Making Your Mark

Posted on 01 December 2020

As you pass through life, what kind of a wake do you leave behind?

In his book Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality, Dr. Henry Cloud points out how 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’s your impact on others?

What kind of mark are you leaving behind you as you push ahead? If you’re acting like a typical macho manager, intent on short-term profits and quick returns for shareholders, you’ll likely be thrusting your way through your environment using a combination of high velocity, fierce determination and brute force. What kind of wake will that leave behind you?

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 it. Now imagine it passing through a group of small yachts.

That’s what many managers look like. Their impact on others is rapid, violent and long-lasting. While they push ahead, intent on the prize of status and the money it brings, they leave behind a trail of destruction and upset: peoples’ lives ruined, their confidence shattered and their careers in shreds.

How much care do you take to consider how the wake you’re making affects others around you? A high-speed vessel dashing 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. Do you think about this? Or are you so filled with the exhilaration of speed and power that you ignore the ‘little folk’ you push through on your way to the top?

The effect you leave shows who you are

If you want to enhance the life of those who come into contact with you, not leave it wrecked by your passage, you need to think hard about the wake you’re producing and who will be affected by it. Slowing down reduces the amount of the wake you 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, taking care to avoid actions that will cause too much turbulence to other, smaller and weaker vessels.

The impact groups and individuals have on the world can be benign as well as harmful. Great leaders usually leave long and powerful wakes, but ones that bring hope and joy instead of turbulence and suffering. Great organizations make the world a better place for their existence. How many of today’s corporate behemoths, especially in the world of banking and finance, can claim as much? Isn’t the current crisis caused precisely by the wake caused by their headlong progress into ever greater risks—and to hell with anyone who can’t keep up?

No one can avoid leaving some wake behind, any more than a ship can avoid leaving a wake on the surface of the sea. 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 other 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 your self-aggrandizement and the company’s short-term profit goals, your legacy—your wake—can only be an ongoing stream of harm, misery and servitude for the many in the name of personal glory for a few.

Is that how you wish to be remembered? Is that how you wish to leave your mark on this world? Think about it. There may still be time to change course, slow down and lessen the negative impact of the wake you are making as you pass through life.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 288 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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8 Comments For This Post

  1. CK says:

    I would like to think that I would leave SOME integrity behind despite the obstacles and barriers that are placed in my path.

  2. sambit says:

    All organizations are made to make human life a bit better. The success of any organization and its longevity basically depends on how much comfort it has spread to its customers, workers, suppliers i.e. all human beings that come in contact with it. The more it is the more is its need for human beings who will make it survive and grow. Not very different from human beings.

  3. Carmine Coyote says:

    @CK: Thanks for your comment. We can all choose to leave more good behind than problems. It’s up to us. Keep reading, my friend.

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    @sambit: I wish all organizations were designed to make human life better. Some are, but most are only designed to make money for someone. That’s why, in part, there are so many people who don’t like the work they do. Keep reading, my friend.

  5. Kathakali Chatterjee says:

    Thanks for the very relevant artcile.

    I have very recently come across a books which have “advices for young entrepreneurs” and one advice says: “create fun and affection in your workplace, people give up their lives for what they love but no one will do it for an EBITDA.”

    It might sound very juvenile but the impact of it is a long lasting one. It is true in every respect that people “people won’t remember what you did, people won’t remember what you said but people will always remember the way you made them feel.”

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Kathakali Chatterjee: I definitely agree that making your work fun is essential. Too many organizations today expect people to ‘go the extra mile’ not just for something abstract (and often numerical), but for an outcome that doesn’t benefit that person at all. Why work long hours to help your CEO take home millions, if you don’t get paid in a month what he earns in half a day?

    If it ain’t fun and worthwhile for you, don’t do it unless you really, really have no alternative—and then only do it for the shortest possible time. Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Bruce Lewin says:

    >thrusting your way through your environment using a combination of high velocity, fierce determination and brute force

    Surely this is straight out of an Arnie flick or a Playstation game?!?

    Now where did I leave that powerup and extra ammo?

  8. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Bruce Lewin: Too right! I think those are the main role models for macho managers. Keep reading, my friend.

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