Leaderless Organizations


What can leaderless organizations tell us about leadership in the future?  There is a growing phenomenon of leaderless organizations that is chronicled by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in their recent book The Starfish and the Spider.  The title refers to the contrast between two animals that, at first glance, appear to be quite similar but…

If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; but if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.  Traditionally, top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world.

The authors cite Wikepedia, Skype, Kazaa, Linux and other open source projects, along with Alcoholics Anonymous, the abolitionist movement and the Apache tribe as all being “starfish” or de-centralized organizations.  The point is, decentralized organizations have been around for a long time, but recently, with the advent of the Internet, these organizations are making in-roads into industries traditionally dominated by top-down centralized companies.

One strategy put forth in the book is to find the “sweet spot” between a centralized organization and a de-centralized organization.  The authors cite eBay, Toyota and even IBM (with their embrace of Linux and Apache) as successful examples of this strategy.

But who is behind these “leaderless” organizations?  There must be someone behind the scenes pulling the strings right?  Well, the authors say “no”, but there is a new type of leader they call a catalyst who typically spawns and then carefully guides the leaderless organization until it reaches a point where it can self-replicate and no longer needs a leader.  The catalyst leader is contrasted with the traditional CEO.  The CEO is rational, powerful, directive and uses command-and-control to lead the organization; while the catalyst is inspirational, collaborative, and behind-the-scenes, using trust and emotional intelligence.   A catalyst is able to emotionally connect with organizational members, drawing them in and inspiring them to contribute and get involved.  When it comes to AA and the Apache tribe, this kind of member-involvement is understandable, but to inspire people to contribute to an encyclopedia or build commercial-grade software? Wow, the world is changing and business needs to take notice.

My hunch is that the skills that make catalysts successful (trust, emotional intelligence, humility, collaboration) are exactly the leadership skills we need to be cultivating in our corporations to ensure they survive the coming wave of starfish attacks.  With that in mind, the stories about Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Craig Newmark of Cragslist are especially important for leadership development professionals to read.

And when I say starfish “attacks” I don’t just mean figuratively.  There is a dark-side to starfish organizations.  Another example of a starfish organization cited by Brafman and Beckstrom is Al Queda.  And the catalyst?  You guessed it, Osama Bin Laden.

Add comment

Recent Posts