The Starfish and the Spider

bookstarfish.jpg I’ve been reading this book, The Starfish and the Spider, for a few weeks now. It’s an easy read but I’ve been taking my time so I could wrestle with the ideas. For the sake of complete disclosure: the biggest reason I like this book and would recommend it to everyone is that it agrees with my perception of leadership. With that said, I recommend this book to anyone and everyone who is trying to understand leadership in any venue but especially those who are involved in the Church and would like to see how leadership is supposed to work in the Church.

As I read the book I kept expecting a chapter on the Church but then I realized that the author’s had probably never read Acts (a short book within the Bible) and had even more improbably seen this model of leadership in a Church. And that’s too bad.

There are a hundred brilliant observations in the book and those observations can be applied to any group of people at any time who are trying to accomplish anything together. I was amazed by the fact that in very “God free” venues these “God principles” have actually been at the heart of wildly successful organizations – both morally good and bad – who have been unstoppable because they knowingly or unknowingly were doing things (leadership/organizationally) God’s way.

That shouldn’t surprise me. Truth is truth and 2+2=4 no matter what your beliefs or convictions.

But it did.

Essentially it’s comparing centralized control (the spider) to decentralized networks (the starfish) that prove to be unstoppable. In fact, the cover blurb/sub-title is, “The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.”

An example is this blog on WordPress. Who can have a blog here at WordPress? Anyone. Who approved my blog before it went world wide? No one but me. Who monitors what I post? No one but it can be brought to someone’s attention if enough of the community see it and complain. Can WordPress pull the plug and stop us from blogging? Um, no, we just all move over to Blogger or some other spot that pops up if WordPress closes down. Who’s in charge of WordPress? I have no idea but I know that if people were complaining about them I’d support them because they’ve supported me, given me a platform to express myself. It goes on and on like that.

Originally this was the design of the Church. Extreme decentralization. Kill our leader and do we disband? Nope, we multiply and new leaders emerge. Over and over and over again. Minimal guidelines for how to function that emphasize relationship over structure. In fact, the little bits I was taught about structure in Bible College (elders and deacons) turns out to mostly be a bunch of crap. I’m calling it crap because it was like reverse engineering – reverse interpretation I guess – of the Scripture. Taken at face value instead of re-spun based on what church looks like today, you see people who led by serving, not people who served by leading. And that’s a CRUCIAL difference.

The book is full of examples of this where the leader rightly perceives that they are serving the community rather than vice versa and that’s what gives them authority (which they would deny having) and what I would call ‘relational equity’.

We’ve followed a flawed model of democratic government in most of the Protestant Church and an extremely flawed Monarchical or Dictatorial model in other parts. The Church by and large has stopped sharing Jesus in every day life because we’ve created a system that centralizes all that into ‘going to church’ – a concept that would have been bizarre to the 1st believers who didn’t ever go to church but were the church.

O.K. I’m going to stop the rant and get back to the book.

The book is fun to read, full of very, very practical insights, illustrations and examples. It is well researched and while intelligent it is extremely accessible to anyone who can read.

Is decentralized leadership/structure problem free? The authors make it clear that it is full of mess and chaos. Which reminded me of the proverb: “Without oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.”

Is decentralized leadership/structure stoppable? Yes. One way to do it is to put the leaders on a better pay scale than everyone else or to give them power/authority that no one else has.

But what about these giant organizations with the CEO model (churches or otherwise)? They look to be doing well. No question that other models will always work to one degree or another. The question is what are your goals for the organization and what kind of life do you want the people involved to be able to enjoy?

I could talk about this all day but I’ll stop there. Any thoughts?

Oh, if you pick up a copy, don’t let your pastor catch you reading it!


About brianmpei

Stumbling towards what comes next.
This entry was posted in book review, Church, God, Leadership, Rant, What if...?. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Starfish and the Spider

  1. Yves says:

    Sounds like an interesting book.

    I’ll be in the market for a “new read” soon.

    It’s a great book Yves. I’d give you my copy but it’s not my copy. There’s a couple sections I’m sure you’ll like.

  2. shelleyperry says:

    this hits me in a personal way because we are currently going through a re-evaluation of structure and leadership at SSU (lots and lots of long, intense meetings…). It’s so messy but at the same time feels healthier than anything we’ve ever done. I’ll pick up this book because de-centralization is what we are talking a lot about. Who wrote it?

    Also… i think that wordpress is primarily run by keen bloggers who volunteer their time to help people with their problems/glitches, etc. I remember reading somewhere that there is only one paid staff. Crazy! but it works doesn’t it?

  3. brianmpei says:

    It does work Shelley. The link above will take you to the Amazon page but it’s by Brafman and Beckstrom. Typically people want to know, “who’s in charge?” The other question is, “how will I get paid for this?”

    It’s not structurelss or leaderless, it’s just an old/new way of doing both. It’s the story of Napster and Kazaa and Craiglist and A.A. (my personal favourite). Most importantly, it’s the nature of the church. Not to get all Buddha but power really is an illusion. See Jesus’ words to Pilate for the proof text on that one…

    We keep asking for kings when God keeps offering himself. Sad little creatures.

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