I’m fascinated by leadership transitions; the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Yesterday I was listening to a podcast exploring the collapse of a one prominent megachurch and stopped in my tracks when one of the senior leaders described the reaction after the controversial founding pastor resigned: “It only took 2-3 hours for us to realize the only option was to shut it all down”. What a tragic outcome for something that really ought to have been bigger than a single individual.
In that case there are numerous factors that contributed to this ending, but it got me thinking about what remains in any organization after the leader departs for whatever reason.
I’ve always felt that if the organization fails after you leave it means you weren’t actually a very good leader, but I’m reconsidering.
Maybe it really depends what you’re trying to accomplish.
Sure, a cult of personality around one charismatic persona is problematic, but there are some legacies worth pursuing other than an organization that grows and thrives in your absence.
Maybe your lasting legacy is something different. Like one or more of these:
1. Inspired and Equipped Individuals – Building an organization may not be your primary skill or interest if what you really care about is investing yourself in one or a few particular people. Seeing them find and follow their own sense of purpose may be a greater contribution than the legal entity that provided the opportunity and context for your mentoring to happen.
2. Meaningful Policy – You might be motivated by a cause and see an opportunity to develop, support, or advocate for policies that reach beyond one organization into networks, industries, or even law. Establishing a lasting best practice or a statute that advances or protects something you care about deeply may be profoundly satisfying.
3. Geographical Location – If you love a particular wetland, neighbourhood, or nation it may be more important to you that you’ve affected that space in a way that will last than having established an eternal organization. Whether its environmental protection, impactful zoning, or enhancing the appreciation of the beauty and meaning of a place; changing a location into something you’re proud of is a credible achievement.
4. Impacting an Industry – Many leaders I get to work with have a vision that extends beyond their own organization into the broader systems of their industry. Maybe what will resonate deeply in you years from now is not outdoing your “competition” but helping the entire network rise, grow, and develop. Setting standards, training programs, networks, or gatherings that bring out the best in the entire group could count for far more than a single entity.
5. Something More (or Less) – There are endless possibilities that could be your leadership legacy. Some are drawn to national and international impact, others have less grand visions. Some aspire to breadth, others depth, others to things that don’t even fit that dichotomy at all. You may be drawn to the expression of something profoundly personal or to dramatic, strategic, epic challenges.
The point is; try to figure out what you want your legacy to be, what you’re called to, what will give the greatest meaning and satisfaction to your work; and pursue those things. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll change over the years so check in with yourself once in a while to see if you’re still on the right track.
I am grateful for those leaders who are gifted and committed to building healthy organizations that are ready to thrive after they move on. But I have a growing appreciation for the reality that there are other ways to succeed as a leader. The failure comes when we misunderstand or never explore what we really care about.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment with your strongest sense of the legacy you’re pursuing. And if I can help you figure out what it is, or how to align your efforts with it, let’s talk.