What Do You Want Your Legacy to Be?

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We make a living by what we get.

We make a life by what we give.

– Winston Churchill

What is your legacy?

What do you want it to be?

It’s generally accepted that we are inspired when we contribute to a cause

greater than ourselves. The media is replete with stories of people inspired

and energized when they have made a difference in other people’s lives.

The cause to which one contributes may be different, of course, for each

individual. For example, for one of the authors of this article, the cause is

helping talented but at risk children from impoverished backgrounds find

new educational opportunities in the arts and sciences. For the other, the

mission is to help global business leaders create lives filled with vision, purpose,

and passion.

There are other examples of how the call to work for the greater good

inspires people to do their best work and feel that they are living a life that

matters.

A Company President’s Surprising Legacy

Several years ago, a president of a biotechnology company was

reflecting with one of the authors about the type of work that deeply gratified

and inspired him. The president’s company had greatly expanded its market

share to become a leader in its industry. The president was also highly

regarded as a dynamic and successful leader. Because he was successful

and obviously fulfilled in his role as president and industry leader, it was a

surprise to hear him say:

“My biggest gratification comes from volunteering a few hours each month

on behalf of undernourished school children [in his developing country of

origin]. Our volunteer group provides children with regular and healthy

meals on school campuses. The impact of these simple meals on the

children’s health and subsequent classroom performance has been dramatic.

My greatest satisfaction has been in seeing what a difference this project has

made to children’s lives. It has also inspired me to put time into other projects

I know will immediately improve these children’s prospects.”

This president saw the direct link between nutrition and school performance

and the immediate impact his actions had on the education of these

impoverished students. It filled him with hope for their future. He was also

acutely aware that without their group’s efforts, the children would likely

languish. This is a personal example of how one individual found inspiration

in working for the greater good.

What Makes for a Great Place to Work

In a September 2000 Harris poll reported in Business Week, Americans were

asked to identify which of two propositions they agreed with:

1. “Corporations should only have one purpose – to make the most profit for

their shareholders – and pursuit of that goal will be best for America in

the long run.”

2. “Corporations should have more than one purpose. They should owe

something to their workers and the communities in which they operate,

and they should sometimes sacrifice some profit for the sake of making

things better for their workers and communities.”

The results were dramatic: 95% of the respondents aligned themselves

with the second proposition. In certain sectors of the business community,

corporate responsibility has, in fact, become a part of the business model.

(For example, the clothing company Patagonia puts aside 10 percent

of its profits for projects that support the environment). Employees and

their families are volunteering in their communities and want to see their

workplace making a difference to their communities by having their place of

work also investing money and volunteering time.

Some of us may be fortunate to work for a business whose mission is to

provide for the greater good. Even so, it is still easy to become consumed

by the mundane day-to-day details of our jobs and lose touch with the deeper

meaning of our work. Consequently, from time to time, employees need to be

reminded about the significance of their contributions.

Creating Technology That Saves Lives

This point is illustrated in the following story. A group of engineers that

produce defibrillating machines had become dispirited in the face of a

significant corporate reorganization: employees had been laid off and

projects disrupted. Consequently, employees had lost sight of the value of

their enterprise and morale was low. In response to the drop in morale,

the CEO invited a man with heart disease to meet his employees. The man

told them his story. He was traveling on a plane when he suddenly lost

consciousness. It turned out he’d had a heart attack and his heart had stopped.

A flight attendant quickly grabbed the company’s defibrillating machine

and successfully restarted his heart, making it possible for his to survive

the landing and subsequent trip to the hospital. After telling his story, the

man thanked the group for saving his life. Listening to the man’s dramatic

story and its positive outcome helped to reconnect the employees to the

significance of their work. They were given the inspirational boost they

needed to weather the corporate changes.

In this example, a corporate leader inspired his employees by showing them

how their work contributed to the greater good. It was done in a way that

communicated the company’s value in transforming lives. As a result, the

workforce was inspired to do their best work in achieving that mission.

As leaders, how do you find meaning in your work?

Do you know how your employees find meaning in theirs? How does your work and the

work of your employees contribute to the greater good? We can inspire our workforce by

finding ways to craft each individual’s jobs into a source of meaning through

their personal contributions.

Note

This blog posting is from the first chapter of our book “What Inspirational Leaders Do” (Kindle 2008) written by Kristine MacKain, Ph.D. and Cedric Johnson, Ph.D

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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