The Impact of Just One Person

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His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer.

One day , while working in his fields, trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He never hesitated, dropped his tools, and ran to find the person who was yelling for help. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what would have been a slow and terrifying death.

The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the farmer’s sparse home. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy which Mr. Fleming had saved. “I want to repay you,” said the nobleman. “for the kindness you showed when you saved my son’s life.”

“No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,” the Scottish farmer replied, waving off the offer. “When we have been shown a kindness, we can but pass it on. That is all I did.”

At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel. “Is that your son?” The nobleman asked. “Yes,” the farmer replied proudly.

“I’ll make you a deal. Let me take him and give a great education. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll grow to be a man of which you can be proud.” And that is just what he did. In time, farmer Fleming’s son
graduated as a doctor from Saint Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. Later, he went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered Penicillin.

Years afterward, the same nobleman’s son was again stricken, this time with pneumonia. This time what saved him was the Penicillin discovered by farmer Fleming’s son, Alexander. The name of the nobleman?  Lord Randolph Churchill. His twice-saved son’s name?  Sir Winston Churchill.

Consider using this story with your mentors in a program newsletter or meeting, to affirm the impact they can have on others.

By Barry Sweeny

There are often times when we face discouragement, or maybe just a lack of support and encouragement in the “battles” we wage as mentoring leaders trying to improve our programs. It may even seem at times, that we are trying to drag our organization into the future to greater effectiveness, but that the people go reluctantly into that future kicking & screaming in resistance.

At such moments of frustration, we need to remember five key but simple principles:

  1. ONE person can make an enormous difference.
  2. To make a difference, we must BE different
  3. YOU can make such a difference.
  4. INVESTING in others’ success is the beginning.
  5. SHOWING others how to invest in others’ success is what makes the greatest difference of all.

In retrospect, I can see that I have used these five principles in my life and my work for at least the past 25 years. However, it was only while preparing for a Mentor Training of Trainers which I led, that I was finally able to articulate these motivations as five principles. Here is what I mean by these five crucial principles.

1. ONE person can make an enormous difference.

Isn’t this the very reason we are committed to mentoring?

We wanted to make a difference in other peoples’ lives! But then, consider for a few minutes, WHY do we even want to make a difference in other peoples’ lives? Here’s what I think.

So many times, I have found that it has been just one person who has made a huge difference in my life. It has always been just one person who, at just the right time, came along to rescue me when I was lost, who opened a door for me when I felt trapped and saw no options, or who encouraged me to “Hang in there,” when I felt like giving up.

Often at those times, I did not even realize what these persons were doing for me. They usually sought no recognition or any “pay back” for their insights and kindness. All I knew was that it felt so good to be on the
receiving end of that kind of powerful experience. It was only later that I came to realize that those moments had made such a big difference for me.

As I reflect back on those times when I have been so blessed by the kindness of others, I realize that it was these examples of individual caring that have enabled me to do the same for others. Even when I am discouraged and feel unrecognized for the good I am trying to do, it has been my personal experience of the incredible difference one person can make that keeps me trying to be ONE MORE person, making a difference for others.

2. To make a BIG difference, we must BE different

Even more amazing to me, I have learned that I cannot make much of a difference for others when I act as others expect. It is only when I act counter to what is expected that what I do seems

to make a difference in others’ lives. Why in the world can that be so? The acceptable norms of the society in which we live and the organizations in which we work, influence us to conform. The social pressure to so conform is tremendous and, itself, becomes

accepted as the norm. We lose awareness of the ways in which we are influenced to behave, think, make decisions, even to value some things and not others. The busyness amid which we live (as Steve Covey says) makes the “urgent” overwhelm the “important”. The PRESENT REALITY becomes acceptable and seems to drive us away from questioning why it is not otherwise.

As Robert Kennedy said, “Some see what is and wonder ‘Why?’. Others see what should be and wonder ‘Why not?’.”

When we decide to make a difference for others, we are really choosing to step out of the expected and walk on a different path. Inherently we understand that we can’t improve the world very much as long as we think as others think and do what others do. To act as we all already do is what creates the way things are. To create things the way they should be, we must act differently. So:

  • We stay long after others have gone home, to serve on a strategic planning team, or the staff development committee.
  • We leave our work and our own responsibilities for 45 minutes so we can coach and support a colleague who needs “another pair of eyes” to see themselves and their practice more clearly.
  • We leave “our” roles and tasks for two years to temporarily serve as a full time mentor or facilitator for the implementation of a new mentoring program
  • We even leave our comfortable roles forever to assume the scary roles required for leadership of mentoring and other such programs.

When we take these steps, there may be others who are so uncomfortable with us & with peer leadership that they will sometimes say and do things to press us to stop acting differently and to act in more “acceptable” ways. To handle such pressure and not lose sight of our vision for our profession, we need to:

  • Remember “To make a difference, we must BE different.”
  • Seek the support of others who have the same dreams as we
  • Respond to the negative “zingers” we receive with positive statements that clarify why we do what we do and invite our detractors to grow along with us.

Remember, like the mariners of old, who were guided by the stars toward lands they had not yet seen, we must be guided by our vision toward organizations in which the people are all

successful and continual learners. We must not allow the current reality and our current knowledge to blind us to the possibilities. Whether others choose to make the journey with us or not, we must be relentless pilgrims in search of that new reality. In doing so, many others will follow.

3. YOU can make such a difference.

If it is true that one person can make an enormous difference, and that, to make a difference, we must BE different, then we are led to ask next, “How can I make a bigger difference?”

Here are several answers and a few resources to support you in your quest to make a bigger difference.

