Is a Defining Legacy Incidental or Intentional?

Balaji Krishnamurthy

Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.

I write this month’s article on my flight back from Australia, where my wife and I had an enjoyable three-week holiday. We spent the last moments of the trip sitting in our hotel, enjoying our view of one of the most famous and distinctive buildings of the 20th century: the Sydney Opera House. As we admired it from across the bay, we wondered whether it would make the list of the ten most recognized man-made structures of all time. Does the Opera House sit beside the ancient marvels like the Pyramid of Giza and the Great Wall of China, or the classical buildings like the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal or even the more modern icons like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty? In any case, the question is a testament to the achievement of Jørn Utzon, the architect credited with the design of the Opera House. Although he never got to see the completed work in person, he certainly left a defining legacy.

As leaders, do we have a clear idea of our own defining legacy?
As many of you know, the topic of legacy is close to my heart, and Utzon’s Opera House got me to thinking: As leaders, do we have a clear idea of our own defining legacy?

Those of you who have heard me speak might recall that I define leadership as the result of leverage and legacy. But in the L3 leadership program I run, I focus more on the broad legacy of your leadership rather than the singular item of legacy by which you will be remembered. But in pondering the legacy of Utzon (Opera House), or Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel Tower), or Shah Jahan (Taj Mahal), I began to consider the potential benefit of asking ourselves that singular question: What defining contribution will I make in my life that people will remember me for?

But to what degree of certainty is it possible to answer that question? It has long been my conviction that you can be intentional about the legacy you leave as a leader. But a defining legacy is more specific. Does a defining legacy occur incidentally or intentionally? Can you, a priori, identify and articulate the defining legacy you wish to leave behind, and work diligently through your life to make it happen? Should you? To answer this question, I explored the defining legacy of some famous leaders.

What was Abraham Lincoln’s defining legacy? Freedom for the slaves. Was that intentional? According to the history books, he had no intention of freeing the slaves during his first presidential campaign. He was more committed to preserving the Union. It was only over time that he began to form convictions regarding the need for abolition of slavery. So, was his defining legacy incidental or intentional? I would think incidental. He just went about doing what he thought was right.

How about Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela? Gandhi set out to free India of the British and Mandela set out to abolish apartheid. So, were they intentional? Absolutely. So, maybe intentionality does provide some guidance.

Let’s look at leaders beyond politics — religion, business, science, literature, the arts and sports. Were the legacies of Buddha, Jesus or more recently, Billy Graham, intentional? Or were their legacies the unintended results of their efforts to do what they thought was right? History suggests that it is more likely the latter. Were Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs trying to make a mark, or doing what they were passionate about? More likely the latter. Did Einstein create relativity because he wanted to leave a legacy? No. The first of his papers on the Special Theory of Relativity was written as an obscure clerk in the patent office in Switzerland. How about Shakespeare or more recently, J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series? Clearly, not intentional. Mozart, and more recently Madonna? Michael Jordan or his mentor, Phil Jackson? In all of these cases it seems that each of them pursued a passion and felt driven to make a mark, but did not in fact plan what kind of mark it would ultimately be.

So, is a defining legacy incidental or intentional? Does it matter? Is it possible to analyze your passions and convictions to intentionally craft the defining legacy you wish to leave? Or does that take away the authenticity of your passion and conviction?

There is value, in any case, in these questions. To whatever extent any of us feel we can determine what we’re remembered for, it is surely worthwhile to reflect on what your defining legacy might be.

We welcome your comments on our Food for Thought mailings and encourage you to explore the Food for Thought archive. We hope your business is doing well. We’re happy to chat about the content of this article or anything else which you’d like assistance.


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