternal transition towards decentralization…we still don't know what the finish line of a DAO is…I don't think there is such a thing as a perfect DAO nowadays, so that makes this question very hard or impossible to precisely or adequately address. But I will say that, right now, like leadership in DAOs and leadership in general, it's always the same. It’s about empowerment of the community of the contributors of those who surround the organization. Like, if everyone is empowered, everyone is heard, the organization is fairly decentralized, is fairly autonomous. Everyone has its own role, everyone has its own participation. And that I think is leadership in a DAO.”
Many of the responses held the perspective that "anyone can be a leader". Cynthia & Dtravel shared, "You could show leadership at any level of your participation in a DAO.” Participants often reflected on leadership as something you do with others from any role within the DAO.
Some of the most common actions of what doing leadership means were helping, influencing, providing, and others finding value in your efforts.
Leadership in DAOs is…
"helping the group navigate what the next thing is" - Jon, Cabin
“influencing the direction of where the community is leading." – Rafa, Mirror
"providing the framework and the vision to get the organization to work autonomously, under the same direction."- Apeguru, ApeSwap
“not created by position or pay, but rather time, reputation and people's willingness to value your opinions." - Justice, BANKLESS
There was also a clear sentiment that DAOs are welcoming of and in need of different approaches to leadership. Many reflected on more quiet forms of leadership and the need to recognize and praise visible and less visible forms of leading. If you typically get more of what you pay attention to, DAOs need to pay attention to the efforts that truly move the mission of the DAO forward, even if it is not flashy or tweet-worthy.
In many cases, participants’ responses corresponded with their backgrounds. People focused on defining leadership often through their experience as a founder “setting up the DAO” or using a frame focused more deeply on operations, community engagement, or governance.
Participants shared accountabilities, similar to the first question where they described their role, however when reflecting on what is leadership in DAOs, a more narrow set of accountabilities emerged that emphasized advancing the DAO’s shared purpose and mission, learning about yourself, engaging with the community, listening, sharing context, guiding, coaching, facilitating, and discerning.
Perhaps most concerning for the DAO context was the notion of unconsciously or consciously amassing power and authority through information and context. And therefore the need for intentionally disseminating context was seen as critical. The work of leadership was often associated with the work of an ambassador. Basically, leadership in DAOs has a commitment to working toward demonstrating the need for progressive decentralization, transparency, and community-led decision-making. Amassing context was commented on as almost an inevitable result of leadership in DAOs, even an unfortunate pooling of centralized power. The risk of centralized information, power, and authority makes leaders potential “points of failure” in the DAO ecosystem. Incentivizing and actively disseminating context was remarked by some as a necessary conscious and consistent act of leading in a more decentralized world of work.
As aforementioned, there were contradictory perspectives with some participants seeing leadership in DAOs as not any different than leadership in other organizations, while others distinctly reflected on how leading in DAOs has a host of expectations and contextual factors that are not present in other organizations and therefore requires a different, more collective and personal-purpose-driven expression of leadership.
Other contradictory perspectives reflected on the sense of “knowing” as an act of leadership. A couple responses articulated leadership as the person who “knows what to do next” while other responses focused on leadership as the person with awareness that no one “knows” what to do next.
Rafa describes it in this way:
“I don't think that a lot of DAO leadership knows what should happen next. I think DAO leadership, or community leadership should be able to inspire others to be able to navigate the ambiguity and be able to make a decision as to act. So I think there's a model called the Cynefin model and I think DAOs, and communities and online communities require both understanding the environment that you're acting in because it's quite complex, if not chaotic at times, and then being able to help others survive and thrive in those environments….I think the most mature leaders are not the people who are stating that as if they know. But the people who are helping other members do the collective sense making themselves.” “…not defining what should be done, but instilling the toolkits.”
The need for people to practice discernment regarding when to be directing versus encouraging, imposing versus inspiring, was also reflected in responses that focused on setting and driving the vision of the DAO versus sharing context so others can set and drive their vision within the DAO. These are not mutually exclusive, however the latter tended to be shared with conviction and even, at times, framed as a challenge to prevailing thinking in the space. On this particular topic, it seems to be a matter of framing, since “knowing what to do next”, could mean asking, delegating, or trusting. Perhaps there is another version where leadership is asking for what needs to happen next.
It is unlikely any group will ever agree to one definition and yet it seems that leadership in DAOs, reflects a lot of the promise of DAOs - open to anyone and everyone. Identify a need, do something about it, make an impact, learn from it, and there you go – you are practicing leadership in DAOs.
Specifically for Charlotte, the focus of leadership in DAOs centered on the skillsets of facilitation and project management. Many participants reflected on skillsets that were perceived as the work of leadership in DAOs. Skillsets like facilitation, project management, governance, remote working, community management, and tokenomics, alongside building a base of web3/blockchain/crypto knowledge can present a steep learning curve for new entrants into the DAO ecosystem, yet all focus on improving how the work of the DAO moves forward. Discernment on what to learn and how to apply it was an area many of the participants spent a lot of time reflecting, discerning, and making conscious choices.
