Starfish and Spiders: How a Berkeley-Haas/U.S. Military Partnership is Shattering Stereotypes

Photo: Ori Brafman (left) and Cort Worthington (right) working with MBA students

At first glance, it might seem incongruous to find senior U.S. military officers collaborating with a couple of former-peace-activists-turned-Haas-lecturers who use “touchy-feely” exercises to teach emotional intelligence.

Yet over the past few years, as the armed forces have been wrestling with complex challenges like rooting out decentralized terror networks and running humanitarian missions, lecturers Ori Brafman, BA 93 (peace & conflct studies) and Cort Worthington, BCEMBA 08, have been traveling the country to teach nontraditional leadership techniques to some of the military’s elite.

The relationship took a big step forward recently with the inauguration of the Adaptive and Agile Leadership Network Initiative, a formal partnership between Berkeley-Haas and the Washington D.C.-based National Defense University. Based within the Institute for Business and Social Impact, the program began last spring when 33 senior officers from the NDU’s Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy’s adaptive leadership program came to Berkeley-Haas for the first of three seminars taught by Brafman and Worthington.

The initiative has enormous symbolic as well as practical potential, Worthington believes. “Because Berkeley and the military have historically often been viewed as seeing the world very differently, this collaboration has the potential to challenge outdated, divisive mindsets in all parts of America. It starts with connecting individuals across this artificial divide, where they discover a genuine common humanity and a shared desire for better leadership in our country.”

Worthington is a former improvisational theater instructor and parachuting US Forest Service Smokejumper who learned the value of instant collaboration, open communication, and inventiveness while on the fire line. He has been teaching leadership courses at Berkeley-Haas for eight years.

The Israeli-born Brafman is the author of several influential books, including The Starfish and the Spider, which examines why flat, decentralized groups are often more nimble and effective than top-down organizations: Like a starfish, if you cut off an arm, a new one grows in its place. Terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda have used this to great advantage.

This concept caught the attention of one the Army’s top brass, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who reached out to Brafman in 2009 and proposed that he design a program to train senior officers in network leadership principles. Brafman recalls that Dempsey, then in charge of the Army Training and Doctrine Command and later promoted to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him, “In order to fight networks, we need to be more network-like ourselves.” In response, Brafman set up The Starfish Seminar—an interactive small-group seminar—and asked Worthington to join him.

At their first session with army officers in 2010 at Fort Gordon in Georgia, Worthington says he was a bit nervous about how the group would react to their style of teaching. “We had them do touchy-feely stuff right away—improvisation exercises, talking about their feelings. They really took to it, much better than we expected. It took courage for them to do that,” he recalls. Since then, they’ve led immersion-training sessions at military facilities around the country.

The experience has led to some interesting moments. Neither Worthington nor Brafman have family or friends in the U.S. armed services, and both have experience with peace activism—Brafman co-founded Global Peace Networks, a network of 1,000 CEOS working on conflict resolution and economic development worldwide. During a seminar in Kansas, Brafman, a vegan, once found himself at a hunting lodge sharing beers with a group of bow hunters.

This fish-out-of-water sensation was similar for the military visitors to Berkeley, who have lectured in Worthington’s Leadership and Personal Development class decked out in battle fatigues. “People on our side haven’t worked with NGOs and Berkeley people before,” says Col. Kenneth Brownell, director of the Eisenhower School’s Adaptive and Agile Leaders Network Initiative.

As they’ve exchanged visits, they found they have more in common than they thought. Brafman and Worthington say they admire the idealism and strength of character of their military partners. And the NDU students are finding that Worthington and Brafman’s brand of improvisation exercises and emotional intelligence training has real value, Brownell says. “We do see a need to be more starfish-like. We’re looking at very complex problems and using some of Ori and Cort’s ideas. We’re learning from each other.”

The group of students studying at Haas this spring includes colonels or lieutenant colonels and their Navy equivalents, plus leaders from civilian departments such as Homeland Security. They will be joined in the seminars by an equal number of Berkeley MBA students. In addition to their coursework and exercises aimed at building adaptive leadership skills, they’ll be meeting with professionals from Bay Area philanthropic, humanitarian, and environmental groups, and examining issues like veteran re-integration. As part of the partnership, Berkeley-Haas will also serve as a hub for involvement from other academic institutions and the Silicon Valley community in the study of adaptive leadership.

The partnership will also “encourage research to better understand how to build a distributed network of military leaders, business leaders, academics, and non-governmental organizations,” according to the memorandum of understanding.

Mike Christman, MBA 16, a former Marine Corps attack helicopter pilot and Afghanistan war veteran, worked as Worthington and Brafman’s graduate student instructor this year and helped bridge the cultural gap between Haas and its military partners. It has been a gratifying experience, he says. “Getting those two bubbles to mix is really important,” he says. “A lot of stereotypes on both sides break down. Everybody has the goals of solving big problems and making the world better.”