What Is Your Leadership Wake?

In the past year, I have had the honor of serving as the executive coach for 4 extraordinary nurse leaders. They are from a variety of organizations and locales, and taken together, they offer us great lessons in being conscious stewards of our own power. Their best practices can inform our own, regardless of our rank or our position in a healthcare organization.

These exemplary leaders are aware of their influence and gravitas, or what I call their “leadership wake.” A leader’s wake is the effect that a leader has on people, and it includes both the positive and negative aspects of their impact. A leader’s wake is more than the consequences of his actions; it is also the result of his presence, what he stands for, and what he represents to others.

These leaders are not only mindful of their wakes, they manage them, too. They know they have a significant influence on the people around them, and they consider how they want to leverage that power. This column is about what they do to comport themselves so they create wakes that are, to every extent possible, of their choosing.

Before we review their best practices, let’s see how similar and different they are from you and me. Here’s a brief overview of their collective leadership profile:

  • They are students of their own leadership prowess. This means they are thoughtful witnesses of what goes on around them when they are present. They watch and consider their impact, whether they like this facet of their organizational “persona” or not. They own their power, whether it is derived from their positions, their personalities, or both. This does not mean they act arrogantly or with hubris. It does mean they know they are powerful, and they are thoughtful about how they manage that fact.
  • These leaders consider their own presence. They think about what they look like, including their facial expressions and body language. They think about what they wear, how they sound, and the way they walk into a room. This does not mean they think about this constantly, but it does mean that they are aware that these personal characteristics are at least as important, if not more important, than what they say.
  • As students of their wakes, these leaders consider them from all sides. They know their words, actions, and presence can have a strongly positive effect on those around them, and they know it can have an equally negative effect. They notice and learn from the circumstances and the actions that beget positive reactions, and those that produce the opposite. For example, they know that sharing their vision or praising their staff will inspire confidence and raise morale among most or all of those who are present. Conversely, they know that an unexplained absence might raise concerns about their support.
  • They are also aware that the impact of their presence can be nuanced. Sometimes their words, or lack of them, can evoke uncertainty, lower morale, arouse suspicion, and erode trust. An example of this is when a leader is clearly displeased with the progress of a project, but she doesn’t choose to say anything. The leader who is conscious of her wake is aware that her facial expression and body language will say it all, whether she utters the words or not. Because she knows this, she usually chooses to be direct and vocal so her words match the overall message that her body language is communicating.

So what does this mean for the rest of us?

My contention is that if you manage people, you do in fact have a leadership wake. This is true even if you do not have a high-ranking role in your organization or department. When we lead people in any capacity, we affect them in large and small ways. When we are leaders, we are always being watched, whether we like it or not. So it behooves us to learn from exemplary leaders who are masters of their own leadership wakes. Here are some of their best practices:

  1. They realize that effective leadership involves making a claim. Each of these leaders knows and claims what he or she stands for, and they let that be known to others without hesitation. They are clear about who they are and the organizational values they hold sacred.
  2. They know what they are doing in their roles. They know and articulate their stake in the ground. This means that they share where they are going, what they are accomplishing, and who they are taking with them. They are attentive to keeping their teams intact, engaged, and inspired to achieve.
  3. They walk tall. When they enter a room, others know it. Why? They have presence—a palpable energy that attracts people. They carry themselves as if they belong where they are and as if they have something to contribute.
  4. They know when they want to gently evoke the best in others, and they know when they want to more actively provoke the reactions of others. When they want to engage the best of their team’s thinking, they may ask thoughtful, evocative questions that will generate compelling dialogue and innovative solutions. On the other hand, they may choose to be more provocative when they want their colleagues to shift direction.
  5. They know how much space they want to occupy in a given situation. They are deliberate about times when their silence will facilitate the work, and they know when their voice is needed.
  6. Although they are intentional about the leadership mantles they hold, they are not so taken with their own power that they abuse it. They know that to do so is to eventually instill distrust and ultimately lose their colleagues’ respect.

These leadership practices invite all of us to be more thoughtful about how
we are leading, and to notice and attend to the impact we are having.
When we lead and manage other people, whether we like it or not, we are definitely having an impact. Bringing our best to our roles requires us to be conscious and thoughtful stewards of our own leadership wakes.


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