Will you leave a leadership legacy or just baggage

A couple of weeks ago I posted a brief note on LinkedIn about a conversation I’d had with a chief executive of a successful global business. The chief executive said to me that one of the most important, yet often unrecognised qualities, of a successful CEO was to be able to differentiate between ‘legacy’ and ‘baggage’.

That post received quite a bit of interest and was read by over 5,000 people. However, a good friend of mine suggested that there was another distinction which could be made and that was between ‘’legacy’ and ‘heritage”. She pointed out that we should have a healthy respect for heritage of our businesses, and a healthy scepticism as to whether legacy is true heritage that deserves to be handed on and looked after or whether it is just familiar and much loved baggage.

I found this to be a very helpful nudge to consider the relationship between ‘legacy’ and ‘heritage’ and it got me to thinking about the nature of the differences between the two related concepts.

So let’s start with an admission – in any thesaurus ‘legacy’ and ‘heritage’ appear as synonyms for each other, so much of what follows might simply be a rather self-indulgent act of hair splitting.

The origin of the word legacy is late Middle English, denoting the function or office of a deputy; with the root coming from the Latin word ‘legatus’ – person delegated.

In modern parlance dictionaries typically have two definitions of the word legacy. The first is related to a legacy being something that is acquired by inheritance, such as a gift by will, especially money or other personal property, e.g. he left a legacy of £1000,000 to his daughter. The second definition is where something is transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.

Now at the risk of being accused of twisting the facts to suit my argument I’m going to suggest that one of the key elements of legacy is that it is much more of a deliberate act that heritage – which I will explore in a moment.

In a general sense we often use ‘legacy’ in a negative context, such as when we want to overcome the ‘legacy’ of the past – but that relates much more to an activity/way of thinking/code of ethics which was once popular and has now become outmoded – however none of these were necessarily deliberately passed on to the next generation, instead they were simply remains from another time, i.e. part of a heritage.

Lots of things can go into the heritage of a particular society – or business for that matter – features such as traditions, languages, buildings and monuments that were created in the past and still have historical importance. These are the things that form a critical part of the cultural heritage of a country, a place or an organisation.

One of the fascinating things about having been a Director of Education, where I had responsibility for over 200 schools, was observing the legacy left behind, and inherited, by headteachers/school principals. If there was a general pattern to be observed it was that the legacy of an individual was more often than not wiped out by their successor – regardless of whether their predecessor had been effective or ineffective.

This is why new leaders often come into an organisation and seek to update the vision, mission and values – always ensuring that they involve everyone in the business in the process. Nevertheless, despite this involvement, it still results in the last vestiges of the old regime being consigned to the dustbin.

I think this is the key point that the CEO was making to me when he suggested that too many leaders are unable to differentiate between ‘legacy’ and ‘baggage’. Too often anything that ‘hasn’t been invented here’ (by ‘here’ I mean by the present administration) is seen to be baggage that can be discarded without any negative consequence.

True legacy seems to be more directly connected to the prior leadership who pass on something positive to their successors. Heritage is the culture – represented by the traditions and artefacts that constitute a ‘way of doing things’.

It is of significance that the CEO was the leader of a very successful family business. Evidence points to the fact that family businesses are much more aware of the importance of legacy where a responsibility is passed down to the next generation – rather than just simply inherited as we might our heritage.

It’s this notion of obligation towards what has been passed on that differentiates the two concepts for me in business.

The danger is that if we don’t a see a line of sight between one leader and the next – as we do in family businesses – then the heritage of the business is fragile as there is no sense of obligation to maintain what has gone on before.

All too often, new leaders pick and choose what elements of their heritage they want to discard, and those elements they want to uphold – without any of the associated sense of obligation to the critical features of practice that have sustained family businesses.

I’m not sure if I’ve properly responded to my friend’s comment in the course of this article, but the very process of researching and thinking it through has certainly helped me – and has already been of assistance in a couple of conversations with CEOs about what they have inherited as a legacy and what legacy they want to hand on to their eventual successors.

The bottom line appears to be that wise leaders think very carefully about the deliberate act of legacy in terms of the past, the present, and the future and use this knowledge to make careful decisions about what they pass on, uphold or discard, and finally, what to pass on.

All this took on even greater clarity this week when I met the chairman of a large business who described the tendency for some CEOs to get involved in ‘ego projects’. These are leaders who want to leave an imprint upon an organisation and such is their determination to leave a legacy that they embark on extravagant projects that are primarily about raising their own profile. I believe this is essential difference between ‘legacy’ and ‘baggage’ – a legacy is something that enhances the future – baggage is something that unsustainable and offers no benefit to the future.

So, in conclusion, ask yourself this, what positive legacy do you intend to pass on to your successor? If you can’t answer that question then perhaps it might be worthwhile thinking about the value of what you’re doing at present if it can simply be discarded as ‘baggage’ – the moment you leave the business!