Books: The Starfish and The Spider

220px-StarfishandthespiderbookThe Starfish and The Spider is a book that questions the way we think about the nature of leadership.

Much of our culture and history has revolved around hierarchical, top-down leadership. You look at the structure and you know who’s boss. You know where the buck stops.

We build careers around climbing the ladder, hoping to one day occupy the CEO position (or to get as close as we can).

This book turns that approach to leadership on its head.

It points out the inherent vulnerability of traditional structures (what happens when the leader is killed?), and offers an alternative.

Why a Starfish?

There’s a new (ancient!) type of organisation emerging that’s much more robust. It’s not sustained by charismatic personalities or limited by cash flow. It’s the Starfish Organisation.

If you cut off the head of a spider, it dies.
If you cut off part of a starfish, that part becomes a whole new starfish.

With Starfish, power is devolved away from the centre, into smaller, autonomous units.

These units are held together by strong values.

These organisations are best explained with real life stories, and The Starfish and The Spider is full of them.

The Recording Industry

Back in the early ’90s, the music industry was all about the big labels.

They controlled the budgets and were the gatekeepers of artist recognition. They could make or break a career. They were (and still are) run for the sake of shareholders, so making money was at the top of the agenda.

But there was a problem: people love to share.

People had always shared music. They would lend cassette tapes and CDs to their neighbours, friends and colleagues. Some people even found ways to copy these resources. But this illegal distribution was always limited by the breadth of people’s personal networks, and the music industry could always out market the individual.

Enter the global community of the internet and the birth of the peer-to-peer file sharing movement.

The internet meant that people could share not just with their neighbours and friends, but with the world at large.

The more that the major labels litigated, the more decentralised the technology became. The more decentralised, the harder it was to track the perpetrators.

There was really no way for the labels to catch up with the evolution of technology.

This is what Starfish Organisations do. You kill a leader, and another one pops up to replace her.

There are many more compelling examples of Starfish structures in The Starfish and The Spider, but now I want to look at what these structures mean for leadership…

Catalysts: The New Leaders

While Spider Organisations are led by CEOs, Starfish are led by Catalysts.

Unlike CEOs, catalysts let go of power. They imbue life, and then quickly give away responsibility. While CEOs maintain systems, catalysts ignite values-driven movements.

These new leaders are not focussed on building personal empires, but rather seeing their visions flourish at the hands of people who share and are equally passionate about them.

Catalysing is about networking and forming relationships, about joining the dots and helping the big picture to develop.

Because they are so openhanded with power, Catalysts have to be comfortable with lack of clear definition:

Being a catalyst requires a high tolerance for ambiguity. That’s because a decentralised organisation is so fluid that someone who needs order and structure will quickly go mad

The Catalyst behind AA

Bill Wilson was the catalyst behind Alcoholics Anonymous.

It all began with a personal need. His doctor told him that if he didn’t stop drinking he would die.

It’s a long story, but his breakthrough came when he realised his need for accountability with others who shared the same struggle. He needed a community of people who had experienced what he was going through, and who would walk with him through the process of recovery.

It’s easy to rebel against a shrink. It’s much harder to dismiss your peers.

So AA was born. From the very start its values allowed for growth: no one’s in charge, but everyone has leadership. Twelve steps that anyone can follow. Leadership by example, not position.

Thanks to Wilson’s openhanded approach, AA has spread all over the world.

Catalysts for Change

The wonderful thing about catalysts is that they come from every walk of life.
Their leadership is about how they influence people, not about a formal position or title.

So they don’t need to know “the right people” to begin instigating change.

Order your copy of The Starfish and The Spider here

It Takes A Community To Spread An Idea

Watching Amazing Grace, you’d be forgiven for thinking that slavery in the UK was abolished singlehandedly by William Wilberforce.

It takes a community to spread an idea

Fortunately, the story isn’t quite so simple. Wilberforce wasn’t alone. He was part of a community that later became known as the ‘Clapham Sect’. They were a group of God-fearing activists who lived close to each other and rallied each other up for causes like abolition.

It’s this community that provided Wilberforce with the support he needed to last through the 18 years it took to get his Private Member’s Bill through parliament.

Had Wilberforce stood alone, he may not have persevered all those years.

