This past semester, I was listening to my inspiring students’ final projects for a class I teach called “Leading with Authentic Purpose” which focuses on re-framing leadership as a deeply personal, existential process.
The final assignment charged each student to deeply reflect and present a 5-minute talk on why they exist, how they would deliver their existence to the world, and what they would actually do to deliver their personal purpose.
In one of the last presentations of the day one of my students came up to the front clutching an outline of a butterfly – folded and noticeably aged on purple construction paper. This small butterfly would have a profound effect on how I define what it means to be a leader.
The student went on to tell the story of being appointed as a leader for an all-girls retreat at her church. She was reluctant. In fact, she explained, she didn’t even truly enjoy the retreats and could not seem to inspire herself for the role. However, as the retreat approached, she took things more seriously. As part of her preparation, one small and frequently overlooked task was to decorate the room that would host the activities. She happened to decide, by chance as she would describe it, on cutting out purple butterflies as the centerpieces for all of the tables.
As the girls came into the room for the start of the retreat and noticed the decorations, one of the girls was visibly overcome with emotion. As my student approached her to ask if she was okay, the girl was clearly overwhelmed.
Through her tears, she went on to say that earlier that year her father had passed away and she was weighed down with grief and was questioning her faith. So, she prayed. She prayed for a sign that everything was going to be okay. And, she made the sign in her prayer specific.
She had prayed, almost a year earlier, for a purple butterfly. Everything will be okay.
When my student got to this point of the story, I was leveled. Beyond the spiritual implications of this surreal event, she went on to say that in that moment she learned that even the smallest and seemingly mundane tasks in any given role can and will have a dramatic effect on someone else’s life.
I believe that this one lesson can transform leadership: The authentic belief that you can’t not matter. Especially, in the business of being responsible for peoples’ lives, which if you are in an organization on this planet, you can’t escape.
Swami Sivananda once said, “A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.”
When we believe that we matter, every day and in every moment, our conceptualization of even the most routine task as leaders is transformed.
Every day, you cut out your own purple butterflies.
Your speeches, actions, details, and thoughts come together to define who you are as a leader.
Taking responsibility and demonstrating imaginative intention for each of them can transform and remind you: You can’t not matter.