Introducing core DAO leadership

May 11th, 2022

«I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead» it read Mark Twain. So we did when we wrote the essay «DAO Leadership: Building on the shoulders of giants». This piece is the «too long didn’t read» of our summary of +25 years of leadership research for DAOs.

Leadership and DAOs

Leadership gives organizations direction, inspiration, and coordination to help reach goals. As organizations evolve to decentralize governance and operations through «decentralized autonomous organizations» (DAOs), new questions about leadership emerge.

In DAOs, «organizations» means:

virtual, geographically dispersed groups of highly skilled, autonomous professionals who use information technology as an integral part of the work process, a work process that is difficult to standardize and requires coordination of specialized contributions to achieve complex, often intangible outcomes. [1,2]

In groups operating under these conditions pure hierarchical leadership is not viable for many reasons - among which asynchronous work, lower communication richness, distributed understanding of context - and can lead to unintended consequences: single leaders risk to become central points of failure. Therefore, given the nature of these organizations we must find more appropriate forms of group leadership than hierarchical leadership.

Claims about DAO leadership abound: they are leaderless, there are no bosses, software rules aka «code is law». For many people talking about leadership in DAOs is an oxymoron. Reminiscent of how hierarchies motivate individuals to climb up the ranks, lead members at different ranks to have opposing interests and perspectives, and ultimately lead to conflict, people oppose the idea of hierarchy. Yet how can DAOs coordinate without hierarchies? Who gets responsibility to execute proposals? How to distribute tasks to make efficient use of skills? If anyone can pick up anything, who can solve conflicts that possibly arise? Ultimately, what is leadership in DAOs?

Introducing core DAO leadership

Core DAO leadership is flexibly shared rather than held by single individuals. The goal in a DAO should be to create minimum viable hierarchies [3] that born and die as the context evolves. The challenge lays in avoiding that hierarchies crystallize into full-time, top-down, rigid arrangements that concentrate power, slow down operations, and harm morale.

On these premises, we define DAO leadership as:

a dynamic, emergent group property in which people flexibly lead one another - selectively using skills and expertise based on the evolving needs and context of the DAO - by sharing responsibility to perform specific leadership behaviors to achieve group or organizational goals

In centralized organizations, leaders undergo formal appointment based on pre-defined roles, exert top-down influence/control over people and resources, accrue power and authority as they climb up the ladder, and give the largest bites to the cake based on their rank-order rather than contribution.

In DAOs members co-govern and co-own, participate in decision-making, undertake tasks collectively, collaborate with other members to achieve their common goals, and reap the benefits as a collective. Leaders emerge formally or informally based on the situation (problem at hand) so there is no one leader but multiple ones. Yet what does it mean to lead in DAOs? What are the leadership behaviors contributors are responsible to perform?

talentDAO working definition of DAO leadership
talentDAO working definition of DAO leadership

Democratizing effective leadership behaviors

Leading in DAOs boils down to doing those things that keep the organization up and running. Building on decades of field research in the realm of organizational science we developed a framework of leadership behaviors that drive individual and organizational outcomes and are applicable in DAOs. We call it core DAO leadership and it includes self, people, task, and change leadership behaviors that empirical research shows can increase organizational effectiveness.

Introducing core DAO leadership
Introducing core DAO leadership

Sharing leadership means taking ownership of these behaviors, acting in ways that prompt the group processes that underlie group effectiveness. Beyond the influence of someone formally emerged as a leader, informal leadership can also have a significant impact on organizational performance. In fact, under conditions of shared leadership everyone has a role to play in the organization, be it large or small. Thus, the goal of a DAO is to reach a state in which the collective is leading itself by harmonically performing the following four sets of leadership behaviors.

Leadership behaviors that drive outcomes

Leading self

Self-leadership means leading from the inside out: you influence yourself through your own thoughts and behaviors before even thinking of influencing and leading others. At the heart of self-leadership there is people’s choice of higher-level objectives to pursue and the actions taken to regulate or control tactical behaviors to achieve such objectives.

Leading people

People leadership means giving attention to people before tasks. Leaders challenge team members to put the interests of the team ahead of their personal interest, encourage them to do more than they get money for, and support them to feel comfortable working autonomously.

Leading tasks

Task leadership means doing what it takes to get the job done, such as determining goals and expectations, clarifying roles, creating plans, monitoring the team's progress over outcomes, and sharing rewards and recognition for achievements.

Leading change

Change leadership encompasses actions such as developing and communicating a vision for change, making strategic and tactical decisions, encouraging thinking beyond traditional norms, and taking risks by pushing things forward.

Putting it all together

The core DAO leadership framework builds on decades of field research in the realm of organizational science, accounting for hundreds of thousands of leaders in several organizational settings. Given the characteristics of this evidence-base, we expect the findings to generalize to different contexts, including decentralized autonomous organizations.

Leadership behaviors that drive outcomes
Leadership behaviors that drive outcomes

Since leadership can have powerful impacts on collectives like teams, units, and organizations, by introducing the core DAO leadership framework we aim at equipping DAO members with knowledge of effective leadership behaviors to enact as the context demands in order to drive progress, spur commitment, galvanize coordination, and contribute to making decentralized work become the future of work.


[1] Center for Evidence-Based Management (2019). A rapid evidence assessment of the research literature on factors associated with knowledge workers performance.

[2] Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2020). A rapid evidence assessment of the scientific literature on attributes of effective virtual teams.

[3] Concept of minimum viable hierarchies mentioned by Richard Bartlett in «Patterns for decentralized organizing».

About us

talentDAO envisions a future where 1 billion people have access to decent work through self-sovereign work arrangements offered by thriving, successful DAOs. We leverage organizational science to conduct research, build products, and offer talent strategy services to the DAO ecosystem.
talentDAO envisions a future where 1 billion people have access to decent work through self-sovereign work arrangements offered by thriving, successful DAOs. We leverage organizational science to conduct research, build products, and offer talent strategy services to the DAO ecosystem.
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