What will my “Leadership Legacy” be?

by Didier Marlier on Thursday January 21st, 2016

I was recently invited to sit and watch a CEO talk. His mission was to prepare the engagement of some senior leaders in the company’s vision for the future.

I was expecting some kind of well-polished speech, maybe a good video clip, but instead he asked: “What will be your legacy? What will you be proud to have left behind you? What will be your story to your children or grandchildren? What will make you walk head up in the streets of your town, because you will have made a difference in people’s life, you will have contributed to changing this world?” I was struck by the simplicity of the argument.

Synchronicity, on the same day, a participant (I was tasked with the perilous act to follow the leader after such a brilliant speech…) sent me the link to the clip below. It is a blessing.

The man you will see was also a determined, focused, result driven individual. At work, he was a perfectionist. His own developmental journey showed that he cared very little about the judgement of others. He was going to be the best in his field, no matter how he would end-up there. He had a high opinion of himself (rightly so probably) and a strong ego or, to use a word I like, he was a true prima donna.

But on that evening of October 20th 2001, he had decided to challenge his “winning formula” and make of his speech to a battered audience, a very special moment… Like several of his peers, he had decided to be generous, to show his gratitude to those people. His sole presence to the party given in their honour, would have been sufficient. He could have “done the job” and earned praises in the press the following day… He could have “played safe”, it would have been easy to hide behind the PowerPoint and other high tech gadgets littering such large conventions… But he had decided to be truly engaging that evening. He knew he had been given the delicate mission to be the first speaker. The people he would talk to were shattered, exhausted, had been hard hit. They were literally in the “mourning phase”… People did not even know “he” was going to be the first on stage.

That evening “he” decided to do something different:

  • He showed that, although his ego was large, the purpose was far more important. So he chose humility and started his session by using the work of a competitor because it felt “the right thing to do” for the audience.
  • He took a personal risk. Rather than being supported by his usual staff and close guard, he sat alone in front of the audience, defenceless and vulnerable.
  • He gave up entertainment to choose authenticity. So he sat, spoke at a slow pace, without any artificial communication mean.
  • He started from where “they” were not, from where he thought they should be. The way he manages to get his audience from a depressed state back to energy, courage and pride, in 4’33” is due to his empathy and really amazing. He starts on a mourning mode and when he thinks he has them with him, he “accelerates” and brings them to hope and performance during the following 5’49”.
  • He realigns his audience (who suffered heavy losses) with their Deep Intent, not as a populist speaker would but with…kindness, intimacy and respect.

Mr. Jones, you have left, through this short intervention, a profound legacy about generosity, empathy and engagement. I thought I would remember you for the unusual journey you followed in order to meet success, I imagined that my children would one day remember some of your work. But I never thought you could have been such an inspiration to us, business leaders, at the moment of preparing our conventions or engagement speeches and at this very tense instant when we walk on stage. I will remember your legacy on such moments.

Here are the first five minutes where Mr. Jones is out of his normal comfort zone, totally in tune with the moment and the emotional state of his audience:

And four minutes later, after having demonstrated he had emotionally connected with his depressed audience, David Bowie takes them back to the top of their game, Deep Intent and Pride.

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