What Will Your Leadership Legacy Be?

by Doug Whittle
Date Published May 25, 2012 - Last Updated May 11, 2016


Leadership is a hot topic in today's organizations. As the Baby Boomers begin to retire and the Millennials move in to take their places, we are looking at one of the most diverse workforces in history, with four generations working together. Across these four generations, there is a great diversity of needs, expectations, and beliefs, including their views on leadership.

What does leadership mean to today’s workforce? What do employees look for in their formal leaders? What is the importance of informal leadership in tomorrow’s organizations? What are our employees’ expectations regarding leadership in the future? What type of leadership will be required to move into the next century?

These are just some of the questions I have encountered in working with organizations that are discussing the development of future leaders. Some organizations have created leadership development programs, using training as a quick-fix. But while education and training are critical, the reality is that with all of the downsizing, rightsizing, and minimizing our organizations have experienced over the past three years, there are few traditional formal leadership positions (i.e., manager or supervisor) available for the remaining employees.

Organizations also realize that many of its current leaders have acquired their leadership “skills” through the proverbial school of hard knocks. Many of today’s formal leaders acknowledge that they just happened to be in the right place at the right time (or in some cases, the wrong place at the wrong time!), when they were suddenly tapped to be a “leader,” or, in my vernacular, an accidental leader.

Rather than wait for leadership to be bestowed upon them, the alternative is for employees to take personal accountability and ownership for their own leadership development—to become leaders by design. But before we jump to “how” we’re going to address the subject of leadership development, we should first discuss what leadership actually means.

What Does "Leader" Mean to You? 

Try the following exercise: Grab some paper and a pen and list what you believe are the top ten attributes or characteristics of a good leader. In the ten years I’ve been working in leadership development, I’ve identified eleven characteristics or traits that are most commonly associated with individuals’ definitions of leadership. If you’re like most individuals, you’ll list traits like honesty, courage, good communicator, effective negotiator, good listener, and sensitive to the needs of others.

It’s interesting that, across all these lists, I’ve never seen someone include “supervises others” on his or her list. In other words, leadership is not (and should not be, in my opinion) limited to those who are in a traditional, formal managerial/supervisory roles. Leadership has nothing to do with your position in the organizational hierarchy. Leadership is not limited to a private office with a door (and, if you’re really lucky, windows!). In other words, everyone has the potential to become a strong leader, regardless of seniority, rank, experience, or education.

Far too many people see leadership as something that is reserved for a small minority. It becomes one of those elusive goals we put in our annual performance plans, in the hope that someday, if we live long enough and do the right things, we too will be anointed as “leaders.”

In organizational development circles, there are two commonly held views of leadership: formal and informal. Formal leadership is what we typically attribute to someone who has a formal role, title, responsibilities, and duties related to leadership. In addition, formal leadership frequently involves the direct supervision of others. As a result, many people equate “manager” with “leader.” But, as we’ve all learned, far too many managers do not pass the leadership litmus test.

Informal leadership, on the other hand, is available to anyone in an organization. It refers to an individual’s ability to demonstrate the qualities and characteristics that help his or her organization achieve its goals, to promote strong teamwork and positive workplace relationships, to increase organizational effectiveness and impact, and to encourage high performance in themselves and others. According to this definition, every person in an organization has both the potential and the responsibility to become a leader. 

Envision Your Leadership Legacy

Once you agree to assume responsibility for your own leadership development, you must envision the type of leader you want to be. When I coach individuals on personal leadership development, my first question to them is this: At the end of your career, what leadership legacy you will leave behind? What will others say about you as a leader? What will others remember you for, in terms of your contributions to the workplace, to your team, to your community, and to society?

To answer these questions, you must be able to create and pursue your personal vision of a possible future. Based upon my work in leadership development, the ability to envision a future always ranks among the top three leadership attributes. To get yourself started, answer this question: What is your vision of your future? Your vision may very well include a formal leadership role. If so, examine the reasons why a formal leadership role is important to you. What is your motivation for becoming a formal leader? What do you hope to accomplish in this formal role? 

