By Jann E. Freed, Ph.D.
I often ask leaders: “When does legacy happen?” Most of them say:
When we retire.
When we die.
When we leave a job.
When we leave.
That last answer intrigues me a great deal. “Leave what?” I always ask in return. “When we leave the room? Leave a meeting? Leave a conversation or interaction?”
Really, it’s all of the above. “Leaving” happens in so many different ways every day. We leave relationships. Locations. Religious and political affiliations. We are always exiting in some way and leaving behind ways to be remembered—good and bad.
Legacy As “A Little l”
Furthermore, the word “legacy” usually comes up when someone dies. The word is also associated with professional athletes and celebrities since they tend to retire earlier as they “age out” of their profession. For years, people have wondered when Roger Federer or Warren Buffett might retire, and journalists talk about the legacy they are leaving.
The problem with this perception, though, is that it encourages us to think of greatness and achievements that are extraordinary. Any goals to attain this kind of legacy seem out of reach for most of us.
In fact, for most of us, one act or one decision will not determine our legacy. Rather it is a collection of small impressions that we leave behind that people remember—or as I introduce in my book Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering, breadcrumbs. When we create a trail of meaning, no matter how “small” each breadcrumb may seem, they add up to a legacy: a roadmap of how we want to be remembered.
This framework isn’t only for just the rich and famous, or senior leaders. Anyone in a position to influence the lives of others (which is everyone) leaves behind a legacy.
The idea behind a breadcrumb legacy is summed up in this quote from Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Or, consider how Suzanne Bates, author of All the Leader You Can Be, described her outlook during our interview: “You are creating your legacy every day. As you grow and change, your legacy grows too. We leave our imprint everywhere. We should be conscious of the legacy we are leaving both large and small.”
MSP leaders and professionals interact with their teams and clients daily, in person and remotely. In a given day, there are practically unlimited opportunities to create—and seize—legacy moments. For example, Robert Glazer, the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, writes an inspirational email to all of his employees every Friday. His main focus is elevating performance in both business and life.
He characterized breadcrumbs as unexpected personal touches. “No one really thanks you for bonuses because they earned it and expect it,” he observed. “So, I send gifts out of the blue to team members to show appreciation for their work, and they remember it.”
Likewise, Tim Hebert, author of The Intentional Leader, told me, “Legacy moments are those things you don’t have to do—no one is forcing you to do them. When we don’t expect them, others remember them. Even smiling can be a legacy moment.”
Since so many people rely on email for communication, I like to leave handwritten notes as breadcrumbs. Often, I write them on postcards I create myself, either from my photographs or featuring my favorite quotes. I send these postcards as thank-you notes and I distribute them in my workshops and classes. Scattering my breadcrumbs as part of my life.
We think “legacy” has to be written with a “BIG L” when it is really a “little l.” And truly little things—notes, random acts of kindness, choosing to be compassionate when it would be easier to be harsh, etc. — can make a big difference.
Legacy Is Created At Every Age
When we are aware of the breadcrumbs we are leaving, we are engaged in legacy thinking, which is actually forward thinking. When MSP leaders and professionals reflect on how their actions, decisions, and behaviors will impact others, they are more likely to be intentional about what they say, the decisions they make, and how they behave.
With our awakening to legacy thinking, we walk into uncharted territory. Thinking of your legacy as breadcrumbs rather than one big thing can help us make a path—to know the way—as we intentionally leave breadcrumbs for others to follow.
Our legacy will live on through these crumbs, which means that what’s important to us won’t be lost.
For Ron Carucci, author of To Be Honest: Lead with the Power of Truth, Justice, and Purpose, legacy is a verb. “I’m going to legacy today—legacy moments,” he declared. Yet, he also told me how often he hears the word “legacy” used in conversations about regrets, or unfinished business.
“In life, there is no ‘do over,’” he pointed out. “So, we need to make sure our fingerprint is one of which we are proud.”
This isn’t a consideration exclusive to leaders in the second half of life, either—the earlier we focus on it, the better. “It is never too early to start thinking about legacy because it is cumulative,” Carucci continued. “It is hard to uncreate it or reverse engineer it unless we intentionally work at that … The trail we leave behind becomes our life’s' picture'.”
What is the current “picture” of your life? If you “left” in the many ways that a person can leave from work or life right at this moment, what would you be leaving behind? Do you like what you see? If you can give an immediate, enthusiastic yes! that’s terrific. But if you wish what you were leaving behind were more meaningful, you’re not too late.
Most of us want to know that our lives have made a difference. Thinking of your legacy as a little l, starting with the end in mind and being intentional about what breadcrumbs you leave can help you reach your desired end. Remember: your legacy is now.
About The Author
Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development coach and speaker, as well as the author of Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering (Routledge). You can learn more about Jann at https://jannfreed.com and more about Breadcrumb Legacy at https://amz.run/6Bbz.