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Author and executive educator Jim Kouzes says it’s never too early to start thinking about the world you want to leave others.
Author and executive educator Jim Kouzes says it’s never too early to start thinking about the world you want to leave others.

ROTMAN MAGAZINE Q&A

Why you need to build your legacy now Add to ...

This interview with author and executive educator Jim Kouzes is reprinted with permission from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. It has been edited and condensed.

Why should we consider our legacy early on?

First-year students at Santa Clara University are required to take a leadership course, and in one of the first classes, we ask them, “Are you on this planet to do something, or are you here for something to do?” We ask the same thing of executives when we work with them. If you’re a young freshman just out of high school, your initial response is likely to be, “What is the right answer to that question?” But after some thinking, they understand that the answer is to do something. Then we say, “If you’re here to do something, what is it?”

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We don’t expect an 18-year-old–or even most 50-year-olds–to have an immediate answer to this question, because it’s not something we think about all the time; but it is an important question to consider. By asking ourselves how we want to be remembered, we plant a seed for living our lives in harmony with those ideals, and for living our lives as if they truly matter. The fact is, the legacy you leave is also someone else’s future. Are you leaving your children and future generations the kind of world you would like them to grow up in? Because they will have to live with the consequences of your actions.

We tend to view legacies in terms of concrete achievements, as opposed to relationships built. Is this flawed? How should we think about legacy formation?

When we talk about legacy, people often think about what they are bequeathing to others, in terms of material goods. But, in fact, the legacy you leave is the life you lead: it’s what you are doing right now that determines how you will be remembered. Thinking of ‘life’ as an acronym is a helpful guideline for thinking about legacy:

· What are the Lessons that you want people to say you taught them?

· What are the Ideals you hope people will say that you stood for?

· What are the Feelings you hope people will say they had when you were around them?

· What are the tangible Expressions of your leadership? Not just your accomplishments, but the things you might have contributed. Maybe you worked every Saturday for 25 years for Habitat for Humanity, or you were active in the community as a volunteer for sports. What are some of those tangible achievements?

We find this framework useful for people to reflect on legacy, and to come back to it periodically and ask themselves, “Is there anything more I want to add, and am I living my life in harmony with these guidelines?”

Can being a mentor help to build a legacy?

When I was just beginning my career, I had dinner with one of my personal mentors–his name was Fred Margolis. We were finishing up a meal in an Italian restaurant and Fred turned to me and said, “Jim, what is the best way to learn something?” And I thought I had the learned the answer to that question, and said confidently: “The best way to learn something is to experience it yourself.” Fred turned to me and he said, “No, Jim, the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.”

I have remembered that for nearly 40 years, and I think about it every day. As a leader, or as a teacher at a university, when I am trying to pass on a lesson to somebody else, I’m doing much more to learn it myself than I would if I was simply in conversation with you, or anyone.

Why is it so important for a leader to be liked?

One of the chapters in my book is, “Leaders Should Be Liked,” and it was probably the most controversial chapter, because people said to me, “What do you mean leaders should be liked? I’ve always heard ‘it’s not whether they like you, it’s whether they respect you.” And I always ask, “Is this a binary question–do I have only that choice, I can either like you or respect you?”

I vividly remember Irwin Featherman coming to speak to the MBA class at Santa Clara. He was a very hard-nosed business person, and he said to the students, “You don’t love someone because of who they are, you love them because of the way they make you feel. This axiom applies equally in a company setting.” Our students were a little taken aback; you don’t often hear words like that from the CEO of a high-tech company–or in most management books you read. He owned up to that observation; he said, “It may seem inappropriate to use words such as ‘love’ and ‘affection’ in relation to business, because conventional wisdom says it’s not a popularity contest”–I remember this so vividly–then he said, “I contend however, that all things being equal, we will work harder and more effectively for people we like, and we will like them in direct proportion to how they make us feel.”

How can readers best put into practice your ideas about enhancing legacy?

Many of these notions may sound like big ideas, and people may be unsure where to begin in executing them. I would add a wise observation from another one of those everyday leaders we interviewed, Sergey Nikiforov, who’s with CA Technologies now. He was pondering these ideas, wondering where to start in becoming a better leader, and he answered his own question when he said that every day he had an opportunity to make a small difference: “I could have coached someone better, I could have listened better, I could have been more positive towards people, I could have said thank you more often, I could have…” The list just went on.

Sergey reminds us that doing these kinds of things that leave the legacy we hope for can begin with doing little things, every day. We can find an opportunity to coach someone, we can find some time to listen. We have many such opportunities every day.

Jim Kouzes is dean’s executive fellow of leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University and the co-author with Barry Posner of The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.

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