  • Do not make the journey alone. Set yourself up for success by planning the trip as a collaborative process. Such a conception means that you have partners who co-labor with you on the same tasks. Develop a team who’ll make the journey together.
  • Focus on getting better at getting better. To accomplish this, plan the process as an experiment in which you expect to learn.

To implement this, consider the process as an experiment to actually test out an hypothesis. Good scientists do NOT say, Let’s put these two things together and see what happens.” That would result in a lot of dead scientists. Good science uses an hypothesis which is based on the existing knowledge about the problem.

Design your experiment to build on others’ knowledge and experience and to ensure that you will learn a lot by:

1. Clearly stating what the fundamental principle is that you want to test out and affirm or refine.

2. Treating individuals individually.  Terry Deal tells us that our “Organizations change one conversation at a time.” I believe that to be true. If you do too, then you must implement that truth in your life and work. Consider, in what ways do you not act as if that were true? Do you have data to show when your participants have common needs as learners and when they have unique needs which require that they be treated as individuals?

Treating individuals individually does not always mean that we work with one individual at a time. Of course, that IS the most effective way to work, and it is why we sometimes use mentoring to address needs. BUT, we CAN treat people individually by working with them in a group – IF you have data that shows they really do have common learning needs.

Treating learners individually means that we actually:

  • Assess each person’s ;earning needs for a topic before we try to help them learn it;
  • Plan how to increase the impact of their learning experiences by building on what they already know;
  • Assess their progress during the event  or conversaion, and adjust our help as needed;
  • Assess their growth at the end of the time, and…
  • Plan and provide what they need next to maintain progress, especially individual follow up support for implementation

Delivering a high impact positive learning is the first step in the “HOW to make a bigger difference” strategy. You cannot make a bigger difference without this step.

3. Finding a mentor for yourself.  If you really expect to grow and want to accelerate that growth process, why try to figure it out by yourself ?  Find someone who has made the journey you are on or at least someone who is further down the path than you.

Not sure who to ask or how to find a mentor? Next time you are at the annual conference or a regional event of the International Mentoring Association, think of it as a professional organization with folks like yourself who are dedicated to making this same journey. Talk with people about their experiences, whether they help others outside of their own programs, and lay out what you are seeking.

You might consider using ME as your mentor. I am a “Mentor of Mentors” for many and would be glad to talk with you, and maybe to help you, short or long-term to reach your growth goals. I’d be glad to even help you figure out what your goals should be.  I’d do this as a believer in what IMA stands for – the power of helping each other.  Hey, let’s plan some time together at the IMA conference. Email me now and let’s set a time –

Some resources I recommend to support you in this journey are found on this web site and are a knowledge base for numerous processes you may have to lead.

4. INVESTING in others’ success is the beginning.

I have spent considerable time reflecting back over what others did to help me and trying to understand WHY is was so powerful.  I have decided that what they did was to give me a powerful and positive learning experience. Some learning experiences are taught by the “school of hard knocks”. That is not the kind of learning I mean, since that kind of learning often comes through a negative experience.

Giving someone a powerful positive learning experience is giving a GIFT. THAT is why it’s so life changing. The kindness of the gift giver, even their love for me, exceeded what I knew I deserved or expected. Once I understood the gift I’d been given, I also found that, although I tried, I could not express enough thanks to the gift giver to equal the power of the gift. I found the ONLY WAY to feel at ease with receiving such a gift was to GIVE IT AWAY MYSELF! Hence, I became a mentor and a mentor of mentors.

Someone else said it much better (and gave us another “gift”).

“One can never pay back in gratitude. One can only pay ‘in kind’ somewhere else in life.”

– Anne Morrow Lindberg

This tells us that the power behind giving others the gift of a powerful, positive learning experience is that they will be driven to give that gift to others.

To ensure that when they ALSO give their own ‘gift”, and that it is as powerful in it’s effect as the original gift, we need to learn one final principle.

5. SHOWING others HOW to invest in others’ success is what makes the greatest difference.

Once we have given someone the gift of a powerful, positive learning experience, we must stay alert for the right moment to help them consider how best to give that gift to those that THEY support or serve in their own work.  In this case, timing is critical and we must not prematurely push the one we have gifted to take this final step. However, if we wish our work with learners to bear fruit with others, we MUST some day take this last step.

How can we show someone how to actually translate their own learning into other’s learning? To do so we need to use what I call the “Three Debriefing Questions”. These three questions are used to close out any
formal conversation we have with the person whose learning we have tried to support. Using these three questions is one of the most powerful mentoring strategies I know.

“The Three Debriefing Questions”

1. What have you learned from our work together? (Facilitate and clarify answering that and then move on to the 2nd question.)

2. (Then say) “I want to become even better at supporting your learning. To do that, I need your feed back”. (Now it’s time for the 2nd question.) “What is it that I did in our work together that helped your learning?”   (Facilitate and clarify answering that and then move on to the third question.)

3. (Then say,) “If that was important for your learning, I will bet it is also vital for others’ learning too.”  (Now, ask the 3rd question) “How can we use this insight to improve others’ learning?”  (Facilitate and clearly answer that and then make plans to implement the improvements in your work.”

Finally, follow up to ensure that they have the support they deserve to solve the problems that always will accompany change, and to develop mastery of the new approaches you designed together.


1. First, provide a positive, high impact learning experience to the individual learner.

2. Guide the learner to reflect on and analyze that experience and WHY it had a high impact on them.

3. Ask questions to prompt the learner to discover the strategy which made it a high impact learning experience for them.

4. Facilitate the learner’s planning for how they will use that high impact strategy in his/her own work to improve learning and growth for others.

5. Support the learner in using and mastering this strategy in his/her pwn work

If you ever need help in implementing these strategies in your work or adapting these ideas to your specific setting, email me and let me know. I’m glad to help you put these powerful ideas to work.  Just mention this article.