When it comes to those ubiquitous motivational posters you see in so many offices around the country, my favorite has always been the ones that deal with legacy. The poster’s image, often an open stretch of beach, is usually captioned with a question that reads something like:
“What will your footprints look like when you move on?”
Now I realize in our modern, cynical world it might be strange to admit I have a favorite motivational poster. But the reason the ones on legacy have always stood out to me is because in all my working experience I have found few things more powerful when it comes to leading and growing others. In short: legacy is not just how you are remembered, but how you lead every single day.
For the first thirty years of my career, thoughts about my legacy would disappear as quickly as they came to mind. It took a confluence of three events within a period of 5 months in 1991 to help me grasp the powerful influence the concept of my own legacy would have not just in how I was remembered but how I worked with my people (and still do) on a daily basis.
The first event could be described as routine: a cardiologist on our staff, “Dr. Z.”, met with me to lobby for the incorporation of a new approach – then called “alternative care” – to caring for heart and cancer patients. It included Eastern medicine approaches, like yoga, meditation, Reiki, and other methods, to be encouraged along with traditional Western medicine. It sounded interesting, so I approved the creation of an exploratory team of hospital leaders to examine the feasibility of such a program.
The second event was much more dramatic: five months after Dr. Z approached me about bringing alternative care to our hospital, my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
At the crossroads of these two events, I found myself starting to reflect on life and our individual impact on it. It was at this time that I also found myself noticing those “footprints in the sand” posters and lingering on their imagery, although the word “legacy” hadn’t become articulated in my mind.
It was the third and final event that sparked my legacy epiphany: one month after my wife’s diagnosis, the exploratory team researching alternative care convened for a three-day conference to review their findings.
One of their findings on alternative care revolved around the importance of legacy articulation for severely ill patients as a healing tool. On the second day of this conference, the meeting facilitator demonstrated its impact by asking all of us present to write down our “legacies” in three distinct categories:
After we had a chance to get some thoughts down on paper, each one of us had to present our answers to the group while sitting in a rocking chair at the head of the room.
To this day, more than twenty years later, that experience was the most powerful event of my business career. For it was in that moment I connected not only to my own living legacy, but also heard about the living legacies of those I worked with. It brought an entirely new perspective to how I interacted with and led the individuals in that room, as well as how I managed my own behavior.
One month later, in December of 1991, we integrated the legacy as an integral part of our Leadership Development program. And against the odds, my wonderful wife is by my side and enjoying our family, twenty three years after a terminal sentence.
Now I am retired from my role as a hospital CEO, but I still integrate legacy articulation in those three areas – professional, personal, and societal – into my work with individuals and teams as a Cleaver Resource Executive. No, articulating a legacy doesn’t replace the value and insight some of our other diagnostics provide, like the Cleaver DISC, but in my experience it can become a capstone to the process.
If you are a leader, I highly recommend you carve out some time today to jot down some ideas about your own legacy in these three areas. Once you have had a chance to do that, encourage your people to do it as well and create an environment where those legacies can be shared. You might be surprised at how it changes your own behavior, and the success of your team.
Here are some examples of Legacy within those three categories:
Professional: Inspirational leader who made a positive difference for his company, his team & his peers.
Personal: Dedicated loving son, husband, father, grandfather, & friend who loved & cared about people in his life & made sure they knew.
Societal: Honest, committed, determined man who made a difference & stood up for his beliefs, even in the face of significant opposition.
Photo by Christine Mahler courtesy of Flickr