Leadership and gossip in Debian


On a daily basis now, people ask questions that remind volunteers about the leadership problems in Debian. When we visit free software events or any other free software community, it comes up frequently.

It is a horrible situation. When people remind us about the vindictive emails sent by Chris Lamb in September 2018, there is nothing positive to say. It puts us in a position where there is no response other than asking them to question Lamb's credibility. As Lamb was leader of the project at that time, this inevitably rubs off on Debian as a community.

When people realize issues like these relate to volunteers' private lives and have nothing to do with their competence as Debian Developers, they quickly apologize for intruding. On those occasions when Lamb's victims have explained the situation to people in any detail, the colour of their faces has visibly changed, demonstrating an acute combination of sadness and anger at the way certain people in the Debian community, including the former leader, have behaved.

People have asked why nobody tried to speak to Lamb. In fact, people tried. He lives in London, some Debian Developers are visiting there regularly. At least one has written to him numerous times to suggest a meeting: it is Lamb who always refused.

Between September and December 2018, attempts were made to set up a meeting with other volunteers. They either didn't respond or declined. Yet more and more reports of Lamb's gossipmongering came back to us.

In an earlier blog, we revealed that one of the challenges faced by a volunteer was the death of his father. People simply can't understand why Lamb and his sidekicks would be undermining another Debian Developer, involved in the community for more than twenty years, at such a difficult time.

It is not easy to reduce a subject like that to a blog post. More details of volunteers' private lives can't be disclosed without violating the privacy of third parties. Yet one of Lamb's missed opportunities as a leader is that he expected everything to be reduced to email or IRC. So he remained completely out of touch.

Nobody chose to have their private life and professional life interconnected in this way. It was imposed on them by somebody who had the title of leader in an organization of 1,000 Developers but had dedicated more time to covering up his girlfriend's blunders than anything else.

That brings us to another point: is everybody who has a public profile in the free software community going to be subject to similar attacks and criticism at a time of personal tragedy? GSoC and Outreachy mentors frequently observe the challenges newcomers go through making their first commit on a public repository or their first post to a mailing list. Many of them would never have done so if they saw what volunteers have been put through by rogue elements of the Debian community.

Ultimately, as the leader created a state of hostility through inappropriate gossip, the only real solution is for the current leader of the project to publicly and unconditionally denounce the gossip and put these issues to rest for once and for all.

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