Reflections on Leadership: Leaving a Legacy
It is not unusual for a leader to reflect a bit on his or her legacy at some point in a career. The most obvious example is when a President of the United States enters the last two years of their second term. For almost every president, thoughts turn toward how history is going to record their time in office, whether or not they will be considered a success or failure, and how things changed for better or worse under their watch. As a part of this process, presidential libraries are constructed to house presidential papers and other items to document important events. Sometimes the desire to chronicle history as a part of a person’s legacy in office can take on a life of its own. Richard Nixon’s tape recorded conversations from the oval office were probably conceived as a part of his desire to leave a legacy of his time in office, but played a significant part in his resignation from office.
While most leaders are not as obsessed with their legacy as political office holders, the natural human need for significance has led to the subject of a leader’s legacy being addressed in leadership literature. A Leader’s Legacy, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner explores the subject of the desire of a leader to leave a legacy for future generations. The following are a few insights they offer to those who are concerned about their legacy as a leader:
- Great leaders are seen as servants first.
- The best leaders are teachers.
- Authentic leadership comes from the inside out.
- Leaders must decide on what matters in life before they can lead a life that matters.
- Leaving a legacy is all about making a difference, and making a difference often takes courage.
- The legacy you leave is the life you lead.
Great leaders are seen as servants first.
—Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner
A couple of weeks ago, my friend and colleague, Rev. Jack Sharp, pastor of Govan’s Presbyterian Church in Baltimore died unexpectedly. By any measure, Jack was an extraordinary human being. In addition to his work as a pastor, he was a tireless advocate for the poor in the city—the homeless, the elderly, persons afflicted with AIDS, the hungry, the unemployed, and anyone in need. In the 1980’s he founded Govan’s Ecumencial Homes, a forerunner of what would become Govan’s Ecumenical Development Corporation (GEDCO). GEDCO became the conduit for many of Jack’s charitable intentions as he engaged people of all religious faiths in his passion for serving others. His obituary and memorial service chronicled his legacy of compassion and leadership that will be felt for generations to come.
Jack was a risk taker who always believed that God would provide. There is a story of Jack and a group of pastors taking an option on a building to serve a disadvantaged population, hoping to raise the money to purchase the building. The funds were not forthcoming, but they decided to attend the real estate closing anyway, hoping that someone would come to the rescue. As Jack and his colleagues were sitting in the room with the attorneys and the other people that normally attend a real estate closing, someone appeared from the Mayor’s office at the very last minute with a check with just enough to pay for the building. Over the years this story was retold many times as the ministry faced financial crises that were eventually resolved. It is clear to me that Jack may be gone, but his legacy of leadership lives on in the lives of the people he touched.
I have a few other thoughts about how leaders leave a legacy for future generations:
- A legacy can be either positive or negative, and the influence for good or evil can last for generations. A leader can leave behind a record of self-centeredness or callous indifference as easily as a legacy for good.
- A person’s character always matters, and is at the heart of every legacy that inspires future generations for good. Abraham Lincoln observed that “Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing.”
- It is never too early to think about your legacy as a person and as a leader, especially if such thoughts guide your behavior and how you invest your time and attention.
- That being said, leaders should not be preoccupied by how people will recall their legacy. Do the right thing all of the time, and let your legacy take care of itself.
- Leaders must always be aware of the fragile nature of a legacy. A single lapse in behavior can overshadow decades of great work.
- If an honest appraisal of your legacy reveals that it is not what you would like, do not despair. The stories of some of the great leaders in history (like Winston Churchill) illustrate that recovery and redemption is possible. Like a great opera, it’s not over until the fat lady sings.
- With the rare exceptions of those persons whose lives are defined by singular heroic acts, legacies are mostly constructed in the day to day work with other people.
Understanding how a leader’s legacy is constructed is not all that complicated, and can be reduced to a couple of relatively simple questions. First, how do you want others to remember you? Secondly, what kind of place would the world become if everyone followed your example?
A person like Jack Sharp is an inspiration to the rest of us who want to make a difference in the world as we leave our own unique imprint on the people around us. Knouzes and Posner contend that leaving a legacy is for everyone, not just for the extraordinary people in the world.
“Whatever your role in life may be, you make a difference. There is a 100 percent chance that you can be a role model for leadership. There is a 100 percent chance that you can influence someone else’s performance. There is a 100 percent chance that you can affect what someone else thinks, says, and does. There is a 100 percent chance that you will make a difference in other people’s lives.”From my perspective, there are few things in life that offer better odds for success. Go for it!
About Steve Proctor
As the now-retired CEO of Presbyterian Senior Living, Mr. Proctor was employed by PSL from 1971 - 2019. He is a Registered Nurse and Licensed Nursing Home Administrator with a BS degree in business administration from Elizabethtown College. He also holds a master’s degree in gerontology from the University of North Texas. Before becoming CEO, Mr. Proctor was Chief Operating Officer for 16 years. In addition, he has served as a Board member and is a Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging (“PANPHA”). In November of 1995, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (“AAHSA”), now known as LeadingAge, recognized Mr. Proctor’s proven leadership and accomplishments by electing him to serve as Chair of its national board of directors. He served as Chair-elect in 1996 and 1997, as Chair in 1998 and 1999, and as past-Chair in 2000 and 2001. He has also served as chair of the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
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