The Starfish and the Spider
Did you know that starfish do not have brains? They don’t even really have heads. So how does this knowledge pertain to leadership and healthy organizational systems? And what does this mean for the Church? In their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider–The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom offer readers an opportunity to explore “what happens when there is no hierarchy; when no one is in charge.”
The book outlines the difference between the traditional centralized leadership model, epitomized by the spider, and the unconventional, though a not necessarily new, way of navigating through a decentralized approach, exemplified by the starfish. Brafman and Beckstrom contend that closed spider systems are at a disadvantage – naturally hierarchical; when you cut off a spider’s head, the legs suffer. Whereas the open fluid system of the starfish, made up of a neural network of dynamic cells, allows for flexibility and adaptation. When a starfish loses a leg, it grows another one.
Calling attention to the strengths of headless models for organizing, The Starfish and the Spider highlights the power of the network. As the authors note, “when you have all the legs working together, a decentralized organization can really take off (p.87).” I found the book well-organized and clearly written. The authors define their terms well, backed up by interesting real-world examples from the Aztecs to online giant, Amazon. The effort is engaging and practical.
What does this mean for ministry? In recent months, I have read church-focused books from Anna B. Olson (Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church, 2016), Dwight J. Zscheile (The Agile Church: Spirit-led Innovation in an Uncertain Age, 2014), and Dave Gibbons (The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church, 2009), and all three align with embracing a more decentralized approach to being the body of Christ in the world. Lay theologian Verna Dozier and other church leaders, like Fredrica Harris Thompsett, have been shining a light on the importance of the ministry of all for decades. This Acts 2, circular approach to being in community is chaordic and quantum. It lets go of what leadership expert Margaret Wheatly calls a Newtonian model of organization, embracing “power with” instead of “power over.” It creates the fertile soil for collaboration and emergence to grow and is the antidote for clergy burn-out and lay disengagement.
The last third of The Starfish and the Spider provides the perfect both/and offering – what the authors call “The combo special: The Hybrid Organization.” It is this section that I found most useful for church contexts. Sometimes centralized systems are precisely what is needed, and other times decentralized networks are the only way to grow. Sometimes spiders create barriers and stagnation; other times, starfish become nebulous and hard to manage. Often what works best is the middle, the via media; for Brafman and Beckstrom, this is a place that balances the creativity of the starfish with the structure of the spider. They end the book with ten rules for a new world. I commend them to you.
The Starfish and the Spider – The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations; Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom
Brafman, O., & Beckstrom, R. A. (2006). The Starfish and the Spider. Penguin.
Amazon link here.
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Kim Arakawa holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University. She is the Project Manager for the Mutual Ministry and Baptized for Life initiatives with the Department of Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary. When not voraciously reading leadership books, she enjoys quality time with her husband, son, and dog, Jack.