On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Robert Goodwin

Robert Goodwin

Robert J. Goodwin is CEO and co-founder of Executives Without Borders; former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force and appointee at USAID, the State Department and the White House.

Tea party: The new grassroots template

Q: Has the recent success of the Tea Party come because of, or in spite of, the movement's lack of a formal leadership structure? Along with Wikipedia, open-source software and organizations like moveon.org, is this another example of the power of distributed leadership?

There is no question that the Tea Party's recent success is due, at least in part, to its distributed leadership structure. In Ori Brafman's book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, he defines "spider" organizations as those with a clear hierarchy and chain of command. He defines "starfish" organizations as those that are more a collection of cells that comprise the whole. If you kill a spider, the cobweb is easy to destroy. If you cut a starfish in half, two will grow in its place.

The Tea Party movement embodies that of a "starfish" organization. It is difficult to attack with no clearly defined leadership, and even if one cell-or candidate-is defeated, the movement lives on. With grassroots activism taking place with extraordinary levels of autonomy, the Tea Party can also change and react very quickly. Conversely, the Democrat and Republican establishments embody the "spider" organization. And as such, are unable to react swiftly given their entrenched bureaucracies and party platforms.

Moreover, its "starfish" structure has enabled the Tea Party to define itself on the issues; rather than on the record or charisma of a figurehead at the top. Back when Sarah Palin was the undisputed face of the movement, it was easy for critics to lob attacks. Now, the debate is focused on a push for smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation and greater personal freedom.

When an organization cedes a measure of control to those it seeks to enlist as supporters, it does more than merely make them feel as if they are a part of something larger than themselves; it instills within them a measure of personal responsibility for protecting and growing the organization. Simply put, the ownership stake that each and every member of the Tea Party movement holds is what drives the levels of activism we've seen to date.

And while it remains to be seen just how effective the movement will be when it comes to changing the power dynamics in the House and Senate, there's no doubt that the Tea Party has provided a template for any grassroots movement.

By Robert Goodwin

 |  September 24, 2010; 4:49 PM ET
Category:  Government leadership , Organizational Culture , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Power: Face it, you need it | Next: Don't just defer to experts


Please report offensive comments below.

Nice try. Let's ignore the facts of the Pea Tatty's clear and obvious LEADERSHIP, all well-documented, and ask, how do they succeed without leaders?

The answer is, without LEADERS they don't even exist. The locals, with whom I have met
a couple of times to document that the local conservative hope was still telling people that he flew fighter jets in 'nam, were also pretty open. If you hadn't fallen off a turnip truck, the two PAID organizers in the room were obvious. I don't know which kindergarten you're hiring your reporters from..or whose money YOU'RE taking to put out this 'no leader' pap, but the locals couldn't organize the highschool hop without the pre-printed forms, handouts, etc.
I know a little about leaderless groups, and I wish I had access to the minds of your paper's derisively deluded decision-makers who insist on the false premise of the TPeer's lack of leaders.

Attempted lack of responsibility, yes.
Attempted deniability, yes. Lack of leaders? BS, BS, and further BS.

One thing the clownies are right about, though: many of you pontificating suits probably wouldn't come in out of the rain...

Posted by: tigre1 | September 26, 2010 8:15 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The tea party structure is much simpler than it's being presented. The tea party is just the illegitimate spawn of the Koch brothers and Fox and is answerable to both. The tea party has no answers to our problems, the tea party IS our problem. The tea party is just a sad group of old, white, rich, racist bigots who are all going to die naturally very soon so they have NOTHING to say about our future. They can't stand the fact that we have a black president and when they howl "TAKE BACK AMERICA!!!" they mean to take it back from the minorities. They represent only the top 3% richest Americans so they are our cultural enemies. Barrack, don't dignify those low lifes by asking them for suggestions. Mark Montgomery boboberg@nyc.rr.com

Posted by: boboberg | September 25, 2010 5:02 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The Tea Party is not the first organization to realize the benefits of a decentralized management structure and the value of empowered volunteers.

The 2008 Obama campaign, through its MyBarackObama.com website, empowered thousands of volunteers to choose the best way to promote his candidacy in their community.

Unfortunately, many organizations with whom I've worked are reluctant to dispense with the "command and control" management style. As a result, they have not been able to create robust local volunteer networks.

Joe LaMountain
President, SparkLight Communications
Adjunct Faculty, Georgetown University

Posted by: jlamountain | September 24, 2010 8:24 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Post a Comment

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company