Per my Webster’s dictionary, a legacy is something received from an ancestor or predecessor. Consider it a gift: the recipient did nothing to earn its value. What would you like your legacy to be?
Probably something you’re too busy to even think about.
Yes, you are busier than you’ve ever been, and now might not seem to be the right time, and yes, you could wait until your time is growing short to start working on your legacy. But consider this: unless your idea of your legacy is a statue of you or a program named for you, waiting till the end is too late. The time to consider your legacy is when there’s time to do something about it.
That would be now.
You might have no interest in a legacy. Bill Gates once said, “Legacy is such a stupid thing. I don’t want a legacy.” Thing is, Mr. Gates will have a huge legacy. Part of his legacy is what I used to create this edition of the News. Part of his legacy is a foundation fighting disease. Part of his legacy involves things you can bet Mr. Gates isn’t proud of. Had he thought about that aspect of his legacy, it very well might be different. Even better.
That makes another point about a legacy: the gift given to followers isn’t always for the good. There are plenty of examples of messes leaders left for their successors to clean up. One more reason to consider your legacy now.
On the other hand, you may know exactly what you want your legacy to be, and it has absolutely nothing to do with how you make your living. Work is just that: work. Life is what matters. There are important things in your life – family, faith, civic and social affairs, for example – that matter far more than a lot of what happens at work. Simply because they do.
If that’s you and your legacy, good for you. If there were more like you, the world would be a better place.
Still, there is a place for a leader to leave a legacy in the workplace: something good for those who carry on after the leader is gone. Of course, there is always the possibility that a leader can succeed in creating absolutely nothing that lives on. You know the type: do no harm; just do nothing to cause harm to the leader.
Early in my career, I went to a retirement party for a crusty maintenance foreman, Dan Skaggs. Old enough to have been my grandfather, Dan had gotten me out of hot water on more than one occasion and for that I was truly appreciative. If not for Dan, I might have wound up selling insurance for a living. When I told him I’d miss him when he was gone, he growled, “When I go, it’ll be like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean.”
Thank you, Dan, for giving me a lesson on legacy: the gift received by the follower isn’t necessarily what the predecessor thinks is given. But it can still be a gift and something of value.
The Leader’s Legacy
For a leader, leaving a legacy isn’t like leaving your kids and grandkids a million bucks to spend as they will when you’re gone. A leader’s legacy is intangible. But just because a legacy can’t be seen or touched or even measured doesn’t mean it isn’t real or doesn’t matter. Should the legacy touch the behavior of leaders who follow and the culture of the organization, they actually are things that can be seen and measured.
As can the problems left behind by a leader. Of course, with a legacy, the creator isn’t around to fix the mess they caused. Knowing that to be the case, some leaders have been clever enough to get out of Dodge so as not be held accountable for the downside. Taking credit for cutting the maintenance budget is an example of that kind of legacy.
All of this might lead you to conclude, “Forget about a legacy. I’m going back to reading emails and working on my to do list. Seems to me leaders consumed with their legacy are only interested in posting selfies on social media, not creating something really worth handing down.”
I would not disagree with the sentiment. But you’re not that kind of leader, and the legacy you create doesn’t have to be all about you. Consider the upside: do something important really well, you can create a legacy, and one to be proud of. In your career, were you influenced by some leader in a very positive way or been part of a great safety culture someone created?
Put me down for a resounding yes to both. I’m in good company. As regards safety culture, every time I have been around an outfit that’s great at safety, I always ask, “Was safety performance always this good?” The answer has never once been yes. “So, what caused the culture to change for the better?” There is always a story. And the story always starts with the name of a leader: “When so and so became the leader….”
A great safety culture is a legacy created by a leader, the best gift a leader can give to those who follow.
One Leader’s Legacy
If you’ve read Alive And Well At The End Of The Day, taken one of our courses, or even read just one edition of the News, you’re part of the legacy created and handed down by a cadre of great leaders I’ve had the privilege of watching in action, up close and personal. My contribution to the process was simply to pay attention and describe what they did. As good as they were, their time has come and gone; what remains is their legacy. Their practices go back upwards of fifty years, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they are dated: the best leadership practices have stood the test of time.
Time has a wonderful way of sifting out fads and false truths. But the process does require time and patience.
Of all the leaders I have seen in action, none was better than Bob Perry. Upwards of fifty years ago, Bob was Plant Manager in a big chemical plant where I hired in. There might have been six levels of supervision between me and the plant manager, but it never felt that way, and I was fortunate to have had a job where I spent a lot of time with him there, and later at World Headquarters when he was Vice President. Bob was an extraordinary role model and a wonderful person. Those two are not mutually exclusive.
Bob Perry passed away recently, and his obituary that sums up his legacy as a leader:
Bob had an impressive 37-year career with Union Carbide in Victoria, Texas; Charleston, West Virginia; Luling, Louisiana; Toronto, Canada; commuting to New York City; and finally, Danbury, Connecticut. During his career he was recognized as a leader, manager and mentor to many people.
Retiring from Union Carbide as Vice President Manufacturing and Engineering in 1993, Bob joined the staff of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers as Managing Director. He was proud of his contributions to the Center for Chemical Process Safety. In 2008 he was named a Fellow at both AIChE and CCPS. In a twist of fate, Bob got a second chance to wear a cap and gown at the University of Texas in 1996 when he was named a Distinguished Graduate and delivered the commencement address for the College of Engineering.
From my personal observation, I can tell you that Bob “wrote the book” on performing what we call Managing By Walking Around. But in my view, his ability to give followers praise for good behavior was his best practice: a compliment from Bob always felt real, sincere and genuine. It was all about the person getting the feedback. For years, I carried around a few of his notes to me.
That was his workplace legacy. As for those other things in life:
Bob demonstrated his strong faith and commitment to community service throughout his life. Bob was a lifelong member of the Methodist church. Over the years, he was a Sunday school teacher, Lay Leader, Trustee, and served on numerous boards and committees:
In everything he undertook, Bob brought an old-fashioned integrity, and the qualities of a true gentleman. He will be sorely missed by his church and community, but most of all by his family.
A legacy in the workplace and a legacy in the world are not mutually exclusive, either. Some leaders manage to create both. Bob Perry was one of them. The best of them.
As a leader, you don’t control your legacy, but you do have control over your contribution to the process. If you’re the kind of supervisor or manager who just shows up and does what you’re told, you will leave nothing behind of value and you absolutely do not want to leave behind an outfit worse for you having been the leader.
Circling back to the question: What do you want your legacy to be?
As to your answer, it’s not that hard. Decide what you really want your work as a leader to create and live on. Then start getting after it.
Finally, if you’re going to get after something important to make a difference in the workplace, there’s no better legacy than for people to be safe.