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What Is Your Leadership Legacy?

I wasn’t paying attention as I took a diagonal shortcut across Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square this August. My mind was on remembering the directions from my hotel to my client’s office, where I would be working for the next two days.

I almost stumbled over the guy in a black business suit who was down on his hands and knees on the concrete of the immense plaza, the tip of his necktie dragging along the ground. He was holding a fat stub of blue chalk in his hand and scrawling a message on the concrete "Thanks, Jack, you inspired all of us".  

Jack Layton, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, had died from cancer the day before. In less than 24 hours, the citizens of Toronto had turned the square into a ten-acre impromptu memorial in chalk. Every square foot of the plaza was covered with multi-colored messages like "You are the reason I started voting" and "Thank you for a better Canada." The sheer scale of the tribute was overwhelming. All of the horizontal surfaces were already filled, so people wrote on pillars, statues, and benches. I watched as three men stacked a picnic table on end to reach unmarked space on a wall. A mother rocked her baby stroller as she wrote. Near an impromptu flower shrine the size of a school bus, someone spelled out "Jack" in old hockey pucks. There were many sketches of bicycles (Layton was an advocate of bike paths, and reportedly rode his bike to work) as well as drawings of his iconic moustache. Messages in English, French, Chinese, and Arabic competed for space. There were several chalked images of Canadian flags, and a stylized maple leaf with angel wings. It was impressive and unforgettable. I knew nothing about Jack Layton, but it was obvious to me that his work in life led to this powerful legacy in after his death.

After witnessing the outpouring of memories at Phillips Square, I am starting to get depressed about my own leadership legacy. I’m glad I won’t be there to watch a scenario in which my former co-workers stare awkwardly at the chalk in their hands as they struggle to come up with something to write about me so they can go back inside our building to drink free coffee. "Your management of the office NCAA basketball pool created a better world!"  "The way you packed for business trips was an inspiration to us all." Not exactly indelible marks on society (but you should see what I can fit into a roll-aboard). "Your meetings, for the most part, ended on time." Take that, Andrew Carnegie, with your silly little libraries.   

Have you spent much time thinking about your own leadership legacy? What have you accomplished? Whom did you help? What did you leave behind for others? If you are not thinking in these terms, you are making a mistake as a leader.

Robert M. Galford and Regina Fazio Maruca, authors of Your Leadership Legacy argue that our leadership legacy is something that we should be thinking about right now. They say it’s never too early to make a legacy plan and follow it—an approach they call "legacy thinking." This involves taking the long view and asking yourself what you want your lasting impact to be on your organization and the people you work with. The idea is to use legacy thinking as an influence on your daily behaviors.  

One thing I am sure of is that none of us wants our legacy to be the number of emails we have produced. I suspect that there is an inverse relationship between the time you sit in front of your computer and the impact of your legacy. Think about how much time you spend writing emails and tweaking PowerPoint presentations. "His emails were always carefully crafted." (By the way, when did emailing become a craft?) "She always knew exactly what font size to use in her presentations."  In the work I do with senior executives, I have developed a theory that most of the time spent at a computer is managing, not leading. And many of us spend a LOT of time at our computer. My guess is Jack Layton did not.

Later the next evening when I made my way back across Phillips Square, the scene had changed. A hard all-day rain had washed away every single chalk tribute. The messages were gone but the hockey pucks were still there, and so is Jack Layton’s legacy.

Craig Chappelow is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research. 

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[Top image: Flickr user Jackman Chiu. Bottom image: Flickr user Eyeline-Imagery]

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  • Dwayne King

     I don't know at the base level, the larger then life legacies (thinking Gandhi, Mother Theresa, etc) probably didn't think much about legacy, at least how it related to them. I do think they worried a lot about the legacy of their cause they'd leave behind. Also, I think about big legacies and potential legacies, Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, etc, and I think they sped/spent a lot of time managing their legacy. I haven't read the book, so I can't speak with any authority, but non-profits and corporations have a vision statement, why not you and me? If it inspires someone to get out of day-to-day muck and thinking bigger about the life they lead, why not? 
    Don't get me wrong, I hear what you're saying, but maybe it's not so cut and dried.  

  • Doug Riddle

    There are a lot of good reasons to do what is worthy, and certainly we social beings care about how we are seen (and remembered). I like Craig's insistence that it would be better to make your mark making a positive difference rather than merely filling up space or arranging the chairs evenly. The virtuous ideal of the leader indifferent to the judgement of history is mostly a fiction, as so many biographies show. 

  • jay keown

     “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”- Jack Layton  (in a letter 48 hours before his passing)

  • atimoshenko

    Sorry, but no. The size of one's legacy is inversely proportional to one's concern about one's legacy. The people with the biggest legacies are the people who never spared a thought about what their legacies would be. The people with the biggest legacies are the people who are intrinsically motivated to do what they are doing and, as long as they live up to their own standards, do not care whether they are loved or loathed.