“Leaders who see their role as serving others leave the most lasting legacy.”
James Kouzes and Barry Posner
This blog post came to me after recently seeing numerous online headlines about our 44th President seeking to establish his legacy. These articles attracted my interest because they were contrary to my understanding of the subject of legacy.
I was taught as a young person getting started in life that your every action, decision, and example would contribute to your integrity, character, perceptions, reputation, and eventually a well-deserved legacy. So, it is easy to see why I was confused by these articles and their focus when our President is almost complete with his eight-year presidency and he is also well into the latter years of his professional career.
Leaders who lead organizations with a focus on building a legacy can be very challenging to those who work for and with them. Organizations are best served by leaders who focus their efforts, energies, and resources towards accomplishing the vision, mission, and goals. If these efforts are successful, the end result will become a piece of organizational success and history; ultimately contribute to the legacy of the leadership team.
I served a leader at one time who was in constant pursuit of “something big” that he could use as a “look what I did” reference for his senior leader evaluation and also to fit nicely into his post-military retirement resume and job hunt. He injected numerous distractions that slowed our service-focus and consumed our limited resources to focus on multiple “big ideas” that were perhaps tangentially connected to our hard-earned, well-established, and critical mission. It was difficult on everyone, he gained very few followers, and the organization dynamics were impacted well past his departure.
“Being self-absorbed in one’s legacy seemed counter to the notion that leaders are selfless”
Kouzes and Posner
Some organizations, by design or by happenstance, have adopted leadership promotion or “nice next-assignment” practices that have an unspoken or unwritten condition to be met of, “what positive and substantive change did you make while there?” When this situation presents itself it can quickly morph into a “legacy quest” motivation. In this environment, the organization, its resources and mission, can be weakened, damaged, and left in a wanting or damaged condition under the leader’s reign. This type of behavior also erodes worker confidence and can do substantive damage to a well-established brand as service, quality, and energy are greatly impacted.
I have also experienced a legacy damaging practice I called “next-assignment-itis” and it consumed leaders who were never satisfied where they were but instead were always looking at the horizon for that next great possibility. If a leader is placed into a position for a specific purpose, it makes sense they should engage their role and lead the organization until they are mission-complete. Impatience is an enemy of quality leadership and quality legacies.
In my experience, I believe the best type of leader is not legacy-focused but instead quality-leadership focused and allows any possible legacy of their actions to be a natural byproduct of their tenure. These types of leaders, our history is full of them, take on the reigns of leadership, lead and serve by example, and empower their teams to make great things happen. When they depart the organization, in the near term or the long term, it has a strong performance history, well trained and confident staff, and a laser-like focus on customer satisfaction and mission accomplishment.
A positive leader’s legacy is something each of us recognizes and desires when we have completed our leadership journey. How that legacy was created can be a byproduct of quality leadership across the entire journey or the result of specific legacy-building actions. Both impact the organization, its people, and its mission; which one would you prefer to have connected to your name?