Overall, the responses showcased a diverse range of thinking on and interpretation of what leadership in DAOs is. There was less debate about the importance of researching and advancing this topic with clear and consistent sentiments expressed throughout the interviews regarding the importance of researching and advancing our thinking on leadership:
"This is certainly one of the greatest bottlenecks to us building effective organizations, is developing more leaders." – Jon, Cabin
Prompt: How did you pursue developing yourself as a DAO leader?
“I pursue developing myself. And as a consequence, that impacts everything.” - Daniel, RnDAO
Self-development happens in different ways and each person is on their own journey. A personal development journey seemed intricately linked with the participants’ DAO journey. A lot of learning and unlearning with deep reflections on personal purpose in order to assess fit and determine which DAOs would evolve into communities of contribution.
"We are entering a new world" – Marc, AndinoDAO
This sense of pioneering, beginning again, and forging a new way forward was captured across the majority of responses. Learning with and from peers and learning by doing were the most commonly cited responses. A social support system was deemed of the utmost importance, especially as the space is still prone to high levels of personal risk, burnout, imposter syndrome, and overwhelm.
Most of the development activities participants shared centered on gaining awareness and context in an effort to practice discernment, followed by experimenting and “simply doing”. Specific activities participants engaged in were: getting coaching, having a therapist, transforming their mindset through challenging notions of transparency, privacy, and authority, dedicating themselves to learning, acknowledging the personal journey, connecting to history, experiencing rejection, “building the person”, learning about self, finding inspirations, taking ownership, delegating, obsessing over process not people, and unlearning.
To acquire general web3/crypto/blockchain knowledge participants referenced conferences, watching videos, listening to podcasts, reading books and articles, visiting forums, reviewing DAO protocols and documentation and taking on “deep dives” into topics or skillsets of interest, while intentionally seeking out diverse perspectives. Many participants reflected on the sense of “urgency” and fast-paced nature of the space as being in contention with deliberately developing themselves.
"I didn't do much preparation. I just had to go for it and learn from my faults.” – Apeguru, ApeSwap
“forcing myself to be uncomfortable” – Renee, talentDAO
"communication, listening, being strategic" – Kina, MakerDAO
"First, I understood the web3 culture" – Marc, AndinoDAO
"The hardest leadership happens in the square foot on top of your head” – Jon, Cabin
“I get a tremendous amount of reflection and learning from the endless stream of conflicts and personal dilemmas and tensions and misunderstandings and so on that happen through that process of trying to collaborate with humans across the world. When we're in very different contexts, and we're using mostly stupid Discord for coordination, which really doesn't help, but yeah, I find [it all] a huge source of learning.” – Daniel, RnDAO
Lending additional perspective, Charlotte shared that observing past experiences, "Helps you to not have to learn every lesson the hard way”, or as Cynthia put it, "We don't need to recreate the wheel.”
The participants' reflections demonstrated self-awareness, an understanding of their strengths and limitations, and courage to act on their convictions.
Prompt: Describe what you believe is personally needed to lead in a DAO context.
“clarity and empathy and trust.” - Nina
Trust was at the heart of many of the responses. Trusting yourself, trusting others, and creating structures of transparency to establish or increase trust. Beyond the list of traits of being trustworthy, curious, kind, and resilient - many participants reflected on being driven, taking initiative, and having a bias for action paired with a positive-sum and open mindset as what is personally needed for leading in a DAO context. Sharing that "no one will tell you what to do". The overall sentiment can be summarized in an overall approach of mojo over ego.
Since in a DAO "Everybody is a leader” it becomes more important in this organizational context that you channel your mojo: having self-confidence, knowing yourself, your personal purpose, your unique strengths, your own social and emotional intelligence and regulation, and advocating and coming boldly with your asks and offers.
Asserting yourself is as important as humbling yourself. And leading in DAOs also requires setting aside your ego with an emphasis on humility, unlearning, challenging your thinking and biases, staying curious, always learning, suspending judgments, delegating, trusting others, and setting aside your sense of self-importance as DAOs are attempting to tackle challenges that are not surmounted by any one individual in an environment where it is impossible for any one individual to keep up. Healthy personal behaviors of listening, practicing self-care, setting boundaries, and asking for and adapting to feedback were mentioned as important. The goal is to not be imposing your leadership on others, but rather contributing to systems and relationships that influence or inspire others to others on their own paths - and you on yours.
Grendel shared his perspective on the matter,
“I will tell you what I personally think is needed. But I don't know if I have those qualities…First of all, to understand and to be able to listen and understand the others. It is important to understand what is the process that is happening around because in order to have the DAO being constantly changing, constantly evolving and adapting, you need to know where to go. Grendel clarified later in his response, “I am not working to overcome the others, I really don't care, I know that whatever I will get, it will be if I will go do a good job. And for me a good job is doing what I believe in.”
