Leaving a Leadership Legacy

by Stephen T. Messenger

May 31, 2022

Alfred Nobel is best known as the founder of the Nobel Prize. His beginnings however were not rooted in peace but in war. He invented dynamite and the blasting cap, was a weapons dealer, and owned a military arms factory.

In 1888, his brother Ludvig died, and the local newspapers confused him with Alfred. In a rare chance to read one’s obituary, Alfred opened the paper to the headline:

“The Merchant of Death is Dead… Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

He was crushed. Not wanting to be remembered as a killer, in his will he allocated $250 million, the majority of his wealth, to create the Nobel Prize organization. Today, he enables others across the globe to be recognized for peace-making endeavors.

It raises the question: what kind of legacy will I leave?

I think we all ask ourselves as we leave a job, “Did I make an enduring impact?” and “How will I be remembered?” But, as I reflect on these questions, I’m finding that being remembered pales in comparison to making a long-term difference.

This week, I bid farewell to yet another Army assignment, moving to my sixth different position in as many years. My personal pride makes me want to be remembered, but the organization needs my lasting impact more than fond memories of a former leader.

Our job in any assignment is to complete the mission and make the organization better. We usually know if the mission is completed on our watch, but it’s harder to know if we made the place better after we left.

Leaving a legacy, ironically, is not about how well we’re remembered. Our personal legacy is irrelevant. It’s about how much better the team is upon our departure.

On my last day, I need to be forgotten as my successor steps in. All that matters is leaving a team that operates at a higher level than before.

Robyn Benincasa, world champion adventure racer, says, “You don’t inspire your teammates by showing them how amazing you are. You inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.”

It’s less about me and more about them

If I walk out of the organization and it falls apart, I’ve failed. Instead, I must empower others to be the success stories, not hoping I will personally be remembered as the savior who held it all together.

This legacy can only be accomplished by deliberate planning on day one. Leaders must go into assignments with the goal of focusing on people. This requires continuous talent management, professional development, training opportunities, counseling, and genuine care. Leaving an organization better does not just happen—you need to start today.

Complete the mission. Make the organization better. Fade into the background. That’s a great legacy!

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, once wrote: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”

This past year, I provided a little bit of intent and guidance, a lot of leader development, and encouraged them to grow in their leadership journey. They have been incredible professionals in every way. Their greatest attributes have been their ability to innovate, try different things, and get better all the time.

I feel they are better than when I arrived, and I am better as well because of them. A successful legacy is accomplished through enabling your people to be better without you.

What is my legacy?

Alfred Nobel changed his legacy from “The Merchant of Death” to the founder of the Nobel Prize. What would your legacy be today if someone asked you, and what do you want it to be?

It’s never too late to start at work… and especially your home.

Lead well!

This article is dedicated to the incredible men and women of Joint Task Force Civil Support. Thank you for being such a confident, competent, tactically and technically proficient organization–you made a difference this year!

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