Leadership & Management

Business Guys’ Unexpected Fame: They Wrote the Tea Party “Bible”

Two alumni find their book about leaderless organizations has resonated with groups ranging from the Tea Party to environmental organizations.

October 06, 2010

| by Nicole Ely

Two Stanford GSB alumni who wrote about leaderless organizations find their ideas have resonated with groups ranging from the Tea Party to environmental organizations. When Ori Brafman, MBA ‘01, met Rod Beckstrom, MBA ‘87, at a fundraiser to support tree-dwelling environmentalist Julia “Butterfly” Hill, neither of them imagined that they would write a book that would become the doctrine of the Tea Party.

“It’s an interesting world,” Brafman said. “Sometimes, you write something and you’re not sure where it’s going to end up.”

Their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider, which champions the strength and flexibility of autonomous organizations, apparently ended up on the desk of some Tea Party organizers, according to Politico. The authors draw the analogy that most organizations, from the government to business corporations, are like spiders — when their heads are severed, they die. On the other hand, starfish don’t have heads. And if a starfish’s limb is detached, it can regenerate.

Beckstrom and Brafman write that more organizations should strive to be like a starfish; that is, without a top-down structure that could lead to inflexibility and possible death. For Tea Party members, this echoes their desires for less government involvement and more individualism. “It makes perfectly good sense,” Beckstrom said of the Tea Party adopting the book. “Essentially, it’s a guide that tells how to foster decentralized movements.”

Beckstrom and Brafman noticed the power of leaderless organizations after 9/11, when the U.S. military was having problems stifling al-Qaida. At that time, Beckstrom explained, al-Qaida was very decentralized, making it easier to remobilize after attacks.

Later on, Brafman and Beckstrom decided to form an autonomous network of their own called Global Peace Networks. This network, composed of CEOs from major companies, was involved in peace-making efforts in several countries, including India and Pakistan.

So, how can an organization be so successful with very limited traditional leadership? Decentralized authority can allow for rapid change and flexibility because the people at the bottom don’t have to wait for orders from the top to act, the authors write. Instead, individuals take on responsibility and authority.

“Historically, we’ve seen these types of movements change the world,” Brafman said, referring to grassroots movements like the suffragists and the abolitionists in the United States. And with the advent of social media, organizing people can be a lot more efficient.

But a key component to the success of these organizations lies with their founders. As the book says, it is important to remain a catalyst and spark a movement, but not take over.

“No one owns the Tea Party brand,” Beckstrom explained. Although many Tea Party members are united by their ideals, they do not share one common goal or wish to elect a single candidate. As the Tea Party gains traction in the United States, and with similar parties sprouting up in Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, China, and Norway, such organizations could shape the outcomes of elections all over the world.

But the Tea Party is not alone in embracing a starfish mentality. According to Beckstrom, Starfish has been the foundation for many grassroots movements including environmentalist and peace-making groups. Companies like Google have embraced decentralized strategies that encourage innovation. Alcoholics Anonymous, Napster, and Craigslist were all founded with autonomous structures. Although Beckstrom is currently the president and CEO of the Internet nonprofit ICANN, he regularly speaks at industry conferences about the glory of autonomous organizations. And Brafman is currently working with the U.S. military to adopt some starfish practices. The book has been translated into 17 different languages. The Huffington Post even quoted the former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Stephen Downing, comparing drug organizations to starfish.

“I feel like a tourist in my own life,” Brafman said of all the publicity. “One week I’m at Burning Man, another week I’m working with the military and the Tea Party is a fan of Starfish. I don’t know what’ll happen next week.”

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