The pond metaphor

Posted by  Mark Schenk —July 5, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Leadership Posts

Here is something I have meant to post about for a while. It is a metaphor in the book ‘Dangerous Undertaking‘ by James Harlow Brown. Shawn has previously blogged about the extensive use of metaphor in the book. The metaphor is in a story about a NASA engineer who discovered something that took him off his ‘autopilot’ and helped him realised the impact his behaviour and actions have. I have tried to paraphrase the story to capture its essence:

The engineer was sitting by a pond, contemplating. He saw a frog jump into the pond and noticed how the ripples spread right across the pond. He watched intently and realised that there were many other sources of movement on the surface of the pond. Insects would occasionally touch the water causing tiny ripples. A swallow swooped down and lightly touched the surface as it caught a bug. A light breeze came up and created more ripples. All these ripples interacted and caused complex patterns on the surface of the water. The engineer began to get an insight; each event was writing its unique pattern on the water and the ripples lasted long after the event happened. He realised that the whole world was the same way. We make ripples and create the future every moment.

The engineer’s insight deepened. He realised he was watching the pond from a distance, as if he were outside watching others make ripples and he couldn’t see himself in the picture. Suddenly it hit him that in the real world, there is no bank to sit on. He was right in the pond where the ripples were affecting him, and where he was causing ripples too. This was the insight that had a profound effect on the engineer, getting him to turn off his autopilot. Seeing himself as a part of the pond, not as some external observer.

For me, the pond metaphor has relevance to our work in leadership development. Some managers see themselves as sitting on the bank, carefully choosing where they want to drop a pebble and create patterns. They do so without realising that their every action creates patterns that have a big influence on the pond. Influences that may counteract the effects of their carefully dropped pebbles. ‘Sitting on the bank’ is a luxury that doesn’t exist. We are all creating patterns, and the future, constantly because we are in the pond. Seeing ourselves as ‘in the pond’ helps change the way we think about the effects of our behaviour.

What ripples are you causing? Will your pebble drop with scarely a ripple in the pond, or will it have lasting effect?

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:


  1. Nimmy says:

    Interesting! I love metaphors. This one was good and I am able to appreciate your view of needing to realize that we are all in the pond and not outside of it! Nevertheless, something tells me that most of us actually find it difficult to come out of the situation we are in and sit on the ‘bank’ and be a neutral observer of it. We make hasty decisions most of the time because we can’t ‘see’ much. Often, it is said that we can take the best decisions and see things from a better perspective only when we detach ourselves from the situation and observe it from outside….of course, we need to get back in to move on…! Makes sense? It would be interesting to know what you think…! 🙂

  2. Mark Schenk says:

    Thanks Nimmy. Your comment immediately reminded me of the many situations I have seen where people did need to take in the bigger picture (get on the bank, so to speak). Where they needed to see the other patterns forming to understand the potential impact of their decisions.

    I guess I was coming from the perspective where people think it is only their decisions that influence the patterns in the pond, forgetting that their behaviour, every interaction they have, also creates ripples and patterns. Related to the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitudes exhibited far too often by managers.

    Your sentence “Often, it is said that we can take the best decisions and see things from a better perspective only when we detach ourselves from the situation and observe it from outside….of course, we need to get back in to move on…!” is a nice summary.

  3. Nimmy says:

    Thanks, Mark. I guess this is one of the challenges with metaphors. At least with me…! You tend to go beyond specific situations and apply the metaphor all over the place! 🙂 Your second paragraph helps me understand that you were talking something specific….about leaders and the “do as i say/do as i do” behaviour…!

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