Can One Person Really Make a Difference?

Last Updated Aug 8, 2011 7:51 PM EDT

Can One Person Really Make a DifferenceLet me ask you a question, and I want you to answer honestly: do you really think you can make a difference in the world? If you're like most people, your answer was no.

Well, guess what? You're probably wrong. Not only can you make a difference, you've probably had a far greater impact on way more people than you realize.

That said, it does help if you believe it. As we discussed in CEOs Are Just Like You - Without All the Whining, successful executives often think they're special and destined for great things, a powerful combination that's often self-fulfilling.

It's probably the single most common characteristic among successful leaders. They truly believe they can make a difference.

Now, there are lots of ways to, as Steve Jobs said to the original Apple Macintosh design team, "make a dent in the universe." But I want to focus on how one person can really make a difference by influencing thousands of people or even an entire industry.

And don't think for a second that it's a rare thing. It happens all the time. Here are a few examples so you can see what I'm talking about.

First, check out this infographic of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's progeny. The guy spawned an entire generation of software entrepreneurs and companies, from Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com to Craig Conway of PeopleSoft and Tom Siebel of Siebel Systems.
According to Houston Neal of Software Advice - developers of the infographic - "Much of what we recognize in the software market today - hard-nosed determination, aggressive sales and marketing, personal rivalries - can be tied back to Larry Ellison's personality and the experience many executives got at Oracle."

On the hardware side, Intel's Andy Grove and his unique management style had a profound influence on dozens of disciples who went on to hold top executive positions beyond the chip giant, including Dave House of Bay Networks, Dell's Carl Everett, and most recently, Pat Gelsinger at storage giant EMC.

Now, I know what you're going to say, these are extreme, once-in-a-lifetime examples. Au contraire. The truth is that, to make a dent in the universe, you don't have to be a Larry Ellison or an Andy Grove. You don't even have to directly influence thousands of people. Just a handful can make a huge difference.

Think about it. When one person influences a few others, there are two major effects:

  1. A ripple effect that, over time, can actually impact thousands over generations.
  2. A broadening effect since one person influences many, like multiplying tree branches.
Here's an exercise for you. Think about all the people you may have had an impact on in your life. Employees, coworkers, bosses, vendors, customers, family, friends. Lots and lots of people. And they're just part of the equation. You may have influenced dozens of others without even realizing it.

Two years ago, in How Events Shape Your Career, Are You Paying Attention, I listed ten people who, just by saying one thing, had a profound impact on my career and my life. Some of them were people I hardly knew but said something in passing that really resonated with me at that point in time.

Well, it works in reverse, too. You have no idea how many people you can influence and help just by sharing your experiences and insights. It's a far more generous thing than any material gift you can ever give. It's also one of the 10 Things That Good Bosses Do.

Speaking of influence, one of the most influential, albeit polarizing, figures in history has to be Ayn Rand. Half a century after it was published, they're still remaking Atlas Shrugged movies. Say what you want about the woman, Rand's philosophy that individuals can do great things has always inspired me.

Not that anybody really is special. I've learned from experience that we're all just flesh and blood men and women. Nevertheless, we can do great things, if only for a brief time. And most importantly, the impact of those actions - what we say and do - can reach far beyond our mortal selves.

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Image courtesy Software Advice