The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations
In 1935, Bill Wilson – an alcoholic whose doctor had given him 6 months to live if he didn’t quit drinking – had a vision. His vision was that while experts were ineffective in curing alcoholism, the addicts themselves were the keys to helping one another overcome the disease. And with that, Alcoholics Anonymous was born. Today, they help over 2 million members and have been the model for numerous Anonymous addiction recovery groups.
In the 1980’s, Richard Stallman’s fierce beliefs in freedom and in the importance of free software (free as in free speech) towards securing the future of a free society led him to create the Free Software Foundation. FSF became the impetus behind the open source movement. Today, developers around the world freely volunteer their time to develop the open source software that tens of millions of us use every day.
In 2000, Jimmy Wales decided to launch a free online encyclopedia for children whose parents couldn’t afford their own. After a tedious process that produced a mere 24 articles, the encyclopedia’s editor – Larry Sanger – introduced wiki technology. That decision led to the 100% user generated encyclopedia that ultimately cost Larry his job. Today, Wikipedia is the world’s largest reference site with over 3.7 million articles. It attracts over 400 million unique visitors every month.
What is amazing in all of these instances is how people stood up and contributed. Contributed even though there was no clear reward for them to do so. AA members took the 12 Steps and created new chapters around the world, running those chapters with no involvement from Bill W. Developers regularly volunteer their time to create hundreds of thousands of open source projects. Wikipedia’s users not only write the articles, but they serve as custodians to the site. Ask Jimmy Wales who runs Wikipedia’s servers and he’ll tell you he has no idea. The users decide for themselves.
Not only do people voluntarily contribute, but they contribute high quality. A research study found Wikipedia on par with Encyclopedia Britannica for accuracy. And much open source software is considered the best of it’s kind.
Bill Wilson, Richard Stallman, and Jimmy Wales are all catalysts. Catalysts are visionaries that develop amazing ideas. But instead of holding onto those ideas for themselves, they share their ideas with others. And they inspire others to take action on them. And then, the Catalyst steps out of the way and lets the community carry the idea to incredible results.
Catalysts share their ideas, but they don’t take ownership. If they had, every new AA chapter would have had to go through Bill W. and it would likely have never have reached as many it did. When Jimmy Wale’s initial free encyclopedia was “owned” by him and his editorial team, it managed 24 (as opposed to Wikipedia’s 3.7 million un-owned) articles. And Richard Stallman is quite vocal about his dissatisfaction on open source’s split from his initial vision. But he doesn’t take them down, and so the open source movement continues to grow.
By not taking ownership, catalysts allow each and every member of the community to take hold of that ownership. The power is distributed to all of the people and these communities become unstoppable as Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom describe in The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.
The catalyst’s presence almost always remains felt, but catalysts understand it’s all about letting go and trusting the community, because that is where the true beauty lies.
“When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity.”
Trust is a beautiful thing.