The waterfall effect in leadership

A look at the six principles leaders can leverage to cascade success.


It takes a lot to become a leader. Take any team sport, for instance, cricket — it involves eleven individuals, each with a specific role to play. The energy, focus and specialisation of each is combined to produce the outcome.

When we change the above context to business and imagine an organisation where leaders optimise time and potential to the fullest, there is a cascading effect capable of producing great outcomes. This is called the ‘waterfall effect’.

The waterfall effect establishes the premise that leaders, who spend time focussing on the right goals, engaging in the right activities, and connecting with the right people produce the waterfall effect of ‘cascading’ success.

The waterfall effect refers to the benefits that cascade down through the organisation, into the community, and out to the customer or client base. The idea originated from Paul H Burton’s book, The Waterfall Effect.

Burton says that time is the most valuable asset for any organisation. And how every employee utilises this resource, is vital for the company’s growth and success. Only leaders who optimise their time to the fullest are capable of producing the waterfall effect in their organisations.

In the book, the author talks about six leadership principles that can help a person become a leader capable of cascading success.

Developing field vision

This refers to the ability to assimilate and respond to numerous data inputs. It explains why mathematicians and engineers are preferred for leadership positions in companies that have not been directly related to engineering products. Being able to process large data quickly is an essential skill that saves time (a powerful resource). This attribute helps to create distinguished leaders who contribute dynamically towards the waterfall effect.

Keeping the glass half full

This refers to the impact of positive attitude at the leadership and managerial levels. Leaders who are optimistic will always see a glass half full. This positive attitude in the workplace helps employees come up with ideas, experiment and create innovative processes and products. A leader operating from a positive frame of mind energises the entire workforce and helps to produce a waterfall effect.

Leveraging the value of silence

This is the salient skill of perfecting one’s response with respect to the timing. In other words, a visionary leader knows when to stay quiet. Developing the sensibility and intuitiveness to weigh the words coming out of one’s mouth can be a distinguishing factor in being a leader. Silence, when used as a communication tool by leaders, just as talking and listening, can produce great results.

Peeling back the onion

This refers to the ability to uncover the hidden potential in others. The leader helps employees to believe in their potential and takes the right actions to help expand it. By extending support, being optimistic and providing opportunity leaders are able to boost the employees’ performances.

Setting the bar

The importance of establishing proper expectations from your workforce cannot be underestimated. Managers can stress out the workforce by harbouring unreasonable expectations. This not only demotivates them but also affects their performance. Leaders should use the communication channels effectively, allow managers to talk openly and then set the bar for task completion.

Triaging priorities

This refers to the need for constant appraisal of what requires urgent attention. As mentioned before, time is a vital element of the waterfall effect. It highlights the importance of prioritising action. Phenomenal leaders are constantly juggling responsibilities, by being able to do what’s most important before other relatively less important work. At the same time, they have to keep a close eye on all tasks and schedules.

By applying these principles, a leader can produce the waterfall effect in his leadership.

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