Sometimes the most influential leadership moves cause a “butterfly effect”–a small event that can have a big impact.
When I was in first grade, my teacher made a decision that would affect the rest of my life.
In Taiwan, large classrooms aren’t unusual. In fact, my first-grade class had 72 students. Each school day was divided into six periods. At the start of each period, the teacher would sit in her seat while a student who had been assigned the role of class leader stood before the class.
The class leader would ask the students to stand up, loud enough to cut through the noise of 72 giggly first graders. He or she would lead the class in a bow and a greeting of “good morning, teacher” or “good afternoon, teacher.” Finally, the leader would ask the class to sit down.
I was very shy when I started the first grade. I hardly ever spoke a word. So you can imagine my surprise when my teacher, Mrs. Liu, appointed me class leader.
I still remember the first time I had to go through the sequence. I was terrified. I remember my voice, small, like a little mouse–barely loud enough to be heard by one student, let alone 72.
But Mrs. Liu didn’t scold me. “It’s OK,” she said to me privately, gently. “Speak a little louder. Try again.” Even when other kids laughed, she would encourage me to keep trying.
She would give feedback. “See those kids in that back corner,” she would say. “You need to make them hear you.”
She taught me how to recognize my own progress. If only half the room stood up, it meant only half the students heard me.
After about a week, I found my voice. I started to say the words–“stand up,” “good morning, teacher,” “sit down”–loud enough so everyone could hear, even in the noisy, post-recess chaos. After a while, it became so natural that I automatically said the words, day in and day out.
Mrs. Liu was always encouraging. She never criticized. And because of that, other students respected me. And my confidence grew–enough that, decades later, the same shy, quiet, terrified student who could barely speak in front of a class of 72 can now confidently address audiences of hundreds.
That one decision from Mrs. Liu had a profound influence on my life. It is an example of the butterfly effect–a small event that can create a much bigger impact. If you’re a leader, ask yourself: What are the effects of the actions I am taking with my team? What kind of impact will my choices have in five years? Ten years?
As you think about creating your own butterfly effect, consider these lessons, inspired by Mrs. Liu.
Use words and actions
Mrs. Liu didn’t say, “Believe in yourself! You have the ability to be confident deep down inside.” She made me experience the meaning of those words. By appointing me class leader, I was able to discover and develop my confidence on my own. That’s much more impactful than just hearing about my potential.
Think about what the members on your team need to experience to grow. Then, inspire them with words, but lead them with action.
Don’t let people plateau
After about a half semester as class leader, Mrs. Liu enrolled another student and I in a public speaking contest. This was a step up from my role as class leader–we had to prepare stories and tell them in front of a new audience.
Mrs. Liu could see that I had met the challenge of class leader, and that it was time for a new challenge. Look at your team. Are people coasting in their roles? Even high performers can get bored. New challenges keep people on their toes, invested in their jobs, and on a path to growth.
Rethink your go-to people
Mrs. Liu could have assigned class leader to the most outgoing student in class. Instead, she chose the most quiet. Why? The outgoing student would have easily excelled in the role, but I had the most to gain.
Leaders tend to give assignments and tasks to the people who are already good at those things. The most high-profile, challenging work goes to the most capable workers. But this means the rest of the team may never get the chance to break into that high-performing circle.
Don’t forget the coaching aspect of leadership. If someone is ready for that high-profile project, let them take it. If not, pair them up with someone who is. Set them up to collaborate with others who can help them build their skills–and their confidence.
This article was originally posted in Inc.com