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What Will Your Leadership Legacy Be

July 4, 2015
Borderless Leadership

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written about how successful leaders build thriving teams, along with what necessary steps we need to take to not only encourage organizational growth in the months and years ahead, but how we can help our employees to adapt to changes we need to make to ensure we achieve our shared purpose.

As is often the case when we write about leadership, the focus tends to be on what we can do today to improve how our organization operates going forward and hopefully, achieve the kind of success we envisioned when we first took on this leadership role.

And yet, a common theme running through the past couple of pieces I’ve written here on my blog also lend themselves to the idea of looking beyond our time serving as leader and to what we’ll leave behind as the legacy of our time serving as the steward for our organization’s vision and shared purpose.

When I announced to my Governing Board team my decision to resign as chairman a few months back, the news was met with some disappointment and sadness, followed by an impromptu round of applause when I revealed my plans to run in the upcoming school board elections for school board chairman. In the time since making this announcement, there’s been a feeling of assurance among my team members about the future, with a few of them telling me that they know that the team will be fine without me.

While it might sting at first to hear that those you lead are confident that they can move along without you, it’s probably the biggest compliment we can get as leaders when the time comes for us to hand over the helm to someone else.

When we see that those we lead meet our impending departure not with trepidation or concern, but with sadness and appreciation, we know that we’ve done our job of helping them to not only feel a sense of ownership in our successes, but to thrive through our collective efforts. We know that we’ve helped our employees to learn how they can become better than they were before we took over the reins, so that they will be prepared to continue to grow without us.

Granted, this might bruise our ego hearing that we’re not indispensable. But we have to remember that leadership is never about serving our own ego – it’s about serving those under our care.

From the moment we take the helm of a new team or organization, our focus was never on ourselves, but on how to build deep and meaningful relationships with those under our care so we can understand what matters to them and how we can tie that to what matters to our organization.

We understood from that very first day on the job that leadership is not just a privilege, but a responsibility to which we commit ourselves to helping to elevate those around us.

Through our actions and words, we served to create and reinforce not only the cultural values of our organization, but we also informed our employees of what really matters – of where they need to put their talents, energies, and focus to ensure a successful outcome both in the near and long term.

From this perspective, it becomes clear why it’s important for us to make time to reflect and evaluate what the legacy of our leadership will be. Not just in terms of how we’ll be remembered, but in what kind of foundation we will leave behind to help the next person in charge to continue the journey of achieving the shared purpose of our organization.

Often times, when we speak of leadership succession, there’s a lot of ambivalence and concern for how this will disrupt things that are going well, if not also what this new leader will change in order to create the defining characteristics of organizational life under their leadership.

And yet, if we are to be truly successful at leadership, we can’t limit our perspective to the time that we’re at the helm of our organization. We also have to be mindful in assessing how well are we setting up our employees to continue to succeed under the stewardship of another; that those who will follow us can take our past accomplishments and build on them going forward.

This, of course, also means that we need to ensure that we help our employees and those who will take our place leading our organization to not forget the journey our organization has taken so far; of not just the successes we’ve achieved under our leadership, but also the hard-fought lessons gained when things didn’t turn out as we had hoped or planned.

It’s also important to note that as leaders, our job is not to promote dependency among those we lead, but to provide our employees with the freedom to bring their full selves to the work they do. To do so requires that we move beyond thinking that we alone have the answers to solve the challenges we face. Instead, we need to look to our employees to help us to discover the best course to take to achieve our shared purpose.

It also means that we need to focus today on how we can connect and communicate with those we lead at a deep emotional level, so that we can provide them with the kind of guidance and support that will ensure their continued success when the time comes for us to move on.

In this way, we can ensure that they see that the collective successes we achieve are not simply a product of our leadership, but a result of their willingness to commit their talents, creativity, and experiences to the shared purpose that defines our organization’s raison d’être.

Although the sense of renewal in many organizations today has leaders naturally focused on discovering opportunities for growth, it’s important that we recognize the role the legacy of our leadership will play in those very plans. After all, one of the outcomes we should be aiming for through the growth initiatives we plan today is to set the foundation for our organization to continue to grow even after we’re gone.

Indeed, one element that’s at the heart of any leader’s legacy is addressing what kind of future we want our employees to build through our collective efforts; of where we hope or plan our organization to be when our time serving as the steward of our organization comes to an end.

As much as we might measure our successes through the outcomes attained both in the near and long-term, it’s vital that we also keep in mind the importance of charting how our efforts today will connect with where we want our employees and organization to be in the future.

So while we have to plan for today, we also need to plant the seeds for tomorrow; for when the time comes for another leader to take hold of the ship’s wheel and guide our organization forward. This measure is critical not just to ensuring a smooth transition, but to also upholding the commitment we made to our employees to enable them to succeed and grow.

In the end, if we recognize the truth that leadership is not about us, but about the people we serve, then we need to accept the fact that our leadership legacy is also not about us, but about what we leave behind to continue to inspire and guide those we had the responsibility and privilege to lead.

Though it may take some time after we leave our post leading our organization to fully appreciate the answer to the titular question above, it’s nonetheless important that we make time to consider the long-term impact our actions and words will have. Not only in terms of how our leadership will be remembered by those under our care, but in how we can continue to inspire our employees to believe in their potential to succeed and thrive in the years to come.

By Tanveer Naseer


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