The Ongoing Fight Against Slavery: Fairtrade

When I was a kid, back in the ’80s, the Fairtrade label hadn’t yet been invented. But the movement had already begun.

Depending on the congregation, after church on Sundays you’d find several old ladies peddling goods at the back. These goods were usually labeled ‘Tradecraft’, and had been produced somewhere in Africa or South America.

The items were often expensive and lower quality than you’d find in a supermarket, but the message was compelling: these goods are not produced by slaves.

Soon students got behind this movement, and injected it with extra energy. The message spread quickly from student union to student union, as this other group with time on their hands and energy to focus got behind it.

In time, the ethically produced chocolate started tasting better than the mass-market chocolate.

It turns out that if you pay a farmer a fair price, they are inclined to give you higher quality beans.

Today in the UK thinking as an ethical consumer is becoming normal. That doesn’t mean that the work is finished – there’s still a lot of unethical aspects to the consumer market. In some areas, like electronics and the car industry, we’ve barely scratched the surface. But the foundational idea that we consumers have power and can ‘vote’ with our money is firmly established.

The importance of community

If it wasn’t for communities like the Clapham Sect, Anglican grannies, or activist students, these important messages would never have spread. Their message wouldn’t be any less important, but they would never have made a difference in the world.

Some call these communities Tribes, others Hives. Whatever you call them, we need them to spread ideas effectively and to catalyse the kind of change that we want to see in the world.

Change Makers Avoid Insulation

If you want to stay alive to the world, it’s important to avoid becoming segregated from the needs around you. Wholeheartedly embracing a life of change means opening your eyes to the pain of the world and letting it shape you.

Homeless Afghan Refugees by Zoriah
Image by Zoriah

That’s one of the reasons travelling can be so good. It helps us to break out of our normal habits of who we usually talk to and where we usually go. Surrounded by a world we don’t recognise, we do things that are outside of our ‘comfort zones’ and we feel great because of it.

A recent study showed that the 20% most wealthy Americans give away an average of 1.3% of their income, while the poorest 20% give away 3.2%.

What is it that makes the wealthy so stingy?

According to the researchers, it has to do with being insulated from need:

“when both groups were exposed to a sympathy-eliciting video on child poverty, the compassion of the wealthier group began to rise, and the groups’ willingness to help others became almost identical…insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.”

This is an important lesson for us wannabe Change Makers.

If we want to be the kind of people who cause change, we must expose ourselves to need and pain. Once we know people who are suffering, we’re more inclined to identify their needs, and to make decisions about what we should do about them.

I live in South Africa, a place that has turned segregation into an art form. Back in the days of Apartheid, cities were designed to keep the different racial groups separated and to make civic areas predominantly white. A recent article in The Guardian describes Cape Town’s original planning strategy:

“Cape Town was conceived with a white-only centre, surrounded by contained settlements for the black and coloured labour forces to the east, each hemmed in by highways and rail lines, rivers and valleys, and separated from the affluent white suburbs by protective buffer zones of scrubland”

Boys during Apartheid
Image by UN Photo

Although this segregation is no longer vested in the law, the infrastructures remain the same. Black people live in black settlements, mixed race people in mixed race settlements, and white people in areas of prime real estate inhabited mainly by whites.

It’s rare for white people to have relationships of equality (real friendships) with people of other races. The black people they encounter are gardeners or domestic workers, cashiers or waste collectors. They are relationships with an unequal balance of power, in which the black person is subservient to the white person.

This setup fosters insulation, and works against the progress of change. The design of the city encourages and enables the rich to turn a blind eye to the day-to-day realities of the poor. They don’t see their pain, and therefore don’t feel motivated to do anything about it.

Of course South Africa is just an extreme example of a natural habit of the human condition. We push those on the margin out of sight, and those with power and riches to centre stage. We naturally choose the path of least resistance, where we won’t be inconvenienced by someone asking us for change, or expressing their pain.

We close our eyes and hope that someone ‘higher up’ will do something about it, forgetting that those ‘higher up’ are elected as our representatives and will only focus on things they believe matter to us.

Do you find yourself insulated from the needs around you?

Is there a small step you could take to connect more with the world’s pain?

Are You Living a Good Story?

