How to leave a legacy

The circumstances were different but Steve Jobs and Sir Alex Ferguson both left a powerful stamp on their respective organisations when they departed. So, how do you leave a legacy? Here's a crash course.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 13 Dec 2013

What's a legacy anyway? 'A good place to start is simply by asking yourself the question: what do you want people to say about your impact as a leader 10, 20 or 30 years from now?' says Regina Barr, founder of US coaching organisation Red Ladder. A legacy, she says, 'is the sum of all of the outcomes resulting from our behaviour that others continue to remember about us.'

Don't delay. Too often, people consider the impact of their leadership only when they're about to retire or move on, when their legacy is already a fait accompli, says Robert Galford, co-author of Your Leadership Legacy with Regina Maruca. 'Your desired leadership legacy should be a catalyst for action, rather than a result considered after the fact,' he says.

Start with values. Your true legacy comes from the way you behave and the example you give. 'Ask yourself what's your passion, what makes you want to get out of bed, the thing that gives you a sense of purpose,' says coach Jude Jennison of Leaders by Nature. 'That will help you frame your values and your purpose as an organisation.'

Consider your impact. 'Every corporation has an effect on society, but often it's not conscious,' says Jennison. 'Relocating a call centre from the UK to India, for example, has all sorts of consequences in both countries.' You could create a positive impact by funding a bursary or setting up a charitable partnership - but to be part of your legacy that must be consistent with how you behave within your organisation.

Conquer your ego. Worry less about your place in posterity and be more concerned with what is the right thing to do today, advises Andrew Kakabadse, professor of international management development at Cranfield School of Management. 'Legacy shaped by clearly thought-through values is long lasting. Ironically, legacy shaped by ego and self-concern is also long lasting but creates a folklore of distaste and sets an example of what not to be.'

Listen in. Use your radar to find out whether it's your leadership that really inspires. 'Are stories of your successes, failures or learnings more about you, or more about the wisdom and learning you have shared with others?' asks Kakabadse.

Apply the decision test. With one eye on your legacy, there's a danger that you could shrink from making the big risky decisions. A quick check can clarify your thinking. 'Try to put yourself in the position of looking back on that action at some point in the future,' says Galford. 'Are you likely to be satisfied that you did or said the right thing?'

Do say: 'When I am long gone, I'd like this organisation to retain the values I believe in.'

Don't say: 'To help you all remember me, I have commissioned a full-length marble statue of myself to stand in reception.'

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