Leadership and the ripple effect

2014

If you manage other people at whatever level, your leadership style matters. Whether you’re running a large global firm, in charge of a small project team or setting out in an entrepreneurial venture, it’s the way you communicate and connect to other people that can, and will, make or break your success. The key is to make every connection count so that you can lead like it matters. Because it does.

It matters because each and every leadership choice you make has some kind of a ‘ripple effect’ that spreads out to your team and to the organization as a whole. Every organization is a living ecosystem in which everything and everyone is connected, directly or indirectly. So everything that happens within that system has an impact, a vibration. It might be almost undetectable or it might be a shock wave. The closer to the source, the more directly the impact is felt. And just as every drop of pond water is an integral part of the entire pond, everyone within the organization is an integral part of the entire organization.

So leaders need to pay very close attention to their "responsibility pond". Is it healthy or is it toxic? What role are they playing in the health or illness of their part of the ecosystem. As leaders, we need to know how to ensure that the ripples we make have the intended impact, whether it’s running meetings, handling conflicts, making confident decisions, or instituting needed changes.

Blockages within an organization are the same as blockages in any living thing. They disrupt flow, they can create pockets of illness and dysfunction, even rot, and they are certainly not adding to the health or productivity of the organization.

The ripple effect is occurring naturally and continuously in every culture whether people want to acknowledge it or not. The questions is not "IS it there?"; the question is, "WHAT is each leaders' ripple effect doing to the system?" The culture of any organization, team, group, family, and community is determined by the thousands upon thousands of interactions, policies, processes, attitudes, behaviors, reward and punishment systems, and the nature of all the relationships that are going on simultaneously within the ecosystem anytime two or more people are part of a group or team.

Let's see now how this plays out with four of the core tenets of leadership that, when mastered, can give you a “ripple effect” that can revolutionize the way one leads and succeeds:

1. Personal Mastery: It’s imperative to discover exactly who you are as a leader and draw on your strengths to influence others, to know and grow the leader within. Personal mastery is discovering who YOU are as a leader, your purpose, values, and vision, how you affect others, your style, preferences, strengths and challenges: it all starts with you. Each leader needs to know, rather than guess, what ripple effect he or she is having upon their immediate and overlapping ecosystems. And since everyone has their own unique "ripple" or authentic pulse, you need to understand these to lead effectively.

Begin by getting direct feedback from your boss and anonymous feedback from your peers, direct reports, even clients, about your leadership style and impact. Then you can be certain of how you are perceived in your role and discern what’s working for you and what’s not. Play to your strengths and work with trusted colleagues and/or a business or executive coach to mitigate your blind spots and challenges.

2. Interpersonal Mastery: A powerful leader has excellent communication and people management skills that engage, motivate and inspire others. They know how to listen deeply and communicate effectively with others, how to constructively provide feedback (including upwards to their boss) and how to manage conflict successfully.

This is even more important when navigating the inevitable and unpredictable whirlpools, tsunamis and thunderstorms that send big ripples through the system. In tough times, interpersonal skills become life boats and safety nets for the people working within a leader's responsibility pond. When people know that the tough things will be dealt with fairly and properly, they will become more trusting and more resilient, and so more able to weather the storm.

Begin by practicing deep listening as if your life depended on it. At the end of every conversation, ask the person talking to you if they felt fully heard and understood by you, and then ask them why they felt that way. It’s also a good idea to practice demonstrating empathy in every conversation, no matter what the subject.

3. Team Mastery: Leaders who want to succeed need their teams to succeed. And so successful leaders are those who are able to harness group dynamics to build stronger, more productive teams. But teams are made up of individuals and since people are messy, groups are also messy. It takes awareness, attention, time, and skill to get the best out of your team, yet it’s an investment you cannot afford not to make.

No matter why a team is formed or who is on the team, the ‘not to’s’ of building and maintaining effective teams do not vary. Everyone on the team is either helping make the boat row smoothly on their shared pond, or they are splashing around creating chaos or they are sitting on the shore, disengaged.

One of those three will be the predominate culture. Depending on the team's dynamics, their ripples will either flow together, churn the system into a frenzy, or there will be no ripples at all, meaning no life and no action.

Begin by establishing “ground rules” or “rules of engagement” for new or existing teams. These are the things that each team member NEEDS in order to feel safe, to be fully heard, to believe that they belong, and to feel that what they have to offer matters.

With an established team, you might put this topic on the agenda as a simple “checking in on our team process,” “housekeeping” or “revisiting our team norms” line item. Employ whatever positioning work for you and your group. Then, make sure the group maintains accountability to the ground rules for themselves and each other to ensure the effort is not in vein.

4. Culture and Systems Mastery: Take the lead in assessing your organization and make the changes you need to succeed - at every level. To understand leadership we must understand the cultures operating around us because culture affects us much like the air we breathe and it is almost as important to our well-being. An organization’s espoused values may or may not reflect the real operating culture of the organization. You need to know, not guess, what the culture really is and how it actually affects your people and overarching business results.

The culture is a sum total of everyone's ripples, most importantly, the leader's. Other parts of the system have an impact as well, and knowing how external forces are shaping your pond is as important as understanding the what's happening internally. They are connected and you need to know exactly how to navigate successfully within your entire organization.

Begin by walking around the organization and really observing the lay of the land, as if you were in a foreign country. What language are they speaking; how are they dressed; what do their work “homes” look and feel like; how do different groups interact; how high or low is the smile meter around the workplace? This will get you started, but it certainly isn’t the whole story. For that, you have to delve deeper, and ask more questions. Just remember, never ask questions about the workplace if you are not prepared to hear the answers in a non-defensive manner or actually address the issues brought to your attention.

When leaders excel at these four core facets of effective leadership, they will reap quantifiable rewards, including, but limited to, increased employee engagement, reduced turnover and enhanced productivity.

No matter the decision at hand, whether cutting wasteful meetings, addressing conflict, or better aligning decisions with tactical business needs, each and every choice a leader makes will have a ripple effect. It’s the leader’s approach, attitude, and skills that will determine if the resultant effects of seemingly singular choices will be helpful or a hindrance as each one cascades through the system.

About The Author

Roxi Bahar Hewertson
Roxi Bahar Hewertson

Roxi Bahar Hewertson is CEO of Highland Consulting Group, Inc. and AskRoxi.com. She brings over three decades of practical experience in the worlds of business, higher education and non-profits. She is an entrepreneur, consultant, speaker and author of “Lead Like it Matters...Because it Does".