You will leave one behind – if you want to or not!
Have you ever thought about the legacy you want to leave behind as a leader? About the moral imperative of leadership? About how you want to be remembered? Once these questions have entered your head, it is impossible to unthink these thoughts. And that’s where you might want to begin to explore and shape your own legacy. Legacy is like culture: every individual and every organization has one. It is either consciously honed over time, into a secret sauce that distinguishes your competitiveness and offering from others in the marketplace, or it somehow comes to life, subconsciously, by accident, and just happens. Maybe it occurs somewhere in between with some efforts here and there, not really seamless but kind of alive, just like Frankenstein’s Monster. So, what does that mean? You will leave a legacy, if you want to or not, so you better start building it consciously.
Understanding the trident of legacy
Leaders have a threefold responsibility: toward the people they lead, toward the organization they represent and toward society as a whole. A legacy can be built in all three perspectives: I call this the trident of legacy. Those legacies can be very different from each other, at the same moment in time. You might be an incredible developer of talent and your team might remember you as a catalyst for their careers, a trusted mentor, with a positive legacy. Senior management might only see that you’ve been repeatedly missing performance targets, forming into a negative reputation and a doubtful legacy eventually. Society might see your organization as a destroyer of nature and habitat rather than a company mining for precious metals. Also, your focus might vary; some might care more about their individual legacy while others focus on the bigger picture.
If you take stock right now, what’s the legacy you are working toward? Are you working toward a positive one, or toward a legacy you’d rather escape from? Just like Ebenezer Scrooge was able to change his legacy in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, you can change yours. If the ‘Ghost of Legacy Yet to Come’ shows you something scary, make some changes. But if you want to, where do you start?
1. Develop a moral compass
Leaving a positive legacy requires self-reflection to achieve self-awareness, overcoming blind spots and biases. Developing a crystal-clear moral compass guides your decision-making based on ethical grounds. Once your moral compass is in place, bring it to work. Be human! By being human and benchmarking business-related decisions against your ethical system you start building toward a better legacy already. How so? Because people perceive leaders as inspirational and influential if they follow a clear set of moral values. As a result, they will start to emulate your example, taking more moral decisions themselves. This is the first spike of the trident: your legacy as a people leader. The second spike of the trident is your legacy as a creator of culture. By emulating your behaviors, those around you become multipliers of your legacy creating a ripple effect throughout your organization. This is an important contribution toward shaping a more conscious culture.
2. Prioritize people and profit
You have a choice: you can live up to your moral obligation and take care of those you lead; coach them, mentor them, help them to become the best version of themselves. This is possible even if your organization’s incentive structure might reward financial performance over developing people and leading based on a moral compass. It is still a choice you can consciously make. Since such a situation is not sustainable in the long run, you should aim to re-engineer incentive structures so that they reward leaders who focus on people and profits.
Traditionally, organizations have rewarded performance focus, not people focus. This allows even terrible leaders to be financially successful and climb the corporate ladder. Even if they screw others over, cheat and lie, play politics – too often, the consequences are minimal as long as they deliver on their performance targets. Those structures are not cast in stone. Remove these barriers and build a people-focused legacy.
3. CSR for CEO? Yes, and not enough
The third spike of the trident is the legacy an organization chooses to create by making the world a better place. While this might sound too grand, I encourage you to think ‘community’ instead of ‘world’. Start outside your doorstep, in the communities around you. Now, I am not necessarily talking about supporting food banks, sponsoring a youth sports team, or organizing forest clean ups. While these are great and important examples of corporate social responsibility (CSR) measures, they are quite transactional. An organization can do all these things while at the same time exploiting their clients, workers, or the environment.
I am talking about becoming a true force for change. In a post-pandemic society, we must overcome old paradigms, such as shareholder value, and establish a truly socially responsible organizational self-concept. This will enable us to work towards a world that is more equitable. I challenge leaders to find and commit to a greater organizational purpose. While this might start with giving CSR a seat at the table, it goes way beyond the transactional. Leaders must harness the power of organizational identity by tackling these five topics:
- Find and define your higher purpose: which problem in the world are you and your organization uniquely positioned to address?
- Formulate your diamond values: what are the two or three non-negotiable values that guide your actions?
- Draw a compelling picture of the future: what is the vision you want to work towards?
- Plan your way to the vision: what does your purpose-driven strategy look like and what is your implementation plan?
- Make your strategy stick: which management systems need to be adjusted, which capabilities do your people need to acquire, how do you measure success?
What do you want your legacy to be?