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Partners and Senior Advisors use the firm's blog to write on current ethics and leadership topics.

Legacy … What Legacy?

During my 45 years of working at or with nonprofit institutions, I have watched leaders do a whole series of imprudent things as they considered their individual legacy of leadership.  And, on occasion, I have watched leaders commit serious errors of leadership that polished their individual record at the expense of the institution and its long-term future.  And, from time to time, I have witnessed errors of leadership in the pursuit of a leader’s legacy that were also ethical violations.  Everyone wants to be remembered well.  And yet, most of us are surprised at how well our previous institutions seem to do without us.

Leadership of a nonprofit institution is a relay race it is not an individual field event.  Leaders accept the baton of leadership from a predecessor and then spend some period of time trying to improve the institution they serve before handing the baton to a successor.  The hope is that a better institution, department, or program is passed on than was received.  And, that is the legacy of leadership … it belongs to the institution and not to the leader.

When I have the opportunity, I am not shy about telling nonprofit leaders, “There is no individual legacy!”  When this assertion is almost inevitably challenged, I offer a simple test.  Please answer two questions:

1) Who was president of your alma mater in 1955?

2) What were his/her most important accomplishments as president?

Only occasionally … very occasionally … can the name of the appropriate president be remembered and even less frequently can any of his/her individual accomplishments be recalled.

Over two hundred years ago, Immanuel Kant wrote, “Self-love, though not always blameworthy, is the source of all evil.”  The pursuit of an individual legacy is a form of self-love that often leads to the subordination of institutional interests and not infrequently to ethical violations.  And, when a leader grows larger than the department, program, or institution he/she leads people, institutions, and ethics suffer.  Check with Penn State for details.

More recently, Peter Drucker reminded us that, “Leadership is not rank or privileges, titles or money. Leadership is responsibility.”  First among those responsibilities is the duty to put the best interests of the institution before the interests or legacy of an individual leader.  To forget this is to forget what it means to be an ethical leader.

Posted in Leadership
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