Beware of butterflies

This week, a student asked me if she could take some action to show support for a climate cause that is important to her. It involved wearing different clothes for the day and so she was asking for my permission to promote it school-wide at very short notice. If I said yes I might be responsible for a chain of events that could either end up either a disorganised mess or an unmitigated success. Conversely, If I said no, for all I know I could end up being responsible for putting out the flame of a future UN Secretary-General. So it goes.

Such thoughts would appear to be practical expressions of Chaos Theory.  One of the most profound principles of Chaos Theory is the so-called “Butterfly Effect” – which was pioneered through the work of Edward Lorenz back in the 1960’s – with the discovery that small changes in one place (in a deterministic nonlinear system) can result in large differences in a later state of the system. The unexpected result led Lorenz to a powerful insight into the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “Butterfly Effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. 


I think most people can relate to the “Butterfly Effect” and identify a time in their life when they have had to live with the unintended consequences. Some of my hardest lessons remain both painful and seminal in the way that I think about things…

Once upon a time, I was completing a peace support mission as a young Captain in the British Army.  In one village we visited, I was invited to a ‘shura’ with the local leaders.  High in the mountains, and under a cold blue sky, we discussed ways in which we could help make things better.  On this particular day, due to a last-minute change in plans, I was unexpectedly left to lead discussions for the first time.  There were 3 requests made:

1 – to not be here.

2 – to provide access to medicine and doctors.

3 – to provide shoes.  

The first ‘ask’ was outside of my gift at the time.  But it made the most profound impact on my world-view and helped set me on a path that would eventually lead me back into school leadership and promoting education as the best way to build a peaceful and stable world. I traveled a long way to find that out. If I hadn’t been there that day, it’s entirely possible that I would still be wearing a uniform and certainly not writing this blog.

The second ‘ask’ was something we acted on.  We set up pop-up medical clinics, flew in trained doctors and nurses, and then people would travel long distances and risk their lives to get to them.  However, the unintended consequences of this well-intended philanthropy were often tragic.  The clinics, and those who sought medical care from them, inadvertently became targets for attack for cavorting with the ‘enemy’.  Later, the approach changed so that local people were offered training to become medical professionals; undoubtedly with new consequences…some positive and some not so positive. 

The third ‘ask’?  Well, this was something that I wrote home to my wife about.  Struggling to understand what was going on, and wanting to help in some way, I suggested she might send over some of my old trainers (new ones would have turned their wearers into targets) for me to share when I next had the opportunity.  Three weeks later a box arrived.  Not one pair of shoes, but a boxful.  Then another box arrived, and then another and then another.  And then for several months, the boxes kept arriving (and as far as I know they might still be arriving (13 years later) full of shoes.  It turned out my wife told her mum about the need for shoes, who then told her friends…  All very well intended, but for the fact that by the time the shoes had arrived, anyone wearing new shoes in the wrong place, at the wrong time, would also become a target for attack.  So, somewhere, out yonder, I am sorry to say that there may, or may not, be several thousand old shoes waiting to be discovered.  Or maybe they already have and there’s now a flourishing second-hand shoe industry I am responsible for?  That would be so cool!


One of the humbling privileges of leadership is being able to make decisions.  Some of these decisions might make a huge difference, others not. But we need to make them.

What I find odd, however, particularly when working with young people, is that we often remove the opportunity for them to make any decisions at all.  We think that we know better, that we can predict what will happen if certain decisions are made.  Some of that is certainly true – and we call this wisdom.  However, we need to let young people gain their own wisdom.  They can only do that by being given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own decisions. They need to be allowed to fail.

In the end, I did not make the decision for the student.  It’s her decision.  I’ll take my chances with whatever the butterfly serves up, and so can she.  And we’ll both be better for it.

Caveat: I am not a mathematician – so apologies for any mishandling of Chaos Theory and any misapplication of the Butterfly Effect. I blame popular culture!

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