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What Do You Want to be Remembered For?

When my daughter, Miriam, went to college in Milwaukee, she worked at a bakery. Vann’s Pastry Shop was legendary for its specialty cakes, Danish pastries, and bread. When Mr. Vann died, his obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel started with the following: "Calling Bob Vann a baker would be like calling Frank Lloyd Wright an architect."

When you die and someone puts their fingers on a keyboard, ready to write about you as a leader, what do you hope they’ll type? There is a philosophy that says you should always start with the end in mind. An obituary is definitely an end, and I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s the end you need to have in mind in order to answer this question. But what about asking yourself, "When I move to another position, what do I want my team to say about me as a leader? What do I want to be remembered for?"

Create a list of characteristics you admire in a leader. The combinations are endless. Compassionate and a great listener. Creative and fair-minded. Uplifting and supportive. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

When you stop learning, stop listening, stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is time to die.
–Lillian Smith, American author.

After you’ve identified at least fifteen characteristics, highlight five of them. Are these the five you’d be happy to have people use to describe you? Keep working your list until you’re convinced that you have the five you believe are the cornerstones of your leadership style.

Now, think of your leadership actions over the last week. Did you devote your time to these behaviors? If this had been your last week as a leader for this team, how would they describe your final days as their leader? It isn’t enough to identify, think about, or even talk about the things you want to be remembered for. It’s only how you act that will count in the end.

Mr. Vann was a baker, but he was so much more than that. I asked Miriam what she remembered about him after we read the obituary. She said he taught her that discipline is required to produce a consistently superior product, that working as a team can be fun, and that finding out what you are good at is important in life and work. A very nice legacy for any leader.