To Lead Well, Think Hard About the Legacy That You’ll Leave

Profoundly effective leaders seldom live merely in the present. They are able to draw deeply from past experience—from insights that they have gained over the course of their leadership journey—and they build plans for the future that leverage those hard-won insights. We’ve seen that quality again and again in the people whom we’ve encountered while advising, studying, and partnering with a wide array of stellar leaders in the social sector. It’s a quality that can prepare a leader to build an enduring legacy.

Today, at the turn of the year, we find ourselves thinking about this aspect of leadership. The start of a new calendar provides an occasion for all of us to look back—and, by doing so, to gather wisdom that will equip us to move forward.

Viewed in one way, a legacy is to an individual what impact is to a program, an initiative, or indeed an entire organization. It’s the cumulative, lasting effect of a concerted effort to make a difference in the lives that one touches. So, as daunting (or as pretentious) as it may sound, the time to start pondering your legacy is now: What is the record of achievement that you want to leave behind when you leave your current role?

In 2018, we interviewed three highly accomplished social sector leaders who had recently stepped down from positions in which they had achieved substantial impact. Two of them—Sally Osberg, of Skoll Foundation, and Matt Bannick, of Omidyar Network—had each spent more than a decade at the helm of a major funder that has emphasized innovative approaches to pursuing impact in the sector. The third leader, Chris Dawes, served as president and CEO of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital (known as Packard Children’s), and in that role, he mastered the complex business of overseeing a top-tier medical institution.

Each of these leaders, in short, left behind a powerful engine of impact—a vehicle of positive change that will outlast their tenure in the organizational driver’s seat. In our conversations with them, they offered lessons on the principles and practices that enabled them to build, tune, and fuel their particular engine of impact. Here, we present a recap of several legacy-defining insights that they shared with us. (For an overview of what we mean by “engine of impact,” see “Essentials of Strategic Leadership,” along with other material that we’ve posted on our website.)

Building and tuning your engine

Chris Dawes, former president and CEO of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and Stanford Children’s Health

Photo: Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital

A durable engine of impact includes several essential components, and foremost among them is mission. “People need to know what the goal is,” Dawes said about his work at Packard Children’s. Over the course of nearly two decades as CEO, Dawes put a premium not just on defining the organization’s mission but also on communicating it effectively to all stakeholders. In 2015, he and his colleagues developed Vision 2025, an initiative that set forth a comprehensive vision for advancing the Packard Children’s mission. To make sure that the vision would remain a point of common focus, the organization posted the Vision 2025 statement in all of its work areas.

Sally Osberg, former President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation

Photo: Skoll Foundation

Another crucial aspect of building an engine of impact centers on strategy. “No social sector leader can be effective without a strong sense of purpose and a well-articulated and well-honed strategy,” Osberg said. “You can’t do everything. A lot of leadership goes sideways when it tries to take on too much, or respond to every need that is out there.” Equally important, leaders must be ready to alter the course of their organization in response to new conditions or new thinking. “At the Skoll Foundation, very early on we were clear about needing to evolve our strategy,” Osberg explained.

Matt Bannick, former Managing Partner, Omidyar Network

Photo: Omidyar Network

Creating an engine of impact also requires leaders to exhibit the intangible—yet very real—qualities of insight and courage. When Bannick became managing partner of Omidyar Network, he worked with its founder, Pierre Omidyar, to chart a course for the organization. And the two men were not shy about the scope of their ambition. Omidyar, Bannick recalled, “was really focused on, ‘How do you change the way people think about philanthropy? How do you change the way people think about social change?’” Boldness of this kind, Bannick argued, is essential to long-term success as a leader.

Fueling your engine

To sustain an engine of impact over the long haul, a leader must keep its fuel tanks in good order by gathering and managing the right kinds of resources. One essential “fuel” involves organization and talent. “I hire people who are smarter and more accomplished than me,” said Dawes. Ultimately, he realized, his legacy depended less on his own brilliance than on the quality of the people he brought on board and on his ability to empower them. “I think that has been one of my attributes – that I am open about engaging people and learning from them as opposed to thinking I know everything and I don’t need any help,” he noted.

For leaders who want to keep their organization firing on all cylinders, board governance provides an equally important source of fuel. “If I had a magic wand and could wave it, I would want every leader to have the benefit of a really, really good board,” Osberg said. To further her own effort to recruit high-quality board members, Osberg developed what she called “the airplane seat rule”: She strove to attract candidates who she knew would mention the Skoll Foundation if they began chatting with someone on an airplane. “A board member who isn’t going to take that kind of time, or who isn’t really invested in the work and the performance, is not going to be a great board member,” she explained.

Alongside the specific components that form an engine of impact, there are enduring qualities that characterize effective leadership in general—qualities that are a vital factor in building a true legacy. “When I talk about leadership, I like to talk about the three Cs: competence, character, and compassion,” Bannick said. “If you don’t have the first C, well, the other two don’t really matter. Competence, for me, is the first. And then people want to follow people of character and people who, at the end of the day, care about them as human beings.”

A new year affords every leader a chance not only to look back and to look ahead but also to look in the mirror. So ask yourself: Am I cultivating the attributes that have allowed these three leaders to leave an indelible mark on the world?

Originally published in Forbes

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