I do not read every trendy leadership and business book that gets recommended. I simply don’t have time, much less real interest in a great deal of this type of literature. I am aware of the most-talked about titles but read only a select number.

Stafish Recently, over a lunch with ministry leader Bob Shank in California, I was encouraged to read The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Penguin: New York, 2006). This book, co-authored by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, is the work of two Silicon Valley guys who are entrepreneurs and business consultants. Their writing style is breezy, fun and provides story-telling at its best. Rarely have I read a book that was so enjoyable even (maybe especially) when I did not entirely agree with the point the authors made. But the big point made here, namely that decentralized, leaderless organizations are the future, is one that I do agree with very deeply.

This book is about how things happen when “there’s no one in charge. It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down. In short, there’s a revolution raging all around us” (5).

The starfish represents the organism that you cannot control or manage. But you also cannot easily kill it. Cut off one of the five points of the starfish and it regenerates and comes back stronger than ever. Cut off the head of the spider and even though it has eight legs and eyes it will still die. The starfish organization is free, open and dynamic. One model used for the starfish in the book is Alcoholics Anonymous, a leaderless organization that did not envision a large organization accountable to one central authority but rather numerous small circles organized around an ideology that was put forward in the Twelve Steps.

No technology underscores the power of leaderless organisms/organizations quite like the Internet. The problem is that “interaction

[about how to do something] does point to a common human trait: when we’re used to seeing something in a certain way, it’s hard to imagine it being any other way” (34). This is so obviously true that the simplicity and force of reading it is a bit jolting. Christians are not immune. We keep trying to defend and protect structures that have nothing to do with making disciples and teaching them all that Jesus commanded. It is hard to imagine things differently so few of us even try. And when someone does try they are seen “too outside the box” for our tastes. (More church fights are over taste [opinions] than almost anything else!)

Take AA again. No one is really in charge. Everyone is responsible for each other and for themselves. Seniority doesn’t matter and you are always an alcoholic no matter what. Nobody owns AA and chapters succeed when people want to start them and lead them. Bill W. chose the starfish approach and the rest is history. “Members have always been able to directly help each other without asking permission or getting approval from Bill W. or anyone else. The quality enables open systems to quickly adapt and respond” (37).  Bill W. served as a catalyst who got a new idea and then got out of the way (41).

The authors argue that over time various systems tend to swing from being decentralized to becoming centralized to becoming decentralized again. I think this is obviously true of the church. The very reason monastic movements and revivals happen is because the church becomes too arranged and managed. Then the Holy Spirit breaks in to empty the salt shaker. But the New Testament does provide some order for the church. It is, in the view set forth by these authors, a hybrid organization. So the need for order is real but can easily lead us back to too much centralization. Then new movements and renewals are needed again.

Lest Protestants think only Catholics have this tendency think again. Mother Theresa and the Missionaries of Charity are a great example of a modern starfish organization in the Catholic Church. The reality is that Rome knows how to welcome starfish while Protestants tend to split the church even further when a starfish is raised up by the Spirit to challenge a moribund spider organization.

This is a really good book. I recommend that every church leader reads it. I will say more tomorrow.

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  1. Nick Morgan September 16, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Great post John!!
    Very interesting. I’ve long believed that the A.A. model has significant lessons for the Church in many ways. A.A. was brought to St Louis by a Jesuit Priest who wasn’t even an alcoholic, but he saw it’s value and the need.
    God bless!

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