As a boat glides through the water it will leave a v shaped trail of waves. These waves are known as a wake. I was with friends that summer evening as we were boat riding on the Ohio River just southwest of Louisville, KY. About a mile ahead of us was a Tug pushing several barges as is often seen on this river. Our driver and boat owner decided to get a little closer to the barges and tug, to follow and ride its wake. Riding other boats wakes was something we were accustomed to. However, we had never ridden the wake of a tug and barges.
Pushing several hundred thousand pounds in those barges, a tug boat produces quite a large wake. We were used to one and two foot wakes. The wake of a working tug can create waves twelve to fourteen feet high. Riding the first of those waves that evening was fun. Something new and challenging. After all, four and five foot waves were twice the size of any we had previously ridden. The real challenge would come a few minutes later. To ride the waves our boat was traveling faster than the tug.
Therefore, we were closing the distance gap on the tug. Before we knew it we were riding on top of a ten-foot wave, staring across a gap at one even taller. Since we were riding across the waves our boat was not positioned to ride with this particularly large swell. In a matter of seconds the wave we had been riding rolled right out from under our boat. This left the six of us and this one small 16ft pleasure boat sitting in a gulley of water, trapped between two waves. In front of us a twelve-foot wall of water. Behind us a similar but slightly smaller ten-foot wall. Nowhere to go. Within seconds the twelve-foot wall of water that was in front of us quickly came crashing down on us burying us under its massive weight and thousands of gallons of river water. The next thirty seconds went by in extremely slow motion – underwater.
Leaders often find themselves in a similar position, riding the wake. It may be the wake of a booming or bust economy. For some it is the wake of competition. Others may find themselves riding the wake of former leaders or successes, and there is always the wake of forward progress.
Great leaders understand and not only accept the challenge of riding a larger wake. They have grown in leadership enough to realize you do not ride a ten foot wave the same as a two or three foot wave. Too often leaders have one way of leading, and attempt to plow through any situation with that particular leadership “wake running.” Oftentimes to the detriment of those they are leading and the organization which they represent.
Every leader should surround him/herself with other leaders whom they can learn from. If you do not have people whom you trust and have given permission to mentor, correct, and coach you, you will find yourself between those two walls of water. One of them is going to collapse on you. Whom do you know who has successfully ridden the wake further & higher than you? Turn to that person (preferably more than one) and entrust your skills to their tweaking. Be teachable, willing to learn and to change. After all you expect those you are leading to change. First, you must be willing to be changed and flexible. Also, read, study, and grow in your leadership ability.
The simplicity of this one act can move your leadership beyond comprehension and you’ll be able to ride the wake of whatever comes your way. Happy, safe boating!
After that long thirty to sixty seconds, we arrived back at the surface of the river. Only the windshield of the boat was above water. The boat was swamped. Several lessons were learned that evening. We all survived and made it back to shore thanks to other boaters towing us in. Today, we can laugh and talk about it because of God’s grace to us that evening thirty-some years ago.