Rethinking the Legacy of a Leader

The definition of “a leader,” specifically in the corporate world and western hemisphere, has morphed and evolved quite a bit in the last century or so. Early in the 19th century, a business “leader” was a titan of industry, usually a once-poverty-stricken lad (and yes, way back when, it was a young man) who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to build a company that made him millions. By mid-century it grew to include upper and middle managers who toed the company line, thrived on competition, and made lots of money for the company so they could retire at 65 and spend their days fishing. And don’t even get me started on the ‘80s, the era of “greed is good,” where success was measured by the size of your bank account, particularly in relation to that of others.

That was then, and this is now.

Today, “leadership” extends well beyond the boardroom. True leaders need to meet the company goals, for sure; but they also need to show value and ROI; they need to motivate and inspire; they need to compete and collaborate. In short, they need to be thinkers, builders, creators, movers, and mentors.

That’s a tall order.

So, when we talk about the “legacy of a leader,” which is a favorite topic motivational speakers like to dig out regularly, there’s much more to it these days than simply, “I made (or saved) the company a lot of money.” It’s no longer enough to meet the C-suite’s expectations; great leaders need to move their organizations forward, often profoundly changing—for the better—the systems, processes, workforces and business plans that they are charged with overseeing. Gone are the days of success by any means necessary. Today it’s about lending a helping hand, supporting your colleagues, and paying it forward.

Recently, as part of a services and support industry leadership roundtable I organized, I sat down with a diverse group of distinguished leaders to discuss their professional accomplishments as well as why they considered them notable.

Although we were within a trusted circle of peers, the group was hesitant to speak up at first. But slowly we all opened up about notable successes we’d enjoyed; and as I listened to the other professionals, I noted that most of their achievements fell into one of two categories—projects that “stretched” them professionally and actions through which they helped others.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how those two areas are connected, as well as what it means for the future of the services and support industry.


Every single example the roundtable members shared demonstrated instances of them pushing themselves, often against many odds. There were setbacks along the way, each time forcing them to rethink the situation, the solution, and themselves, but when they eventually succeeded, they had learned valuable lessons and gained insight into their own capabilities, mindset, and behavior.

And, really, when I look at what the group had accomplished, it was clear they never would have done so if they had remained complacent, remained boxed in by limitations, and didn’t try to move themselves (and their teams) outside of their comfort zones:

  • Created a sustainable company in a small town in North India
  • Built a luxury brand’s customer experience from scratch in just five months
  • Formulated and executed a pivot from a perpetual, on-premise customer success team to a SaaS team, increasing Net Promoter Score and gross margin each year
  • Designed the internet backbone for a country
  • Developed, planned, and executed a marketing strategy that grew a company 30%, year over year

And these awesome achievements are just a sampling of the projects we discussed!

When I dug a little further and asked more about why they thought these achievements were successful, there was a mix of answers, including how they had coached and developed good people along the way and embraced organizational and cultural change. That’s why the second “bucket” of greatest achievements didn’t come as a surprise…

Helping Others

Our roundtable members also prided themselves on the impact they’ve had on other people, helping them and giving back when the opportunities presented themselves. Their accomplishments included helping organizations transform and reposition themselves within their companies, sharing the career lessons they’ve learned by publishing a book, and being part of a collaborative working group researching and suggesting industry standards. In fact, all our members, when they talked about future goals, included ideas for giving back to their organizations, colleagues, and the industry as a whole.

This bodes well for their legacy of leadership, I think.

I can’t help but believe that their focus on helping co-workers and colleagues was critical in propelling them to successfully complete projects that were “stretches” for their skillsets at the time. As the roundtable discussed in an earlier meeting, great leaders know when to ask for help, and they lift up others on their team by asking for their input, investing in their professional development, and recognizing them for a job well done. Leaders who invest that kind of time and effort into helping their team members earn the respect, trust, and, most importantly, loyalty of their co-workers. Once you have the buy-in of your team members, you can depend on their support and collaboration in working to meet big goals.

Not surprisingly, when our roundtable turned to discussing what they would try to accomplish if they knew they only had three years left in their careers, the responses were much more focused on leaving behind a thriving organization for the next generation of support and services. In addition to leaving behind best practices and operational frameworks that impacted business long-term, they wanted to grow the next generation of leaders—not just from a functional training perspective but including ethical and emotional intelligence.

Leaving an organization better off than when you found it, with even greater promise on the horizon, is really the best kind of legacy a leader can hope to leave. 

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