This is a guest post by the lovely Christianne Squires of Bookwifery. This essay originally appeared as part of the Redefining Community project which is running throughout April 2019. You can find out more about the project and sign up here.
I remember hearing a number of years ago about a book called The Starfish and the Spider. It’s about how the advent of the internet has led to the growth of leaderless organizations (think Wikipedia, where the community generates the content; this is the starfish model) and the increasing demise of top-down businesses (your typical Fortune 500 company with a CEO and board members who hold all the power; this is the spider model).
The basic premise of the book is this: If you cut off the head of a spider, it dies. But if you cut off the leg of a starfish, it grows a new one. Rather than dying, a broken-legged starfish regenerates itself. Also, an entirely new starfish can sometimes grow from the leg that separated from the body.
This relates to me in my business as a leader of communities, and I’m guessing it will relate to you too. It begs us to ask the question: What kind of leader are we being in the communities we lead? Are we building spider communities or starfish ones?
Here’s How I’ve Been the Spider
I once had someone tell me that their experience of me as the leader of a group was that of a hub and spokes—and she didn’t mean it as a compliment. Rather, she said each person’s sharing in the group seemed to always funnel back to me, like I was the one holding the group together, rather than the group holding itself together with the responsibility shared among all.
She was right, but it stung to hear it.
And then I had to ask myself: Why had I created conditions like that in the group? I knew it was because I didn’t know—and still am learning—how to trust the group to hold itself.
In a group setting where I’m the leader, I tend to worry about the what ifs: What if someone shares from a deep, authentic, vulnerable place and no one responds? And then what if the person who shared feels exposed, missed, or left dangling out there, alone, when no one responds to what they said?
Out of a fear of that happening, or to prevent it from happening, I step in. I want to ensure the sharing person feels met by at least one person in the group.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a leader stepping in to respond when someone in their community shares. That’s not what I’m getting at here. What I’m saying is that I’m learning my own propensity for doing this—stepping in quickly, often as the first one to speak after someone shares—has consequences.
If I’m the first, swift person to step in with a response, others may feel the “answer” has been given by the leader so there’s no need to chime in with more. Or they may come to expect that’s the dynamic they’re meant to receive from the community: many people (the community members) sharing to one (the leader), rather than the many sharing to each other.
Here’s How I’m Growing Starfish Communities
I’m being entrusted to lead a couple different communities right now, and this has me growing ever more sensitive to the dynamic I’m facilitating in the groups I lead. What is my role, and what is not my role?
When I think about a starfish and its ability to regenerate an arm or leg when it gets cut off, my mind goes to what is in the starfish that allows that to happen. Some template in the star’s being, the blueprint coursing through each of its limbs and its center, must be what allows the new limb to grow out of the center and eventually become a thriving, contributing part of the whole.
The blueprint of its being. I’m coming to believe this is where the leader’s role in a community sits.
I coming to believe the leader’s primary role is to steward the blueprint. She might co-design that blueprint of values, structures, and rhythms with the community at the start, but she’s the one whose job it is to continually lay it atop all the community does going forward, ensuring the community’s ongoing life remains healthy and true.
For me, this means being foremostly concerned with the core DNA of my community—what gives it life, either through structures, rhythms, or values—and then leaning into greater trust that the community will hold together, each member present and participating and connected to the rest, the same blueprint of life coursing through each one of them as they remain together, hold together, and thrive.
Christianne Squires is the founder of Bookwifery, a company that helps contemplatives, teachers, and leaders birth books that heal the world with light. She lives in Winter Park, Florida, with her husband and two cats, and she loves Instagram. Take the free book pregnancy test to discern if it’s time to birth the message of your life’s work into a book.