Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Spider and the Starfish

I recently completed an interesting book geared toward business leaders, entitled *The Spider and the Starfish: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.* Anyone reared in the Internet age knows the ascendency of Napster, the consequent legal wrangling with major record companies, and then the subsequent development of more open source, file-sharing networks like Kazaa, and eventually (one I've never heard of) eMule. The authors of this book use this recent history as a foray into the world of open-source, decentralized and networked leadership within business. Their argument, which was quite compelling, was that when the big boys (i.e. hierarchical, CEO-driven companies) try and take on the up-and-comers that have little to no centralization, they may win small battles, but ultimately lose the war.

The decentralized, starfish organizations self-replicate. If you cut off a leg, another starfish is born and it actually leads to further decentralization and thus is harder to stop. They used Al-Qaeda as an example. The hardest part of fighting this so-called war on terror has been trying to actually find an enemy. Contrary to perception, bin Laden is not the leader, but merely a catalyst for terrorist cells, and if you root out one cell, others quickly fill in the gap. They also looked at the unsuccessful attempts by the Spanish to control and overtake the Apaches in the Southwestern United States. As a decentralized community of Native Americans, you simply couldn't attack a chief or leader like the Spanish were able to do with Montezuma and the Aztecs. The Apaches were too fluid, too able to adjust their ways and continue. It wasn't until they introduced cattle into their culture, thereby eliminating their nomadism and creating a type of hierarchy that the Spanish were able to stop them.

They also looked at the way in which this flattened approach to reality was built upon the idea of community. They used Wikipedia as their example of this (along with craigslist). Here the members care about one another, so that when things that are detrimental to the organization start to happen, self-policing takes place and the problem is quickly remedied. Of course there are drawbacks, and so these authors were not suggesting completely leaderless approaches to business. Businesses still want to make money, and there is not much money to be made when there is complete decentralization. Instead, they argued for a hybrid organization, like Amazon, Google and Ebay, which have done a remarkably successful job of implementing decentralized ideas and elements within a bounded framework. This creates a feeling of that there is direction and some leadership, but it is a leadership concerned with creating contributors. That is, the leadership is flexible and responsive to its community members, and the success depends less on their final decision-making power and more on their ability to catalyze its members to make decisions which build the community.

I'm not all that interested in business, but what drew me to this title were the parallels to how many Emergent and younger generation churches approach their communities of faith. I saw considerable overlap with the picture of church painted by Acts and the hybrid organization. There were leaders, but they were about empowering their community to be Christ's witnesses in their world. They made less decisions, and instead equipped their community to make decisions within a guiding framework.

I am less interested in simply importing these ideas into the church, as if we only need to take our leadership advice from the business world. I think a robust theology of the laity and a better understanding of what we as the church have been called to do will lead to the same structural insights and developments as this book points out, within a more theological framework. But, in a world where, for some reason, business leadership ideas tend to hold more weight than theological visions of leadership, this may be a nice conversation starter. The idea that we don't need church CEOs and it won't destroy our ability to actually get something done is foreign, it seems to me, to many church leaders. Here now are some business leaders saying the same thing, and arguing it might be more effective in our emerging world. Perhaps this could serve as a catalyst for renewed thinking on how we can be a decentralized church, mobilizing the people in our churches for the calling that is theirs in Christ. Its definitely scarier because we as pastors have less control, but, to quote Bill Parcells from my favorite Coors Light commerical, "That's a good thing. Not a bad thing."