The Forum Moderator’s Guide To Life – Parts 1 and 2

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Part 1 of this article starts below. Skip to Part 2, here.

Some of the most powerful people on the Internet are commoners like you and me. The effective moderation of a successful forum takes a great amount of discipline and ability, but yields great success and respect. It’s very likely that these superusers are lingering in forums and communities across the Web. They might not be moderators in every case, but chances are they’re highly respected individuals with a lot of influence in the communities in which they participate.

A big part of my personal success in this area comes from my passion for quality leadership. Leadership takes many forms and manifests itself in various ways in our lives. Individuals like Winston Churchill and Rudy Giuliani manifested leadership in their times of crisis. Leadership is influence, and these were among the most influential people of their times.

Leadership Is Influence

If you moderate a community, large or small, or you’re charged with the task of administering one, let this article be a challenge to you. A position does not make you a leader. Influence makes you a leader.

The fact is that, as a moderator, you have a unique gift called leadership. This gift has given you the opportunity to work as a moderator on whatever board you’re part of. But leadership is simply a raw force — an energy — that drives us and influences others. It’s like fire, having the potential to both bring reward and cause harm. It depends on the person who wields that leadership, and the maturity with which he or she uses it.

In every culture there is a point in time where the child crosses the line into adulthood. In some African tribes, rites of initiation must be passed through before a boy becomes a man, while others simply have a “graduation” ceremony – for example, the Jewish Bahmitzvah.

In most western societies, a boy becomes a “man” when he reaches the age of maturity. Being a boy does not take masculinity from the boy: he is as masculine a boy as he will be a man (unless something happens in a hospital somewhere!). But he is only recognized as a man once he reaches a certain age, or displays a certain level of maturity.

Similarly, in the world of influence, a leader is not made, but a leader is recognized.

Tom Landry, the legendary former coach of the Dallas Cowboys (which, I might add is NOT America’s, team!) once said:

“Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence, seeing how you react. If you’re in control, they’re in control.”

The key lies not in controlling the surroundings, but in being able to control your own responses to those surroundings… how you carry yourself, your composure and collectedness, how you ask and respond to questions.

Leadership is defined by how you promote what you are trying to create, rather than how you denounce what you are against. People will, to a degree, more readily accept correction from someone who has a relationship with them than someone who just wants to lay down law.

Work Yourself Out Of a Job

One of the most critical links in the leadership chain is the mentoring process. This is often overlooked by those in leadership positions who are more concerned with their own personal power and control than in raising up effective leaders, and this alone can be the biggest stumbling block to community growth.

There is a four-step process to nurturing fresh leadership.

1. Let them watch you do the job.

This is the step where potential leaders are recognized. In this step, existing leaders notice those who naturally stand out and seem to attract others through natural charisma, knowledge and abilities. These individuals are not necessarily destined to be leaders, but they exhibit leadership traits. It’s at this step that a new candidate is chosen.

2. Teach them to do the job.

At this stage, the candidate helps the leader perform his duties, learning the trade along the way. The leader will impart valuable insight and maturity throughout this process, instructing the trainee as they work together. A good example of this would be an electrician’s apprentice.

3. Make room for them to do the job.

This is where the trainee gets all his practice. A wise leader makes room for failure, allowing the trainee to learn the hard way, by making mistakes, and shape his own philosophies and tendencies. An effective leader will not quench opposing ideas, but will corral these philosophies and traits toward a commonly-held positive goal, teaching the trainee how to use those qualities to have a positive influence on those that are being led.

4. Get out of the way and let the new leader do the job.

This is the final step. The trainee has matured and gained valuable wisdom and insight through the training process. They’ve made mistakes and learned the hard way. They have established a rapport with those they’re to lead, who look to the leader for direction. At this point the leader can step back and allows the protege to do the job without individual restraint. New ideas and philosophies flow into the arena, and the new leader can begin to look among those he leads for people that exhibit the qualities of a future leader. And so the cycle continues.

The Trust Factor

A deciding factor in good leadership is to determine whether people are following the leader, or simply obeying him. Anyone can get into a community and start telling others what the rules are, but if that person doesn’t demonstrate that they can be trusted, the people will simply obey and not follow.

How do you establish trust and confidence? Good question. One way is by communicating a vision of where you are going, what you are doing and what you believe. If people sense a lack of confidence or ability, they will not respect your place as a leader. It’s important to understand that the people make you a leader, not a higher-up. By establishing this respect with those you work with, you will be recognized as a leader.

Part 2

In the last part of this article, we discussed the characteristics of quality leaders. We looked at leadership in the context of forum moderation, but in reality, these principles can be applied to many different circumstances in everyday life. As we delve a little deeper into quality leadership, let us examine a few more concepts.

