Leaving a Legitimate Leadership Legacy

By Dr. John C. Maxwell


President Abraham Lincoln’s leadership through the painful trial of Civil War saved the United States of America and ended the deplorable institution of slavery. In the war’s aftermath, Lincoln faced the challenge of rebuilding the South without restoring its system of white supremacy. Balancing goodwill toward freed blacks and a conciliatory stance toward the former Confederate states, Lincoln appeared to have the perfect temperament to ease the South through a time of healing and into a period of prosperity and equality.

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination plunged the fragile future of the South into uncertainty. His successor, President Andrew Johnson, continued policies of conciliation toward the Southern states, but he did not share Lincoln’s regard for black Americans. By pardoning key leaders of the Confederacy and placing power back in the hands of state legislators in the South, Andrew Johnson reconstructed the South’s oppressive system of white domination. Johnson’s personal racism and inept leadership was responsible for stunting the progress of the civil rights movement and perpetuating injustice in the South for another 100 years.

Abraham Lincoln’s tragic death followed by Andrew Johnson’s deficiencies in rebuilding the South is a testament to the Law of Legacy:

“A Leader’s Lasting Value is Measured by Succession.”

Who knows how far or how quickly the USA may have progressed toward racial equality had Lincoln been able to pass the reins of the government to a like-minded leader?


A turning point in my leadership came when I began to understand the meaning of leaving a legacy. A catalyst for me was a simple statement from management expert, Peter Drucker:
  “There is no success without a successor.”

I had always wanted to create lasting value through my life and leadership, so I decided to take seriously the cultivation of successors. I resolved to produce leaders rather than attract followers, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my leadership. In this lesson, I’d like to explore four aspects of shaping a legitimate leadership legacy:
  1. Character
  2. Choices
  3. Conduct
  4. Consequences
  Character – Being and becoming a moral example

The two words most commonly linked to character are integrity and honesty. Integrity involves being true to oneself, while honesty means being truthful with others. Each involves being real not fake, genuine not artificial, transparent not deceitful.

You can’t spell integrity without the word grit which is defined as “a firmness of mind,” or “unyielding courage.” It takes a great deal of courage or grit to be true to self. In the end, though, it’s worth the effort because our legacies are going to be impacted greatly by our integrity or lack thereof.

Choices – Thinking clearly and making wise decisions

Careful decision-making requires a sense of right and wrong rooted in character. To make the right decisions consistently, we can’t let external influence or peer pressure cause us to do something wrong when our internal conscience is telling us to do what is right. To violate conscience undermines our self-respect and shatters not only our moral authority, but our confidence as leaders.

We must also understand how pleasure and pain impact our choices. In short, if we enjoy temporary pleasure with a disregard for its harmful effects on us and other people, we’re going to suffer long-term pain. Leadership demands sacrifices for the near-term to receive lasting benefits. The longer we wait to make sacrifices, the harder they become. Successful people make important decisions early in their life, then manage those decisions the rest of their lives.
  Conduct – Doing the right things consistently well

Conduct is defined as “a mode of personal behavior.” Only individuals can behave. The conduct of a company, government agency, sports team, or church is a reflection of the conduct of the individuals making up the organization.

To shape the conduct of the individuals who follow us, we must be able to hold them accountable for their behavior. But first, we must be held accountable ourselves. Author Chuck Swindoll says accountability is “a willingness to explain your actions.” If our actions are indefensible, we’ll be stripped of the real authority to exercise moral leadership. We must submit our behavior to the scrutiny of trusted advisors before dictating the conduct of those we lead.

As leaders, we set the tone for the conduct of the individuals in our organization. People do what people see. Conduct is learned through observation. As Dr. Michael Guido says, “The world pays more attention to your conduct than it does to your creed.” As leaders, we teach what we know, but we reproduce who we are.
  Consequences – Receiving the results of seeds that we sow

The success of my day is based on the seeds that I sow, not the harvest I reap. Too often, leaders bypass the process of sowing seeds in favor of shortcuts for results. Sadly, the end begins to justify the means, and principles are tossed out for more expedient behavior.

I’ve found submitting to the process of sowing the right seeds will meet with tremendous rewards—whether I see the fruits firsthand or not. Here are five reasons I believe in keeping my attention on sowing well rather than seeing instant results:

(1) The seeds I sow will determine the harvest I reap.
  (2) There is no reaping unless I have been sowing.
  (3) Sowers are committed to giving before receiving.
  (4) Sowers enjoy giving more than receiving.
  (5) Sowing daily into the lives of others will compound over time.
We spend our day either preparing or repairing. Preparing allows us to focus on today, while repairing forces us to clean up yesterday. Preparing invests for the future, repairing pays down past debts. Preparing increases efficiency, but repairing consumes precious time. Preparing increases confidence, while repairing breeds discouragement. Cherish each day to grow and develop, and avoid making mistakes which will return to haunt you. Remember: the secret of your success is determined by your daily agenda.