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The Ripple Effect

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I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples. Mother Teresa

Would you argue with Mother Teresa? Most of us think of her as someone who single-handedly changed the world as she touched the “untouchables” of Calcutta.  As one small nun in India, dedicated to improving the lives of the destitute and hopeless, she didn't do it on her own. She inspired and influenced others to change their circumstances and help change the world, one request or kind act at a time. She also didn’t take no for an answer. She so inspired people that she created a ripple effect of caring and servant leadership that carries on today, nearly twenty years after her death. 

That kind of leadership legacy, one that produces a positive ripple effect, has been created time after time by now near-mythical figures that loom large in history. A few names that come to mind in addition to Mother Teresa are Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, and George Washington. That's my quick, eclectic list. I'm sure you can think of many others who created a positive leadership ripple by the words and behaviors that inspired such courage and action that they helped transform cultures and the trajectory of history. 

Consider the ripple effect of leadership in your organization and to you personally. We've all tossed a stone into the water and been fascinated by the visible rings and the potential power of that one act that forces water outward. Is it really possible that a small ripple on one shore can become a tidal wave on another? We don't always consider the impact of the things that we do as leaders, or just as ordinary people. What if we were all more mindful of the example set by our words and actions? 

I've been thinking about trust and the ripple effect as it relates to organizational culture and leadership. I picked up "The Speed of Trust" by Stephen M. R. Covey, the son of Stephen Covey of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" best-seller fame. The younger Covey's contention is that trust is the "one thing that changes everything." Well, call me skeptical. At the same time, I'm not certain that most people really understand the significance of trust and the connection to leadership, so perhaps another viewpoint can’t hurt.  

According to Covey, trust is a function of two things, and cannot truly exist without both. The first is character, which is an individual's integrity, motive, and intent. The second is competence, or that same individual's capabilities, skills, and results. Trust is not only based on the core of who you are, but also what you've done, or your body of work. Covey contends that most of us think about trust based on character alone, and I think he’s on to something. It should be about more about the balance between character and competence. 

In the words of Jack Welch, retired CEO of General Electric, if you want to earn trust, can you both "live the values" (character) and "deliver the results" (competence)? I also like the explanation shared by Jim Collins, the author of the bestselling management book "Good to Great." He described character as "extreme personal humility" and competence as "intense professional will." Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, mentions the qualities that he looks for as “integrity” (character) and “intelligence” (competence)

Covey’s assertion is that "any leadership failure, any, is a failure of one or the other." 

This was yet another fine "aha" moment in my leadership journey. It's when I really started to think about the ripple effect of leadership and the necessity of trust, both with individuals and within organizations. Strong leaders build trust, and their encouragement and ability to inspire drive engagement, excellence and success. Poor leaders also have a ripple effect, eroding trust as criticism and negativity drive fear and suspicion, and self-protection overrules teamwork and stunts organizational growth. 

An organization where trust truly exists and people feel safe is an organization of endless possibility. An organization where trust is a constant battle is an organization of unfulfilled potential and endless frustration. 

As leaders, it is important to build trust from the inside out. Covey describes the process as the "Five Waves of Trust." His concept of the five waves beautifully illustrates the ripple effect. From the inside out, here are Covey's Five Waves:

  • Self-must trust ourselves first in order to build confidence and credibility and inspire trust in others. 
  • Relationship-must exhibit consistent behavior that can instill trust and build “trust accounts” with others.
  • Organizational-alignment of structures and systems that establishes trust.
  • Market-reputation and brand must be consistent, transparent, and above reproach.
  • Societal-must create value for others, contributing to the greater good.

The five waves in succession are indicative of levels of influence. The first two levels are where we all have influence. Credibility is so important. Why would anyone be willing to trust a leader, or a friend, who doesn’t seem to trust himself or have the confidence to inspire trust in others? This is where the foundation is set, and where character and competence are crucial. 

I’ve also been thinking about the importance of trust in parenting, and how consistent behavior and “trust accounts” create a ripple effect with my young adults as they make their way in the world. When difficult discussions and the resulting emotions get in the way, we can all count on the foundation of character that is fundamental to each of us as individuals. I may not always like where the conversations with my kids go, but we trust each other to listen. They are encouraged to take chances and make their own choices, no matter how much I may want to tell them that their choice is a mistake. As a parent, or as a friend, I’m not sure which words are more powerful, “I love you,” or “I trust you.” I suppose it’s the combination.   

Consider again the contributions and ripple effect of leaders like Mother Teresa throughout history, and you begin to see what a powerful and necessary component trust is for motivation, inspiration, and change. As leaders, we all create many ripples. It's up to us to decide individually what impact we'd like those ripples to have, and to build the foundation of trust necessary to lead by the strength of our character and competence.

Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome.

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Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at



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