By Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of Drake Continual Improvement Network, Drake University
The “Starfish Story,” originally entitled “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eisley, is part of a 16-page essay of the same name. It is a beautiful story reminding us that every single person can make a difference, even if that difference impacts just one person. There are many variations of the original story, one of which goes like this:
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed boy picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean.
Approaching the boy he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?”
“Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up, and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die,” the boy replied.
The man laughed to himself and said, “Do you realize there are miles of miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make any difference.”
After listening politely, the boy bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the surf. Then, he smiled at the man and said, “I made a difference to that one.”
This is indeed a beautiful story, and its message should not be diminished, for it is a powerful reminder of the positive impact one human being can have on others. However, what if we examined this beautiful story through the lens of Dr. Deming’s “appreciation for a system?”
In the story, the boy picked up an individual starfish that was one of the hundreds that had been washed up on the shore by the surf and left stranded. It was an admirable and heartfelt effort by the boy, but in systems terms, he was applying a special cause solution to a common cause problem, the common cause being the surf that had stranded the starfish. Picking up and tossing an individual starfish back into the ocean was worthwhile and well-intended, but with a more systemic approach – applying a common cause solution to a common cause problem – the boy might have saved more starfish.
A common cause approach might have included several solutions, such as contacting beach authorities, who might have been able to use appropriate machinery to push the starfish back into the ocean. Or the boy could have sought out and enlisted the help of hundreds of people, who may have been strolling along the beach that day, to help put the starfish back into their natural environment.
The aim of this writing is not to disparage the kindness and goodwill of us as human beings who can and should do individual good deeds for others. Rather, if examined through another lens, it can be a lesson about the need for leaders to understand the systems they lead and employ systemic approaches to systemic problems. In such cases, the leader can become nearly “invisible” relative to others who enact the solution, for effective systems leaders do not come crashing onto the scene like a hero to save the day; a common theme that is still valued in our western culture. Rather, effective systems leaders often work behind the scenes to first understand the root cause or causes of a problem and then design a fundamental solution that is deployed by others. At the end of the day, whenever and wherever the problem is resolved, the people who did the work are the ones we recognize, while the leader may be nowhere to be seen, for her work and leverage were far from where the action was happening.
No doubt, the boy in the story did not have the intention to be seen as a hero. Rather, he was simply doing a good deed for another. However, system leaders need avoid the pull to be cast into the spotlight, and rather focus on determining how to design or redesign the systems they lead in order to improve and/or address systemic problems that exist.
Let’s take another look at the starfish story through a systems lens:
One day an old man was walking along the beach, where he saw the shore littered with hundreds of starfish that had been washed ashore by the tide. He then noticed a boy talking excitedly to numerous people on the beach. After a while, the boy disappeared into the crowd that had grown from just a few people to hundreds. Each person from the crowd then began picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. At long last, all of the starfish had been returned to their natural environment.
As the crowd began to disperse, the old man began visiting with one of the individuals involved in saving the starfish. “I was watching from afar and saw a young boy talking excitedly to many people on the beach,” said the old man.
“Yes,” said the woman. “The boy was telling each of us of the plight of the hundreds of starfish and pleading with us to help them back into the ocean. We all began doing as the boy had asked and in short order, the starfish were all back home.”
“What happened to the young boy?” asked the old man.
“I don’t know,” replied the woman. “He simply got us organized, gave us direction, joined in the rescue, and then disappeared. When we finished, we all felt a deep sense of pride and joy in what we had accomplished.”
In addition to the important lesson for leaders to understand systems and how to lead them, there is another moral to this revised starfish story. It is a quote borrowed from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and modified slightly to address the context of this writing, and is an important one for leaders to consider:
“A systems leader is best when people barely know he exists; and when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
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