Four Questions to Build an Intentional Legacy
August is What Will be Your Legacy Month, which invites reflection on how you appear in your personal and professional life, and what lasting impact you want to have in these spheres. More than brand, which focuses on how you are perceived (the culmination of your past and present), your legacy looks to the future, with and without you in it. As you move down your path, you can be intentional about what you leave behind.
What do we mean when we say legacy?
Drawn from concepts of inheritance, the term “legacy” has come to mean much more than sums of money left to heirs. In both the personal and professional, It is important to define your legacy on your own terms. Is this for your life, for your current role, or more? Is it how you transition? Is it how you show up with your family or in the community? We each get to decide; however, it is important to pause and think about this in an intentional way. Simone Biles had already established herself as a Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in gymnastics and athletics generally when she decided to add to her impact on the sport in a number of critical ways: she spoke out about sexual assault, she modeled athletes building up their younger peers, and she publicly admitted and tended to her mental health needs. With each of these acts, she made her legacy about more than personal achievement, using her influence and platform to effect change that will hopefully last.
How do you want to define your legacy?
When thinking about your legacy, you can define it in an increment that works best for you. Here are three ways to define legacy:
1. Your “obituary” — What is the sum and summary of your life? From Nobel and Carnegie to Gates and Winfrey, some of the historical and contemporary industry titans made the intentional choice to turn their focus to good works, establishing themselves among their peers as benefactors in addition to successful businesspeople. Read about Nobel and how his encounter with his own incorrectly published obituary led to him changing his legacy.
2. Transitions — How will you move on to the next phase of your life? Are you turning 40, getting promoted, or changing jobs? As you enter a new era, you can plan how to leave your prior phase, or commit to themes for your next chapter. Michele Obama didn’t just advocate for healthy eating, she planted vegetable gardens on the White House grounds.
3. Crises — How do you handle the decisive moment? At major moments in history or junctures in your own life, you have the chance to make a difference in the outcome. Recently, Patagonia pulled its products from Jackson Hole Resort because the owner hosted a fundraiser for some controversial republican politicians, saying, “We will continue to use our business to advocate for policies to protect our planet, support thriving communities and a strong democracy.”
How does defining your legacy help you focus and have more intentional plans?
When thinking about your legacy, you can develop themes that resonate with your choices and actions. Knowing you are moving into a new position, you can prepare your team through training, systems, and conversations to leave behind a well-functioning unit, ready to move forward without you. Abby Wambach wanted her legacy to be about inclusion, teamwork, and elevating the sport of women’s soccer. Rather than start in her final Olympic appearance, Wambach opted to cheer her team from the sidelines for most of the game, knowing that the team needed its younger stars to bring in a victory.
What allies & advocates are needed to help deliver on your legacy?
A legacy is a product of context. Whether it’s a lifetime in a historical era or a moment in your personal or professional life, you cannot leave a legacy in a vacuum; it takes those that follow to carry it through. In defining your legacy, working with trusted advisors, mentors, and team members, you can explore how to define the legacy you want. These same people can help you achieve that outcome. Your professional network, your closest friends, and your family all may have an important role to play in designing and implementing your legacy. Among these people are the ones who know you best, and will challenge you to be authentic, thoughtful, and consistent. Some people refer to this as a Personal Board of Directors.
When thinking of your legacy or assessing others’, the long view helps. Even a defining moment can be a blip in the midst of a lifetime, a career, or a decade. By intentional development, a legacy becomes thematic and remembered when the sum of your actions is greater than the parts.
Jen Dalton is a personal brand specialist with entrepreneurship in her DNA. Her book, Listen: How To Embrace the Difficult Conversations Life Throws at You, is an insightful guide into navigating tough talks. She helps business owners and executives define how they show up as leaders, make the most of their strengths, and tend to their legacy, growth, and visibility. The author of two books, frequent speaker, podcaster, and “Purpose Sherpa,” Jen is a critical resource for any person or company that wants to define their brand and differentiate themselves in authentic, credible, and relevant ways to the market.