Livia exemplified the mindset of mojo over ego as well, reflecting on her own journey of self-development - "not feeling afraid of proposing things, even if they're not perfect", "make yourself noticed", yet "whenever taking it personally, respect my feelings, be gentle with myself, and talk to people and bring myself into the conversation.", while simultaneously trusting “whatever is in the collective is there to be manifested through someone."
Others shared their perspectives and acknowledgements of the limitations of any one person’s influence, being one node in a greater network shaping and leading the DAO.
"leadership in a DAO comes from typically a group of people working together." – Alicia, MGD
"Getting yourself out of the way" – Daniel, RnDAO
"progressive decentralization" – Lenny, RaidGuild
"Understand that your role is not to create an army of supporters" – Rafa, Mirror
"They have to be ok with chaos and disorganization...or even thrive in it.” - Cynthia, Blu3DAO & Dtravel
There were also some baseline expectations that many outlined, but wished they didn’t even have to say:
be respectful, be ethical, be kind, give grace, and have empathy, "If you wouldn't do this in person, don't do this virtually." Apeguru shared "things would really devolve sometimes in conversation and people would just start attacking each other. And it was just, you know, it would get really nasty and that was an environment that no one wanted to be in.”
While participants outlined many specific thoughts on what is personally needed to lead in a DAO context, the suggestions revolved around leading self, change, task and people accountabilities within the DAO. The phrase mojo over ego then becomes the overarching mindset for how participants are approaching leading in a DAO context.
Prompt: Describe what you believe is needed within the DAO to enable people to take the lead?
“People have been thinking about human coordination for a very long time." Jon, Cabin
Participants shared responses that are backed by mountains of research - establishing why you exist, having avenues for feedback, being open to experimentation, taking extra effort to do the 'right' thing, and creating structures where people can accomplish their work and have autonomy to make decisions over that work.
Punctuating the importance of decentralization and transparency in the space, many shared Kina’s perspective that enabling leadership in DAOs is enabling anyone to be able to "see the big picture and then be able to execute in a small way as well, like on a granular level.”
This question, above all other questions, elicited diverse and contradictory responses, illuminating the nascent nature of DAOs and the need for further dialogue, discussion, and debate. Many expressed concern about being too “DAO-y” or that the DAO ethos itself could present a hurdle of stalling out decision-making, ineffectively distributing funds, not having clear accountabilities or revenue models.
The overall sentiment is that DAOs are definitely not optimized, there is a risk in simply replicating traditional organizations within a DAO context, and that further deliberation and experimentation is needed to fully realize the potential of DAOs to cultivate effective leadership and the potential of leadership to cultivate effective DAOs.
Participants shared skepticism about the space.
DAOs “are mostly a dream”, "a shit show”, and “are really trying to reinvent the corporation, which is just dumb”.
Here are three detailed examples showcasing the variety of responses people had while responding to the question of what is needed for DAOs to enable leadership:
“I’m actually a big fan of more automatization of DAO tools and some tools to let people function a bit better. I think quadratic voting works really well within DAO tools, when it's applied towards people who want to participate. Like enough people participate - the stronger they participate, the stronger their voice. I think the more you can get out of the way of people friction, and have tools that help get around that would be good. And having adequate structures is important too. So that, you know, not everyone has access or needs access to all the same things. But really having a really structured Discord is helpful with the different permissions that are necessary there. The other thing that I think helps run DAOs, or run DAOs smoothly - a good translation team, or someone's at least dedicated to translating information into different languages that benefit the DAO so that people don't feel like they can't participate based on a language barrier. – Gloria, Gitcoin DAO
“Inside of a dao, I think the most crucial thing to do is to open up information channels and make sure that everyone is working on top of the same information and has access to, you know, what's going on. And that's much more difficult in practice. And it isn't theory. You know, maybe sometimes you're you're working with a partner that uses an NDA or something like that, and okay, well, now you have certain people that have this information, and other people don't. And that just leads to natural centralization on that partnership with that project. Like we ran into that when we're working with Blue Origin. And, yeah, in general, if a dao doesn't decentralize the information within it, or have some structure to, or some process in order to allow people to have access to things, then I feel like you're not really a dao, even if you have voting. So even if you even if you have, like a snapshot, and people vote on things, if those people's information is downstream from what you're telling them, then you really control the dao, it doesn't really matter that they're voting, because you are actually telling them, you know, what information that they need to make their decision, but they don't have direct access to that information.” – Miles, MoonDAO
“[DAOs in general are] spreading too much of the resources too broad. Partly because it's built into the meme and the ethos of what DAO are. But what happens is it's almost like a country sending everyone $1. What impact is that compared to a country saying, ‘listen, these are the five areas we need to change, that are going to be the highest impact. We're giving each of these areas $100 million. Okay, 500 million, whatever, you know. And so my experience has been coming in ‘Hey, you're gonna do this or that’, and a lot of these like high profile DAOs is almost no pay, almost no pay. And the thing is, people, your people, the people who are most engaged who are looking for and who can apply the solution, at some point they're gonna go where they're being valued. And a regular company who's not drinking the DAO Kool Aid who says, ‘Listen, we'll give you 200k a year, come.’ they're out, you know what I mean, and then the DAO is left with like, trying to sustain some vibes and just printing magic internet money from a treasury. That ain't gonna last, you know, like, What's the real sustainability? What's the architecture? What's the flywheel? What are the tokenomics of this thing, you know?” - Justice, BANKLESS
A “flat structure” was most commonly advocated for and even more specifically, a “multi-layered nested” structure. Processes around finding information and enabling “small groups executing at the edges” were mentioned as crucial by a number of our participants. Most participants also mentioned cultural aspects, like “having a celebratory culture” and ensuring “you can bring your full self to the workplace”. It was also made clear the importance of “finding great people and keeping the bar high”, which was accompanied by many differing reflections regarding what to do with onboarding, engaging, and firing people.
