Who’s in charge of your legacy? The answer may surprise you

By McKeel Hagerty | April 3, 2018

I was invited to speak recently to a group of business leaders in Chicago about legacy, which is a daunting subject to be sure. Like you, I’m often too caught up in the day-to-day whirl of life to think much about my legacy. I also feel I am just getting started in life at age 50. (But, as my personal mantra goes, I gave it my absolute best.)

After some reflection, I settled on titling my address “The Road to Wisdom: Legacy and Letting Go,” and here’s why. To my way of thinking, there are several types of legacy and business leaders operate in multiple dimensions of impact. There’s the legacy you leave as a human being, family member, community member and so on. And there’s the legacy you leave as a business leader. Both are intertwined, but let’s start with the latter.

The world is changing fast these days. In 1965, Intel’s Gordon Moore predicted the processing power of computers would double every few years. A half century later, he’s still right, and the power unleashed by all that computing power has transformed the world. For instance, no one tweeted, friended or googled anyone 20 years ago because Twitter, Facebook and Google didn’t exist. Amazon, the world’s third most valuable company, which has made Jeff Bezos the richest human alive today, only arrived on the scene in 1994. Microsoft and Apple arrived just 20 years before that.

Leadership and legacy in an age of exponential change

In our day to day lives, these companies and their products have become so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine life before them. In business, they’ve been like snowplows, pushing aside weaker companies, disrupting industry after industry and, in the process, putting an enormous premium on A-level talent. The companies winning this unending war for talent are the ones with nimble leaders who change their business models to emphasize what the best and brightest seek in an employer today: a focus on global citizenship, work/life balance, job flexibility, mobility, training, personal growth, and regular feedback and rewards.

Leaders who adapt ceaselessly, move quickly, stay cutting edge, disrupt their own industries, and act as trend-spotters, collaborators, connectors, conveners, and storytellers — those are the ones likeliest to leave lasting business legacies.

Can you see where this is headed as it pertains to legacy? Leaders who adapt ceaselessly, move quickly, stay cutting edge, disrupt their own industries, and act as trend-spotters, collaborators, connectors, conveners, and storytellers – those are the ones likeliest to leave lasting business legacies.

But I’m in charge of my personal legacy, right?

Now what about your personal legacy? Well, here’s what I shared in Chicago: Stop worrying about it.  Your legacy isn’t up to you anyway. In fact, it’s really up to everyone else but you – your family, your colleagues, your business partners, your customers, your acquaintances, your friends, even your enemies. Like a company’s brand being only truly owned in the mind of consumers, your legacy is owned in the minds and hearts of all those groups. It is the sum total of all the impressions you make, every word that you speak, and all of your actions. You can influence your legacy but you can’t control it. So stop worrying about it, just live according to your best inclinations for yourself. Be the best you, be kind and thoughtful in how you interact with people and the world and you will likely have a lasting legacy. It’s a good bet.

Resume virtues are the skills you bring to your work. They are what get you jobs, promotions and big bonuses. Eulogy virtues are the ones that people talk about at your funeral — were you a good person?

David Brooks describes this kind of mindful approach to life as deciding between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are the skills you bring to your work. They are what get you jobs, promotions and big bonuses. Eulogy virtues are the ones that people talk about at your funeral – were you a good person? Were you kind, brave, faithful, etc.? I know which ones seem more compelling to me.

And now for the good news …

The good news is there’s still time to make deep changes in your life to influence your legacy. Don’t wait. Repair broken relationships. Reconnect with old friends. Make new ones. Try new things. Reflect on constructive feedback. Open yourself to the world and to people. Mentor young people trying to get ahead. Contribute to your community. Have meaningful conversations and, when necessary, tough dialog. Remember the James Taylor’s song from the ‘70s, “Shower the People”? Do that. Shower the people you love (and like) with love, starting with family and friends. And do all of this not because you want them to say what a swell guy or gal you were when you were alive, but because it’s just the right way to live.

I ended my remarks in Chicago as I will end them now. When it comes to the question of legacy, don’t wait. There is still time. As Shannon Adler wrote, “Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones.”

Onward and upward.

-McKeel

Postscript: I’d love to hear your thoughts on business and personal legacies. Please leave a comment below.

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