If you’ve been in a leadership role, the “shadow of a leader” symbolism is likely one you’ve heard. I’ve often used the symbolism myself, as I find it an interesting analogy of leadership when you take time to consider the concept of the shadow and how a culture can be impacted by an individual leader. At least the symbolism isn’t quite as bad as that of “mushroom management.” You know, the one that outlines how management keeps employees in the dark up to their neck in … well, I am sure you know the joke. But the truth is that casting a shadow or keeping employees in the dark reduces visibility, and do leaders or an organization really want to hamper the visibility of their people?

Symbolism and metaphors help us gain a perspective of concepts that can otherwise be obscure and difficult to envision and embody. Furthermore, concepts such as leadership evoke such varied views, definitions and understandings, which are catalysts for the use of symbols, analogies or metaphors. So, I can be a critic without an alternative, or I can propose an alternative symbol for leadership to critique — and hopefully one you may consider adopting! With luck, my metaphor just may give you insights for reflection as you consider the leader you are and the one you want to be in the future. I believe that great leaders “make a wake.”

Let me explain. From my experience, successful leadership during an organizational shift or cultural change tends to be the result of a pull from the organization versus a push from management. While leadership needs to set the strategy and direction for the business, involvement of key advocates within the organization is vital. Sure, pushing change upon an organization can create a short-term spike; however, a change that is being pulled by the organization’s people — who recognizes the need for a change in the work environment — gains traction more quickly and has a longer effect upon the culture. Why? To say it simply, involvement and ownership by the people in the organization who champion and advocate for the change of course have powerful influence within their teams.

Over the years, I’ve found that true leadership doesn’t involve any shadows or mushrooms. Instead, I propose that successful leadership just very well may involve one of my favorite pastimes — boating! Consider a wake that is created behind the engine of a boat on water (or even the vector of flight by a flock of birds in a V shape). Now, think about that wake effect as you reflect upon the power and purpose of leadership. The physical forces of the wake created by the leader creates a pull and eases the path of resistance for any entity following in the wake. Conversely, the push of a wave will crash objects into the shore after the wave has carried them for a time. A friend and former colleague shared a quote from John C. Maxwell, “a leader knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” A true leader also develops leaders, who take on the point of the wake and help navigate the waters and maintain forward motion!

I’ve witnessed the wave approach — short-term change — but it typically crashes. On the other hand, the energy generated by the pull of a leader in the direction the organization goes (i.e., a wake) is not only best aligned but it will not abruptly stop (or crash onto the shore). And, in deference to the “shadow of a leader,” the leader making the wake remains in sight and closely aligned with the organization.

If you are wanting to lead change — or are being called to do so within your spheres of influence — consider putting to rest previous metaphors that may have influenced your leadership approach. Instead, how can you “make a wake” to lead your organization? It may require you to use more energy, but the additional investment of yourself into your organization and into your leadership style will be returned nicely. Your organization will experience less resistance and the sailing is a lot smoother for everyone because of the path you forge!


Interested in reading more about the lessons learned from real-life leadership experiences? Buy the book, Bosses Are Hired…Leadership Is Earned today.