Causing a Flap

by  Deb Costello  |  Leadership Development

A long time ago, say 500 BCish, there was a mathematical society known as the Pythagoreans, with Pythagorus (of Pythagorean Theorem fame) as the front man.  The society was a combination of intellectual study and religious belief and most people of the time really didn’t understand much about their ideas.  The impact of this work however is pretty significant.  It is a rare soul that has not at least heard of ‘a’ squared plus ‘b’ squared equals ‘c’ squared.

Fast forward to the 1980s and you find a little known mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot publishing work regarding something called fractals.  At the time most people didn’t really understand much about his ideas, but today the mathematics is used in such diverse fields as geology, medicine, cosmology and engineering.  The impact of this work is pretty significant, as it is a rare soul that hasn’t at least heard of the Butterfly Effect.

A few weeks ago a friend, Erin Schreyer, mentioned the Butterfly Effect, and I have been thinking on how I might write about this important and beautiful mathematical phenomena.  The Butterfly Effect is a mathematically grounded theory that small changes in a system can make really significant differences. The flap of a butterfly’s wings in China can result in a hurricane in Florida.  A simple kind word can change someone’s life.

I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go with this idea.  The math teacher in me was longing to talk about the math, but it’s been done.  If you are interested, try James Gleick’s Chaos:  Making a New Science It’s terrific, even for those not particularly excited by mathematics.   Then I stumbled on a little book that discusses the idea in life, The Butterfly Effect:  How your Life Matters by Andy Andrews.  He talks about how little decisions can have significant effects, the crux of the Butterfly Effect that Erin mentioned.

So I was stymied and thought, really I don’t have anything new to say about this.  And then I had a conversation with a friend.  He is a leader in my community, and he is thinking about taking a new job.  He is worried of course.  Is it the right thing for him?  Is it the right thing for his family, in particular, his 8th grade son who would be forced to attend a new school next year?   He mentioned that he is excited by the challenges of a new job, but he is worried about the impact it would have as well.   This is a pretty big change, and it is likely to make a significant impact.

As I was talking to my friend, I realized that leaders in our communities are all faced with similar choices, the idea that small changes in their operations can have significant impacts on worker productivity, the bottom line, or any number of other variables.  Hence their efforts to make such decisions carefully.  Given the seemingly broad possible impacts, it’s a wonder they make change at all.  But they must and they do, and sometimes those small changes rock the boat pretty hard.

So since change is inevitable and in fact desirable, the only remaining question seems not if, but rather how do we make the decisions about change?  I think there are lots of possible answers and we could discuss this, but I’m really interested in proposing a question based on the premise of the Lead Change group.  The Lead Change group’s premise is simple: Make a positive difference (or lead change) through character-based leadership.

What if that’s the little change you made and nothing else?  What if you viewed every leadership decision through the lens of character.  When I suggest this, I am not even really sure what that might mean to you.  From the outside, in our diverse and fast-paced society, most people might not really understand much about your idea of leading with character.  But down the road, your little wing flap could make a really significant difference.  In a few years, it might be a rare soul that has not heard the phrase Character-Based Leadership.

Pythagorus’ little theorem became a really big deal through the power of Mandelbrot’s Butterfly Effect.  I am not sure either of these men really knew what a big deal they had developed, but years later they have changed how we view the world and our lives.  Now the Lead Change group is trying to make a little change in the big idea of leadership.  I am not sure what the impact will be, as it’s just a little step.

What does leading with character mean to you?

Little step.  Flap, flap.

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What People Are Saying

Christina Haxton, MA  |  27 Oct 2011  |  Reply


Excellent reminder about how one decision made by a person of influence (and aren’t we all that person?) can change multiple lives. It takes 4 positive statements or actions to neutralize a negative or critical one in our brain (so go for 5:1), what if people took action based on character instead of mindlessness (as in, “Yeah, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, I was just having a bad day …”)?

Wow. Simple, yet mind-blowing.

Thank you for posting!

Deborah Costello  |  27 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Thanks Christina for stopping by. I forget about that 5 to 1 ratio, but it makes sense. I spend a lot of time mulling over things that go wrong, taking the negativity to heart, but it takes more to overcome that negativity.

I loved your aside… aren’t we all a person of influence? So true, so important, so often overlooked. I appreciate these good reminders as well!


Mike Henry  |  27 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Deb, thanks for the great post and question. This ties back to some teaching I associate most closely with Steve Keating (@LeadToday). In the end, our actions demonstrate our true core values. We do override those core values from time to time in the name of expediency or comfort or other things. However if we consistently choose comfort or exxpediency, maybe those are truly our core values.

To me, that’s the central reason why we need to act from the best of who we are. When we apply our best to the highest good, we make a significant impact. Thanks for adding your great content to the blog!


Deborah Costello  |  27 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for your insights, Mike. I take away two important ideas from you comments. First, our actions are a better indicator of our core vlaues than our words. In fact, our actions can belie our words and we might understand each other better if we watched at least as much as we listened. An interesting idea. The second idea you explain is this phrase, “leading from the best of who we are.” How is it that in a world where everybody knows intuitively what you mean here, we so rarely see this behavior in action. We know what is morally sound, we know what core values are present in society. Why don’t those societal values actually translate into individual values more often? If our actions reveal our core, then it is clear that even though our leaders have a best self, they do not always use that self as a guide for decisions.

A disheartening idea. We know what’s right and choose something else anyway. Hmm… I think I need some encouragement here.



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