Legacy Leadership: Is a Leader's True Worth Recognized in their Presence or Absence?
Kevin LaChapelle, EdD, MPA
Is the true worth of a leader recognized more in their presence or absence? This is an interesting question posed to a group of graduate students. In analyzing this provocative question, a number of thoughts were shared. Many reflected on some of the most influential leaders that impacted their lives, and some of the leaders that had a negative impact on the organization and lives of those they led.
As today's workforce is readying for a large number of baby-boomers to exit their organizations, this question can be very self -reflective. As a leader contemplating their exit, a question must be asked, how will I be remembered, and what will remain as my legacy?
Letís start by reflecting on some foundational questions. Often when speaking to leaders, I ask this question: Are you more concerned with how your team performs in your presence, or in your absence? Often the responses from the audience are mixed. Some assert that the behavior of a team in the presence of the leader is more important, and is a determinant as to how much respect they have for the leader. Others assert that they would be more concerned with the team's behavior in their absence, because they would hope that they hold the same values that has been instilled in them by the leader.
If we rephrase this question, we can crystalize its meaning. Instead, let's ask, "Are you more concerned with your kidís decisions and behaviors in your presence or absence?" When I ask the question phrased with your kids in mind, generally the audience is unanimous in asserting that they would be more concerned with their kids behavior and actions in their absence, because they are not present to guide them, therefore, they hope they instilled enough in their child over the years, that they can make the best decisions on their own.
Consider that this is no different than the first phrased question. If as a leader, I am more concerned with my teams behavior in my presence, rather than my absence, one might assert that this is a leader more concerned with their power rather than their influence. When leaders have asserted that in their presence they want their team to respect them, this is operating out of a position of power and dominance. On the other hand, if a leader is more concerned with their teamís behaviors in their absence, the leader is more concerned with the values they have imparted on the team, hoping it is hardwired.
While I was in high school working at a fast food restaurant, I recall that in the absence of the manager, some staff continued to treat the restaurant as if the manager were present, as if they were the owner of the restaurant. On the other hand, I can recall other employees that would posture in the presence of the manager, yet, when the manager left, the same person would show little regard for the restaurant. The shift in their behavior was remarkable. Some managers would discern this double standard having more trust in those that proved to hold their values even in the absence of the leader, while some leaders, would allow the manipulative employee that postured in their presence to be promoted because the leader valued power over influence, and believed that person was loyal to them. That type of leader failed to recognize that loyalty to the organization is far more effective and sustainable than loyalty to an individual.
In addition, I can recall hearing leaders or employees make statements such as, "When I leave this place, it will fall apart!" If we examine this statement, most would concur that it is a failed leader that would assert that in their absence the company will fall apart, because, if the leader were effective, they would have built a solid team that would carry on their legacy long after they retired or leave the organization.
Therefore, consider that the best legacy for a retiring leader is not one's name on a building, or providing favors to those that you believe were loyal to you. Instead, the leader should be developing key individuals that are loyal to the organizations goals. True succession planning will carry a leaderís legacy far into the future. Imagine that kind of imprint on the lives of those you led for decades to come.
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