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Leadership and the Butterfly Effect

Leadership Intersections

Young man, you have a way with words.  I think you should be the student speaker for our junior high event.

Tell me again, why do you want to go to seminary?

I think you should be in charge – just remember that you have to be kind to the rest of them.

I can’t believe you pulled that off.  You are either incredibly gutsy or just plain lucky!

These four phrases, shared by four different people in four totally different contexts between my 8th grade year and my first real adult job, have stayed with me for years.  And, in small ways and large, they have informed who I am and who I’ve become as a leader.

The Butterfly Effect

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.The butterfly effect is the concept that small causes can have large effects. Initially, it was used with weather prediction but later the term became a metaphor used in and out of science.

According to Wikipedia, the term “butterfly effect”, coined by Edward Lorenz for the effect which had been known long before, is derived from the example of the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor disturbances such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered the effect when he observed that calculations of his weather computer model with initial data that was rounded in a very small manner would fail to reproduce the results of runs with the non-rounded initial data. A very small change in initial conditions had created a significantly different outcome.

Leadership Impact

Leader – do you ever wonder if the little things you say and do matter?  I’m a different leader today because four people said four different things to me.  Truth is, at least two of them weren’t even leaders.  But what they said – and particularly how two of them acted in their influence over me – made a huge difference.  If I have anything to say about leadership and life to the people I get to touch, at least to some degree it is because these four people influenced me.

He started out as one of our part-time team members.  He was a young college student with extra time on his hands and got referred to us by one of his friends who was already working for us.  He had some real potential and quickly became a customer favorite.  He also had some immature habits. Not just work habits, but lifestyle habits. Habits that risked getting him in significant trouble as he moved into his adult years.  At one point, his immaturity impacted his work performance, and we had a hard conversation about his performance and his ability to keep working for us.

Today he is one of our managers.  He’s doing a great job.  Still a customer favorite, and increasingly, a senior management favorite as well. And today he will say that one hard conversation didn’t just help with his job.  He will say it changed his life.

Leader – don’t ever discount the little things you say and do.  They can have huge impact.