Creative Leadership

Leaders: Worry Less About Leaving a “Legacy” and More About The Problems Staring You In The Face

Every leader wants to leave a legacy. We understandably want to make a big difference and make an impact that lasts long after we’re gone. But over the last few years, there has been so much publicity and talk about “big ideas” and “legacy” that some leaders have gotten lost in the hype.

Especially when we take on a new job or project, we want everyone to know there’s a new sheriff in town, and we think the best way to make that happen is to start with big changes.

For instance, I knew a nonprofit leader who came into an organization with a sweeping agenda and inspiring new thinking. But what that team really needed far more than inspiring new ideas, was immediate, day to day, problem solving. Because he couldn’t keep his eyes on what really mattered, things got worse and he was forced to step down within months.

President Joe Biden seems to have the same problem. Since assuming the presidency a year ago, his focus has been on a major, grand agenda. “Build Back Better” is his mantra, and it’s taken the vast majority of his energy and time. But for the people he’s supposed to be leading, a lack of big ideas isn’t the problem. The price of gas is skyrocketing, inflation is reaching levels we haven’t seen in nearly half a century, stores are struggling with supplies, the pandemic still isn’t being handled well, and now countries like China, North Korea, and Russia are starting to move in dangerous ways.

The result? His approval ratings may be hitting the lowest level since approval ratings were created.

My advice to any leader is to think great thoughts, develop new ideas and strategies, look to the future. But never let that get in the way of dealing with the immediate challenges your team, your employees, your donors, or your customers are facing right now.

In his classic book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey writes, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Balance matters, because if you only deal with what’s in front of you, you’re not necessarily a leader – you’re a manager.

However, if you get so distracted by your big ideas that you take your eye off what’s in front of you – you’re not a leader, you’re a failure.

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2 Comments

  1. You raise a separate question in this article: What if the leader is faced with effectively two organisations fighting each other? I’ve seen this organisationally in the past.

    It is what your current and previous president’s faced. There are two USAs with radically different visions, neither of which will accept the other one. And neither will accept compromise. As outsiders we’ve been expecting civil war in the USA within the next decade. Some of the problems you cite are related to this lack of coherent vision. Many of these are causing the short term problems.

    What should a Christian leader faced with civil war within his organisation do?

    (PS the problems are even worse for countries like Myanmar, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Hungary, Poland and the UK. Hungary, Poland and the UK haven’t resorted to physical violence yet but could easily within the next decade.)

    1. You’re right that it’s incredibly sad when leaders allow this to happen. In my experience most of it is because both sides do a lot of talking and very little listening. Previous presidents here in the US did a much better job of reaching across the aisle, compromising, and working things out with opposing sides. Now it’s “My way or the highway.” As you’ve seen, that doesn’t work in politics, and it doesn’t work in business, nonprofits, or churches either…

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