Sunday, May 26, 2013


The Power of Leaderless Organisations


Yes, the answer from my last SC Letter was.....'Alcoholics Anonymous! Congratulations to all who got the correct answer! Remind me please about the promised chocolate fish when we next meet.

Noah, a valued friend and a Simple Church practitioner -- from USA -- now living in Christchurch, responded to my question as to what we as churches can learn from AA meetings. He sent some insightful answers (below) and also forwarded the fascinating story of the commencement of AA which includes the starfish vs. the spider principle. Another valuable lesson we need to understand and apply. The book: "The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations". Quoting from the book Noah writes...

"Let's look at one of the best-known [decentralized organizations] of them all. In 1935 Bill Wilson was clenching a can of beer; he'd been holding a beer, or an alcoholic variation thereof, for the better part of two decades. Finally, his doctor told him that unless he stopped drinking, he shouldn't expect to live more than six months. That rattled Bill, but not enough to stop him. An addiction is hard to overcome.

Bill was trapped. You'd think that he'd have turned to the experts, but they had been of no help. Well meaning as they were, none had a cure for alcoholism. They'd come up with a host of remedies, but all were ineffective. So there was Bill, feeling ashamed, scared of dying, and above all, hopeless. Something needed to change.
It was then that Bill had a huge insight. He already knew that he couldn't combat alcoholism all by himself. And experts were useless to him because he and other addicts like him were just too smart for their own good. As soon as someone told him what to do, Bill would rationalize away the advice and pick up a drink instead. It was on this point that the breakthrough came. Bill realized that he could get help from other people who were in the same predicament. Other people with the same problem would be equals. It's easy to rebel against a shrink. It's much harder to dismiss your peers.
Alcoholics Anonymous was born.

At AA, no one's in charge. And yet, at the same time, everyone's in charge. It's Nevin's "open system" in action (from another section of the book). The organization functions just like a starfish (cut the arms off and they become more starfish). You automatically become part of the leadership--an arm of the starfish, if you will--the moment you join. Thus, AA is constantly changing form as new members come in and others leave. The one thing that does remain constant is the recovery principle--the famous twelve steps. Because there is no one in charge, everyone is responsible for keeping themselves--and everyone else--on track. Even seniority doesn't matter that much: you're always an alcoholic. You have a sponsor… but the sponsor doesn't lead by coercion; that person leads by example. And if you mess up and relapse or stop attending for a while, you're always welcome to come back. There's no application form, and nobody owns AA.
Nobody owns AA.
Bill realized this when the group became a huge success and people from all over the world wanted to start their own chapters. Bill had a crucial decision to make. He could go with the spider option (centralized - if you kill the head you kill the whole spider) and control what the chapters could and couldn't do. Under this scenario, he'd have had to manage the brand and train applicants in the AA methodology. Or he could go with the starfish approach and get out of the way. Bill chose the latter. He let go. He trusted each chapter to do what it thought was right. And so, today, whether you're in Anchorage, Alaska or Santiago, Chile, you can find an AA meeting. And if you feel like it, you can start your own. Members have always been able to directly help each other without asking permission or getting approval from Bill W. or anyone else. This quality enables open systems to quickly adapt and respond.

Let's go back to AA and Bill W's decision to adopt a starfish approach. Turns out Bill made the right strategic decision. The open system was the way to go. It has helped countless people. Literally!
Today, if you were to ask how many members AA has, there'd be no way to tell. How man chapters? Again, no way to tell. No one knows, because AA is an open system. There's no central command keeping tabs. AA is flexible, equal, and constantly mutating. When other addicts took note of AA's success, they borrowed the twelve-step model and launched organizations combating a variety of addictions, including narcotics, food, and gambling. AA's response? Good for you. Go right ahead. It's all a part of the design."

Again from Noah: "To answer your question: 'list what we as local churches can learn from their meetings'; a few thoughts:

- We can learn to TRUST people (and the Holy Spirit in them).

- We can learn the power of 'peer discipleship' -- We're not meant to become disciples of men, but disciples of Christ, peer-discipleship is the act of pointing one another to Christ and supporting one another when we fail to apply His teachings.

- We can learn that control leads to stagnation and stops growth.

- We can learn that buildings aren't a requirement for vibrant growth and societal impact

- We can learn that good leadership looks like telling stories,
  creating environments for change, and embracing openness and honesty.

 "The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations" which highlighted AA as a prime example of a decentralized, yet successful, organization. (I recommend the book, by the way, Noah.)"

No comments:

Post a Comment