A starfish is an organism without a central brain or any other cerebral hierarchy; each arm of the starfish can function independently. A spider, on the other hand, is fully dependent on its head for basic survival. Thus, when the spider’s head is cut off, it dies, but when an arm is cut off a starfish, not only does it survive, but it grows an entirely new arm.
What applies in biology also applies in the business world. The distributed structures of starfish organizations allow them to function independently of a central head. Their regenerative abilities make them more nimble in reacting to external forces. Seeding starfish networks inside large, hierarchical organizations gives them the ability to be agile while still maintaining the necessary accountability to be effective. Toward these ends, Starfish Leadership developed and scaled a multi-year Starfish Leadership initiative for the U.S. Army. Every single general currently serving in the army is required to complete this program, and the curriculum has been scaled so that it can reach every single active-duty officer and soldier.
The Starfish pilot program in the army began in 2010, when twelve officers were selected for an in-depth eight-week immersive program to (a) learn how to form self-empowered starfish entities inside a larger, structured organization and (b) use this knowledge to actually launch starfish networks within the army. Participants learned about starfish leadership theory, visited businesses and organizations that employ starfish strategies, and used such strategies to solve organizational problems.
Following the resounding success of the pilot program (superior officers noting a significant change in effectiveness and cultural structures, participants naming it the best leadership training they had ever received), from 2011-2012 the curriculum was crystallized into a two-week intensive module, with 16 officers participating in each iteration. The results of these immersive programs include the launch of the national Women’s Mentorship Network (which has garnered praise from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House) and the formation of a first-of-its-kind partnership between UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the Pentagon.
The third phase of the program (2012-2017) worked directly with the senior leaders of divisions (managing 50,000 personnel) and commands (managing 100,000-200,000 personnel). In each engagement, the senior leaders provided a specific problem they wanted their staff to solve using starfish principles. Outcomes from these initiatives include new counterinsurgency strategies used by Special Forces, as well as creation of a new and effective tagline for the army as a whole (“Trusted Professionals”)—after national PR firms had failed to do so.
"A life changing experience, unlike any leadership development program."
Today the curriculum is being scaled army-wide, with a training center based in Kansas. The training center certifies starfish instructors and holds specific-problem-solving sessions developed and run by graduates of the program. Thus, the initiative has become self-sustaining while continuing to grow.
The army initiative shows how to micro-infuse starfish elements into a large spider organization without disturbing the head and overall structure. In other words, there is no need for organizations to choose between starfish and spider. The key is to leverage the efficiency and flexibility of a starfish network while retaining the structure and order inherent in a spider organization.
The White House, the world’s largest organization for financial professionals, and the Chicago Bulls alike turn to Starfish Leadership when embarking on transformation campaigns to adjust to macroeconomic trends. He has advised all branches of the U.S. military, the Obama White House, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, NATO, and YPO, among others. His media appearances include the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC News, BBC, National Public Radio, CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, C-SPAN, and AP Video.
Brafman’s upcoming book, co-authored with General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is set release in spring 2018. In Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership, Dempsey and Brafman persuasively explain that, more than ever before, leaders are in competition for the trust and confidence of those they lead. They assert that the nature of power is changing and should not be measured by degree of control alone. They offer several principles—some enduring and some emerging—necessary for making that adaptation and bring them to life with examples from business, academia, government, and the military. The theories and principles from the new book have been implemented into all Starfish Leadership organizational change and leadership development programs.