Every good leader hopes to leave behind a lasting legacy – the impact that lives beyond you and your time with the organization. Legacy should not just be something we focus on at the end of our lives, but rather how we live our lives every day, all day.  

Legacy Highs and Lows 

But unfortunately, most leaders don’t leave a legacy. They aren’t remembered once they leave an organization; they are milquetoast leaders who have no lasting impact.  

Others leave positive legacies. They are the ones who have coached, developed and trained their employees. They provide opportunities to their people and those opportunities may change the trajectory of the employees’ thinking, way of working or even their lives in a positive way.  

Then there are those who leave a negative legacy, one of toxic behavior that has caused or deepened wounds. This legacy of horrible bosses deepens anxiety and inhibits good functioning. It shapes others’ lenses to limit their capacity of what’s possible for them. These leaders will live on in infamy for throwing people under the bus, never being satisfied, creating pain for others and completely operating out of self-interest only.  

When it comes to a leader’s legacy, what people remember are the extremes – good or bad.  

Don’t You Forget about Me 

Throughout your life, there are people who impact and change your life, from your parents to teachers to great bosses. It happens in both school and business, and these people shape the path of your life. I’ve been lucky enough to have two game changers in my life, who gave me the courage to do things I thought I could not do: my seventh grade teacher Cathy Murphy and my coaching mentor, Dr. Fernando Flores. These mentors couldn’t be more different in their approach to handling me, but both of my relationships had deep connections and guided me to be both a better person and a better leader.  

Related: The Meaningfulness of Mentorship 

You’ve likely met someone who has followed a manager to a new organization. Even if they have to move to a different city or take a pay cut, they are willing to sacrifice something in their personal lives in order to work under this person. When you will follow someone wherever they will go, you’ve found yourself a legacy leader.  

Legacy Leaders 

Legacy leaders are impactful because they know their people and have high expectations of them. They take the time to coach and develop them, often using Socratic methods which probe into someone’s underlying beliefs that shape their views. They force people to think and grow rather than just issuing instructions and directing them all of the time. Legacy leaders stretch their direct reports and help them grow.  

Eventually, this person will move on to new positions, perhaps at a new organization or even beyond the legacy leader. All the while, the legacy leader is cheering them on and taking pride in watching their protégé achieve great strides in their career. These types of leaders will always be remembered.  

I recently started working with a tech company, and in my coaching of its leaders, I keep hearing the same name over and over again. This former CEO who passed away a decade ago, is remembered as caring about people first and foremost, but he was also very visionary and very clear and bold with not only his objectives, but the legacy he wanted to leave.  

While I never had the pleasure of meeting this gentleman, I can tell how much his employees cared about him and miss him even though he’s been gone many years now. After his passing, the new CEO came in and took the reins of the company completely differently. She isn’t visionary and shows no interest in her people. It’s crushing for people who remember the prior CEO to watch the company be lead in this manner. Even though the company is making great profit, the new CEO isn’t leaving behind a legacy. 

A Rare Breed 

Unfortunately, those who do are quite unusual. I think that’s because most people are self-absorbed. They make their career decisions on how something will move them forward as they climb the corporate ladder. They are focused on how they appear to others and building relationships for what they can get out of the connections. They aren’t playing the long game.  

For the most part, managing down is often overlooked in companies. Leaders don’t see the value in empowering their employees because they are focused on managing up or even across. But it’s a leader’s responsibility to strike a balance between developing positive relationships with your employees and showing dependability, reliability and results to your senior leader.   

The individuals who are able to do both have an easier journey to the top. They are building competency, loyalty and followership. We all get inspired when we believe in someone and feel as if they see us as a person. You care about them and when you feel they care about you too, you want to work to help them achieve their goals. All of the time leaders spend investing in others actually comes back to them in multitudes. They have created a following of strong lieutenants who are willing to follow them anywhere!  

How to Become a Legacy Leader 

Here are some strategies to leaving a positive legacy: 

  1. Prioritize people over results. If you are focused more on metrics than the people who will help you meet those goals, shift your thinking to a more personalized, present approach. Ask “How are you?” rather than “How are sales?” 
  2. Invest in development of employees. This could be additional training or executive coaching, or another area your team proposes for growth. Ask them what their priorities are, and put some money behind those initiatives.  
  3. Take time for the personal connection. In this hybrid world we live in today, it can be easy to hide behind email but schedule regular touch bases with your direct reports in person or at least over the phone whenever possible.  
  4. Let it go (yes, just like Frozen). When you are able to relinquish some control, it empowers your team. Teach them how to make decisions and you grow their ability to work independently.   
  5. Lead for the long game. There will always be another goal to reach, another accolade to strive for. Instead of always leading in the moment, think about the values you are demonstrating to your team. Of course, you want to make sure that the organization is profitable and that your team is hitting their targets. But you should also ensure they feel good about themselves and their contributions to the company. People will always be a leader’s greatest asset! 

“People will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.”~ Dr. Maya Angelou  

But Don’t Wait 

It’s natural that we start thinking about our legacy as we enter the second half of our professional life. After all, we are learning and building our leadership skills as we move up the ladder in the first half. But there’s a certain point where you may pause and reflect on your career and decide you want to give back. That’s more than just creating followership – it’s a desire to want to impact people professionally and personally so that you are making a difference in their lives. I urge you to do this sooner rather than later in life, so that you are building your legacy as you work through your entire career.  

If you’re a leader, seek to leave a positive legacy that catalyzes future growth and opportunity for people, for teams, and for the entire organization. 

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