Three Keys to a Great Leadership Legacy

During a recent trip to South Africa, I had the good fortune of addressing the African Leadership Academy, which identifies promising young people from all over the continent and offers them a high school education and intensive leadership training. The ultimate goal: to build a pipeline of professionals who can strengthen Africa's political and economic climate for decades to come.

The academy is off to an impressive start. Even before reaching the age of 20, some of its gifted young men and women have already changed national laws, launched schools, and found innovative ways to create sustainable energy. When people have this much talent—and so much hope pinned to their future—they need to ask themselves this question as early as possible: What do I want my leadership legacy to be?

This is a question that we should all ask ourselves. It's never too early to consider the answer; nor is it ever too late. Rarely a week goes by without news of a legacy-tarnishing scandal involving an executive, athlete, military officer, or politician. We're all capable of lapses in humility and ethics, but we can tilt the odds of behaving with integrity in our favor by thinking often about our legacy.

Remember that our legacy isn't what we wish it to be or what we insist it is. It's the sum of how others live and work because of behavior they saw us exhibit. Our legacy can be positive or negative. It's largely in our control if we cultivate a few key traits on a regular basis.

First among these is our attitude. Once during my career with the U.S.Navy, I flew from Europe to Washington to deliver a briefing to my bosses. It was a long trip. I felt tired by the time I arrived and even more so after the meeting ended. Then I had to hop on a return flight to my post in Italy. By this time, I was worn out and feeling more than a little sorry for myself. Imagine my pleasure when, shortly after sitting down and getting comfortable, a flight attendant requested that I swap seats with another passenger. I grudgingly agreed. Moving toward the front, I saw a rather distraught woman coming to take my seat. It was soon apparent why.

A Lesson in Determination and Grace

In the seat next to the one she'd just abandoned sat a young woman with no arms or legs. She was clearly self-conscious about what had just transpired. "Well," I said, sitting down. "I hope you don't mind sitting next to a Navy guy." As we talked throughout the flight, she explained that she'd been born with just a trunk—and understandably had struggled to accept this enormous disability. Gradually though, with strong encouragement from her parents, she'd set aside her resentment and worked on building a life. She had earned a bachelor's degree and gone on to graduate school. Now she was a junior scientist at a prominent organization and on the way to her first international conference. The woman's incredible determination and grace quickly snapped me out of my embarrassing little funk and left a lasting impression. All these years later, it's still a great privilege to have met that woman and to reflect on the courage and positive attitude she demonstrated every day. The challenge has been to try to live up to her example.

Indeed, consistently keeping a positive attitude requires a second trait: persistence, or extra effort. Here it's helpful to reflect on the 212-degree rule. As Sam Parker and Mac Anderson remind us in their book 212: The Extra Degree (Simple Truths, 2006), water is very hot at 211 degrees. At 212, it boils with enough energy to power a naval ship. An additional degree makes an extraordinary difference—as it can for leaders. We can go along performing at a very high level, running our companies at 211 degrees, and the results will likely prove more than satisfactory. If we push ourselves just a little bit more, we can hit the boiling point. Imagine the innovation and impact we might then unleash in our organizations.

The football player Roger Staubach graduated a few years ahead of me at the U.S. Naval Academy, by which time extra effort had become second-nature to him. Known as "Roger the Dodger" for his uncanny ability to keep plays alive through his fearless, creative scrambling, he became a legend as Navy's star quarterback. He went on to even greater success as the Hall of Fame, Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. No matter how big a lead an opposing team had built, it knew the game was never over as long as Staubach was on the field. He always put forth that extra degree of effort, especially when a game was on the line. He'd hold onto the ball just long enough for a receiver to get open, squeaking out that extra yard needed for a key first down. During his pro career, he led 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. An astounding 17 of them came in the last two minutes of the game. Staubach played his entire career at the boiling point and helped inspire his teammates to do the same.

We all Need Critical Mirrors

A final key in building a lasting leadership legacy: mirrors. If we're fortunate, we have a lot of them growing up—parents, teachers, coaches, and clergy members who don't hesitate to look us in the eye and tell us when we're not living up to our ability or their expectations. The older we get and the further we move up the organizational chart, the more those mirrors tend to fall away. We don't have nearly as many people to answer to and the women and men who work for us are usually hesitant to tell us what they really think, especially if they think we're wrong.

It becomes easier to believe we're smarter than we actually are, that we make the right calls most of the time. Even worse, we tend to grow complacent, to rest on our achievements instead of striving to improve. We might lose focus on having what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset—a belief that, slowly and surely, we can always keep getting better with hard work and attention to detail. That's when we need to rehang the mirrors in our lives. We must go regularly to spouses, close friends, executive coaches, and trusted colleagues and have them tell us what they see. It won't always be pretty. Nor should it be. As we say at the Center for Creative Leadership, feedback is a gift. If we receive it in that spirit, we can use it to make us more effective. Without mirrors though, we won't receive it at all.

St. Francis of Assisi left an extraordinary imprint on history as an advocate for peace, justice, environmental stewardship, and service to the poor. His succinct advice: "Preach the Gospel daily. Use words if necessary."

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