Several years ago I was on a business trip listening to an audio book by one of my favorite leadership gurus, Dr. Henry Cloud. The book, now a highly acclaimed volume in the recent leadership literature, is entitled Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. I credit one of my former students with making me aware of this book back in 2007.
In his book, Cloud claims that the very deepest understanding of integrity is not just being honest or doing what one says she will do, as important as those qualities are.  As Cloud puts it, “This kind of character seeks the truth about themselves, others, and the world around them in order to know what reality is and has a firm commitment to live in that reality. This means that their character is free from the kinds of things that get in the way of seeing and dealing in reality, and as a result, good things happen.”

What’s it Like to Be on the Other End of Me?

One self-awareness practice that I picked up from listening to Cloud that day as I drove was a question I had not been asking–“What’s it like to be on the other end of me?” He recommends that leaders ask this question to their team members on a fairly  regular basis.  Not every day or every week, but often enough to have a clear sense of reality (in emotional intelligence terms, “reality testing“).
Why?  Because the question orients the leader towards an aspect of reality–namely, how the team is “experiencing” him.  It is easy for busy, hard-driving leaders to be so focused on goals and results that they forget to invest in the team members themselves.

Your “Wake”

The leader cannot get the results by himself.  What if the leader exhibits all the right behaviors that we associate with excellent results, including strategic planning, goal-setting, delegating and holding team members accountable, but does it in a way that is indifferent or insensitive to the needs of the team?
Cloud points out that a leader just will have one effect or another on the team. Likening leadership style to the way a boat makes its way through the water and the wake it leaves behind, Cloud argues that a leader will leave a certain kind of “wake” behind him, be it choppy, smooth, predictable or unpredictable.

Self-Awareness is a Non-negotiable

Put another way, it is possible for me perform all the right executive leadership functions without having the full support of the team because of the way I carry out those functions. Perhaps I don’t ever ask about their family or how the workload is affecting their personal lives. Or maybe I actually do those things, but I do them in a fake, “plastic” sort of way that conveys to the team I don’t genuinely care about them outside of the work they can do for me. Perhaps I’ve been chronically irritable in the office for the last three months and all of my direct reports have been tiptoeing around me.
In other words, the wake I’m leaving behind me isn’t smooth; it isn’t contributing to a positive, person-oriented work environment. But how aware am I of my “wake?” If I don’t know how others are experiencing me, then it is a fair question to ask how effective I really am as a leader.

Magic Formula?

The first time I asked each and every team member the question “what’s it like to be on the other end of me?” I got some humbling feedback.  I needed to hear it–all of it.  Much of it wasn’t easy to swallow, but team trust went up, and interestingly, results improved as well.  How often should leaders ask this question of their team? There is no magic formula. Some team members won’t be ready to answer, and some might be uncomfortable answering. You, as the leader, have to make it a safe environment for transparent feedback. An environment of trust is essential.

Other Applications

Obviously, the wake concept isn’t limited only to the work environment.  You can apply it to your family life, church involvement, coaching, and anywhere you are leveraging your influence in some way.
What applications does this concept have for you personally and professionally as a coach? For your coaching clients?

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