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Five Principles for Leaving a Lasting Institutional Legacy

Five Principles for Leaving a Lasting Institutional Legacy

I recently visited a community where my ancestors lived from 1845 until the 1930s. Nothing is left of the community except a white clapboard Baptist church and its cemetery—where four generations of my family lie buried. I have visited that cemetery over the whole course of my life, and I may represent the last generation to maintain a personal memory of my ancestors there. On this visit, I realized that nothing will stop the elements from wearing away the names and dates and memories of the cemetery’s long-departed incumbents. I ruefully reflected that nothing will stop the forest from totally reclaiming that ground and consuming the last physical record of once-beloved fathers and mothers and children. I ruminated on the deforestation that I have seen occur around the world in my lifetime, but in the long run, I guess I’d put my money on the forest. As the ruins of ancient societies uncovered by archaeological digs all over the world suggest, nature wins the battle over civilization in the long term.

It sobers this “man of a certain age” to think that time has completely erased the achievements of my ancestors. While their DNA passes on, their artifacts have long disappeared. Their stories will not last much longer. And they are not exceptional in their fall into oblivion. As the Preacher said, “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them” (Ecclesiastes 1:11 NIV).

As an organizational leader, I cringe to think that the same will happen to me and perhaps even to my work. In a decade or so, my most productive time will have passed. Even if I live on into my 80s, the end of my years remains inevitable. Hebrews 9:27 avers, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” The Bible speaks here of the final judgment of God—a tribunal I will face with confidence in the grace of God. Nevertheless, I and those who work with me will soon be forgotten by future generations. I can live with that. God will remember.

But who builds a business, church, school, or other institution without preferring that it would last for at least a century? We love the work we do and the mission it represents, and we want to believe that the mission will survive when we have gone on. Nevertheless, according to Vicki TenHaken, Professor of Management at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, only a half of a percent (0.5%) of businesses manage to survive for 100 years.

How can institutional leaders ensure that we will leave a lasting legacy? In short, we cannot ensure it. The sands of time erode even the most impressive achievements; as Ozymandias’ ironic boast reminds us: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  But we can work in such a way as to increase the probabilities that our work will survive for a long time.

On a purely reflective basis from my armchair, the following principles recommend themselves to me:

  1. Leaders should build a culture of planning with the long-term horizon in mind and a culture of continually revising the plan as the future emerges.
  2. Embracing change is not enough. An intentional, aggressive search for purposeful and appropriate change is required.
  3. We must separate timeless principles from time-bound methods. Errors about what principles are truly timeless will lead to the frustration of all efforts to preserve them.
  4. Youth must be embraced, and it must be allowed to have its say. Both mentoring and reverse mentoring are essential.
  5. The grace with which leaders surrender institutional power has a direct effect on how the institution will remember the leader. Leaders should plan for how they will go out under their own power.

Perhaps some of these reflections—the random musings of an aging, but still ambitious leader during his vacation idleness—are valid. They certainly do not provide enough wisdom to deal with the timeless challenge of encroaching oblivion. But they arise from a heart filled with hope and faith. Bring on the future!