Linus Torvalds’ 7 leadership lessons

This video of the founder of the Linux kernel is fascinating. I am pretty sure that the world will stumble upon the one shocking phrase that Linus said during this conference at the Aalto University, in Finland : “F*** you Nvidia”.

Linus is obviously an opinionated person and this sentence was tweeted, re-tweeted and shared all around the world. But it misses all the other points Linus made during this presentation; to me, this presentation was an excellent leadership lesson in 7 points:

1) You don’t have to plan something to be successful at it

When Linus started his operating system, he was “looking at a new project to use [his] computer”. Today, according to Google, 900 000 Linux-based Android devices are activated. How more successful could an “accidental” project be ?

However, I think that even though Linus had no exact plan about what his OS would become, several factors helped him along the way. He stated, for instance that “when [he] started Linux, [he] had been programming half of his life”. He was not a complete beginner. He had time to create and shape something entirely new, as he was a student. Linus mentioned that the “development of Linux was very natural.”. I think that this development was natural because the external factors were positive at that time. You don’t have to make big plans for something to be successful, but watch your environment if, even without planning, you want to be successful.

2) Focus on your strength

According to Linus, the strength of open-source is that people can do what they are best at. It helped him focus and not have to bother about minor tasks. He  put his passion, interest and energy where they were the most effective: the development of an operating system kernel.

3) Trust is limited, put it in people who deserve it

Although people might have thousands of LinkedIn contacts, for instance, they really trust only a handful of them. In Linus’ case, it is between 5 and 15 people and only 3 to 4 can really take his job over. It is not that many, they have to be the right ones.

4) You have the right to be opinionated

Linus is honest in his statements, he uses strong language and if people are offended “it’s their problem”. The story with Nvidia is, again, a blatant example of it. However, if the media only remembers this three-words sentence, it might forget the five-minutes explanation that preceded it. Torvalds explained in a lot of detail what went wrong with this company and why he was displeased. His wording might be offensive, he has very valid reasons to be angry, though.

Moreover, these opinions are important as a leader. As Linus said “people take him seriously […] and in an open-source community, other developers need to know how he feels”. He explains very well in this interview how, in the past, not to have taken a decision early enough leaded to trouble subsequently. As a leader, people should not misread you and you should take decisions as early as possible to show where the way is going.

5) Give credit to others

I found remarkable that Linus gave credit to others. He did it in particular to Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan, two of the inventors in the 70s of Unix, which leaded the way to Linux in the 90s. Leadership, to me, is about showing to the world what you have done, if it makes an impact, but also recognizing when you sit on the shoulders of giants.

6) Work hard and execute

For Linus, “execution is more important than vision”. He  believes in hard work and attention to detail and in Edison’s definition of genius : 90% of perspiration – 10% of inspiration. This is what made him successful.

I found his sentence very inspiring “If you look at the stars all the time, you’ll stumble upon the pothole in the garden”.

7) Do it with passion

During the last minutes of the conference, Linus said “I believe that having passion, caring about what you do is more important  than having this mental vision of a golden future you want to reach”. As a leader, people should do everything they do with passion. In my opinion, it is a trait of leaders that they really care about the things they are doing and that passion is a driving force for their efforts.

1 thought on “Linus Torvalds’ 7 leadership lessons

  1. Boyd L. Hanson

    There are many reasons, first and foremost the perceived risk around change. Others question the reliability, saying open source is not tried and tested. Both of these points are intrinsically flawed. When done correctly, implementing open source alternatives can more often than not be very cost effective, at the very least more so than switching to another proprietary system. There are numerous examples of open source solutions being successfully and cost effectively implemented in the private sector to back this up.

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