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The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations Hardcover – October 5, 2006

4.3 out of 5 stars 217 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Brafman and Beckstrom, a pair of Stanford M.B.A.s who have applied their business know-how to promoting peace and economic development through decentralized networking, offer a breezy and entertaining look at how decentralization is changing many organizations. The title metaphor conveys the core concept: though a starfish and a spider have similar shapes, their internal structure is dramatically different—a decapitated spider inevitably dies, while a starfish can regenerate itself from a single amputated leg. In the same way, decentralized organizations, like the Internet, the Apache Indian tribe and Alcoholics Anonymous, are made up of many smaller units capable of operating, growing and multiplying independently of each other, making it very difficult for a rival force to control or defeat them. Despite familiar examples—eBay, Napster and the Toyota assembly line, for example—there are fresh insights, such as the authors' three techniques for combating a decentralized competitor (drive change in your competitors' ideology, force them to become centralized or decentralize yourself). The authors also analyze one of today's most worrisome "starfish" organizations—al-Qaeda—though that group undermines the authors' point that the power of leaderless groups helps to demonstrate the essential goodness and trustworthiness of human beings. (Oct. 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


The Starfish and the Spider is a compelling and important book.” —Pierre Omidyar, CEO, Omidyar Network and Founder and Chairman, eBay Inc.

The Starfish and the Spider, like Blink, The Tipping Point, and The Wisdom of Crowds before it, showed me a provocative new way to look at the world and at business. It's
also fun to read!” —Robin Wolaner, founder, Parenting Magazine and author, Naked in the Boardroom

“A fantastic read.  Constantly weaving stories and connections.  You'll never see the world the same way again.” —Nicholas J. Nicholas Jr., former Co-CEO, Time Warner

“A must-read.  Starfish are changing the face of business and society.  This page-turner is provocative and compelling.” —David Martin, CEO, Young Presidents' Organization

The Starfish and the Spider provides a powerful prism for understanding the patterns and potential of self-organizing systems.”  —Steve Jurvetson, Partner, Draper Fisher Jurvetson

The Starfish and the Spider lifts the lid on a massive revolution in the making, a revolution certain to reshape every organization on the planet from bridge clubs to global governments. Brafman and Beckstrom elegantly describe what is afoot and offer a wealth of insights that will be invaluable to anyone starting something new—or rescuing something old—amidst this vast shift.” —Paul Saffo, Director, Institute for the Future
 “The Starfish and the Spider is great reading.  [It has] not only stimulated my thinking, but as a result of the reading, I proposed ten action points for my own organization."
—Professor Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Portfolio Hardcover (October 5, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591841437
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591841432
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (217 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #208,876 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
It took me some time to warm to this book. Nothing much happens in the initial 80 pages. The first chapter develops two fairly tortuous case studies - the vicissitudes of fortune in the recording industry in the last decade and the struggle of the Apaches against the Spanish invaders - to introduce the theme of the book. Then follows a discussion of the morphology of decentralised organisations (in terms of power distribution, funding, etc). Chapter 3 illustrates these formal characteristics with a series of examples, ranging from Skype over Wikipedia to Burning Man. There is honestly not a lot of meat to chew on in these first chapters and some patience is required from the reader.

It becomes more interesting in Chapter 4 where Brafman and Beckstrom discuss operational principles behind decentralised organisations (the need for pre-existing networks as a substrate, the role of catalysts and champions to activate leaderless organisation, "circles" as their chief co-ordination mechanism, and "ideology" as the glue holding everything more or less together). The role of the catalyst as a "servant leader" (term, however, not used by the authors) is further elaborated in the fifth chapter.

In chapter 6, the discussion turns to the question "What do you do, as an incumbent, when you are under fire from a starfish?" It transpires that there is not an awful lot to be done: you can try to morph them into a spider by activating internal cancer cells (greed and competition), you can try to dissolve or change the glue, the ideology that keeps the structure together or you can join them and become decentralised too (then it's starfish against starfish).

Brafman and Beckstrom maintain that it is not always necessary to go all the way and radically decentralise.
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Format: Hardcover
No matter how you identify yourself in the human ecosystem -- worker bee, sheriff, manager, capitalist, entrepreneur, politician, healer, parent, activist or consultant -- this book is going to turn on lights in your brain. It's that multi-layered. It's also that packed with the kind of simply brilliant insights that are totally familiar, and you wonder why you didn't remember that you knew that.

The Starfish and the Spider is about the power of individuals coalescing in groups of common interest and goals. It is about people doing things because they are important and meaningful to them. And how, under these circumstances, hierarchical control just isn't necessary.

Using an eclectic group of examples that range from the guerrilla tactics of the Apaches against the colonial Spanish army to the network of independent AA groups to a variety of Internet-driven modern companies, the book distills some clear principles about the structure, roles and ultimate "unstoppability" of healthy starfish organizations in surviving, growing and getting things done.

Promoted as a business management book, this book has just as much value in many other realms. Specifically, it leads to interesting ideas in psychology, religion and spirituality, government, social activism, global diplomacy, and certainly no less, to individuals who are poised to become more active in their communities, local and global.

The fundamental concepts are not new. The tribal system of collaboration and cooperation, based on trust and kinship, undoubtedly predates the emergence of power-based heirarchies. The effectiveness of grassroots movements is well known.
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Format: Hardcover
Simply a great book.

Brafman and Beckstrom make a very compelling case for decentralization in organizations, businesses, causes, and life. They contrast the spider (top-down management) with the starfish (which is essentially headless ... all its "legs" go in any direction it wants to ... but the starfish still moves and is effective).

The book discusses the management techniques of wikipedia, craigslist, al Qaeda, the blogosphere, and more. Though these are first time authors, I found the book mimics the unique observations of someone like Malcolm Gladwell.

Overall: the book packs a big impact ... especially given that it is short and I was able to read it in one cross-country trip. It will certainly changed the way we thought about managing our organization.
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Format: Hardcover
I have a childhood memory of building a go-cart. Every kid in the neighborhood was involved. Who was in charge? Whoever had the right answer in the moment of the next right thing to do. Hands, hearts, minds worked together, one idea building on another. It was an emergent experience in every sense of the word. The go-cart was more beautiful and functional than any one of us could have built alone.

Before beginning to read The Starfish and the Spider, recall your own memories of magical groups in self organizing action. Whether you are a teacher, community leader, business owner, NGO officer, or corporate executive, this is a book worth reading.

This is a book about the power and magic of groups engaged in self-organizing, non-hierarchical projects. Using stories of business, politics, activism and common interest groups, the authors show how such groups coalesce, grow and effect change, often in the face of tremendous "conventional" opposition. Some of the examples include Wikipedia, eBay, Skype, Napster and P2P sharing, al Qaeda, and many open source and decentralized projects which are ... starfish like.

From the book: "Starfish have an incredible quality to them. If you cut an arm off, most of these animals grow a new arm. And with some varieties, such as the Linckia, or long-armed starfish, the animal can replicate itself from just a single piece of an arm. ...They can achieve this magical regeneration because in reality, a starfish is a neural network - basically a network of cells. Instead of having a head like the spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network..."

For me, one message of this book is that this "new" form of leadership does not need to be learned.
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