STARFISH Yesterday I wrote about a book that I highly recommend all leaders buy and read: The Starfish and the Spider (Penguin: New York, 2006). It is simple and can be read in a few hours. Please read it even if you are not inclined to read business and leadership books. It is worth your time. I assure you that you'll not be bored. You are likely to understand how vision really works in a decentralized context.

Brafman and Beckstrom relate the story of how slavery was abolished in Great Britain. Many of you know the story of William Wilberforce (especially because of one of my favorite movies: Amazing Grace) but do you know the role played by Granville Sharp and the slave Jonathan Strong, whom Sharp came to know personally? And what about the contribution of Thomas Clarkson? Sharp was the visionary but Clarkson became the implementer. Together their role was a powerful force in abolition’s success. Simply put the real story is one of a starfish working to end the slave trade decades before the American Civil War.

Brafman and Beckstrom suggest that a starfish organization has five legs, just like the starfish. This seems a bit too clever but each of the five works well once you understand them.

1. Circles

Every decentralized organization has circles, or groups that share heritage and tradition while at the same time they have different habits and norms. Each circle is independent and autonomous.

Most of us are members of decentralized circles and may not even think about it. If you use the Internet you are more likely to be in several. Virtual circles may not be everything but they are something and they are changing the way we relate to others, for better and for worse.

Circles do not have hierarchy and structure. No one has power over others in a circle.

2. The Catalyst

People like Granville Sharp and Bill W. are catalysts. They are very different from traditional executives. Their leadership style resembles iron. Take nitrogen and hydrogen, two common elements, and put them in a container and close the lid. Come back a day later and nothing will have happened. Put ordinary iron in the equation and you get ammonia. The interesting thing, however, is that ammonia has no iron in it. The iron works as a catalyst and gets out of the way. This is the point the authors are making.

The catalyst leader promotes an idea and gives responsibility to others. The catalyst envisions, influences and then gets out of the way. A catalyst develops an idea, shares it with others, and leads by example. “A catalyst is the architect of a house; he’s essential to the long-term structural integrity, but he doesn’t move in” (94).

3. Ideology

What makes people join a circle? Why spend time, invest money and participate? Open systems offer a sense of community, but then so do other types of organizations. The authors suggest that it is ideology that “is the glue that holds decentralized organizations together” (95). Common beliefs are the essential thing here.

This is where the church needs to think about itself with more self-awareness. We need leaders to lead this process. What is it that holds us together? In most cases I believe what holds us together is not Jesus Christ and the good news but rather our personal ideologies and idiosyncratic tendencies.

4. The Preexisting Network

The authors write: “Put together a close-knit community with shared values and add a belief that everyone’s equal, and what do you get? Decentralization” (96).

And decentralized networks “provide circles and an empowered membership and typically have a higher tolerance for innovation” (97). Without a central person in charge networks rely on personal connections. They are relational.

5. The Champion

Every successful starfish organization needs a person to champion the cause, to implement the vision. This is what Thomas Clarkson did for Granville Sharp in the abolition movement. This was also true in the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the catalyst and Ralph Abernathy was the champion. But when King died the movement suffered profoundly because he held so much central importance to the organizational well-being of the cause.

The key to a leaderless movement or organization is the catalyst but the catalyst cannot succeed without the champion. And “a catalyst’s most important relationships are based on trust and understanding” (113). I have learned firsthand that I am a catalyst but I can never reach for the vision God has given me without a champion(s) at my side. My spirit fails and my vision comes to nothing without such a person(s). It takes a team to truly serve the church, not just an individual with gifts and support

More tomorrow.