One of the recurring pleasures I have in life is coming into contact with people who knew my late father. He had been a family doctor for more than 40 years and had selflessly ministered to the needs of a close-knit community throughout that time.
Having a relatively unusual surname, I am asked by people whether or not he was any relation and inevitably, upon hearing that he was my father, they launch into stories about how he had helped them – and usually their family. The stories of impact are even stronger from those who worked with him – especially young doctors who came into contact with him as trainees. It often transpires that he has had a seminal impact upon those individuals who used him as a role model and exemplar upon which they based their own future behaviour.
Now the point of this story is to explore what it is to be a leader. I use the “leader” here in its more general sense, as I would describe anyone who has a role in supporting and shaping a community as a leader. In his own terms, my father was a leader in his community, as would be a teacher, minister, or sports coach, etc.
As I read leadership programmes and courses, it strikes me that my father hadn’t been trained in any of the theory or mechanics of leadership – yet he had developed an intuitive understanding of how to engage with individuals that inspired confidence, interest and self-belief.
It was while trying to think about the characteristics of high-quality leadership that I came to the conclusion that it can only really be measured in terms of legacy – and not short-term legacy on an organisation, but long-term legacy on the life and behaviour of individuals.
So what are those characteristics that mark out the person, that leave such a legacy? As regular readers of this column are aware, I like the number 7 – so in order to limit this list, I’ll stick to what I reckon are the seven features of long-term leadership legacy.
The first of these is passion – a passion for what they do, and a level of enthusiasm that rubs off on all those around them to the extent that we are infected by it. A small word of warning here – one can only be called passionate by someone else – let others be the judge through observing your actions.
The second characteristic of leadership legacy is truth. People often use the description “authentic” leadership – but, put more simply, we are naturally drawn to people who have an inner sense of being true to themselves first and foremost – and through that sense we are more inclined to place our trust.
The third is knowledge. I’m not talking here of people who can absorb every fact about their chosen area and regurgitate it at will – but about people who have a depth of understanding about their area of work and who carry that knowledge very lightly and allow it to be demonstrated through what they do – rather than what they say.
Fourthly, those who leave a lasting leadership legacy are driven by a sense of “duty” and service that transcends self-interest. In fact, it can occasionally become self-harming – but it’s exactly this element of self-sacrifice that makes such people so appealing in a world where we come to think that there is an “angle” on everyone’s behaviour.
The fifth feature is an interest in other people – not through what the person can get out of that relationship but simply the pleasure to be gained through seeing them developing their own passions and abilities. We talk of mentoring and coaching, but ultimately it’s a matter of simple human relationships where one person passes on something of deep worth to another – and in so doing gains enough from that unsophisticated transaction.
The penultimate feature of leadership legacy is perhaps a little surprising, but in my experience those who leave the greatest legacy have a flaw – not a huge destructive handicap, but something that reminds us all that they are human beings like us, capable of the same mistakes and errors, which put them just within reach of our imagination enough to encourage us to strive to be like them.
Finally, there’s something about these people that is difficult to put your finger on but it’s a connection between their head and their heart that transforms their behaviour from disconnected actions into a purposeful life.
Looking back on the death of my own father, I wrote a poem that same evening and one of the verses read:
Your family extended to a community
And we sought refuge in your knowledge
In your vitality and wisdom.
Protected against our fear of suffering
We passed our worries on
And you absorbed them
Putting them in a black bag
Within your soul.
It’s this notion of soul – or essence, if you will – that inspires confidence among those around such a person, to the extent that in challenging times we know things will “turn out to be all right”.
I suppose that if any of us who have leadership roles should have any ambition about our legacy, it should be that – sometime, long after we are gone – someone meets one of our children and tells them that we left something behind in them that still lives on.