In a recent social media post, I stated that leaders should focus on their people instead of their own legacy. I did so while sharing a previous article on mentoring, “On the Faces of Others” (Proceedings, May 2011). The motivation for that post was based in part on constant media coverage discussing how signature programs determine a politician’s legacy.
The belief that an event, action, or program is responsible for someone’s legacy seems misguided, but this attitude is pervasive in our society. And it seems to infect military leaders as well, prompting many to try building a personal legacy simply by driving change for the sake of change or creating unnecessary programs. They would be better served by focusing more directly on the leadership and mentoring of people.
That social media post elicited a comment from a trusted shipmate and began a conversation on the concept of legacy. His statements that he is “a firm believer in the Law of Legacy” and that “It’s important to think about the legacy we are building as individuals and as a team” led me to do a little reading and thinking on the subject.
John C. Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership showed that I might have been wrong, but for the right reasons. Maxwell clearly intended the Law of Legacy to be about people, saying “A Leader’s Lasting Value Is Measured by Succession.” Legacy clearly has far less to do with programs and is more about a fundamental aspect of naval leadership: training your relief.
It’s probably no coincidence that Maxwell listed Legacy as his 21st and final Irrefutable Law. It could also have been his first because succession planning is so central to effective leadership. None of us should be irreplaceable, but we are when we fail to prepare someone else to take our place. If for no other reason, we must focus on succession because we are not guaranteed tomorrow, and the mission must still be completed.
Although many programs initially serve people, they are often superseded by a future legacy-builder or quickly become outdated and impractical. Personnel programs may have a result counter to what was intended and risk limiting or eliminating positive human interaction, replacing it instead with rigid procedures and check boxes. Busy leaders often allow themselves to believe “the program” will serve their people when what is needed can never be provided by a checklist. No leader should seek to tie their legacy to such actions.
Several recent articles and studies have indicated military leaders may lack a focus on people. In “Exit Interview: Tony Butcher, USN” (USNI Blog, 10 September 2015) the writer stated that a significant contributing factor in the decision to resign his commission was a lack of mentorship. This left him feeling like little more than a “[cog] in a machine” where everyone focused on simply reaching retirement, not job satisfaction or doing what was best for the Navy until then.
The belief that one’s legacy is built through programs or physical things should be considered in the context of systems. “Legacy systems” in the military typically have a negative connotation because they are outdated and lack utility, attention, and maintenance. When we seek to build a legacy on things instead of people, the future is predictably the same. In contrast, when people are our legacy, they learn to build their own legacy centered on people. That focus becomes a self-sustaining force with a never-ending life cycle that contributes to enduring organizational success.
Concentrating on programs leads everyone toward simply hitting a “series of wickets.” That is not leadership. Subordinates need concerned leaders and mentors willing to take the time to get to know them personally, something Lieutenant Butcher did not experience and which contributed to his separation.
It is difficult not to consider legacy from a linguistic standpoint. As such, it can be viewed as a single noun and multiple action verbs. The noun is people and the verbs include lead, care, guide, share, prepare, and develop.
Done over, my social media post would read something like this: Leaders focus on people to leave behind a lasting and valuable legacy.
As Maxwell wrote, “A legacy lives on in people, not things.”
Senior Chief Murphy retired from the Navy after 21 years of service. His June 2012 Proceedings column, “Bring Back Humility,” was included in the recently published Naval Leadership, a volume in the U.S. Naval Institute Wheel Book series.