21: The Law of Legacy

The law of legacy maintains that a leader's influence is put to the test when he leaves a position: if he had been a good leader he would have developed one or more of his subordinates to be able to step into his place and the organization will barely notice the shift; if he has been a bad leader who disempowered his people, there will be no substitute for him and the unit will struggle.

Case Study: Goizueta and Coca-Cola

The law of legacy is often seen to play our in companies that go into shock when the CEO resigns or retires, especially if his departure is sudden and unexpected.

Consider the case of Roberto Goizueta, chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company. While he was aged 65 in 1997, he still had a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, and said in an interview that retirement wasn't on his radar screen. Six weeks later, he died.

Goizueta's legacy was significant: during his tenure, he grew Coca-Cola from a $4 billion company to at $150 billion one, the second most valuable corporation ion America, and one of the strongest and most recognized brands in the world. His passing was a great loss - but because of his leadership, the firm was able to bear it.

When his death was announced, one stock analyst remarked that he had "prepared the company for his not being there as well as any executive I've ever seen." He did so by developing the people within his corporation to be strong and independent leaders, and grooming his successor long before he expected that he would need to be succeeded.

This was seen as unusual - most CEOs seek to increase and then maintain their personal power as the autocratic leader of their organizations, and few will openly groom another leader to take their place, as they fear that they will be replaced or supplanted sooner than they would like. This shows a complete lack of self-confidence, and it puts service to self before service to the organization.

Developing a Legacy

The author lists some of the behaviors of leaders who seek to leave a legacy:

They lead the organization with a long-term vision. Just about anyone can make an organization look good for a moment, using marketing gimmicks or accounting tricks to create a sense of accomplishment until the truth is discovered: that the marketing was deceptive, that slashing costs degraded product quality, etc. But leaders who wish to have a long-term impact look further into the distance, and make choices that have greater impact over a longer period of time rather than taking shortcuts.

Taking that a step further, leaders will pay the price today to assure success tomorrow. The actions taken to boost performance this month, this quarter, this year, can often be detrimental to long-term success - and sometimes, you have to forego them to make real progress, or even take a short-term loss to make a greater long-term gain.

They seek to create a leadership culture at every level of the organization. Per the last chapter, they are not seeking personal power, but organizational power, and recognize that the best way to achieve this is to improve the people within the organization.

They value their people. A power-seeking leader sees his subordinates as inferior to him not only in rank, but in every way. The leader recognizes the value people bring and leverage that value. They are not threatened by a strong subordinate, but see such a person as an asset.

They envision what the organization will be like after they leave. A power-seeker wants to have an impact while he is there, and his ego is fed when the company collapses or struggles in his absence. A good leader recognizes that he is not mortal, that he will eventually retire or move on to other things, and wishes to leave the organization stronger for his contribution, even when he has left.

Few Leaders Pass it on

Many leaders achieve results through their personal actions and involvement with an organization, but few are able to effect changes in the organization that enable it to sustain performance after his departure.

Some take great pride in the fact that an organization they have left falls apart after their departure - to them, it is proof of their personal value. But if they had been effective leaders, they would have accomplished more than being good while they were there: they would have developed the organization to sustain itself afterward.

It's also dysfunctional to blame the person who took leadership after you left. Organizations do not select leaders at random, but seek those that are a good fit for their culture - so the character of the new leader reflects the culture you left behind.

(EN: I don't entirely buy into this. If it were true, then a good organization would always seek good leaders and a poor organization would always select poor leaders, and there would be no evolution or degradation at all. Some organizations don't consider culture when appointing leaders, except at the very top - and my sense is it's more common to seek to appoint who demonstrate personal achievement, and seldom consider the means by which they were able to achieve.)

The author speaks to his own experience, where after growing a small church to a few hundred members, he later visited to find the congregation had shrunk by half and was still disintegrating. Much of what he started had been abandoned, and the people had been replaced. He realized the mistake he had made was to focus on getting things done while failing to enable his people to succeed without him.

In another appointment, he took a different approach: to build consensus among his people, to communicate more about the significance of his goals, and to create a culture of leadership. His visit to this church, after leaving, showed that the programs he put in place were still operational, and that the congregation was healthy and growing.