Starfish & Spiders


I admit to being jaded about books that claim something new in the field of leadership. I’ve been a student of leadership theory for many years and frankly, it seems that most “new” ideas in leadership are simply a rehash of something that’s been around for awhile. So, I’m generally cautious when someone recommends a new leadership book and tells me that it’s a must read.

Owning my skepticism, I just finished a book that a colleague recommended called, The Starfish and the Spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. The book makes use of a very compelling metaphor and makes some key points that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

Here’s the metaphor. If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; but if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. With a spider, what you see is pretty much what you get; a body’s a body, a head’s a head, and a leg’s a leg. But starfish are very different. The starfish doesn’t have a head. Its central body isn’t even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated through each and every arm. Traditional top down organizations are like spiders, but in this post-modern era starfish organizations are changing the way face of business and non-profits. (Maybe they should be changing the way that we organize our churches?)

A couple of basic principles govern the formation of starfish organizations. They are decentralized and focused on diseconomies of scale (smaller subunits within the organization.) They rely heavily on spontaneously organized and linked networks. They harness the power of chaos. Knowledge is spread and shared throughout the organization; it is not hoarded at the top. Everyone at every level of the organization has a fundamental desire to share and to contribute.  They are almost impossible organizations to kill because the DNA of the organization is carried in every part of it. If a leader fails or is taken down from outside the organization new leadership spontaneously emerges. Catalysts, rather than appointed leaders make the organization effective. Catalysts are a cross between an architect, a cheerleader, and an awestruck observer. Ideology is the fuel that drives the starfish organization, as expressed by a well articulated set of values.

So, here’s the thing that I keep wrestling with since reading the book. Decentralized organizations really aren’t anything new. We’ve been studying them for decades. But this way of talking about a decentralized organization does seem fresh. I’m particularly taken with ideology and core values as the glue that hold the organization together. What I’m still wondering about is how we distinguish between an effective starfish organization and utter chaos. I’ve been in lots of congregations that would like to think what they are doing is taking a decentralized approach to ministry, when in fact they are simply yielding to chaos and a lack of organizational skill. What are the attributes of a well run decentralized leadership structure? The book has me thinking about it, but I’m not sure it has answered the question for me.

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