Leaving a Legacy

January 11, 2023

by John O. Burdett

The best amongst us are driven to make a difference. Not just a difference in the fortunes of the business but in the lives of others. A difference that endures.

Making a Difference

There are different reasons why people take on the top job. For some it’s clearly to make money. For others it’s to make a career. The best amongst us, however, are driven to make a difference. Not just a difference in the fortunes of the business but in the lives of others. A difference that endures. A difference that – even though several years may have passed since the individual in question held down the top role – is evidenced by a clear set of footprints in the sand. A contribution that incoming tides haven’t been able to wash away.

Leaving a legacy is, in large measure, about the contribution made. It is also about knowing when to let go. Power can and does corrupt. Success is addictive. It takes courage to go where others fear to tread. It can take an even greater degree of courage to know when and how to pass the baton. The first Henry Ford nearly destroyed a legendary business by hanging on too long. His great-grandson, William Clay Ford Jr., chose the right moment and, in doing so, revitalised the company. He was replaced as CEO, in 2006, by Alan Mulally. William Clay Ford Jr. remained as Chairman.


You’re not going to leave a legacy if you want to be on a pedestal, eschew risk or ride roughshod over the people in the middle of the organisation. If you lack a subtle understanding of the power of language, fail to grasp the difference the right story can make and/or display anything less than the total belief that the outcome being sought will happen … you won’t leave a legacy. Focus, humility, authenticity, recognising a good idea and knowing when and how to say “no” also loom large in how legacy leavers make their mark.

You can’t stray very far from what it means to leave a “legacy” without employing the term “character.” Character is comfort in speaking to power. It’s constantly challenging the status quo. It’s found in a sincere apology. It’s knowing when to lead … and when to follow. Loyalty speaks to character, as does being tough-minded when the situation demands it. Character is found in small acts of generosity; it’s admitting that you were wrong; it’s working hard to not come across as the smartest person in the room; it’s “being” – not simply adhering to – the organisation’s values; and, yes, it’s open to being coached.

The Heart of Leaving a Legacy

Three things, in particular, appear at the heart of leaving a legacy:

Sound judgement is the start of it … learning, and sharing that learning, is part of it … but caring is the heart of it. Legacy leavers give back. Long after his contemporaries have become bored with their sports teams or latest luxury jet, Bill Gates will still be making a difference.

Critical Tools: Drawing on the example of other legacy leavers.

Coaching Imperative: Focusing on what really matters versus working on what others deem important.

This article is an extract from “Leaders Leave a Legacy“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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