Leadership and Your Long Term Legacy

Posted 11.11.2010

Florence1 Perhaps you've heard the story about the Renaissance era traveler who came upon a group of three men smashing rocks by the side of the road.  He asked the first man what he was doing and the man said, "I am engaged in the daily drudgery of smashing large rocks into smaller rocks." The traveller then asked the second man what he was doing.  With more energy and enthusiasm, the man said, "I'm shaping these rocks into bricks."  Finally, the traveler asked the third man the question.  With a fire in his eyes, the man joyfully replied, "I'm building a cathedral to celebrate the glory of God."

It's all about perspective and intent.  Today, I got a different perspective by climbing to the top of the cathedral in Florence, Italy.  Construction on the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore began in 1296 and ended 170 years later. It's capped by a 375 foot high duomo which is the largest brick dome in the world.  If you have eight Euros and some cardiovascular endurance, you can walk up 464 steps that lead to an outdoor platform at the top of the dome.  From there, you're treated to a 360 degree view of Florence and Tuscany. 

Florence2 As I was walking through this ancient city searching for dinner tonight, I started thinking about the kind of leadership that must be required to start a project you won't live to see the end of.  It's easy to look at a cathedral and conclude that you'll likely never work on something like that.  That doesn't mean, however, that your leadership can't build a legacy that outlives you.

Here are a couple of examples that might hit closer to home.

Over the past few years, I've had the good fortune to work several times with newly promoted admirals in the US Navy and US Coast Guard.  As I began that work, a retired admiral said to me "It's likely that some of the people you're speaking to will have buildings named after them some day."  That's a pretty cool legacy, but it's about as likely that most of us will end up being legendary admirals as it is that we'll build a cathedral.  The admirals are a little closer to home, but maybe we're not quite there yet.

So, here's an example that any leader should be able to relate to when considering the opportunity to leave a legacy that lasts beyond one's time on earth. 

I've been in Florence this week to speak to newly promoted executives of a global energy company.  Last night, I went to dinner with a good friend who helps head up executive development for the company.  We were talking about a session earlier in the week where the new execs were encouraged to consider their legacies.  My friend told me about an executive she knows named Bill who's been with the company for more than 30 years and who, through his leadership and tough love mentoring, has developed two generations of world class supply chain managers.  They've set the standard in their discipline for their industry and others. That's a legacy that's going to outlast Bill.

Is it a cathedral or a memorial building?  No, but the work of Bill and his proteges have made a huge difference to their company and, in turn, to the lives of its millions of customers around the world.

It's all about perspective and intent.  How long term is your perspective?  What intentions do you have as a leader that could leave a legacy that extends beyond your time here?  Those aren't rhetorical questions.  I'd love to hear what you come up with.