What Is Your Leadership Legacy?

When Jack Layton, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, died from cancer, the citizens of Toronto turned a ten-acre city square into an impromptu memorial in chalk. If you think your leadership legacy will be “Your meetings, for the most part, ended early,” it’s time to consider the impact you want to make on your organization.


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]


About the author

Craig Chappelow, a senior faculty member at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is a leading authority in the development and use of leadership assessment products. He has worked for two decades with senior executives in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America.