Cut off a spider’s head and it dies, but cut off a starfish’s leg and it simply grows a new one. What’s more, any cut-off leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.

Scientists don’t fully understand how this works, but that doesn’t stop Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom from using this miracle of nature as a brilliant analogy demonstrating how different organizations function. According to these two Stanford-educated researchers, organizations fall into categories: spiders and starfish.

Traditional organizations are like spiders: the “head” is central to their survival, they have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership. However, today’s most powerful and fastest-growing organizations are starfish organizations and the Internet has become a powerful breeding ground for this kind of leaderless system. By calling such organizations “leaderless,” the authors mean that there is no one decision-making leader; instead, people lead by example and anyone can take on certain “leadership” qualities in orderto make the system work.

A good example of such an open system is Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. Wikipedia differs from a traditional encyclopedia in that all entries are user-contributed. The web site uses a technology called “wiki”—meaning “quick” in Hawaiian—so users can easily and quickly edit the content of the site themselves. You would think this might get pretty chaotic and wonder how anything gets done in this “free for all” kind of environment. Surprisingly, the members of Wikipedia care enough to contribute regularly and devote considerable energy to keeping the content accurate. One of the principles of a decentralized “starfish” system is that it makes people behave like concerned and thoughtful neighbors who automatically respond to the needs of their community.

Why is this book relevant to networkers? Because networking organizations show most of the characteristics of starfish organizations, as the book describes them:

“…There is no clear leader, no hierarchy and no headquarters. If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others.… Everyone is entitled to make their own decision.… Coercion is a foreign concept.”

If one leg disappears, the organization can grow a new leg. Any leg can grow into an entirely new organization.

The only condition a starfish organization needs to grow is a catalyst who develops an idea and shares it with others. Catalysts champion and empower others to take leadership roles, and then get out of the way. You trust catalysts because they trust you.

If you want to be a powerful catalyst, read this book and learn all about starfish organizations, and discover how they are changing the face of business and the world.

Hardcover, 230 pages, $24.95; Penguin Books, 2006