Leadership: Building legacy leadership

Turkey’s increasingly egocentric Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently announced his intention to build stunning new mosque on prime Istanbul city site overlooking the Bosphorus. This grand edifice will rival the Blue Mosque built in the late 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent, then ruler of the vast Ottoman empire.
I was visiting Turkey while writing this column, hence the Erdogan reference. But it also provides dramatic, if somewhat excessive, example of what I wanted to write about – legacy leadership.
Every leader, great or gormless, leaves legacy. It goes with the job. Some big name leaders, like former American President George W Bush, have left some doozies. Others, like Nelson Mandela, leave legacy so profoundly exemplary that it defies description. Leaders of whatever scope or scale, leave legacy that transcends them. It immortalises their contribution to the growth or decline of the specific task, organisation, institution or nation they lead.
Legacies define leaders. For that reason, good leaders start thinking about the legacy they prefer to leave early in their leadership tenure. As American leadership writers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote in their book Leader’s Legacy, thinking about legacy encourages leaders to think about today’s actions in larger context. As consequence, leaders are forced to go beyond “the common practice of short-term thinking because legacies include the past, present and future”.
Leaders can’t escape leaving legacy. Their daily decisions and actions ensure it. It is moving feast that is revealed in the way others work for, or with, individual leaders. And because it is serial script, wise leaders consider what they want people to remember about them and develop their leadership approach and style accordingly. Leaders’ legacies are compiled through collection of large and small actions, perceptions and promises fulfilled or forgotten.
Leadership and its travelling companion legacy is, more than anything, way of thinking. It is grounded in self awareness and expressed through the fulfilment of individual hopes and intentions. Leaders mightn’t always think about the impacts they have on others but, their followers do and they invariably have to live with the consequences. That’s why effective leaders recognise the importance and individuality of people.
A leader’s anticipated legacy can, of course, be overwritten by circumstance. John Key, for example, didn’t anticipate the global financial crisis or the Christchurch earthquakes catastrophe. Whatever legacy, if any, he had in mind before those events the narrative had to change. His legacy will instead comprise the ways in which he reacts to world different from what he envisaged. That, of course, is the mark of really successful leader – changing strategy while keeping principles in place.
Good leaders consider what they want to be remembered for. They should also ask what they have learned and what they would most like to pass on. They should also focus on how to convey those lessons. Great leaders forget the personal agenda and transfer knowledge, practices and relationships to minimise disruption when successors step up.
The best leaders are unafraid of confronting their own obsolescence and realising their legacy. According to management guru Peter Drucker “there is no success without successor”.
A positive legacy is underpinned by the same four cornerstones that secure successful leadership. It’s about character or moral example; choice as expressed through wise decisions and clear thinking; conduct or consistently doing the right thing; and consequences which are all about harvesting what is sown.
Erdogan’s example of extravagant self aggrandisement isn’t obviously ringing example of the potential for positive relationship between leadership and legacy. If his state of mind were different he might, from his increasingly influential place at the centre of Middle Eastern politics, instead focus on playing significantly more constructive, healing and visionary role rather than leaving building as testament to his time at the helm.
As Kouzes and Posner also said of leaders: “the legacy you leave is the life you lead. Leaders must decide on what matters in life before they can live life that matters.” M

Reg Birchfield is writer on leadership, governance & management. [email protected]

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