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


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