Specifically on actively decentralizing leadership, there was a sentiment that the DAO structure should continually ensure certain people don’t become “choke points” for the DAO*,* whether by mitigating private core team channels, making all Discord channels “read-only” at a minimum for transparency, encouraging leadership churn, thoughtful token distribution so debate and decision-making actually matter, “radical curation of membership”, or incentivizing the distribution of power, authority, and attention.
Prompt: What do you believe are the most important ways to actively develop leadership within DAOs?
Repeated micro exposures to something to create a sense of familiarity” – Daniel, RnDAO
While many of the responses we received during the interviews reflected general sentiments that could be applied in response to multiple questions, like “Everyone has some sort of leadership that can be expressed" and the importance of redistributing power and authority, each question yielded unique responses and themes as well. This question centered on the notion that if we want "Leader-full organizations instead of leaderless” what are the most important ways to actively develop leadership? Unlike earlier reflections focused on what people had personally done, these responses articulated their wish or hope and indicated what they would prioritize from all they had reflected on thus far. The responses, were very consistent and can be shared through the lens of developing your leadership and developing others leadership:
Developing your leadership
Reflect – understand who you are, your strengths, your purpose, and get curious about the journey you are on. DAOs more than other organizations allow for the personal journey to be in the driver seat, opting into DAO missions, initiatives, and groups that feel like home or at least the next step for your personally. The stronger the alignment in purpose between you and the DAO the more your own leadership will emerge and shape the organization.
Upskill – there is a journey in DAOs that requires continuous learning and an openness to being wrong and humbled in that learning journey. "Everyone can teach everyone" was a shared sentiment, although this was balanced with knowing yourself, your strengths, your journey, and practicing selection to avoid burnout. Specific skillsets mentioned were learning about general knowledge on web/crypto/blockchain/DAOs, governance, tokenomics, community building, and remote working.
Seek support – Peer learning, learning through conversations, and learning by doing were by far the top codes. “Having social support” was a paramount theme. Participants shared having a coach, therapist, mentor, peer, "co-worker", small group lead, "coordination center", web3 and outside of web3 friends.
Keep experimenting, but be gentle – “Decentralization is confusing.” This idea of organizations without “leaders” can make for confusing times on how you develop and exercise leadership – yet it is worthy to continue experimenting with the bounds of our individual and collective influence and limitations. Advice like, "Fuck around and find out” captured the thinking from many that we are still at the beginning of the path on how to actively develop leadership in DAOs. One participant tested their own assumption of the DAO relying on them, "I just thought nobody else would do it. Then when I stopped doing it, other people did do it.”, while another shared a similar thought that being absent could be a great way to develop others’ leadership*,"biting your tongue a bit and letting them kind of jam and go in that direction, even if it seems wrong, can be good.”* This discernment of when to assert and when to be humble reinforces a need for developing people who lead with the mindset of mojo over ego.
Creating fluid structures – Getting the right DAO nesting structures, thoughtful distribution of tokens, breaking down silos, resolving conflicts, addressing bad actors, having terms or seasons, asking for feedback and creating learning cultures, along with progressively decentralizing were mentioned as positive ways to encourage leadership. Lack of leadership churn, over-financialization of communities, and hoarding of power, authority, information, context, and opportunities were all seen as barriers that DAOs should continue experimenting with to find satisfactory solutions that incentivize better behaviors. Propelling systems that are "Letting people build up the skills and comfort level” and then compensating them for their contributions.