Quality Leaders Control Their Own Destiny

“You can find smart, talented people who will only go so far because of the limitations of their leadership.” – John C. Maxwell

Leaders are directly responsible for the way they’re perceived. This is not something that comes about through simply actions, though our behavior does play a significant role in how any of us is perceived. Instead, good leadership is, to a large degree, all about perceptions. A person is a good leader because of the way they’re perceived.

When crisis strikes, the ability of a leader to calm the ensuing uproar rests upon his ability to create a perception of calm. When situations spin out of control, leadership is highlighted by the ability of the leader to convince the people that everything is under control. It very well may be that the whole operation is in danger of falling apart, but by creating the perception that they’ve got the situation well in hand, the leader instills confidence in his people.

How does this leadership characteristic pertain to forums management? Leadership principles remain the same, no matter what the venue. Principles never change.

In a community setting, there is often behind-the-scenes conflict. Often, there are factions within the hierarchy of community leadership, and when these factions disagree, each side can struggle over an issue at length. Frequently, there might be more than one issue, and different individuals can find themselves on different sides of each argument. Depending on how divisive the issue is, the divide can be quite harsh and defined.

During times of internal debate, the leadership hierarchy might be perceived by an outsider as a war zone with smoke lingering over a battlefield and bullets flying back and forth. But, with good leadership, the outsider will never see that war zone. There will be a unified face put forward by the group.

“But that’s lying,” you might say.

Not really. An honest leadership organization will recognize that there will be conflict, and agree to disagree, instead, putting the best foot forward for the community. This sense of unity will inspire confidence in the membership of the community. They will see the forum being led and maintained by a unified group of individuals who respect each other, and comprise a group that’s devoid of internal bickering. This is usually in the best interests of the community as a whole.

Good Leaders Nip Gossip in The Bud

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

Gossip among leadership will kill an organization like a slow poison. Whether you administer a healthy community, or are simply a moderator, beware!

Take this situation, for example. Jack is an Admin of a major forum. He has six Moderators under him, among which are Bill and Kelly. During the course of a day, Kelly says something publicly that Jack feels needs to be addressed, so he sends Kelly an email that explains his position, and asks her to be careful in what she says. That evening, Kelly is chatting to Bill over instant messenger and starts talking about how Jack sent the email to her. She says that Jack has no idea what he’s talking about and that he’s got ill feelings toward her. Kelly’s pretty persuasive, and Bill has never known her to lie, so he thinks that what she says must be true. Later, in talking to another moderator, he mentions the scenario, and adds that Jack has it in for Kelly…

In this situation, gossip has effectively set at least two community moderators in direct opposition to the leadership of the forum, and has effectively driven a wedge between people who are supposed to be members of a cohesive team. Precedent says that in this situation, Kelly should have kept her mouth shut and worked out any disagreements directly with Jack, but instead she has begun a slow-spreading poison that will ultimately hurt the community.

Good Leaders Make Tough Decisions

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

As Moderators and Administrators, you will find yourself in tough positions. Should you ban someone, or give them a warning shot? Should you enforce a guideline even though it’s only a small transgression and it probably wasn’t intentional, or should you let it slide so that you don’t appear tough, dictatorial, and uncompromising? For each situation and community, the approach the leaders take will differ.

On boards I’ve moderated, there have emerged vast differences of opinion over how strict or loose guidelines should be. Often, moderators have strongly disagreed over the directions that should be taken in the community. In a responsible forum, these kinds of discussions among community leaders are taken up behind the scenes out of the public eye, but once a decision is made, there much be mutual support among forum leaders at all levels.

Administrators have some of the hardest decisions to make, because whatever they do will affect the entire community, and indeed, their decisions may alter the future of the community. It’s like trying to engineer a satellite’s orbit. The smallest fraction of a degree off course, and the satellite will plunge to a fiery grave — or hurtle into outer space. As an administrator, the simplest decisions, or off the cuff comments in the heat of the moment can alter the direction, mood and atmosphere of a community.

That in itself could scare you, but for the Administrator, there’s often not a lot of room for second-guessing. In fact, when you make a decision as a community’s leader, it can be important not to second guess yourself. Often, it’s all too easy to get caught up in a never ending war of “what ifs”. Instead, have confidence in your ability to make wise choices — with the advice of others, perhaps. You must make the decision and stand by it, never looking back.

View Author

Aaron Brazell is the senior technology manager for b5media, a new media network. He is a well known and respected voice in the world of blogging and social media and has a passion for written communication. He has been developing in PHP for six years and has been actively involved with WordPress for nearly three years. He writes on his blog, Technosailor and is available for WordPress consulting

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