"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

The year 2021 was one marked by the loss of some great leaders—most notably perhaps Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Bob Dole. At each man's passing there were numerous accolades to the impact they each had throughout their military and political careers, both indicative of their profound love of country and dedication to serving others. Considering these men and their stories causes me to think about the legacy a leader leaves behind.

Legacy literally means something that is carried over from an earlier time. More figuratively, it means the mark a person leaves on the world—the impact he or she has on others, even after that leader has left an organization or passed away.

Leadership expert John C. Maxwell said it this way: “Achievement comes to people who are able to do great things for themselves. Success comes when they lead followers to do great things for them. But a legacy is created only when leaders put their people into a position to do great things without them. The legacy of successful leaders lives on through the people they touch along the way. The only things you can change permanently are the hearts of the people you lead." (emphasis added)

I wonder if most leaders set out intentionally to craft a legacy? It seems to me that it's something that people do not spend a lot of time thinking about until retirement approaches. That's unfortunate because it means we're leaving our legacy to chance or at best giving ourselves a compressed timeframe that may limit what's possible.

So, let me ask you: What would you do differently and how would you refocus your time if you thought about your leadership legacy throughout your career?

Would you:

  • Define success differently?

  • Expand your timeframes for strategic plans and initiatives?

  • Devote more to time focusing on developing your team?

  • Plan more deliberately for succession in your organization?

As I prepare for my own upcoming career transition, there are three questions I keep getting asked: what I'll miss the most, what I'll miss the least, and what I'm most proud of having accomplished here at NRECA. The first one is the easiest to answer; it's the people. I have been fortunate to have worked with many talented colleagues who believe in our mission and work tirelessly in service to our members. The second one is a little harder, but it would probably be that sinking feeling when we missed the mark and didn't meet our members' expectations. The last one is where legacy comes in.

I can point to any number of projects that got done or new programs that were launched that make me proud of the collaborative work that went into them and value that members have found in them. But what I am most proud of and hope will be viewed as my legacy is twofold: 1) mentoring colleagues to help them develop their talents and leadership ability, and 2) nurturing a shared sense of commitment to fostering lifelong learning for cooperative leaders and staff.

That work isn't done of course, and that may be another thing that makes transitions challenging: the knowledge that there are things left to do that we won't see through to completion. It's particularly hard today to take the long view when the pace of change is accelerating and expectations are increasing for immediate gratification and fulfillment. It wasn't always this way.

The term “Cathedral Thinking" is used to convey a form of leadership (or some call it a mindset) in which a person has a vision for the future and takes steps to realize that vision, knowing that it is something he or she will not see completed. It refers to medieval times when church leaders, planners and stonemasons set in motion the building of great cathedrals that took decades and sometimes even a century or more to complete.

For a leader contemplating his or her legacy, Cathedral Thinking may be helpful.
It starts with having that long-term vision and getting others to see it, too. A vision that results in meaningful work and connects people with a common purpose will have durability. Remember, too, what Maxwell said: legacy comes from putting people in a position to do great work without you. That means learning their strengths and weaknesses and actively helping them develop their capabilities.

Ready to get started? Here are some resources that may be helpful:

These courses in NRECA's Supervisor and Management Development Program may be particularly helpful, too:

This is the last “Tracey's Takeaways" article that will be written by Tracey Steiner, NRECA senior vice president for education, training, and events. Steiner is transitioning to a new position with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in mid-January 2022. The column will continue under a new name with other NRECA staff contributors writing on management, leadership, employee development and culture development topics.