What Legacy of Leadership Will You Leave?

Nurturing the next generation of leaders is one of the best things you can do for your organization.
September 11, 2013
Russ Liden
By Russ Linden  |  Contributor
A management educator and author

On April 13, 1888, Alfred Nobel picked up a French newspaper and saw a headline announcing that he had just died. He didn't find the error amusing (it was his brother who had passed away). But when he continued reading and saw the text of his own obituary, it left him despondent. It began: Le marchand de la mort est mort ("The merchant of death is dead") and went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite.

Over the next few years, Nobel reflected on how he wanted to be remembered, and decided to change his will. When he died in 1896 at the age of 63, the public was amazed to learn that he had designated over 90 percent of his considerable fortune to the creation of a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in such areas as chemistry, physics, literature, medicine and peace. The first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901.

Fortunately, none of us is likely to read our own obituary. But it's worth pondering the question: How do you want to be remembered? Or, more to the point of these columns, how do you want people to remember you as a leader and manager?

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I've asked some of my students that question and their answers vary:

"I want to be remembered for my creativity."

"I want people to recall how much I cared about the agency and its mission."

"What's most important to me are the programs I created and their impact on others."

Here's another way to consider your legacy at work: Who have you helped to become a future leader? In today's wildly chaotic organizational environment, it's often very difficult to see the difference we have made at the end of a day (or a month or a year). But leaders can make a huge difference in the lives of the people they work with, and helping someone develop into a strong manager and leader is both visible and highly satisfying. Leaders who see part of their role as being a coach, mentor and teacher can have a profound impact on the people around them.

When I began teaching, a colleague befriended me and allowed me to sit in on some of his classes. He was (and is) a gifted teacher. Using humor, creative exercises and the example of his own behavior, he helped people try out approaches that they never had considered before. I was eager to learn from him, and asked him to observe my classes and give me feedback.

Once, when I asked him why a particular class was going poorly, he observed me teaching for a few hours and then offered this thought: "Russ, you reminded me of a doctor who caught his patient's disease." He was aware that some of the students had come into class with a negative, skeptical mindset. Rather than responding by maintaining a positive attitude, he saw me descending into the negativity around me. And the way he captured that dynamic -- "catching a patient's disease" -- stayed with me for years. He taught without trying to, through the power of his example and insights.

Some time ago, an editor for the New York Times wrote a column about recent Nobel Prize winners. The editor had called to congratulate them and talk about their accomplishments. He then posed one question: "What helped you get where you are today?" The most frequent response? "There was a teacher." Not necessarily a teacher in the formal sense, but there was someone in most of their lives who became a mentor and took a special interest in them. The Nobel recipients described a person who saw special potential in them: a talent, a passion, an unusual ability that they hadn't seen in themselves. And their mentors pushed and prodded and found ways to bring out their best.

Those mentors can look back and take enormous satisfaction in the legacy they helped create. I think Alfred Nobel would approve.