The True Legacy of Leadership

Jan 24, 2019

By Sander A. Flaum

This piece has nothing to do with the Blackstone Group or its CEO, Stephen A. Schwarzman. On reflection, after rereading my first draft, well, maybe just a little.

As we’ve read and heard in the recent past, Mr. Schwarzman is executing a Blackstone IPO. He’ll collect $930 million from the offering and will be left with a 23% stake in the company, valued at about $7.8 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. His partner—out of the spotlight Peter Peterson—will collect $1.9 billion in the IPO and retain a 4% stake, worth about $1.35 billion, again as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

As a young product group manager at Lederle Laboratories in the late 1970s, I remember a talk by our president, Bob Luciano, on values, purpose, and mission. Although he left Lederle (too soon, in my opinion) to take on the CEO role at Schering-Plough, his message to us comes to mind poignantly, especially after the barrage of Blackstone IPO stories.

The question Bob posed to us that day was, “What is the legacy you want to leave? When you’re ready to hang it up, how do you want to be remembered?”

Of course, you’d like your family to remember you as being a loving significant other, a caring and sympathetic parent, and an empathetic human being. For leaders-in-the-making, the tougher part of the question comes when you consider the pieces of your professional legacy: What did I really accomplish during my career? What do the people who worked with me, for me, or over me think of my manner, ethics, and achievements? What did I give to them other than a paycheck? What did I demonstrate about values or, put another way, what was the essence of my value tutorial?

In my own case, I’m extraordinarily proud that my career was and is being spent in the pharmaceutical industry. It is, unquestionably, the only arena where the workers discover new products and treatments from which every person on earth benefits. Are there some policies we need to modify? Were there some people in the business who didn’t deserve the mantle of leadership? Sure! But overall, this industry can really boast about an illustrious legacy.

Looking at other real legacy builders, consider Michael Eisner, a tough boss for sure, but look at his accomplishments at Disney… Broadway hits, movie creativity, Disney Parks, and the list goes on: Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Meg Whitman at e-Bay, Andy Grove of Intel, Steve Jobs at Apple, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and the legendary Jack Welch of GE.

How about some great political figures who have left us legacies for which we’ll always be grateful? Harry Truman for the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after WWII; Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, who tore down the walls of segregation; and, of course, the greatest of them all, Abraham Lincoln, who overruled his own cabinet to go to battle against the Confederacy and end slavery.

Given all of this, one has to wonder about the so-called legacies of those leaders whose main occupation is getting their pictures in the business pages in celebration of their astronomical paychecks, stock options, and golden parachutes.

Building a memorable legacy is to this writer at least, the single most important thing we can do during our time on this earth. Nine-to-five (or more) legacy building is about doing A work. When your boss says, “I need it by the end of the day” and you’re not yet fully satisfied with the project, it’s your obligation, as a “builder,” to say, “I’m not happy with it yet. I need another 24 hours.”

It’s really tough to do the right thing all the time. Each of us sometimes manages to miss the mark. Too often, we forget how we want to be remembered. Too many e-mails, voicemails, and meetings, I guess. Having messed up many times myself, my advice to leaders is simply this: get yourself down into that easy chair on the weekend or on vacation and contemplate…What legacy do I want to leave?

None of us wants to be thought of as average or inconsequential. Not many of us strive for our legacy to be that CEO who is best known for counting his cash. There’s a lot more gratification to being the leader counting his cache—of contributions to bettering other peoples’ lives.

You may want to start to think now about reinventing yourself as a “builder” and a “doer”—unique, accomplished, and always paying forward.

Trust me, it makes for a good life!

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at [email protected].