When should you start thinking about the legacy you are leaving as a leader? In some ways, professional athletes have an advantage because they "retire" at a much younger age than most of us, and the media continually reminds them of their legacy. In a recent article about Shaquille O'Neal in Sports Illustrated, the writer notes that at this point everything Shaq says and does is focused on his legacy and what people will remember about him after his basketball career is over. But some athletes are fortunate to move on into other careers such as broadcasting launched by their popularity as an athlete. People often feel they are too young or too old to think about their legacy. But the time to think about it is now.
Most people think about legacy at the end of their careers-as they near retirement. But Robert Galford and Regina Maruca, authors of "Your Leadership Legacy," advocate that "thinking about your legacy now makes you a better leader today no matter how far you are from retirement." Based on interviews with people at all organizational levels -recently retired senior leaders, senior managers whose retirements were close, CEOs in mid-career, and other leaders-Galford and Maruca believe we all should be engaged in legacy thinking-a forwardthinking tool that is counter-intuitive to what we typically think of as legacy work. As Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner state in their book, "A Leader's Legacy," thinking about legacy encourages us to think about today's actions in a larger context. Legacy thinking requires us to go beyond the common practice of short-term thinking because legacies include the past, present, and future.
As leaders, whether we realize it or not, we are leaving a legacy with the decisions we make and the actions we take. Our legacy is revealed in how others who work with us, for us, and beside us feel and think about us as a result of having been in our presence. We leave our legacy daily, and it can be good or bad. If you want to read some stories of people leaving bad legacies, go to www.workingamerica.org. Every year, Working America runs a national competition for America's worst boss- and it is tough competition. Unfortunately, there are familiar stories submitted to the Bad Boss Contest about hard work, bad pay, no benefits, and lack of respect. What do we want people to remember about us as leaders? What influence are we having on others on a daily basis?
THE BIG PICTURE
To illustrate how legacy thinking works, Galford and Maruca use the analogy of a photo mosaic: an image made up of many other tiny images. When up close, it is possible to see each image on its own. But when viewed from a distance, all of the images create one distinct whole image. If we imagine our own portrait made up of individual images-the faces of people who work for us, community connections, our customers/clients/patients, and others-the more consistent our leadership legacy, the clearer the larger image and vice versa. The overall photo mosaic comprises our approach to leadership, how we treat others, and what others think of what and how we are leading. In fact, how we treat others and make others feel influences how they go home and treat others because as leaders, we have influence over people's lives.
A recent example of leadership impact is the reality television series, Undercover Boss. The introduction for the show said, "The economy is going through tough times. Many hard-working Americans blame wealthy CEOs who are out of touch with what's going on in their own companies." Each episode of the show featured a senior executive at a major corporation, working incognito as a new entry-level hire in his or her company for one week, to find out how the company really works, including the impact of corporate policies. CEOs often were moved to tears after discovering employees in low-paying jobs working so hard to earn paychecks. After the show's first season, there seemed to be several key themes that emerged as bosses worked alongside workers:
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED?
Since now is the time to start thinking about your legacy, here are some questions to consider:
These questions can be answered in a legacy statement that should be reviewed and updated as you gain additional life experiences.
It isn't so much about making a statement as it is about a way of thinking. Legacy thinking is grounded in self-awareness, hopes, and intentions. It is focused on what we are leaving behind, wherever we go, whatever we do, and with whomever we encounter along the way. Legacy can be thought of as similar to the cliché, "Character is how you act when no one is looking." Because even if we don't think about the impact we are making, others are noticing, whether we like it or not.
Think of two people who are building meaningful legacies. How are they doing it? What decisions are they making? What behaviors are repeated? How do others respond to them? Try to emulate their behavior. Conversely, avoid the behavior of those you do not respect.
Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, has been attributed as saying that "a reputation is earned by the actions you take each day." It is important to remember that leadership legacies are built by each decision and action or inaction on a daily basis. Even in these times when decisions are difficult to make, we still have control over how we make them and how they are communicated. Kouzes and Posner summarize it this way: "The legacy you leave is the life you lead." And they add: "Leaders must decide on what matters in life before they can live a life that matters."
Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is a professor of management at Central College and the Mark and Kay De Cook Endowed Chair in Leadership and Character Development. She can be contacted at www.JannFreed.com.