Check Your Bias – "Leadership is going to look different in every single DAO'' and yet there are some bad patterns we seem to be carrying from web2 over into DAOs, like "the loudest voices are the best leaders", or that because someone is excellent in one niche, it means they are qualified or allowed to have a heavier weight in general DAO decisions. Systematically, the need for data-driven decision-making, where the data sources are representative of the people impacted by the output is massive. The statement that "You have to give up leadership to get leadership” was acknowledged as necessary, yet difficult, requiring intentional effort and mental fortitude to actively question our assumptions, privilege and bias when it is easier to persist with current thinking and practices.
Prompt: What would you tell someone are the pitfalls or things to avoid when leading in DAOs?
"A huge pitfall is when organizations lack leadership." – Kina, MakerDAO
Our participants reflected on learning some lessons the hard way and were genuinely excited to help others avoid some of the mistakes they have made personally leading and working in DAOs. A general acknowledgement was that "We still haven't figured out what distributed leadership really looks like." One participant reflected on a potential barrier to decentralizing leadership.
“I have heard from many people regarding DAOs, that it's the ego. Sometimes, ego plays a trick on you. Feeling that you are the only important one in a decentralized organization is living wrong.” - Marc, AndinoDAO
The biggest themes in response to this question are summarized here, including what to do as well as what to avoid.
These lists reflect the multi-faceted view of leadership and the questions we are asking about it, which are personal, relational, and organizational. It became clear that many people in the space believe DAOs would benefit from more assertive leadership,"Because no one's taking leadership. It's not moving forward" was shared by a participant to describe how many felt about how certain work within DAOs can lose momentum.
with the caveat being the leadership should be both incentivized to decentralize and disincentivized to centralize.
Furthermore, some expressed concern over the financialization and tokenization of our communities and felt that leadership was needed to encourage continued innovation and more nuanced conversations around what constitutes a typical DAO set up. Many expressed concerns with token-based governance, reflected on the drawbacks of coin-based voting, and expressed a desire to move beyond:
“I wish we had figured out a better system for coin based voting systems. I think it's been over five years since the first dao, and we're still sitting here in coin-based voting systems.” - Apeguru, ApeSwap
“A DAO should not be based on the idea of financial incentives.” – Grendel, PolygonDAO
"Bring the humanity back to the ecosystem we're building” – Humpty, Crypto Sapiens
Many participants also expressed concerns of not wanting to share what wasn’t working across the ecosystem, as people might misinterpret this as dismissing the viability of DAOs altogether. Describing this time as a "vulnerable moment in the crypto space".
And yet it was made very clear that even with the dysfunction and early growing pains of DAOs, they still present the most promise for shaping the future of work for the better.
DAOs have roots in “putting humans at the edges” and yet this narrative can make it easy to ignore addressing some very human issues currently plaguing the progress of our DAOs.
· people feeling lost / poor and isolated experiences
· exploitation of workers being sold on vibes and speculation
· lack of education or transparency on the risks and liabilities
· core teams becoming power blocks with deeply centralized power and authority
· heavily white male-dominated spaces with ignorant culture and inclusion practices
· burnout and disengagement are widespread, especially for the more tenured - feeding off new-entrant energy and contributions is not sustainable
· anon/pseudonymous culture can bring out the worst in people and is protecting others
· risks with people’s everything being available to the wrong people
While these may seem like they are about DAOs in general, participants often reflected upon these as issues in deep need of leadership to address to ensure we actually are building something better.
Some articulated concerns that perhaps we are building something much worse than web2. And not pausing to ask questions about the ethical and moral implications of our decisions could create the worst of all work options. Not overly relying on one leader or ensuring leaders don’t become a "centralized point of failure" were specific concerns for leadership within a DAO.
"The tech is never going to sustain anything, it's just how people are relating to each other" – Livia, TEC
The overarching themes of avoiding many of the pitfalls currently existing in DAOs were to make information, commitments, and limitations of the DAO as transparent and accessible as possible. Ideas like public, but anonymized information, appropriate regulations and protections, and thoughtful leaders who think slow to move fast were other suggestions.
Prompt: Describe how your thinking on DAO leadership has evolved, or not, with experience.
"It evolves every day, because web3 is so ever-changing. What you think is the right way to do things changes so quickly." – Cynthia, Blu3DAO & Dtravel
"The approaches and the philosophies can be so different from peer to peer, protocol to protocol.” – Apeguru, Apeswap
"The way that DAOs work may not be the exact opposite of how existing you know, web2 companies work” – Leela, DreamDAO
Many participants reflected on how their thinking about leadership has been informed by learning about the web3 space in general. There were many that aknowledged the revolutionary roots of DAOs, as reasons they came to and wanted to lead in DAOs. The advent of blockchain technology is the technological disruption, yet the cultural roots of DAOs date back to historical, spiritual, anarchist, and human rights movements, even more deeply to ancient and ancestral beginnings of what it means to share, versus transact, this experience of living, working, and leading together.
