Monday 18 July 2016

The Legacy Man

Avoiding the folly of corporate self-aggrandisement

I’ve a new client. Great guy, been around forever, one of the all time great survivors. He’s been through a lot, but always seems to keep on the success-side of the street. Kurt, his name, Scandinavian background, big built, big presence and big, big ideas. I saw him last week in his new role as CEO of a packaging firm and, since I’m trying to get his business to develop some of his key people, he kindly laid out his current strategy.

All was sounding good until he mentioned the “L” word. “I’ve been in business a long time Rudi,” he said, “achieved just about all I ever wanted, but there’s a few things I’ve left to do. I want to retire in
about three years when my contract is over and leave something, behind me, something lasting.” Kurt hesitated or a moment, leaving the word he was about to say unspoken.

I steeled myself, to say it, knowing I’d regret it the instant it popped into my head.

“A legacy, “I ventured, “ almost whispering the word.

“Exactly!”, cried Kurt, jumping up his seat, his blue eyes flashing with passion and obvious, pent-up emotion. “A legacy, that will last for years to come. Something that they’ll always remember me for.”

Oh dear, oh dear, I thought. What have I gone and gotten myself into this time?

You see, I have a thing about this sort of stuff. Attempting to leave a legacy behind you, is not the icing on the cake, but the poison on the pill - it just doesn’t work. It’s tantamount to committing professional suicide. Time after time I’ve seen business leaders, pour thousands of dollars, dinars and dalasis (*) funding chairs of learning (my goodness where would our B-schools be today if not for misguided -or should I say misgifted- CEOs), that they vainly hope will preserve their name long after the pages of corporate history have curled up and faded.

Sadly, there was a dilemma for me. Should I tell Kurt the horrible truth; that trying to leave a legacy will open him to ridicule and worse, as he joins a long list of misguided, swollen-headed leaders? Is it really worth losing a good friend, not to mention his business, just because he’s got a little above himself?

As our eyes met, it took just a nano-second to transmit my look of doubt (was there a small smidgen of disdain in there too?), and I knew that I’d scored. Looking back on it some hours later, I realised that I didn’t actually have to say anything, he knew what I thought. And he was smart enough to know - without missing a beat - that what I thought was exactly the reaction that everyone else would have: the board, the team, the employees the clients, customers the whole kit and caboodle.

The moment was over. He sat back and looked at me, drained his coffee cup, sighed and said, “You know Rudi, being a leader isn’t much fun really, too much to think about, too many responsibilities.”

I nodded eagerly in agreement. “Yes, but a good leader has to know when NOT to do stuff too.” Again our eyes met. I knew that he knew, that he’d made a fool of himself. But he knew I’d saved him from making a massive mistake, a folly of corporate self-aggrandisement that would be difficult to ever live down – just the legacy you DON’T want. My one look of horror, well mixed with disbelief, was sufficient.

We never spoke of it again – not ever. The business school that would have been the recipient of his largesse, went unfunded. No matter. Another poor sap is always only too eager to have a tablet cemented above the door lintel as a tribute to their – and their shareholders - largesse. They don’t do a chair in corporate stupidity yet – maybe they should think of one.

(*) I didn’t make this up, its the national currency of Gambia, but it rhymes nicely !!!

This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Engage direct with Rudi Plettinx here.


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