Every now and then, when I feel distracted or unsettled, I will look over the shelves of my bookcases and wait for a title to grab my eye. Sometimes, I am not sure why I go back to books I have read over and over. It might be that I am simply looking for some comfort, something familiar. Or I may be searching for a renewed sense of inspiration, a new idea, or pages to get lost in. Today, one book, The Tao of Leadership, caught my eye. I felt compelled to crack its cover again.

Immediately, the book opened to a wonderful passage by its author, John Heider. It is numbered, 54. The Ripple Effect. I remember reading this passage many years ago when I was struggling to find my voice in a new job, in a new state and while assigned to a controversial and complex project to restore the Minnesota River. I was searching for my purpose while developing new skills that would allow me to make a difference. This passage was particularly poignant and powerful:

“Do you want to be a positive influence in the world? First, get your own life in order. Ground yourself in the single principle so that your behavior is wholesome and effective. If you do that, you will earn respect and be a powerful influence.

Your behavior influences others through a ripple effect. A ripple effect works because everyone influences everyone else. Powerful people are powerful influences.”

Notice that the author does not ask us to find the weaknesses in others or to complain about a problem. The role we all have is to get “our own houses in order” and to begin a positive ripple that will impact and inspire others to be their best.

In our work with citizens in all kinds of places and roles, I have found that most of us share a similar, powerful urge. That is, most of us have an urge to look outside of ourselves for the root of a problem, to find the weaknesses in others, to lay blame at someone else’s feet. For example, when our children do not do well in school, we are quick to blame the teacher, the principal, the school district and anyone else we can think of so that we don’t have to do the most difficult work of all – determining what role we played in getting to this place.

Few of us want to look at our own failings or blind spots. It is not easy. Deciding to become a leader puts the onus on the leader to do a good deal of self-reflection, to look inside at one’s weakness, learn how to let go and surrender to the will of the people, let the group make their own rules and be open to what they create without us.

As a planner, I suppose I love structure and predictability. I knew that about myself a long time ago, so I have had to learn how to step back, provide enough structure for groups, but not too much, to be OK when 5 people show up to a meeting when you expected 20, and to let go of the sense of what the outcome of a process will or should be.

I often wondered over many years of practice whether what I have done in the world has helped to create a positive ripple in my family, neighborhood, career, city, state. I have been in few positions with “positional authority”, so I have had to learn to lead without being able to tell people what to do. I have found that this required more reflection and humility than if I had been “in charge”.

Ripples are best started in an open space, without interference, where their reach can be unrestrained and limitless. Take a small step, do something small in your life where you have authority. Then, stand back and watch to see where your ripple ends and another begins.

If you are a civic leader that is looking to be inspired, read John Heider’s lovely book, The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age, Humanics New Age Press, 2015.


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