How to leave a leadership legacy
A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
One of the strange bewilderments of business is why so many entirely competent leaders finish their leadership journey without leaving behind much of a trace, while others – not necessarily more brilliant – leave behind a legacy.
What is it about some leaders that enables them not only to make an impact during their careers, but to continue to change how people act and think in their organizations (sometimes, in an entire industry) even after they’ve gone?
Some of it, of course is simple exposure. Being the head of a Fortune 100 company gets your leadership principles disseminated somewhat more ubiquitously than if you’re running a 3-location chain of bedding stores. But the less glamorous truth is that some leaders simply do a better job than others of building and instilling a legacy.
If you want to leave behind more than a memory – if you genuinely want to change the industry or organization you work in for the long term, here’s how to do it:
1. Know what matters.
You can’t leave behind a legacy by accident (well, you can, but it’s usually a negative one). Until you know – clearly and unambiguously – what you want your legacy to be, it’s tough, if not impossible, to begin building it.
The foundation of building a legacy is a deep sense of knowing – not just knowing what is important to you, but what is non-negotiable. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what those non-negotiables are. They could revolve around corporate culture, team-building, production quality, customer service, innovation, or any one of a thousand other things. What matters is that you know what they are.
It helps to put your non-negotiables down on paper. Write a manifesto. Print off a pdf and distribute it. Revise it regularly, over time, amending the wording to clarify and hone your non-negotiables. Strip away everything that’s merely a ‘nice to have’, until the manifesto sings your legacy a cappella – clearly, and uncluttered by distracting background melodies.
2. Get off the front line.
Take a look at that list of non-negotiables. It won’t take root in your organization (and you can’t build your legacy) if you’re stuck permanently in the weeds managing the day to day detail of your business, division, department, project, group or team.
Yes, managers leave legacies too – but they’re different. Manager legacies are tactical, anecdotal, of the ‘do you remember so-and-so…?’ sort. We’re talking about leaving a leadership legacy – a touchstone to guide future generations. That can’t be built from behind a spreadsheet or in the bowels of a powerpoint deck.
Find a COO. Delegate more. Redraw your job description. Make Friday’s a ‘no-managing’ day. However you manage it, if you’re serious about leaving a leadership legacy, you need to get out of the front line and spend time – lots of time – with people.
3. Nauseate yourself.
And what do you do with your people, now that you’ve stepped away (at least somewhat) from the front line?
Answer: Make yourself ill.
Seem strange? Well, here’s the thing: If you spend time with truly great leaders – leaders who are building a lasting legacy – you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: they repeat their non-negotiables endlessly, ceaselessly, ad nauseum.
They do so verbally, and by example. They do it in meetings, both formal and informal; they repeat them in one-on-ones; in performance reviews and all-staff meetings; in writing and on the phone; they regurgitate them as the answer to as many questions as tortured logic will allow. They recycle them, reprint them, reinforce them, insistently.
Great leaders drive home their non-negotiables over and over – and over – again, to the point where they feel physically ill at the thought of repeating them even one more time.
And that’s just the beginning.
One industry leader I’ve worked with for over twenty years told me that he’d only begun to drive his personal leadership vision into his company after 12 years of ceaseless pounding on his ‘non-negotiables’.
When the sound of your own voice repeating the same basic principles one more time makes you feel sick, then you’ve started the construction of your legacy.
Ready for a statement of the stunningly obvious? Leaving a legacy behind requires you to no longer be there.
Sadly, many leaders miss this vital point, and hang around too long, lingering until the point when what would have been a towering legacy is diminished by time. (This happens not just in business – it happens regularly in sports, religion, politics and entertainment too. Think of how many well known leaders in their field would have left a much more substantial legacy had they simply stepped away earlier.)
Do yourself – and your legacy – a favor. Quit while you’re at the top. Go transform some other part of your life.