What Type of Wake Are You Cultivating?

By May 3, 2012Generations

I am not a sailor. I am a farmer’s son.

Cultivating a PathAs a teenager, one of the jobs I had was cultivating corn. I was on a tractor and, behind me, was an implement designed to remove weeds in between the rows of corn. The corn rows were left intact, as long as I could drive straight enough. If I swerved, then four rows of corn would be lost.

It was an unnerving responsibility for someone closer to ten than twenty years old. I also felt the power of not only the responsibility but the impact I could have on those proudly independent stalks of corn. In whatever way I drove, the results were clearly shown behind me.

This is my version of a wake. In boating terms, it is the track of waves left behind. It can be neatly V shaped, like a flock of geese heading south. It also can be messy, like a path left behind a tornado.

What does your wake look like?

This is a powerful question to think about. What do I leave behind with my actions and conversations? What wake do my colleagues or team members leave behind in their actions and conversations? It can an exponential chain reaction between leaders and team members of an exceptional or chaotic wake.

The answer to this question can be eye-opening. There can be a significant cost to a messy wake. Costs include:

  • Dissatisfaction
  • Disempowerment
  • Discouragement
  • Disengagement

What type of wake do you leave?The wake concept comes from Dr. Henry Cloud, author of Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. He outlines two sides of a wake:  tasks and relationships. This is centered on: “What did he accomplish and how did he deal with people?”

Dr. Cloud states clearly:

“The wake is the results we leave behind. And the wake doesn’t lie and it doesn’t care about excuses. It is what it is. No matter what we try to do to explain why, or to justify what the wake is, it still remains. It is what we leave behind and is our record.”

On the relationship front, it really comes down to whether or not the people who worked with us would work with us a second time. It is very likely we have certain people we would never want to work with again. This is the wake left behind with relationships.

The concept of our wake is haunting and exhilarating. It is haunting because it visualizes clearly what our character and actions leave behind. It is exhilarating because of the focus it delivers in what we believe, do, and say. There is a stream of consistency needed in order to leave a good path behind.

In my opinion, we leave a wake in three key areas:

  1. Our work
  2. Our family
  3. Our community

We may be good in one or more but not in another. Getting solid wakes in all three can be challenging yet necessary.

When I think about my wake today, it brings clarity to what I have done and what I need to do. If you really want a challenge, ask your co-workers, teammates, family, and neighbors the following question:  What wake do I leave in my actions and in our interactions?

For me, it goes back to one of my earlier questions:  Do I make people better?

An added question may be: Do I make situations better?

There are many questions to consider. However, questions lead to answers of how to be a better leader, spouse, parent, and neighbor. It is essential to ask the tough questions to gain better answers on how to improve our relationships and our work.

Turning back to the farmer’s perspective, the leading question may be:

What path are we cultivating?

It isn’t a look forward. It is a look back to see if we are fostering individual growth and productivity or devastating everything as we move through. We have an awesome responsibility – and opportunity – as we sail (or plow) ahead.

Do you think about the wake or path you are leaving behind? Are you cultivating or destroying?


Note: A special thanks to the Willow Creek Association for enabling me to participate in the Leadership Institute for Transformation (LIFT) class entitled Leading for Results. It is from this class, designed by Dr. Cloud, in which this blog post is inspired.

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • […] is an opportunity to enrich or degrade the relationship. My friend Jon Mertz recently wrote a blog article about the importance of understanding the type of “wake” you leave behind in your […]

  • Randy Conley says:

    Hi Jon. I love the gentle, yet matter of fact way you presented this important aspect of being in relationship with people. I think Dr. Cloud’s quote summed it up perfectly:

    “The wake is the results we leave behind. And the wake doesn’t lie and it doesn’t care about excuses. It is what it is. No matter what we try to do to explain why, or to justify what the wake is, it still remains. It is what we leave behind and is our record.”

    There’s no excuses with the wake. It is what it is. Thanks for reminding me of this important truth. I’m going to share this article with my whole team.

    Best to you,


    • Jon M says:

      Thanks, Randy, for your thoughts! I agree that Dr. Cloud’s statement just hits you straight up, as it should. It helps keep us cultivating the right path and leaving the right wake behind. Jon

  • Hi Jon,

    Thanks for sharing this powerful imagery of how our actions have consequences that not go beyond ourselves, but which can leave impact ripples that can still be felt long after we’ve made our choices.

    For me, this illustrates why leadership is not about the leader but about who you serve because at the end of the day, it’s those around you who will feel the wake you leave behind.  A good case for mindfulness if ever there was one.

    • Jon M says:

      Hi Tanveer,

      Thank you for adding your insights. I agree. It is about those we serve, and it is a good case to practice mindfulness in our leadership ways. There are many articles written about leaders and their look forward, their vision. More may need to be written by what path they leave behind…

      Grateful for your insights and comments!


  • Susan Mazza says:

    I think a lot about this Jon. I have come to believe the primary sources of a messy wake, as you so eloquently distinguish here, are when we do things for the wrong reasons, when we avoid the tough conversations, and most of all when we are not true to ourselves. I have been at work on getting better at all three of these and the payoffs have been extraordinary. Thinking you just triggered an idea for a blog post. You always get me thinking – thanks for that!!

    • Jon M says:

      Susan, Somehow, I am not surprised you think about this, too! Being true to ourselves is a continuous process, not a one time event, so I agree! I love your last statement; it makes writing all worthwhile for me 🙂 Thank you! Jon

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