I recently had the honor to represent CCL and speak on a leadership panel at a conference hosted by the US Army on the Future Operational Environment: 2009-2025.The goal of the conference was to assess the implications of the future operational environment on leader development, capabilities and concepts, and training. In addition to CCL, the Army invited panelists from a widely divergent cross-section of private industry, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the public sector. It demonstrated to me that the Army is thinking creatively as it considers the future and taps into the best ideas from across our nation.

Ori Brafman, co-author of The Starfish and the Spider was the conference’s keynote speaker. I became intrigued and listened to the audiobook during my travels in the subsequent weeks. The premise of the book is that, although a starfish and a spider have a similar appearance, they are very different creatures.

Cut off the head of a spider and it dies.

Cut off the arm of a starfish and it regenerates an entirely new starfish.

The analogy is that traditional, hierarchical organizations such as the Federal Government are spider-like and are vulnerable to disruption. By contrast, decentralized organizations such as the Apache Indians and Al Qaeda are starfish-like organizations which can morph and grow under pressure and are difficult to defeat. However, each type of organization has its own inherent advantages and disadvantages. Brafman and his co-author, Rob Beckstrom, conclude that the hybrid organizations, combining the best of both types, are the most resilient and effective.

What do starfish and spiders have to do with CCL and leadership development in the Federal Government? CCL’s emerging research and latest interventions, collectively labeled, Transforming Your Organization(TYO), focus on cultural change concurrent with leadership development initiatives. Traditional hierarchical organizations (such as the Federal bureaucracy) are dependent cultures, characterized as dependent upon formal leaders to set direction, establish alignment, and maintain commitment (DAC) and are heavily stove-piped.

You can compare a dependent organization to a spider.By contrast, we have found that an interdependent, collaborative leadership culture is much more effective than a traditional dependent leadership culture. An interdependent leadership culture is characterized by extensive collaboration across boundaries, candor, more than one right answer, and synergies across the enterprise. Producing DAC is a collective activity requiring mutual inquiry and learning. This is more akin to the starfish or, better yet, the hybrid organization.

Consider the Federal Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was definitely spider-like with many uncoordinated limbs. Interagency collaboration was sorely lacking, as noted in The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned. The report cites stove-piped decision-making and a glaring lack of coordinated action across agencies. This lack of interdependence among the various departments and agencies responding to the crisis contributed to human suffering.

To correct the conditions which led to this state, the report recommends that, “our professional education and development programs must break down interagency barriers to build a unified team across the Federal government.” It also urges “the Federal government must make familiarity with other departments and agencies a requirement for career advancement,” (p. 73). The steps this report recommends are the foundations of establishing an interdependent leadership culture, the hybrid organization of The Starfish and the Spider. This sort of interdependence is currently only found within the Department of Defense and then only because it was mandated by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.

The federal government has long recognized the need for this sort of collaboration across agencies but has yet to act. What sort of professional education and development will accomplish these goals? We believe that our Federal Government can become a much more effective and efficient servant of the people if it establishes an interdependent leadership culture which leads to interagency collaboration. CCL has the ability to aid the Government in this transformation of its leadership culture with our TYO program and other emerging work. Our vision for the Federal Government is to help it develop an interdependent culture both within, and across, departments and agencies. This is something CCL is uniquely prepared to do. Creating this interdependent leadership culture will move us closer to a Federal Government which is both effective and efficient and fulfills its responsibilities to its citizenry.

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