With an inherent aim to disrupt the corrupt, centralized, and traditional systems, there was an expectation that DAOs are meant to foster better ways of coordinating humans and work, of which many reflected on this not being the case yet. The expectations of people entering the space brings a unique aspect to manage if you are someone people look to for guidance or leadership. This is the promise, potential, and pull of DAOs for many people working within these decentralized autonomous organizations. And yet, most will acknowledge, we have yet to create a fully decentralized, or fully autonomous, organization with MakerDAO being the closest example our participants could reference, of which many did.
Some participants expressed concern that leadership in DAOs can become too “steward centric” and mimic the organizations we attempt to exceed. Despite drawbacks participants expressed belief that DAOs still hold the best potential for creating a “global governance layer” where other institutions and attempts have clearly fallen short - we are just not there yet.
In DAOs leadership is clearly “not a one person thing”, with nearly all of our participants reflecting a lead from wherever stance. Many disclosed wanting and needing more leadership in the space, “leader is not a bad word” to ensure we challenge and grow and move our DAOs forward. Some expressed resistance to the word “leader” as it implies a static label or role, many invited the idea of building leadership and all people as leaders across the ecosystem, within individual DAOs, and within individual people. "Everybody is at the top of their hierarchy." And many doubled down on this notion that leading in DAOs, is thinking about and shaping the direction of the DAO.
Frequent responses from participants reflected that over time participants now hold a more:
realistic view of DAOs and leadership
nuanced perspective on the trade-offs of centralization and decentralization
clear commitment to taking care of people, including themselves
Idealistic with a deep belief in shaping the direction of the DAO ecosystem could describe how many participants thought about DAOs initially. Yet over time, with the impact of macro events like crypto winters, funding sources drying up, and general lack of engagement in some communities, many reflected “I’m more realistic now”.
This question brought about particularly mixed responses and emotions regarding the concept of centralization and decentralization. For some, centralization was seen as “a source of problems” that unpredictably pops up, necessitating leaders play a whack-a-mole game of stamping out any point of centralization that emerges too strongly. To some, centralization not only causes problems, but is the reason some DAOs have died or garnered reputations for being dysfunctional DAOs.
For others, they entered DAOs hoping to be greeted by an ecosystem of decentralized, autonomous organizations, only to become more cynical and old-fashioned over time stating centralization is needed at times. Most shared they believe when new DAOs are formed they need to start more centralized as it aids in “setting up” the DAO more effectively with intentionally designed independent and autonomous structures aligned to advance the purpose of the DAO*. "I think now, it's actually very important for DAOs to decide before they get started, like when and where they do want to be task-focused."* Then on the path to progressively decentralize as a DAO, small working teams ultimately decide how they will organize.
The other key theme was around not letting DAO life overrun you. Expressions of "building your own mental internal fortitude", "I don't think I could have done it by myself.”, and noticing "the degree to which your DAO life can take up your life” were shared. It is not viable to work on everything you find exciting and that having another life outside of DAOs is important to keep perspective. Many participants reflected on the intertwined nature of their time in DAOs with their own personal growth – people shared being more patient, more open to others’ ideas, more empathetic of not everyone wanting to work in the open all the time, and thinking of “DAOs are like a garden” where plucking certain weeds, yes - firing or addressing bad actors and removing speculators, and providing resources that supports other’s growth are being prioritized more over time as acts of care for the community.
Lastly, the need for progressive decentralization and this notion of "I'm always designing myself out of my jobs" and the aim is that the DAO can run without the founder were offered by participants as what has absolutely not changed in the evolution of their thinking.
Prompt: What advice would you give someone who has just discovered DAOs or decided they would like to pursue DAO leadership?
Throughout the interviews the participants shared reminders that are beneficial to everyone working within and looking from the outside in at this space.
"Keep in mind that we are in a playground" - Livia, TEC
This is a highly experimental space and learning through mistakes is an imperative and an inherent part of working and leading in DAOs. You will better understand the DAO when you really understand its people.
“This is a social transformation.” - Grendel, PolygonDAO
People within DAOs feel deep gratitude and feel lucky to be in this space. There is a sense of building the future, while simultaneously building the person – people are experiencing rich, personal growth as they are working in this environment. We need to be gentle with ourselves and others and help each other on our journeys.
There is an acknowledgement of the dysfunctions of the space, yet resolve that "Things actually have a way forward that we haven't figured out yet, but that we are on the path for it."
For those first joining a DAO, the advice commonly shared was to consistently show up and engage. "Don't wait around for someone to tell you what to do." Show up…introduce yourself, express interest in the DAO, demonstrate that you're a competent and diligent person and doors will be opened. And unlike in other organizations, stepping away for a while is okay.
Some advised to join many DAOs upfront, while others shared that as a recipe for burnout and to be avoided. The idea of "Go deep instead of go wide.” was shared and many advised to "Get involved in a principled and structured way”, however regret was expressed by some that felt they didn’t find their fit initially and “If I were doing it again, I would probably insert myself into multiple DAOs.” Ultimately, “Just see what feels good and what doesn't” and “find your vibe”.