If your familiar with Donald Miller, you’ll know about his passion for good storytelling. While he was researching story as a way of growing his writing, he developed the idea that if we consciously plan our lives using the elements of story, we will live better, more focussed lives. The kind of lives that our kids and grandkids will want to retell to their kids and grandkids.

How To Tell A StoryLast week, I downloaded Miller’s free eBook, How To Tell A Story. The premise of the book is simple: all of the greatest, most inspiring stories in the world follow a pattern that appeals to the human mind. If we learn to tell stories using this pattern, we’ll find ourselves telling more compelling stories.

Here are the 7 steps he uses when telling a story:

  1. A Character
  2. Has a problem
  3. Then meets a guide
  4. Who gives them a plan
  5. And calls them to action
  6. Which results in either a comedy (joyful outcome)
  7. Or tragedy

This got me thinking about change makers and whether having a great story to live is the key to being a force for change…

What do you think? Are you living a good story?

5 Totally Selfish Reasons To Become A Change Maker

You may think that you have to be a self-sacrificing saint to become a Change Maker. That’s not true!

Here are 5 good reasons for selfish people to pursue change:

  1. You meet amazing people
    I’ve met some of my favourite people in the course of pursuing change. These people have courage, determination and amazing stories. They live all over the world, so I have somewhere to stay wherever I go!
  2. You gain a sense of purpose
    I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying “it’s better to give than to receive”, but you might not know that research shows it to be true. Focussing on something bigger than yourself is really good for your outlook on life.
  3. You find belonging
    When you start going after change, you discover others who carry the same desire. You realise that you’re not alone in the world but actually belong to a likeminded tribe of people.
  4. You learn to turn your dissatisfaction into action
    A healthy sign of maturity is being able to convert your frustrations into action. Being a change maker means learning to do this well and to communicate it effectively to others.
  5. You leave a legacy
    When you invest in something bigger than yourself, and connect with others who share the same passions, you ensure that your investment isn’t wasted, that you will leave your mark on the world.

That’s my list. Can you think of any other selfish reasons for becoming a Change Maker?

Why Awareness is for Pussies

One day a friend of mine, who knew I had a blog about human rights violations and injustices, sent me a post from the Stuff White People Like blog, entitled Awareness. Here’s the gist:

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.”  Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.

My friend’s point was clear: awareness doesn’t solve anything and only makes those who are not affected by [insert issue/cause] feel like they’re doing something about it. It creates that smug feeling of self-satisfaction.

When I first received this critique from my friend I felt judged and was annoyed at him, but the more I thought about it I realised that there was some serious truth in his point. If I claim to care about a particular cause, I need to go out of my way to do something about it. I don’t know what motivated him to send it, but I’m glad he did.

Real change happens when awareness is converted into action.

What do you think? Do you feel like there’s way too much ‘awareness’ and too little being done?

Switching the focus

Last December I was reminded of how much I value mobilising and facilitating change when I was asked to speak to a group of 14 and 15 year old school kids in Sweden. They wanted to know about the baby rescue project that my wife and I had been involved with, and our plans to work with refugees in the Middle East.

When I started preparing for the talk, it struck me that I didn’t really want to speak about myself, or to leave them with the idea that I was somehow special, exciting or noble. I wanted to leave them with the thought that if they are determined, they can make a difference in the world around them.

When I was 14 years old, I didn’t want to hear about how inspiring this or that person was, I wanted to hear that I could do the things that I found inspiring. I wanted to be encouraged to pursue my dreams.

So, instead of just telling my story, I unpacked a few simple lessons I’ve learned about how to pursue change.

Once I was done, we broke the class into small groups and discussed issues or injustices they have noticed around them, and skills they have that they could use to address them. One girl said she could use her love of music to organise a fundraiser. A boy who likes football considered coaching refugee kids.


Let’s get this show on the road

Welcome to the first post on Change Writer, a blog that will be exploring how you can become a change maker in the world around you.

When I first started asking this question, I was very aware of the problems and pain around me, but had no idea where to start. As I travelled and asked questions of people a few steps ahead of me on this journey, I realised that we need connection points where we can share ideas without feeling judged.

Change Writer is for you if:

  • You long for change, but don’t know where to start.
  • You’ve tried out a few things, but have become disillusioned.
  • You’re a seasoned change agent wanting to share your ideas.
  • You’re coming with an open heart and open mind and an eager desire to learn.

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