The New York Times published an interview with Maryana Iskander, the next leader of the Wikimedia Foundation (which oversees Wikipedia.) The interview focused on how Wikimedia prevents misinformation and deals with controversial topics in its sites, especially in these polarized times.
Before Wikimedia, Iskander worked in nonprofits dealing with youth unemployment and women’s rights. The interviewer, Davey Alba, asked if “misinformers” could claim this background might influence Iskander’s decisions about what is allowed on Wikipedia. Her answer was illuminating:
I would say two things. I would say that the really relevant aspects of the work that I’ve done in the past is volunteer-led movements, which is probably a lot harder than others might think, and that I played a really operational role in understanding how to build systems, build culture and build processes that I think are going to be relevant for an organization and a set of communities that are trying to increase their scale and reach.
The second thing that I would say is, again, I’ve been on my own learning journey and invite you to be on a learning journey with me. How I choose to be in the world is that we interact with others with an assumption of good faith and that we engage in respectful and civilized ways. That doesn’t mean other people are going to do that. But I think that we have to hold on to that as an aspiration and as a way to, you know, be the change that we want to see in the world as well.
I read two things here. First, there’s a distinction to be drawn between an organization’s purpose and how it manifests in the world — i.e., how the purpose is operationalized. The organization might have lofty ambitions, but its impact will remain unrealized as long as the organization can’t act at scale.
In these polarized times, it can be hard to see beyond the purpose to everything that goes into operationalizing aspirations. But you can’t have one without the other. And what goes into making things happen? Iskander summarizes it nicely: systems, culture, and processes. Unsaid, but assumed: at the core of it all is people.
Which brings me to the second thing I read here. For an organization (or, more broadly, a society) to work, people must collaborate. This requires engaging with each other with humility, openness, and “assumption of good faith.” None of us has a perfect understanding of the world — we’re all on a “learning journey.”
Some of us work for organizations, some lead organizations, and others merely use the organizations’ products and services. All bring different perspectives to the domain. Leaders mustn’t assume it has all the answers — and the people they lead (both inside and outside the organization) owe them at least the benefit of the doubt.
It’s refreshing to hear a leader express humility and openness as a core operating principle. I look forward to following Iskander’s tenure at Wikimedia.
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