A mobile ad hoc network (MANET) is a type of wireless network without any infrastructure, where nodes must adapt to the changing dynamic situations that result from their mobility. Because of the decentralization of nodes and the security needs of communications, management of MANETs must be self-organized, which is a major research challenge. In order to cope with the intrinsic properties of MANETs, a new decentralized management system for MANETs called Self-organizing Life Cycle Management (SLCM) is here fully described and evaluated. Regarding security, node authentication is the most critical component of access control in any network and, in particular, in MANETs. Broadcasting is also a fundamental data dissemination mechanism in these networks. Both aspects have received special attention when defining the proposed SLCM system. In particular, both a strong access control algorithm, based on the cryptographic paradigm of zero-knowledge proofs, and a three-step broadcast protocol are here defined. This work includes the performance evaluation of the scheme, and the obtained experimental results show that SLCM significantly improves both the quality and the security of life cycle management of self-organized MANETs. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.