Leaders: Have you thought about your legacy?

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on September 8, 2015

One of the most important things an individual can leave to the next generation is their legacy. It can be a value system, moral compass or set of principles on how to lead one’s life that can inspire others. A legacy can also be something you accomplish that improves the future lives of individuals or institutions once you are gone. Having a legacy identifies the broad vision that you want to accomplish from which a roadmap can be developed. The old adage “you can’t get there if you don’t know where you are going” is the reason legacies are important. With a legacy, you can reach into the future.

At this point in my life, as a writer and advisor on effective leadership, as a trustee and director on the boards of three educational institutions and as a mentor to a number of college students and recent grads, my legacy is clear – to help young people develop and reach their full potential. This provides focus in my life – knowing that through my legacy of helping others, I am making a difference.

When I served as CEO of PQ Corporation, one of my board members, Alan Barton, then executive vice president of Rohm and Hass, once asked me what my legacy is – what I wanted to leave the company, its shareholders and its employees after I was gone. I told him I had not thought about it. He asked that I do so and get back to him when I knew what my legacy would be.

After a few weeks of thought, I called Barton and told him that 10 years from now, I wanted the company’s shareholders and employees to say that the leadership team a decade ago built a strong corporate culture, value system and operational platform from which the company could grow, serving its customers with products and services that made a difference in the quality of life. Having that legacy catalyzed my focus on a goal that was in addition to that of increasing shareholder value.

Within all types of organizations, the legacy of the leader increases the sustainability of that organization, because it rallies everyone towards a common vision of the future and guides decisions toward achieving that vision.

Given the myriad of things that need to be accomplished in our companies and organizations, in our communities, in our schools and in the broader society, why aren’t more business and political leaders thinking about their legacies? Why are so many leaders focused on the short term? Why are some leaders focused on what is important to them and not the institutions they serve?

Why aren’t our government, labor and business leaders thinking about the legacy they want to leave future generations? Perhaps these leaders don’t share among themselves the same values or desired outcomes. One leader’s legacy may be different than another’s legacy. Perhaps some political leaders feel that the concept of “legacy,” a long-term vision of the future, will not appeal to the voters and won’t get them reelected. Perhaps, however, they are mistaken.

The status quo may be just fine for many people, including key decision makers. Constituencies have different objectives. Some might feel that an improvement in one area disadvantages them or their group, and therefore they will not implement change.

It takes effective leadership to pull disparate groups together to agree on a common legacy and how to achieve it. For example, the financial condition of the public school system in Philadelphia is in a deplorable state. Charter schools take funds from the public system that has fixed costs over the short-term that cannot be quickly shed.

Classroom teachers need to pay for classroom incidentals out of their own pocket. Each year my wife Jackie and I financially support Alyse Weisbrod, a second grade teacher and her class at the Elwood School in Philadelphia so the students can enjoy a better educational experience than can be provided by the very small and inadequate monetary allowance provided by the school district. We are trying to make a small difference in these children’s lives. This is part of our legacy.

Each year the Philadelphia school district must beg for funds from politicians reluctant to continue to provide financial resources without a long-term sustainable plan. Where is the leadership that can pull together the right group of educators, union hierarchy, politicians and civic leaders who will create a long-term solution to the financial issues of the district?

Philadelphia will never be a preeminent world-class city unless the short and long-term financial issues with the public school district are addressed. Why is this issue not being addressed? The group that solves this problem will be giving a valuable legacy to the city, its residents and its children. When they do, this group of leaders should be celebrated – they did something for the greater good of our city.

Leaders, think about the legacy you want to leave the organization or institution you lead. What do you want to be remembered by? There is no higher calling in life than leaving a meaningful legacy.

Stan Silverman is a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership. He is the Leadership Catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com

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