Starfish Leadership helps large organizations improve various aspects of performance by integrating starfish principles, inclusion, and life--affirming decisions and actions into their leadership. Our programs are based on the research of Starfish Leadership founder and thought leader, Ori Brafman.
Ori Brafman is a New York Times best-selling author and lecturer at UC Berkeley. Born in Israel and raised in Texas, he’s called Silicon Valley home since 1992. He studied Peace and Conflict at Cal and co-founded Vegan.org before earning his MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2002. After business school Ori became fascinated by an emerging trend in business and society—the phenomenon of distributed networks—and in 2006 published his first book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Power of Leaderless Organizations. He began to speak on the topic and consult with Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley tech companies seeking to harness the power of the new business model. Ori describes himself as “left of liberal,” a creative who enjoys teaching improvisational leadership, experimenting in the kitchen with plant-based cooking, and taking urban hikes around San Francisco with his lap dog, Reuben.
When Ori isn’t teaching, leading corporate workshops, or at home working on his next book, he can often be found spending time with an unlikely group he calls friends—senior leaders of the U.S. military. In 2010 he was contacted by General Martin Dempsey, then the head of training and doctrine for the army, who asked Ori to come to the Pentagon. He had read Starfish and wanted Ori’s help in understanding and fighting a decentralized enemy. Ori had never considered working with the military—he’d never even spoken with a person in uniform before that call—so he struggled to decide whether to take the meeting. Ultimately he decided that if he wanted to help make a difference in a system he wasn’t sure he agreed with, he should accept the invitation.
This initial conversation led to a realization by both Ori and his unlikely new friend, 'Marty', that while their politics might differ, they shared values and belief systems that helped them understand the world from the other’s perspective. Soon after their first meeting, the army had a change in strategy from top-down “command and control” to the more distributed “mission command,” putting the power of decision making and accountability in the hands of the leaders at all levels.
Thus Starfish Leadership was born.
ABOUT STARFISH AND SPIDERS
To illustrate the main findings of his research, Ori uses the metaphor of a starfish and a spider. 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 business, government, and society. 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 cultural transformation 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 (2012-2015) 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 after national PR firms had failed to do so.
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.
Today Starfish Leadership offers highly customizable versions of this program to large teams and organizations seeking to harness the power of the decentralization and the distributed network business model with a program entitled Starfish Cultural Transformation.
In 2015 Ori began facilitating programs between experts in emerging technologies and industry players in finance, healthcare, and insurance, focused on building trust and relationships across industries in order to find better solutions in an unknown future. He was commissioned to lead a series of workshops held at the Obama White House, Stanford, and Harvard with participants from the top levels of government and military and senior leaders from Silicon Valley tech companies, focused on combating violent extremism online, the results of which were classified by the U.S. government. Ori’s focus on creating safe space and building trust across fences before moving on to inclusive problem-solving helps seemingly disparate teams create relationships through which they can arrive at new and unprecedented outcomes.
In 2017 Starfish Leadership adopted this program under the title Starfish Convenings. Our current efforts are focused on rebuilding trust between Silicon Valley and the national security establishment.
Since appearing worldwide to speak on starfish principles, individual leaders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors have reached out to Ori and Starfish Leadership for advice on how to leverage the principles articulated in Ori's books: how to foster decentralized relationships and networks within hierarchical structures and across industries. These inquiries have led to relationships with CEOs, military leaders, investors, policymakers, social entrepreneurs, marketers, and others who believe in the power of decentralized networks.
So in 2017 Starfish Leadership created a new offering for small, intimate groups of 12 to 30 individuals focused on an experience of accelerated learning from engaging with people on similar journeys in radically different contexts. The result is that individuals bond into a tribe whose members continue to lend each other counsel and support long after the workshop is over. This program is also a powerful team-building tool for senior leadership teams.
Starfish Leadership is currently available to deliver this program to leadership teams of 8 or more. Open enrollment Starfish Leadership Summit will return in 2019.
In 2018 Ori and now-retired General Martin Dempsey published a book together, Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership. The book examines today’s leadership landscape and argues that inclusion is no longer a “nice to have” but a strategic imperative in today’s digital world. The book’s practical take-away is that in order to compete on the global stage, nations and organizations alike must learn and live the three core principles of inclusive leadership: Listen, Amplify, and Include.
Realizing that decentralized networks are even more effective when they adopt inclusion as a strategic advantage, Starfish Leadership developed a new workshop for teams and organizations entitled Inclusive Leadership and Teams. Since its launch in the fall 2018, the workshop has been delivered it in 15 states, in 5 countries, and on 3 continents, and it continues to gain traction with both public and private sector organizations.
OTHER WORK AND CLIENTS
Following the success of the Starfish pilot program, Ori went on to create a first-of-its-kind partnership between the Haas School of Business and the U.S. military’s National Defense University. He ran two-week-long Silicon Valley immersion trainings for junior military officers, and has led senior-level workshops at the U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, U.S. Army Cyber Command, U.S. Army Medical Command, U.S. Army War College, Marine Corps University, the Naval War College, the Air Command and Staff College, and other military divisions and units worldwide. Corporate and non-profit clients Amazon, the Association for Financial Professionals, Banner Health, the Chicago Bulls, Cisco, Facebook, the Family Business Network, Gartner, Google, Marsh & McLennan, NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties, Northwestern Mutual, Reckitt Benckiser, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Young Professionals Organization, among others. In addition to Starfish and Radical Inclusion, Ori has published three additional bestselling books: Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work, and Everything We Do, and The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness, and Success.