Leading without Positional Power

The Starfish and the Spider+Employees First

Leaderless organizations are everywhere.  If you don’t find ways to include everyone on your team, you may soon be the one sitting on the bench.

After reading a bio of one of my business heroes, Vineet Nayar I decided to read his favorite book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.   Vineet was the CEO of HCL Technologies at the time and has been recognized as one of the top business thinkers in the world today.    You can find this book on Scribd for free, purchase it through our Amazon store, or my favorite – try the audio version.  It is a great way to stretch your mind while exercising your body.

This book takes a fascinating look at the comparison of centralized, decentralized, and ultimately hybrid organizations.  I have listened to this book ten times over and always find something new, interesting and applicable especially for today’s nonprofits. The story begins by taking us back to the year 1519 and what is now Mexico City where the Aztecs, an advanced civilization of some 15 million people, had built an amazing empire complete with roads, their own language, a complex system of aqueducts, temples, an advanced calendar, and most interesting to the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes lots of gold.

Being quite similar to many of today’s corporate CEOs, Cortez promptly threatened the Aztec leader Montezuma II with death if he did not give up all his gold. Montezuma II had never seen such audacity and feared that Cortez might in fact be a God.  So he gave up all his gold, after which the Spanish army surrounded the city of Tenochtitlan and starved its 240,000 inhabitants to death in 80 days.  Two years later the Incas succumbed to a similar fate as the Spanish destroyed a culture that had been around since the time of Christ in less than two years.  Continuing their quest north the Spanish met the Apaches in the late 1600’s in what is now the state of New Mexico.  Initially the Apaches appeared to be an easy conquest.  They were in comparison a backward people.  Yet the Apaches who had no gold, no roads, no temples, no apparent leadership effectively defeated the mighty Spanish army for the next 200 years.

The apparently disorganized Apaches were in fact a very sophisticated society distributing power across all people.  Instead of a chief, the Apaches had cultural and spiritual leaders called Nant’ans.  Nant’ans led by example and held no coercive power.  One of the most famous and familiar they point out was Geronimo.  Geronimo was not the boss, he commanded no armies.  He simply did what he thought was right, and if others wanted to they followed.  If one Nan’tan was killed two more would rise to take his place.

This is the same kind of distributed power we are seeing among the Wikipedia contributors.   It is also the same drive that fuels actively disengaged employees (17% of all employees) to literally bite the hand that feeds them, or to leave great jobs – like the more than two hundred Google defectors who are now part of Facebook.  These are people not motivated by money or power, but by an ideology of inclusion.  This is the same energy that has driven Wikipedia to become the 5th most popular website in the world, used by 400 million people every month without the support of a single ad.

The point is that Nant’ans are everywhere.  They are people driven by the opportunity to make a difference, to have a voice, to do what they believe in.  They are your members, your employees, your customers, stakeholders and community at large.  Whether we accept it or not our organizations are already decentralized.  Positionless leaders are everywhere and they are often the cream of the crop.Attacking, defending against or ignoring those who disagree with us is not an option.  The only effective solution is including them.

What can you do to make sure the Nant’ans are on your team and not fighting against you?

1. Start by not knowing.The Spanish got their butts kicked for two centuries because they underestimated the strength of a shared ideology and distributed power.  Use a diagnostic tool like the Competing Values Framework (CVF) to break through your own paradigms and give your team an opportunity to tell you how they view the current culture and what they view as the ideal culture in the future.   Don’t be afraid that others don’t share your view.  Honest disagreement is always better than dishonest pretending.

Developed through research conducted by the University of Michigan faculty, The Competing Values Framework has been identified by the Financial Times as “one of the 40 most important frameworks in the history of business”.  This diagnostic instrument is prized for its ability to predict the ROI of an organization based on the congruency of its values.   The CVF Survey is powerful in its simplicity and reliable in its proven accuracy contrasting organizational cultures by both their levels of flexibility as well as areas of focus.Together these views help define the shared values and underlying beliefs that guide decisions and determine reinforcements.

2. Listen: It is easy to spout directives and move on to the next “important” thing, but asking good, reasonable, honest questions and then actually listening to the answers is a vulnerability most leaders are unwilling to undertake.  This is nothing new, consider the Soviet government.  Back in 1917 they were as technically modern as the best, but when the rest of the world decided to invest in telephones, the Soviet rulers chose instead to install loudspeakers.  Many of today’s organizations are no different.  They provide wonderful tools for the dissemination of information but few tools for the collaboration of ideas.

  1. Share the score with everyone.  Old school leaders aspire to the belief that “he who holds the knowledge, holds the power.  ”The new paradigm is “he who holds the knowledge, and doesn’t share it, is probably not telling the truth.”  We not only have every reason to believe this, we have proof.

  1. Create systems for everyone to contribute.  Take a glimpse at just one of the ways Mr. Nayar turned HCL Technologies into the number one employer in India and 15 reasons you should do the same.  How can transparency and “reverse accountability” transform your organization?

In the July issue of HBR article How to Keep Star Talent, Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt reveal that of “high potential employees” one in four intends to leave within the year, one in five believes their aspirations are quite different from what the organization has planned, and four out of ten have little confidence in their coworkers and even less in senior management.

The Creation of Acedia, Paul Starr

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