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.