Monday, July 31, 2020

Leaving a Wake Behind

In his book Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality, Dr. Henry Cloud suggests everyone leaves a wake behind them as they move through the lives of other people, much like a boat leaving a wake in the water. He then asks the question: “What does that wake look like?”

Organizations leave an even bigger wake in people’s lives: in the lives of employees, customers, suppliers, and competitors. Every action they take leaves some mark on other people, for good or ill. It greatly behooves managers at every level to look back over the stern of their organizational vessel from time to time and ask, “What kind of a wake are we leaving behind us?” That wake—that impact on other people’s lives—is the legacy of the organization: the way it will be perceived and remembered in its community or the world at large.

What kind of wake are today’s organizations leaving behind them as they dash ahead, intent on short-term profits and quick returns for shareholders, pushing their way through their environment by a combination of rigid focus, high velocity, fierce determination, and brute force?

Wake size is partly determined by the size of the vessel, so a huge supertanker will create a much larger wake than a small motor yacht. And the faster a boat moves through the water, the larger and more turbulent its wake. Watch a fast motor boat careening along at 30 or 40 knots and you’ll see a great bow wave in front and a long, turbulent and frothy wake stretching out behind.

How large is your organization? How fast does it try to travel? How much care do those in charge take to consider how the wake they are making affects others around them? Sending a large, high-speed vessel through a mass of small yachts will produce a wake large enough to buffet the yachts badly, quite likely damaging or sinking some of them. A supertanker at full speed will throw up enough wake to be a hazard to quite large vessels, if it comes too close to them. And in inland waterways, like rivers or canals, any boat traveling too fast will produce a wake strong enough to undermine and damage the banks.

If we want to produce civilized organizations that enhance the life of those who come into contact with them, we must think hard about the wake they are producing and who will be affected by it. Slowing down reduces the amount of the wake we leave behind. So does avoiding the flashy twists and turns so beloved of weekend sailors in over-powered motor boats. Even the largest vessel can minimize its wake if it slides calmly and evenly through the water. And what about the kind of wake you and your organization are making? The impact groups and individuals have on the world can be benign as well as harmful. People like Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela have left long and powerful wakes, but ones that brought hope and joy instead of turbulence and suffering.

No organization can avoid leaving some wake behind it, any more than a ship can avoid leaving a wake on the surface of the sea. So the question remains, “What does that wake look like?” How many people will you and your organization affect as you pass through their lives? Will you leave a mark behind for good or for ill? How turbulent will your wake be, how potentially damaging to all those people and their well-being? If you demand a style of working that produces continual stress and anxiety, damages families and relationships, and subordinates the whole of life to the company’s short-term goals, this will be your legacy: an ongoing story of harm, misery, and servitude for many in the name of financial gain for a few.

Is that how your organization wishes to be remembered? Is that how you wish to leave your mark on this world? Think about it. There may still be time to slow down and change or lessen the wake you are making.

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The wake analogy is very apropos. What most people forget is that a large turbulent wake also creates a suction on the stern that must be overcome to continue forward. The larger the wake the more energy that must be expended just to keep from being sucked backward.

It should also be remembered that wakes persist. During WWII, planes and the wolfpack submarines would run across a wake then follow it to track down the ship and sink it. Causing a big splash may seem a way to get attention but it should be realized it also makes you a target.

In business if your wake is large and destructive, you'll probably find that your actions drag on you and make it easier for your enemies to track you down.

It doesn't have to be this way. There are designs, such as the canoe stern, that bring the gently back together and reduce the stern drag. They also reduce the wake sent out from the ship allowing the ship to operate at higher speeds in "no wake" areas and require less energy to achieve that speed. For me these designs have a simplistic beauty. When handling these ships it is more like you coax them whereas square stern fantails must be forced.
Thank you, JKB. Your comment is extremely helpful and perceptive. You can tell I have never been a sailor.

The comment that a large wake creates a drag that it takes extra energy to overcome is especially helpful. In organizations, many people try to make a big splash, believing it will draw positive attention. They too use up valuable time and energy in this pursuit: energy that detracts from achieving their true goals and creates extra turbulence that has to be overcome to move forward.

Even if the turbulence they create does not draw enemies to them—which it often does, as you suggest—all that splashing about is a terrific waste of resources. Rather than being applauded, they should be seen as producing extra waste and cost that is wholly unnecessary.
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