Governance: Leadership Selection

CNCF does not require its hosted projects to follow any specific governance model by default. Instead, CNCF specifies that graduated projects need to “[e]xplicitly define a project governance and committer process.” This varied and open governance approach has led to different projects defining what is best and optimized for their community.

While there are many options for selecting leaders as part of defining governance, the ideal is to have a process that provides a fair and level playing field that defines how contributors can become leaders. The governance should be documented so that all participants clearly understand the criteria and process for moving into and out of leadership positions. Here are more details about some of the governance options for CNCF projects.

Types of Leadership Selection


Leaders may be invited to participate in committees or other leadership roles by the people currently in those leadership roles. The Project Management Committee for Vitess is by invite with a nomination from an existing committee member followed by committee approval.

Committer / Maintainer-based

In many projects, one of the simplest and easiest ways to select leaders is to allow the existing committers or maintainers to make the selection. In some cases, this might be by invitation from another maintainer, or a person can ask to be selected for a role (self-nomination). In Envoy, new maintainers are approved via consensus by the group of senior maintainers. Jaeger uses a nomination process where a new maintainer is nominated by an existing maintainer and seconded by two other maintainers.

Elections and Voting

Elected leadership is often used for the highest levels of leadership in larger projects, since defining the election criteria and process can require more effort than some of the other options, although there are simpler ways of conducting votes. The Kubernetes Steering Committee has a robust, but more complicated process where they are elected by a vote of eligible contributors with a maximum of one-third representation from any one company. New maintainers for Harbor are nominated by an existing maintainer and must be elected by a supermajority of existing maintainers. CoreDNS has a single project lead who is elected by a vote of the maintainers. Fluentd uses voting to select maintainers, but votes are based on organizations with each organization getting one vote to prevent any one organization from dominating the vote.


Leadership can be defined in a way that is tied to the organization where the contributor works. In Envoy, senior maintainers are expected to represent their organization and mentor other maintainers from their organization as needed. In the case of Envoy, new maintainers are approved by the group of senior maintainers, so it also uses maintainer-based leadership selection.


Leadership may also be self-selected, which is how many projects define their first set of leaders. While this is common early in a project’s lifecycle, most projects will want to move to one of these other models, at least for the top leadership group, as the project grows and matures.


None of these models are mutually exclusive, and many projects use a combination of these. As mentioned earlier, Envoy has both organization-based leadership and maintainer-based leadership. It is also common for projects to use voting for senior leadership roles and committer / maintainer-based for entry level leadership roles; for example, Kubernetes uses voting for the steering committee, but other roles on the contributor ladder simply need sponsorship from a couple of existing leaders.

Best Practices for Leadership Selection

Transition from Existing Leadership to New Governance

When working on a new governance structure, careful thought should be put into how you plan to transition your existing leadership into the new structure. In most cases, you probably do not want to replace your entire leadership team when you transition to your new governance structure, since leadership continuity can help maintain consistency and knowledge transfer. It can help to plan for how your existing leaders might fill at least some of the new positions.


Regardless of the method of leadership selection, all projects should have regular leadership turnover, both through the addition of new leaders and the retirement of old ones.  This benefits not only the community around the project, but the leaders themselves; projects with low turnover tend to have serious problems with leadership burnout.  Ideally, your leadership selection should allow leaders to “step away” from the project when they have conflicts or personal issues, but be eligible to apply or run for leadership positions again.

It’s also critically important for contributor recruitment for every contributor to think of themselves as a potential project leader.  If there is no advancement of new leaders, contributors will regard the project as “closed” and project leadership as increasingly irrelevant to their interests.  Whereas contributors looking to become project leaders will put in additional effort to accomplish project goals.

To ensure rotation, implement the following steps:

  • New leader selection/election should happen at some regular interval
  • Criteria for new leaders should be explicit and clear to the entire community
  • Leadership positions should be theoretically open to all project contributors
  • Existing project leadership should look for potential community leaders and encourage them to step forwards

Mentoring and Shadowing

Mentoring and shadowing can help grow the pipeline of new leaders by allowing contributors to learn from existing leadership. In the case of shadow programs, a contributor works closely with an existing leader to help out and learn what it takes to lead in that particular role, which gives contributors hands-on experience and demonstrates their capabilities to existing leaders. The Kubernetes community has good shadowing and mentoring programs that can be used as a model.

Increasing Leadership Diversity and Inclusion

As you define leadership selection in your governance structure, it can help to keep diversity and inclusion in mind. Elected leadership can occasionally result in a lack of diversity, so this should be kept in mind when defining the process. Invitation and committer / maintainer-based leadership can help improve the diversity and inclusion of your leadership if your existing leaders focus on sponsoring and bringing up a diverse set of contributors into leadership roles.