The Power of Legacy: What Will You Leave Behind?

April 27, 2012 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

A graduate student joined me in teaching a half-day retreat for the staff or our Executive Education Program at the Ross School of Business. They asked us to do the retreat around the theme of legacy. A legacy is that which a person leaves behind. I invited the graduate student to run the session with me because he is doing his dissertation on the topic of legacy.

In the first exercise of the day, we asked participants to identify the two people who left the greatest positive legacy in their lives. Then we put them in groups and ask each person to tell a two-minute story about each person they had selected—a total of 12 stories for each group. They spoke in gratitude of the parents, coaches, teachers, friends, and others. After that, we asked each group to make sense of the 12 stories and tell us how it is that a person leaves a positive legacy. Their insights were inspiring.

At the end, we asked for any final observations. One woman said, “Legacy matters.  Because of what they did for us, we are better than what we would have been. Because of that, they are still alive in us. They live in us.”

I was quite taken by this. At the end of the morning, I asked the doctoral student what he learned. He referred to this woman’s remarks. He was captivated by the notion that the people who left a legacy are still alive in us. He said that much of the legacy literature comes from the notion that people want to leave a legacy because of the fear of death. This is an understandable argument.

But it occurred to me that there was more to it. Maybe some people evolve to the point that they no longer fear death, I suggested. Perhaps there are a few people who contribute to others not because they fear death, but because they seek to create life.

At the end of the morning, in the final exercise, we asked each individual to look far ahead, to when they might leave the organization. What did they want their legacies to be? After all the personal legacies were posted, everyone took sticky notes and wrote a few comments of feedback on each of the statements.

The interesting thing was how emotionally positive the final exercise was. It became an exercise of love. The people were rejoicing in each other. They were also expressing confidence in both each other and in the organization as a whole. They were all more alive.

I am grateful to have been part of a very sacred professional experience, and I am grateful for the power of legacy.