Leading with Intention: Embracing the Butterfly Effect

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkekaard famously said “The thing about life is that it has to be lived forward when it can only be truly understood backward.”

Bear with me here for a moment, but this also brings to mind something I’ve always been fascinated with. It’s called “the butterfly effect”, a theory most closely associated with the work of Edward Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist and his work on the Law of sensitive dependence on initial conditions. If you haven’t heard of it, I highly recommend watching this great little video from inspirational speaker Andy Andrews https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnwddVuhW8c.

The butterfly effect purports that an action as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can instigate a series of increasingly profound reactions that can cause something significant and meaningful to happen— sometimes on the other side of the world. The thing is, most often, the result of this chain reaction isn’t immediately visible. Instead, in order to identify what caused a particular effect, you have to work your way backward through a series of small but profoundly integrated actions.

One of the best examples of the butterfly effect in action can be found in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Director Frank Capra’s 1946 movie about small town citizen, aspiring engineer and would-be world traveller, George Bailey. Played by Jimmy Stewart, George is a man with big dreams who ends up on the edge of suicide after a series of disappointments. When a miraculous encounter with a hapless, wingless angel named Clarence allows George to see an alternate existence into which he has never been born, he sees the effects of his absence on his family members, business, and community first hand— allowing him to truly understand how deeply he has touched those around him without ever knowing it.

So what does a Danish philosopher, the butterfly effect, and one of the most popular holiday movies of all time have to do with leadership? And most importantly, what implications does all this have for you in your life?

It starts with accepting the fact that everything you do and say is important because it has an effect on those around you. Nothing you put into the world is void. Positive or negative, subtle or profound, what we say and do affects others for better or worse, whether we can see it or not.

As a leader, we tend to focus on the big wins. We want to see the results of our actions now. It’s natural not to want to wait to see the results of our leadership. However, most often, the connection between cause and effect, what we do and what that yields, becomes less visible over time– sometimes making it difficult to see the relationship between our words and actions and the results and outcomes they set in motion.

Because leaders are in a unique position to have an impact on the people around them, the trick is for us to be intentional about creating the butterfly effect going forward. True Leaders, guided by our values, are able to intentionally choose to create a positive impact by challenging the people around them to be better people

During your career, if you’re really fortunate, you may get the rare gift of being able to see the direct outcome of a series of thoughts, words, and actions that you set in motion. But if you don’t, don’t underestimate the thousands of small things you have done in your capacity as a leader— in business and industry, the classroom, or on the ball field. Chances are good that those things had repercussions far beyond what you were able to see.

Whether you witness their results or not, your actions will touch hundreds, if not thousands, of people— setting in reactions that impact many people, families, and entire communities. When we look backward at our lives, the butterfly effect makes it easy to understand how each decision may well have influenced the next opportunity in your life or someone else’s.

In business, when we are leading by engaging the butterfly effect, we challenge our people to multiply the effects of our efforts and create outcomes that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Essentially, leaders are in a position to be the initial flap of the wings that eventually causes the tornado on the other side of the world down the line.

What kind of tornado are you trying to create?

Scott Alexander is a published author, a coach to entrepreneurs and senior executives, an accomplished speaker, and a strategy/leadership consultant.