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What bin Laden, Geronimo shared in common
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Native American leaders are upset that Geronimo's name was used as code for Osama bin Laden. I respect their concern, but I don't think this particular reference is the insult that tribal leaders think it is.

Quite the opposite, it sounds to me like a salute to the Apache warrior's leadership genius and his tribe's organizational success.

To understand why, do what they do at the super-secret U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that oversees Navy SEAL Team Six, the commandos who found bin Laden: Look past the obvious differences between Geronimo and bin Laden and examine what they shared in common.

Each was a charismatic leader-by-example of a decentralized organizational structure that long stymied much mightier and formally organized armies. The Apache style of organization -- shared power, nimble execution, motivation by leaders who led by example more than by command -- enabled Geronimo and earlier Apache leaders to hold off the mighty Spanish and United States armies for 200 years, long after the great Inca and Aztec civilizations fell.

That's how Geronimo is described in a 2006 book that is said to be a must-read for those who are trying to think outside the box at JSOC: "The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations" by California entrepreneurs Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.

The book's central metaphor is this: If you cut off a spider's head, it dies; but if you cut off a leg of certain types of starfish, it grows a new one -- and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.

What do they all have in common? Loosely defined organizational structure, widely shared power and a leadership that acts as a motivational catalyst, not a top-down command structure, just for starters.

The Apache under Geronimo and today's al-Qaida are starfish organizations. But so are Alcoholics Anonymous, Craigslist, eBay, Napster, the tea party movement and the Internet itself.

In fact, the Internet Age increasingly seems to be characterized in many ways by starfish organizations trying mightily to avoid being brought down by the urge to become more organized.

Since it is hard for us products of old-school, top-down spider-style organizations to grasp the seemingly nimble new wave of "leaderless organizations," Brafman and Beckstrom say they have been invited to speak in military circles too secret for them to talk much about.

When I reached the two authors by telephone, they told me they were as surprised as I was to hear "Geronimo" pop up as bin Laden's code name. Although they have talked to top military officials and SEAL Team Six commandos in the past, they have no way of knowing how the commanders name their missions. And, as Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, found out in an inquiry this past week, the Pentagon is not talking.

At a Senate hearing on "the impact of racist stereotypes on indigenous people" that already was scheduled before the bin Laden raid occurred, Sen. Udall, who chaired the hearing, received an earful. Among others, Harlyn Geronimo, a great grandson of the Apache warrior, called for an apology and the expunging of this use of his family's name from government records.

I sympathize. Indians have had to put up with many irritating stereotypes over the years. I can only imagine how I would feel about, say, the "Cleveland Negroes."

Yet, in view of their training the code-naming of bin Laden sounds like an appropriate sign of respect for Geronimo's genius. More than a century after his death, we still have lessons to learn from his leadership and organizational style -- and clues as to how to handle a post-bin Laden al-Qaida.

"The big question now is whether al-Qaida will become even more decentralized with bin Laden gone," said Brafman. "Will they become even harder to predict and catch?"

Indeed, the irony of "leaderless" organizations is the "dis-economics of scale." Starfish organizations tend to thrive on smallness, disorganization and dispersion, three qualities of al-Qaida after bin Laden.

That could help explain why President Obama decided not to "spike the football" by releasing bin Laden's after-death photos or displaying any other provocation that might unnecessarily fan resentments in the Muslim world. Starfish organizations thrive on motivational leaders, sometimes from beyond the grave. No need to make more of a martyr out of bin Laden.