(Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. looks on as President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photo credit: Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office.)
“If I have done any deed worthy of remembrance, that deed will be my monument. If not, no monument can preserve my memory.” – Agesilaus II
I am one of the few people I know who doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions. Like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, I don’t believe in them. Our track record of achieving these goals set with the best intentions is abysmal so let’s agree with that they are a fantasy we use to keep ourselves distracted in the dark month of January.
But I do hold that there is something guiding the human habit of setting annual goals and resolutions and it’s to do with a search for meaning.
New Year’s resolutions focus very much on what we think we should be doing – drinking less, exercising more, eating more vegetables. But underneath those thoughts for what we want to change is often a wondering about the meaning of our lives.
Legacy is our mission or quest. It provides meaning to our existence. We all have a mission or cause – usually several – even if we aren’t aware of it. We are all put on this earth at this time to achieve something – large or small. Connecting with what we want as our legacy is a process of knowing what really matters to us. An understanding of our legacy gives us a sense of purpose and guides us in the choices we make.
Legacies have relevance in our personal and professional lives. If you think legacies are only the remit of the CEO, I’d challenge you to think again.
In coaching executives, it is when we turn our attention to the question of legacy within the context of their career and their current role that things can get very interesting. It’s often a question that hasn’t been thought of, and yet it’s this question often helps people really engage with what they want to achieve at work. It’s so easy to get caught up in operational issues, quarterly figures and getting things done for others, and so easy to forget about what matters to us.
Legacies vary, as they are deeply personal.
One senior executive told me her legacy would be around diversity and inclusion. She plans (and is on her way) to “breaking down the walls of the boy’s club” in the senior echelons of management at her firm.
An IT executive decided that one of his legacies would be a step change in the infrastructure of the operations because the company was lagging behind what was acceptable. So committed to this, he found budget where his peers said there was none and is on his way with a nine-month change program to make the difference he knows is needed.
So instead of your list of ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ for January, take some time to reflect on what you’d like your legacy to be.
Here are a few questions to use in this process:
- What gets you excited or really annoys you? Answers to either of these will highlight you to what matters to you. This is a good starting point for building out a mission or cause
- What do you know needs to change in your team or department? If you were able to be honest, and there were no consequences, what would you choose to change? What can be your part in that?
- What would you like to be known for? When you leave this role, or at your retirement party, what would you like people to be saying about you?
We all long for meaning and purpose. Let’s be conscious about the legacy we create.