What Is Legacy Thinking?
Beginning With the End in Mind
"The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit." – Nelson Henderson, Canadian pioneer
Quincy leans back in his office chair. It's his last day on the job, and he takes a moment to reflect upon his achievements – and his regrets. He's troubled by the feeling that time has passed by in a blur, and that he's missed his chance to build something that will endure.
Like Quincy, many of us lead hectic lives, and this makes it hard to see beyond the demands of the present moment. But, if you pause to assess your priorities, and take a longer view, you may achieve something bigger – a lasting legacy.
In this article, we'll explore how you can start to build your legacy straight away, and why doing so can bring benefits in the present, too.
How to Develop Legacy Thinking
People often think of a "legacy" in terms of money or property left in a will, or passed down through generations. But your legacy can also be a measure of your impact on other people: how they think, what they say, and what they do as a result of having known you.
With legacy thinking, you "start with the end in mind." You identify the long-term impact that you'd like to make, and then assess the changes that you need to make to reach that point.
This enables you to work toward your legacy throughout your life, rather than considering it only in retrospect. This approach is covered in one of the classic books on personal development, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change."
Legacy thinking may sound similar to other forward-thinking approaches such as long-term focus and strategic planning, and it can influence them, but it is something quite different. Legacy thinking starts from a different perspective – the future – and defines success in terms of the difference you make to other people's lives.
The Benefits of Legacy Thinking
Perhaps the most important benefit of legacy thinking is that it can help to bring purpose to your work, and place the actions you take today in a wider context. Chances are, the knowledge that you're building something to last will make you more focused, motivated, empowered, and satisfied.
Legacy thinking can also help you to be a positive role model, and to encourage others to consider their own legacies. In short, it can help you to fulfill your potential, and to become a better leader.
Legacy thinking isn't just about vague or "touchy-feely" ambitions and agendas. It can support fundamental business needs, too – such as succession planning, which enables you to influence your company's success long into the future. It can also make you a better manager by helping you to reflect on your decision-making, and ensuring that your actions reflect your priorities.
How to Use Legacy Thinking
The desire to build a lasting legacy can drive you to achieve something meaningful. So, let's look at five steps that you can take to work toward it.
1. Start Now
It takes time to build a legacy, so start now! The sooner you begin, the more time you'll have to craft your legacy, and the longer you'll have to align your actions with your aims. You can explore strategies for creating positive changes in your role with our article, Job Crafting.
2. Reflect on the Difference You Want to Make
Next, think deeply about the kind of difference that you want to make to people. An effective technique (though it may seem slightly morbid!) is to draft your own eulogy – essentially a speech in praise of yourself and your achievements.
Write it in a lighthearted, upbeat style, and include the things that you hope your colleagues would say about you after you're gone. If this is a little too much visualization for your liking, you could just try answering questions such as:
- What values, beliefs, behaviors, strengths, or traits would I like colleagues/people/customers to remember me for?
- What knowledge/skills would I like to pass on?
- What behaviors do I encourage in other people?
- What do the people around me need? How can I serve them?
Another useful tip is to think about the inspiration that you could draw from your predecessors' actions, and what you'd like to build on. Research shows that the type of legacy that is left to us influences the legacy that we ourselves will leave.
Ask friends, family or colleagues to explain how your past behavior has affected them. This can help you to see yourself from a different perspective, and other people can often see our strengths more clearly than we do ourselves. For more ideas to help you reflect, see our articles, Strengthsfinder, Psychometric Testing, and How Good Are Your People Skills?
3. Write a Legacy Statement
Next, write a formal "legacy statement." This is your declaration of intent. It specifies your aspirations for the long-term impact that you want to have, and how you want to be remembered.
Begin by assessing the themes that you've identified through your reflections. Those that you adopt in your legacy statement should be aspirational, achievable, and reflect the things that matter most to you. So, discard any that don't really enthuse you, or that you don't wholeheartedly believe in.
Then, present the remaining ideas in a way that clearly shows why they are important to you. Do this in any way you see fit. It could be an essay, a list of single words, short phrases, short stories, pictures, pictograms, or diagrams, for example.
You may want to set a limit on the time it takes you to make an impression on those around you. Studies show that, on average, non-public sector employees in the U.S. stay in their jobs for just over four years, so setting yourself a deadline can help you to do something that's both meaningful and achievable. You don't have to look decades into the future.
Keep your legacy document in a place where you'll see it often. Creating a Treasure Map is a good way to keep your aims visible, as it represents an easily accessible and clear representation of the pathway to your goals.
Ask people who know you well for feedback on your legacy statement. They can help you to "raise your sights" if the aspirations on your legacy statement are too modest, or encourage you to rethink objectives that may be out of reach. They can also tell you how closely your statement reflects who you are.
4. Live Your Legacy
To build a legacy, you need to start making a difference to people straight away. But, if the legacy that you're "seeding" now isn't the kind that you want to leave, be sure to start aligning your behavior with your aims. So, consider what may need to change about your leadership style, your behavior, your working methods, and so on.
Servant leaders (those who focus on the needs of others first, before considering their own) leave the strongest legacies, so consider what you can do to serve those around you. Supporting people to achieve their goals is one way. You can also do it by fostering a sense of community within your team, by mentoring your team members, or simply by providing inspiration.
The ability to regulate your impulses and emotions is crucial for leaving a legacy. It also helps you to make a good impression on the people around you. So, it's a good idea to monitor your self-discipline and self-efficacy, and to develop an internal locus of control. It's also useful to foster the right habits for building your legacy.
5. Conduct "Legacy Audits"
Even with careful planning, your legacy-building will probably remain fragile, initially at least, and it's easy to get blown off course by everyday demands and short-term crises. Inattention and inaction, or attempting to be something that you're not, can endanger everything that you're trying to build.
So, it's important to conduct occasional "legacy audits." Check in with the people around you – they can help you to judge your progress. Then, develop resilience and positive thinking to keep you on track.
One way to leave a legacy is to have a positive, game-changing impact on the people you work with.
First, identify what you'd like to be remembered for. Serving the needs of others can improve their lives, help your career, and leave a legacy that transcends you.
To build your legacy, think about what matters most to you, and write a legacy statement that reflects your values and aspirations.
Review your actions often, to ensure that you're building the legacy that you want. Seek feedback, and conduct regular legacy audits to keep you on course.