In ancient Rome, a legatus was an ambassador, deputy, or governor sent to a province by the emperor. A legatum was a bequest or legacy. The words derive from the verb, lego, which means, “to send with a charge.”
America today is burdened heavily with a legacy of failed leadership in business, government, and the personal decisions of millions of heads of households. By seeking short-term gains and pleasure in the present, the future has been put at risk, as our serial crises in so many areas attest.
Our children and grandchildren are given a legacy of jeopardy. If you are a CEO or executive leader, this essay challenges you to create a better legacy.
Separating Ourselves From the Herd
My best friend, a brilliant mechanical engineer, has built factories all over the world. Steve has run with the big dogs in his field. His professional ethics are impeccable, which sometimes has put him in hot water. He has had a number of clients over the years who have tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure him to build systems and structures just up to the required codes. Steve always builds beyond the codes, sometimes because his experience tells him that, to reduce downtime or safety over decades, this is necessary. He sees his work as his engineering legacy–which could affect lives. He never has built anything he himself would not want to own and operate.
We are the engineers of our personal and professional lives. If we design defective blueprints, for the fast track to success, we must build defective end products. Consider the many scandals now in our nation. If we design perfect blueprints, but along the way try to cut costs by using defective or second-hand materials, the final product will contain those seen or unseen flaws. If our design-build methods intentionally disregard excellence, this is a reflection of our core character. The legacy we leave will be the product of how we engineered our daily, monthly, yearly decisions.
True leaders step beyond the herd mentality of cutting the costs to personal and professional excellence. They may have to work with the herd, but within themselves they follow the True North of their moral compass. They know they have non-negotiables when it comes to certain decisions, regardless of adverse impacts, because they want their footprint in time to be one of which they are proud.
Make a New History, Day by Day
I once told a person suffering from much guilt and grief due to decades of bad decisions, “Use today as you should. Make all the right decisions today. Then do that tomorrow, and then the next day. Focus only on making the right decisions, one day at a time. Pretty soon, you will have a different past on which will inspire you.”
We all have made bad decisions. We all have cut corners. Most of us have broken the law, willfully and intentionally, at some time, from speeding on the highway to “tax avoidance” that was more than that. We may been unfaithful to our spouse, or not been the kind of engaged parent we should have been. In fact, there is a possibility we have made a pattern of mistakes in either the blueprint or building of our lives to the present day.
Some leaders manage and interpret such memories in many ways. Some simply do not think about them. This is the most dangerous decision of all, a sign of inner moral cancer. Others intentionally stay busy so they have little time for reflection. Busyness and engagement in the external world can be an escape from the inner moral world. Some leaders “compartmentalize” their roles and keep their Good Self for reference when the Bad Self starts to create bad feelings.
There is an old saying. “Every day above ground is a good day.” Every day presents new opportunities to make new blueprints and to engage in positive construction of a new personal leadership legacy. Some deconstruction may be needed. Old and current friendships may need curtailment. New friendships need to be formed. Candid assessment of the “lay of the land” on which to build is required. Yet it is indubitably true that today is a fresh, new day not requiring the old methods, but completely open to the new ones.
Beginning the Process
First, embrace the truth you are engaged in design-build of your leadership legacy. Accept personal responsibility for how you use your time in shaping your moral framework and applying it in every daily decision. The truth is, you are creating your legacies, day by day, night by night. So why not take active, intentional control of it?
Second, put your life within the Big Picture of life. You cannot change human history. You may not be able to change the overall direction of your organization. Yet physics itself tells us no energy is wasted. Read about the Butterfly Effect. Whenever you choose to put into motion in the real world the moral latency within you, you introduce moral energy that acts upon all other moral agents it touches. This is a truth often unknown by those who say, “My life really does not matter, so I’m getting all I can, while I can.”
Your moral agency does matter, though you rarely see your impacts. There are literally millions of people in the past, present, and future, whose lives have been created or destroyed by the following:
- years of conditioning by a parent’s loving or disparaging comments
- a single comment or deed experienced or witnessed by a stranger, at a vulnerable moment
- a single idea that took root and took control in framing “reality” and all decisions
If you somehow have succumbed to the false notion, “My life doesn’t matter,” just ask yourself this question. What single individual has affected my life more than any other? Surely there is one, and likely more, whose influence has made you who you are. If that person’s influence is loving and good, would you dare to believe that person’s life never really mattered? NO, because that life matters to you.
Embrace Your Legacy
Legacy thinking is one of the most important things any leader can do. Your life matters, to the degree you choose to make it matter. Some leaders invest their lives accumulating billions, destroying untold numbers of victims in the process, then build a nonprofit facility emblazoned with their name. That is not a true legacy.
There is another saying. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Start today to build a legacy of love. That’s right. We are part of a species where love and nurture are built in to our very survival. We are dependent children for years, relying on adults to feed, clothe, and care for us. One of the greatest reasons our society and nation is in such trouble today is the biological calculus of love has been replaced by the calculus of materialism.
We all want to be loved. We all want to be remembered as good and loving people. Not one of us wants to be unloved or remembered as builders of a life more akin to Ebenezer Scrooge than to Bob Cratchett. Embrace your legacy today. It is completely within your power. Your family, organization, and all who know you will be glad you are alive and using your life for good, not less than good. The clock is ticking…. JDW