Is legacy too big or too strong of a word for you?

by | Jul 31, 2020 | Articles

Often I work with leaders who are in transition.  Sometimes the transition is into a new position, for example leading a new business unit or functional area, or they’ve been promoted to an upper management level with a broader scope of responsibility and influence.   In other cases the leader is transitioning from a long career into a less functionally active role; perhaps to an advisory or consultancy role leading to retirement.

What I’ve observed is those who are nearing the end of their careers typically bring up the topic of the legacy they want to leave.  Most are very focused on and concerned about it.  Some are very worried that they haven’t made the impact they had intended.

Yet far fewer leaders who are moving to a lateral or next level leadership position bring up the topic of legacy or a related construct.

I listen for it, and when I don’t hear it – then I will ask “what do you want your legacy for the time you’ll spend in this position to be?”

“Well April I’ve not even thought about that” is usually the first response that comes.
At times I’ll hear “Legacy?  That seems like too strong of a word for my role.”

So, I will ask more questions: (this is what coaches do of course)

April: Ok, so you’ve said you expect you’ll be in this role or position for at least 3 years . . . what is the impact you wish to make?
Why are YOU here – what is the value brought to the organization or stakeholders by YOU being in this position?
What is it you have the potential to influence and impact?
Or, is it exactly that – potential – that you can impact and influence?

Think about these 2 questions:

  • If your presence, talents and efforts are purposeful and intentional – what lasting difference do you wish to make for the organization, its people and stakeholders, for the community, etc.?
  • When you leave this role in 3 years, will you say “well, I did my job” – or will you say “I was able to lead in a manner that resulted in a positive difference or advancement in [fill in the blank]”?

So, ask yourself . . . Is legacy too big or too strong of a word for you?
Who comes to mind when you think of people who left a meaningful legacy?

There is a cashier working at the Publix I shop in.  Why does she come to my mind as I write about legacy?  Why do I choose to wait in her checkout lane even if another lane is open with no wait?  I could list lots of reasons, but one day when she leaves her job I doubt anyone will think of those reasons as a “legacy”, but she absolutely makes a difference in momentary yet tangible ways for hundreds of people each week, and definitely for her employer’s brand.

You might be thinking, let’s not equate excellent customer service in a supermarket with legacy.

I agree.  Yet I wonder if Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, or J. Willard Marriott, or John W. Nordstrom would disagree?

What if you expanded your leadership consciousness?
Two senior leaders that I coached over sixteen years ago that remain in touch with me come to mind on the topic of legacy.

What I remember is that initially when they engaged my services, at first I was unable to see why they were doing so.  Both were already recognized as highly effective leaders, well respected at all levels, performing well above standards.   But soon, as I listened to them talk, it quickly became apparent.

Each of them had a vision that they recognized would not be fulfilled during their tenure.   Although retirement was many years away, they experienced a persistent restlessness (not anxiety), like a steady drum-beat sense of urgency about legacy, even if they never used the word.

Both worked in fields and environments that tested one’s resiliency every day, where frustration and disappointment were frequent experiences, and where cynicism and burnout were typical.

One of them understood that the extent of the impact he could make would likely be limited to “changing the collective conversation”.  Although this was no small measure, it could be a less satisfying experience than what his successor would achieve in the coming years – when a capacity for broader thought would become the new norm and enable more rapid changes to systemic issues that were limiting the organizations success.

But his longer-term commitment to the good of the enterprise combined with a personal core value of making a difference compelled him to focus like a laser on that essential goal, “changing the collective conversation”.  And he did.

The other leader identified an essential need to instill higher accountability and reduce complacency, within a culture that took pride in prioritizing employee satisfaction.  His efforts to lead the former were often met with resistance by the latter.  He knew the company would not remain competitive in the long run without improving performance, and employees who were highly satisfied today would likely be out of jobs in the future if the culture didn’t evolve.  Recognizing higher accountability wouldn’t be established as a consistent new operationalized norm during his tenure, he focused on two foundational anchors and development of respected internal successors to carry it further.

Although recruited to leave for higher paying positions in far less taxing work environments, both of these leaders chose to remain because they were committed to individual visions of impacting the greater good in their companies.

They were confident about making a measurable difference.
They felt compelled to do so.
Ego was not part of the equation.
This became the heartbeat of their leadership consciousness.

Definitions of legacy
Looking up the word legacy in the dictionary, the words “reputation” or “personal brand” do not appear.

Definitions for legacy describe “property” and “bequests” — something that is given or received.

April’s definition:  A tangible or intangible experience, remembrance or impression of the impactful effects of one’s presence, efforts or actions that one leaves with individuals, groups or societies of people.  Note this can be positive or negative.

It can be argued that the legacies of people like John McCain, the Wright brothers, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sally Ride, Chief Sealth, Abraham Lincoln, Galileo Galilei, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela are more meaningful than those of most executives moving up a tier in leadership.

Someone might argue that we are not all destined for greatness.

But if one looks at this in terms of their greatness they’re missing the point because they are looking at themselves rather than what others receive.   Legacy isn’t about one’s greatness – it is about the difference one makes and the scope or result of its impact.

So legacy is not about your greatness, it’s about the value received by others.  If others decide you had “greatness”, well that’s fine, but that is up to them.

Is it worthwhile to contemplate what legacy you will leave?

I encourage us all to think about it.

Look ahead to 6 months or more after you have moved on from your current position.  How will each of the following stakeholders describe the value received from the time you held the position?  Chose 2 or 3 and articulate their likely perspective.
Board of Directors
Executive Leadership Team
Division President
Customers – external (if applicable)
Customers – internal
Direct reports
Your broader team
Community members

Quotes about legacy:
“I think the whole world is dying to hear someone say, ‘I love you.’ I think that if I can leave the legacy of love and passion in the world, then I think I’ve done my job in a world that’s getting colder and colder by the day.” —Lionel Richie

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing” —Benjamin Franklin 

“All good men and women must take responsibility to create legacies that will take the next generation to a level we could only imagine.” —Jim Rohn 

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” —Shannon L. Alder

“No matter what happens in life, be good to people.  Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.” —Taylor Swift



April Frank – Innovative Edge, Inc. Copyright April 2018. All rights reserved