Working in a DAO “is not for everyone” and "if somebody just discovered DAOs, if they're going straight into leadership, I get very concerned.” were a couple of comments that summarized the overarching advice that if you are new to DAOs enter in with humility, focus on learning and listening, and set aside your ego.
For those looking to increase their leadership within a DAO, participants shared the importance of knowing your own “North Star” and contributing to a DAO that aligns with your personal purpose and mission. Many participants shared the sentiment that with increased influence and leadership comes increased responsibility. One participant shared that leadership is often "shoveling shit for other people”, so being sure that the responsibilities that come with increased leadership are truly ones you want as part of your journey.
"A lot of DAO leadership is probably understanding the network flow, participating in that network flow, and then evolving the network dynamics by participating and building something yourself.” – Rafa, Mirror
Having social support on your own leadership journey was highly recommended, along with encouragement to move beyond any initial hesitations of not wanting to “disturb” or “bother” others. "Having fresh eyes and doing something new" is valuable and "cutting the path into this new forest" is the work of leadership. Participants encouraged gaining diverse perspectives and promoted having people outside of your web3 network as "Web3 is very much a bubble". Mentorship was shared by the majority as an effective way to enable leadership, along with studying other protocols, and the roots underneath DAOs.
…and then repeat.
“You have to have both the skillset and the desire to continually decentralize the work that you’re doing.” - Leela, DreamDAO
Throughout the interviews participants shared many areas of knowledge, skills, and abilities to help them skill up in the web3 context. While this list is not exhaustive, it serves as a starting point for building contextual awareness for DAOs in general, running parallel to building awareness for your own self-development and leadership journey.
These knowledge bases were shared as helping prepare participants to effectively lead in a DAO context and shared as the work of leadership - helping connect others in DAOS to the potential, options, benefits, and practical pathways of developing those knowledge bases for themselves.
The sincere intention of sharing the detailed responses from the participants, question-by-question, is to allow readers to draw their own conclusions about leadership in DAOs and to advance research, practice and conversations on this topic.
However, we would be remiss if we did not pull together some summaries after having examined the dataset in-depth and applying what we learned from Phase 1.
This section summarizes the findings and offers some discussion to continue our collective sense-making around what is leadership in DAOs?
This study aimed at exploring “What is leadership in DAOs?”
the tldr response:
leadership in DAOs can be concisely defined as moving the work of the DAO forward
the experience looks like “"helping the group navigate what the next thing is"
it is best approached through the mindset of mojo over ego
it is realized through performing self, people, task, and change leadership behaviors
A goal of this phase of the research was to unearth words, phrases, and descriptions from within the DAO ecosystem to pressure test our initial working definition of leadership in DAOs from Phase 1.
While the interviews did not present data contradictory to this definition, participants did consistently use different gerunds, or action words, frequently enough to warrant a refresh.
Based on the findings from this study, the following definition of leadership in DAOs is offered for further research and inquiry:
“a fluid, emergent group property in which people flexibly lead one another – selectively using strengths and skills based on the evolving needs and context of the individual and DAO - by sharing responsibility to perform specific leadership behaviors to move the work of the DAO forward.”
- adapted from Mr. Nobody & Wocken, 2022
The shorthand definition of this is offered as the most useful definitions tend to be ones we can remember:
“moving the work of the DAO forward”
Participants shared actions like moving the DAO forward, listening, engaging with the community, communicating well, guiding, coaching, and facilitating to describe how leadership is happening in DAOs. There was an emphasis on leadership as inspiration and influence versus imposition. The experience of leading in DAOs looks like “helping the group navigate what the next thing is” - Jon, Cabin
Many responses indicated that leadership looks a lot more like sharing context so others can make discernments for themselves. In this way leadership is like a lighthouse - it illuminates the landscape without dictating where to venture. The landscape of DAOs may not be pyramids, but there are hills and even intentional and beneficial mounds of centralized authority, ideally within small working groups versus at the organizational level.
An area for further exploration is the tension we noticed across the findings between a bias for action and experimentation with sharing context and authority. Go too quickly and you are going alone, making yourself a centralized point of failure. Go too slow and you risk stamping out innovation. If leadership in DAOs is moving the work of the DAO forward - to what extent is this worthy? When do you take time out? consider implications? consider ethics? set boundaries for yourself? and engage in healthy practices? There were many comments about burnout, which also leaves this impression that if we cultivate leaders across the ecosystem aligned to moving the work of the DAO forward that we will also have a continued issue with DAO burnout.
Mindset is hard to define and yet it is precisely what is needed when developing a culture and its ethos. Web3 and DAOs definitely have their own vibe, yet when it comes to cultivating leadership it is helpful to have a quick way of describing the shift people may need to make from transitioning into web3 from web2 or onboarding into a DAO context.