In Pursuit of Formal Leadership

Once you understand your motivations for pursuing formal leadership, consider including the following steps in your development plan:

  • Identify a means for obtaining regular feedback from others about their perceptions of you and your effectiveness as a leader. Encourage feedback that is honest and timely. Listen and learn. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and don’t beat yourself up when you do make a mistake (and you will).
  • Find a leadership mentor or coach, someone you respect and admire for his or her leadership abilities and from whom you can gain valuable insights, advice, and support. Sit down for regular conversations with this mentor to learn how he or she achieved success. Observe them in action. Ask them to observe you in action. Ask them for constructive feedback. When you’re feeling challenged, seek their advice. Use this coach as one of your primary learning resources.
  • Once you’ve achieved your goals as a formal leader, it’s time to pay it forward. Offer to mentor and coach someone else who is just beginning his or her leadership journey. By the way, be prepared: Those who have mentored others discover that they actually continue to grow and develop their leadership skills. As a coach/mentor, you will have frequent opportunities to question your own principles, rethink your opinions, and change or modify your actions. Truly successful leaders never stop learning.

In Pursuit of Informal Leadership

As you consider the different levels of leadership, you may discover that you have little or no interest in a formal leadership role. It may be more important to you that you are perceived as an expert, someone with extensive knowledge of a specific subject. Your vision of the future might focus on feeling good about the service you provide to others, where by helping others you gain a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. For some, their future leadership visions may have less to do with the world of work and more to do with the contributions they make in their “other” worlds—family, church, community, etc. It’s a perfectly legitimate goal to be gainfully employed in work that you like to do, but more as a means of supporting your lifestyle than climbing the corporate ladder. In Good to Great, author Jim Collins encourages us to discover and pursue two things:

  1. What can you be the best in the world at? 
  2. What are you deeply passionate about?

At the end of the day, you need to be true to yourself. What drives you? What motivates you? What satisfies you? What are your passions? How can you pursue these passions?

If you pursue the informal leadership path, I encourage you, just like those who choose the formal leadership path, to identify someone who will serve as your mentor or coach. Build a strong relationship with someone you deeply respect and admire, someone who shares your values and vision. Engage in ongoing conversations with this mentor and ask for their feedback and advice along the way. Find someone who will be honest with you, even when it hurts. Listen, learn, and grow.

While few of us have direct control over others, each of us has the capacity to influence others through our words, actions, and relationships. Understand that in an informal leadership capacity, you can often have an equal or even greater impact on others than many of those in formal leadership roles.

Formal or Informal Leadership: Either Way, Make a Plan 

As you compare your current state (where you are today) to your desired state (where you want to be), you can begin to identify the specific steps you will take to achieve that desired state. Organize your vision and your steps in a formal, written plan, a commitment to yourself that you can reference on a regular basis. Unlike the typical New Year’s resolutions we all make and ignore, take this written plan and share it with your mentor or coach. Encourage your coach to keep you honest and on plan, to hold you accountable for the goals you’ve set. A good coach pushes back on your excuses and challenges your thinking. Without someone to keep you on track, it’s far too easy for you to justify straying from your goals—you’re too busy, you’ve encountered unexpected distractions, life isn’t fair, etc. A good mentor will help keep you on track by providing both positive and negative feedback on a continual basis.

If, instead, you choose to wait for your future to just “happen,” you will more than likely find that you end up somewhere far different from what you originally envisioned or desired. As futurist Joel Barker has said, “You can and should invent your future. If you don’t, someone else surely will.”

Leadership: It's Up to You to Take the First Step!

Some people believe that leadership is a reward or form of recognition. Far too many of these individuals sit back, do little, and simply wait for the “prize” to be handed to them. If that prize doesn’t arrive, however, they whine, complain, blame others, and wallow in self-pity.

On the other hand, there are those who understand that leadership is not a destination, but a journey that consists of myriad roads and pathways with endless possibilities. They don’t leave that journey to fate. Instead, they choose a path, they engage the support of others, and they take personal accountability for their growth and development as leaders.  

You can influence the outcome of your leadership journey through thoughtful reflection and careful planning. Who do you want to be? What impact do you want to have on others? Don’t be an accidental leader. Instead, be a leader by design. At the end of your journey, you will find that you have achieved your goals, pursued your passions, and left behind a valuable leadership legacy.


Doug Whittle, president of Whittle Consulting Group, LLC , has over thirty years of experience helping organizations build strong leadership development, training, and support programs and teams. He specializes in the facilitation and development of strategic plans that support large-scale process and systems change, emphasizing employee involvement and engagement.

Tag(s): people, leadership, professional development


More from Doug Whittle :

    No articles were found.