An old leadership analogy says that the effect we have on people is like tossing a pebble in a pond. The initial splash of pebble creates waves in the water that grow and extend far beyond the size of the pebble that created them.
It’s a timeless and salient lesson; one we should remember often. Thinking on this object lesson, it occurred to me that it doesn’t translate perfectly for one, unchangeable reason: human ripples aren’t identical. When a small stone breaks the surface of the water, one of the fascinating results is that the ripples created by the small splash radiate from the point of impact in perfectly concentric, identical circles. It isn’t until these tiny waves encounter an obstacle, such as a plant or a piece of debris, that they are altered and begin their own course.
When we translate this analogy into the sphere of human interaction, the underlying principle is that a single action can have far-reaching and on-going effects on the world around us, even if those consequences are unintentional. The foundation is sound, but I want to look at the human aspect of this. Every person is different because of personality, culture, upbringing, ideology, and countless other variables. The ripple effect in our social, professional, and personal circles takes on a very different hue when we realize that because of our differences, the ripples we create are each completely unique of each other based on the person we create them in.
If I toss a pebble into a pond, through scientific and mathematical processes, I can determine exactly where and how the ripples on the surface of the water will be created. I can know their expanding width, speed, and future termination. I can know all of this ahead of time, because the scientific laws that govern the physics of this simple experiment are fixed and constant.
When I toss a figurative pebble into the pond of my sphere of influence, everything is relative. The impact of my words, the effectiveness of my leadership, the influence of my vision – all of these ripples are dependent on and reflective of the unique personalities and character of the people I’m dealing with. One might say that as a good leader, I could know my people well enough to make an educated decision about how certain tactics will impact them, and that is very true. But as the ripples continue to distance themselves from the point of impact, the ability to maintain any control over their evolution is lost. People are just all too different.
Those difference are what makes our teams strong and viable, they bring creativity and innovation, and they create dialog and conversation that is impactful and productive. As leaders, understanding the ripple effect makes it incumbent on us to feed our teams with material that creates a positive impact as the ripples spread and grow. We must be encouraging and positive, we must build and foster independence, and we must take responsibility for the waves that we create in the lives and minds of our people. As we influence those closest to us, we need to do so in a manner that will allow them to have an equally positive impact when their pebbles hit the water.