I’ve been talking a lot about two topics lately – significance and legacy.
On the day I got married, I had a few blessed hours alone before the hubbub of the day began. Given that I am bent toward reflection, I went for a meditative walk along the Potomac River.
Contemplating what lay before me that day and stretching out into the future, I noticed the fullness of the trees. I can’t recall what type of trees they were now, but the branches spread wide and there were thousands of leaves offering shade as I lay in the grass beneath them, enjoying the slight breeze. As I gazed up, glimpsing sky between small patches in the canopy, I thought about all that had transpired for these trees to become their majestic selves.
Two trees arched across the expanse of lawn, their farthest branches just beginning to intertwine to create an expansive canopy together. Seeds planted long before had germinated and grown into a family of trees. One that was about to join with another. Symbolic. Just like in my own life. “A family tree,” I thought.
In the quiet of that morning when I returned from my walk, I sat at our dining room table and wrote a series of letters – some I mailed, some I tucked away to deliver later. They contained my perceptions of the seeds and fruits and shades of legacies which had come before me. I wrote one to my paternal grandmother, the oldest living member of the lineage I came from. Another I wrote to my parents, at that point married 25 years. One was for my husband’s parents. Those I actually mailed. I walked to the mailbox on the corner and held those letters close to my heart and then to my lips before I dropped them into that familiar blue box, imagining what those closest to me might think or feel when they read the words I had penned to them on that special morning.
Several others I did not mail. I hand delivered to my husband the one I wrote to him. The ones I wrote for the children I hoped would survive us, but never did, remain unopened still. Others that were for relatives who, at that point, were already long gone were left graveside over the years or dropped into a mailbox somewhere without an address, stumping some poor postal worker while they sat unclaimed in the undeliverable bin.
What was in those letters? My perceptions of the legacies that had been handed down to (or sometimes foisted upon) me, intentionally or otherwise. Some words of praise and gratitude, some unanswered questions and dismay. Some values and beliefs that I was giving back to those who handed them to me in words or deeds or silent mysteries I couldn’t quite recall, although I certainly felt their weight. But those letters also contained words of love and of hopefulness for my future and for theirs and some statements of intention – my own legacy in the making. Things I didn’t want to go unspoken.
Close to three decades and more transitions than I could have imagined have passed since that September morning in Virginia.
The Making of a Legacy
We have just passed out of the term of one President and into the term of a new one. With this transition, there has been much talk about what each President’s legacy will hold. What will be the marks of significance for each man? As I have listened to the talk of legacy these past several weeks, I wondered what the people close to me would say their legacies are, whether they line up with my own perceptions and, of course, what my own legacy will be?
Tangible or Intangible – Which Legacy Have You Been Focused On?
So often the conversation around legacies is limited to only the tangible goods or wealth that are passing from one generation to the next. In fact, some of the greatest wealth we can transfer comes with our stories of meaning attached – our values, beliefs and aspirations and how they were formed and carried out.
Our wisdom develops as we integrate the traditions of our families and cultures, blended with our own principles, values and beliefs and tempered by our own experiences. The garden that succeeds us inevitably comes from the seeds we have planted and watered with our actions and our words. Our children, our peers, our communities are watching us as we tend the gardens of their futures. They are the recipients of our legacies, both intended and unintended, whether filled with glorious blossoms of congruent attention or the bushy weeds of neglected values.
Passing along the intangible parts of our wealth is an equally essential part in the planning of our legacies and what we bequeath to those who live beyond us – in our families, our workplace and our communities. Those seeds take root or fall on hardened parched ground depending upon your words and actions every day.
The impulse to communicate what we think matters is as old as time. Centuries ago, instructions on how to live a life that matters were handed father to son, mother to daughter. Now our focus is on ensuring they receive the goods. Important planning, to be sure. But, if you were not here tomorrow, what is the most important thing you would not want left unsaid? What would you want your loved ones and colleagues to know and have in writing, to reflect on and to cherish? The reach of your words and of your actions, as the intangible part of your legacy is unknowable. Are you incorporating this other part of your legacy into your wealth transfer planning?
How Do You Want to be Remembered? Has Your Life Been Significant?
Starting with this question “How do I want to be remembered?” opens the gate to the garden where you will plant the seeds for living your life as if you matter.
In a prior column, we considered the questions: What is important to you? What are your values?
I invite you now to ponder: How do you want your life to touch others? What would make you proud? If you had to do one thing to improve your world, what would your contribution be? How can you increase the well-being of those who depend upon you? How can you leave your mark on whatever you do? How has your life mattered?
The answer to these introspective questions will help you develop a meaningful philosophy of life that goes beyond just creating financial wealth. Your words and your actions are the building blocks of your legacy. Knowing what’s important, what drives you and how you want to be remembered creates tremendous clarity in how you should live your life. In fact, it IS the measure of your significance.
Leadership’s Role in Your Legacy
“A leader’s lasting value,” leadership expert John C. Maxwell says, “is measured by succession.” What are you doing to develop the leadership pipeline in your company and in your family? To ensure your legacy lives on?
Develop a plan that not only passes on your tangible wealth, technical mastery and knowledge but also your wisdom and your leadership philosophy. Teach people about creating lifelong customers, balancing profit with ethics and doing well while doing good. These lessons are some of the most valuable teachings you can pass on to equip your company’s leaders to carry the torch into the future.
What Would YOUR Letter Say?
Think about what you would say if you had time to write just one letter? To whom would you address it? What would you include? What would you leave out? Would you chastise and rebuke? Would you thank, forgive or seek to instruct?
Your legacy is as much in your words as in your actions – a legacy that you leave for your children, your family, your friends and associates. I’ve worked with hundreds of men and women to craft their own letters. Think of it as an important document which captures the essence of who you are and what you stand for by writing about your life lessons, values, accomplishments and hopes. It’s a way of recording significant milestones and defining moments in your life, something you leave for those who matter to you. And which guides you as you continue to live.
Success, Significance and Legacy
To be certain, you can be successful without having a significant life, but success without significance is hollow. A legacy of significance transcends one’s lifetime, influencing the lives of generations that follow.
We will all leave some sort of a legacy, even if we did not plan for it. Our legacy may come in the form of our children, a business we can pass on to others, or an estate that we leave behind. It also comes in the form of caring words and actions that bring your wisdom and values to life long beyond when yours ends. It really is a choice you make, day by day.
There is much talk about what the new President’s legacy will look like. Of similar significance is the question “What will be yours and how will you pass it on?”