Capturing the punk, revolutionary, even gamer vibes, mojo is about understanding your own personal magic power and what it has to offer to the DAO. Ego on the other hand is important, it will help you ask questions like what are the risks? how are we legally protected? what’s in it for me? and yet they can work against the positive sum culture and the efforts of progressive decentralization.
When "Everybody is a leader” it can seem like a message of advocacy for consensus all the time and committees for everything. However, many of our participants shared that in moments they likely over “committee-ified” things when many others would have been happy to support them using their expertise to advance the DAO in a positive direction. Mojo is about asking questions and yet discerning when it is time to move from reflection to action with confidence. Ego is helpful in ensuring you don’t cause yourself harm as you navigate the DAO ecosystem, and many participants specifically called out setting aside your ego and being willing to be wrong as critical for leading in the space.
The leadership behaviors that facilitate desirable group and organizational outcomes can still be categorized, pursued, and developed in line with existing research, which categorizes leadership behaviors into self, people, task, and change leadership.
Participants reflected on leadership in DAOs more frequently through the frames of their own personal journey, their relationships, and their perspectives on DAOs organizationally, or as systems. Applying additional frames to the context of DAOs will continue to help us understand what is and is not different.
Specifically, because of the porous, highly experimental, and even chaotic environment of DAOs, people benefit from grounding their own development, career path, and journey in their personal purpose or compass. To do this, there is a heightened focus on knowing yourself, your strengths and taking initiative.
There is also a heightened focus on knowing your context. This can sometimes be a challenge when there is a steep learning curve around adjacent or applicable skillsets in the space, anon/pseudonymous culture, and a lack of transparency to where the work is happening (e.g. private discord, telegram channels), along with a community that itself spans various stages of awareness, learning, and upskilling.
Understanding yourself and how your DAO works to gain awareness and context, channeled into personal and collective practices of discernment, preoccupied a lot of the activity participants shared with us. Discernment was a frequently used word and showcased the personal experimentation of practicing good judgment while navigating DAOs.
“People don’t collaborate on issues, they collaborate on relationships.” Zakku, Coordinape
This quote aptly described what many reflected on as an experience that taught them leadership does not and should not take place in a silo. Leadership was often reflected on as occurring at the group level. Even more prominent was the reflections and suggestions that developing your leadership is an act of setting up and calling upon social support. Here is a summary of the people participants chose to surround themselves with to encourage the development of their leadership.
People in DAOs seem to have expectations that deeply espoused DAO ideals, like decentralization, transparency, and community-led decision-making be upheld. However, the reality seems to be that many DAOs fall short of the ideals and while they are committed to making the journey, the context around where they are on that path is largely unavailable. This hinders people’s ability to discern and navigate the ecosystem, which serves as barriers to desired personal and organizational outcomes.
While the lack of transparency could be attributed to the early-stage development of most of these DAOs, there truly seems to be a distinct objective within DAOs to not ever make concrete, but to make fluid. A more fluid environment, like a river is not forced, but is rather guided and impacted by its surroundings, however this does not always allow for optimized efficiencies and clear operations across a DAO.
We encourage DAOs to embrace their more fluid identity and to build processes that allow for a continuous assessment of where the organization is and how it is communicated that journey to others. This is context not simply to be gathered, but to be disseminated. While this exercise could be completed by small groups and individuals as well, sharing this context for the DAO allows it to attract and engage people who personally align with where the DAO is and wants to go. for the total DAO would allow for it to attract recommend DAOs making their understanding to root their organizational practices in a more dialogue-based approach with consistent containers for the more fluid conversations around the ideals DAOs strive toward. to not make “either/or” decisions, which benefit from the ability to flex, but for DAOs to practice contextual transparency.
Like a lighthouse, it is not about telling people where to go, but illuminating context for people to make safe and informed choices in the not-always-flat, not-always-decentralized, but beacon-for-better-work landscape.
Hopefully, this study raised more questions for you about the role leadership plays in how the DAO ecosystem evolves.
"[DAOs] are not organizations without people, they are organizations that are made of the people that are interested in them." - Lenny, RaidGuild
Lisa Wocken, PhD is a founding member of talentDAO, adjunct instructor at the University of Minnesota, and an educator across the DAO ecosystem. Her work focuses on developing leaders for the more decentralized world of work.
Francisco Diaz (Pancho) is a social anthropologist based in Chile. He has conducted qualitative research and is currently doing his Masters program studying DAOs at a systems level. He joined the DAO ecosystem last year and now is committed to building better organizations for impact.
This research was conducted at talentDAO, which aims to improve DAOs with science and science with DAOs. Special thanks to our community for their support and contributions to this work. For more information please visit talentdao.io
This article represents primary research. Here are the full citations for additional references included in this article:
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