Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Of Starfish and Spiders

Guest post by Mike DeGrosky, Guidance Group, Inc.

Have you recently heard people refer to their organization as a “starfish” or contrast “starfish organizations” from “spider organizations”?  If not, you likely will, because starfish and spiders have become all the rage in corporate circles.  The idea goes like this.  Organizations can look like spiders, with the spider’s eight legs representing organizational divisions and units controlled by a central head.  Or, organizations can look like starfish, with multiple arms, each representing a separate neural network without need for a central head.  Cut off a spider’s leg and you have a spider with one less leg.  Cut off the spider’s head and the whole spider dies, including all the legs.  But, cut off a starfish’s arm and, not only does the starfish not die, but it grows a new arm, the cut arm survives, and it may even turn into a new starfish.  We want our organizations to be more like starfish, de-centralized, independent and resilient.

We owe the starfish and spider analogy to authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, whose book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations caught the attention of organizations like Google, Mozilla, SUN Microsystems, and YouTube.  While the book came out in paperback in 2007, it still seems to be generating some buzz, apparently because a recent NPR news story reported that the book struck a chord among members of the Tea Party.

I found Braf and Beckstrom’s starfish and spider analogy creative and thought provoking, and the authors do a good job arguing that society is witnessing a revolution favoring decentralized, self-organizing entities. However, the book suffers from one, serious conceptual weakness in that the authors contend that starfish organizations are “leaderless” organizations.  With careful reading, Braf and Beckstrom’s conclusion that decentralized, self organizing concerns are leaderless breaks down for several reasons.  

First, the authors confuse technological innovations and systems (such as the Internet) with organizations, and then offer them as examples of their premise.  Second, Braf and Beckstrom confuse decentralized organizations and open systems with an absence of leaders.  To accept the premise that these are “leaderless” organizations requires accepting a very traditional conception of leaders as controlling, heroic and special people rather than participants in the leadership process.  Finally, the authors repeatedly refer to “leaderless organizations” but consistently report on the visionary, influential people responsible for the existence and success of those organizations.  Most people I know would agree that vision and influence represent hallmarks of leadership and that visionary influencers are, by definition, leaders.  I found it peculiar that the authors’ iconic organizations don’t have leaders, but they do have visionary, influencers called “catalysts.”  That’s one way to support your premise of organizations without leaders, just re-name leaders catalysts.  

I think the starfish analogy is a good one.  The world doesn’t seem to favor rigid, highly centralized organizations anymore.  We want our organizations to be like the starfish; decentralized and resilient open systems.  However, I would argue that the successful decentralized open system organizations springing up around us are not leaderless, but organizations with distributed leadership. 

Recent leadership research makes clear that people’s understanding of what constitutes effective leadership is changing.  In fact, research by the Center for Creative Leadership found that practicing leaders in the U.S. believe that people in our society had changed how they defined leadership, and that our conception of leadership would continue to change into the foreseeable future.  In the past 15 years, leadership scholars have increasingly formed and advanced a view of leadership as something that should be dispersed throughout the organization and prove sensitive to the demands of our emerging information society. From this point of view, we seem to be gradually shifting our view of effective leadership from traditional, individualistic, and leader-centric approaches toward more collective or collaborative models.  

Many leadership scholars and writers seem to agree that leadership constitutes a relationship jointly produced by leaders and followers.  They point out that many popular notions of leadership reinforce an outdated, heroic leader stereotype and fail to address either the reciprocal nature of influence in the leadership process or the plurality of modern organizational life.  In real life, everyone in the organization bargains, exercises or withholds their power, accepts or resists the power of others, negotiates understandings and agreements, and does what they must to contribute to the organization’s mission and future.   

Clinging to the stereotype of a “leader,” as a central figure engaged in topdown control and management, is what I believe led Braf and Beckstrom to conclude that their starfish organizations are somehow leaderless organizations.  I contend that the authors did not identify leaderless organizations at all, but organizations that share leadership as a process and responsibility, and distribute that responsibility throughout the organization.  I do not mean that everyone in the organization simultaneously leads, but that in these organizations, multiple people have the potential to exercise leadership. 

Leadership is not the possession of an individual and not a fixed phenomenon, but a dynamic, emergent property.  People move in and out of the leadership role constantly. By thinking of leadership in this way, we move beyond trying to understand leadership as the actions and beliefs of individual leaders and begin to understand leadership as a dynamic organizational process. 

This way of thinking about leadership means that at any given time, multiple leaders can exist in any team, unit, or organization; with those leaders playing integrated and complementary roles. This leadership model emphasizes active development of leadership abilities for all members of the organization.  The central assumption is that each member has some leadership contribution to make that the organization will need at some time as the organization’s leadership needs shift and change.

Distributed leadership does not mean that we have done away with formal organizational leadership structures.  In fact, those in formal leadership roles maintain responsibility to provide informal leaders with opportunities to lead at appropriate times and support them as necessary.

Mike DeGrosky is Chief Executive Officer of the Guidance Group, a consulting organization specializing in the human and organizational aspects of the fire service, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University.  Follow Mike on Twitter@guidegroup or via LinkedIn.

Wildfire Thoughts on Leadership – Nov/Dec 2010
Copyright © 2010 Guidance Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
This is an expanded version of a column first appearing as Thoughts on Leadership in the November/December 2010 issue of Wildfire magazine, the official publication of the International Association of Wildland Fire, published by Penton Media.

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