Building Your Legacy Isn’t About You: How Successful Leaders Help Change the World Around Them
Unpopular opinion: planning your legacy is not about you!
I hear you asking, how is this possible?
Your legacy is not about you. What you do, what you give, how you serve and how you impact the world around you is not about you.
Don’t get me wrong; many people think it’s about them and work hard to develop a persona around their philanthropy and volunteerism. Many of them do some good stuff. But at the end of the day, none of it is about you.
It is always about the impact. It’s about making a difference. Being the change we want to see in the world. It is not about you.
What is Legacy?
Let’s take a moment to understand legacy better.
Most dictionaries will define legacy as leaving something in a will or passing something from generation to generation.
Many sources suggest that legacy is about planning to disperse your assets when you’ve died.
Though rare, some explanations of legacy focus on the mark someone leaves on the world how people will remember them.
I’ve spent more than 25 years working with non-profit organizations, volunteers, philanthropists and civic leaders. During this time, I have learned that legacy isn’t about what you do; it’s about who you are.
Those that understand legacy and get it right have always cared about everyone’s best interest except their own. They are genuinely focused on improving the world around them and making a positive difference where they can.
Legacy is who you are. It’s not a destination. It’s not an accomplishment. Instead, you live out your legacy through your decisions and how you treat people.
Kimberly Wade-Benzoni shared a similar perspective in the Harvard Business Review article. She really makes the point that we have to find meaning in our lives, even while facing the fear and anxiety of death.
Should you care about your legacy?
Yes, you actually should care about your legacy!
Doesn’t that sound contradictory?
On the one hand, I’m telling you that your legacy isn’t about you, but on the other hand, I’m telling you to worry about your legacy.
It starts with personal responsibility.
Each of us has a responsibility to help those in need. We have a moral obligation to serve the needy. The Bible tells us to look after the widows and orphans. Every major religion shares the idea of a golden rule on how to treat people.
Most people have a soft spot in their hearts for people in need. Of course, not everyone shares empathy for similar causes, but each person cares about something in their way. That care prompts them to take action and help where they can.
You should care about knowing what causes or issues are important to you and trying each day to make a difference where you can, no matter how small it may seem.
I want to encourage you to start thinking about your legacy now.
Start small; start now!
I can promise you that no matter how you decide to build your legacy, someone is waiting for you.
Your impact will be life-changing for someone.
So many people think they don’t have what it takes to make an impact, but a small gesture to a stranger can mean the world to them.
For me, it was a generous couple from my childhood church, Loyal and Flora Mae. I still remember when they visited our home. We were very poor, and our house was run-down. Loyal and Flora Mae had loaded their car trunk with clothes their sons had out-grown to give my brothers and me.
What were old clothes to them was a brand-new wardrobe to my brothers and me.
I truly believe they knew they were doing their part.
They knew their gesture wasn’t too small. They impacted me then, and I’m still moved today as I recall those memories.
Maybe you have a similar story. Maybe someone impacted you and your family in a way that you will never forget. Then, that may be a perfect place to start. Share what you have now to help another family.
Maybe you don’t have a similar story. Perhaps you have been trying to find a way to give back and just don’t know where to start.
Where to start: Personal Mission
The key to knowing where to start is learning what drives you.
It is knowing your purpose.
It is knowing your calling.
This is what I call your Personal Mission.
Knowing your personal mission is one of the most empowering tools you can have.
I implore you to discover and understand your personal mission.
A well-defined personal mission is your moral compass in decision-making and keeps you centered on the things you are called to do.
Knowing your personal mission becomes your guide to where to start and keeps you on track in planning your legacy.
Your personal mission drives your legacy just like it drives your business, family and life decisions.
Your personal mission drives your decisions. It directs your engagement. It helps you know when to say yes and when to say no.
As you begin looking at where to invest your time and resources, your personal mission will serve as a critically-important tool.
Let’s get started!
Need help figuring out your personal mission statement? Download my FREE WORKSHEET to start building figuring out your purpose and mission.
Create something: a movement or non-profit organization.
One of the easiest ways to get started is with a non-profit organization (NPO). You can either support an existing organization or create your own. As you begin to think about your priority issues, you’ll be able to find a handful of organizations that are doing great work already. Maybe you’ve been involved with an organization for a while and want to venture out to start a new organization that tackles the issue differently.
Practically speaking, a non-profit organization gets its notoriety from its designation as a 501 (c) 3 from the IRS. The idea is that money raised from donations or earned from programs are reinvested back into the organization and not turned into profit for the directors.
NPOs can have a variety of structures, sizes, purposes, missions.
Starting a non-profit is not an easy task and should consider careful planning.
However, you can start by supporting an existing organization to get involved. Then, as you learn more about what is important to you, you can develop a longer-term plan to create your own organization.
It is also essential to consider the scope and type of organization you want to support. NPOs range from small local organizations with no staff to substantial national and international organizations.
For example, the United States Government, local municipalities, and state governments are all non-profit organizations.
Before you write a donation check to the IRS, spend some time thinking about your personal mission and what organizations are important to you.
Give something: philanthropy.
As with non-profit organizations, you might consider supporting an existing foundation or creating your own. The Foundation Source published an excellent article explaining some of the practical differences between foundations, trusts and other types of charitable vehicles.
Starting a foundation, charitable trust, named fund, or a variety of other similar structures will depend a lot on a few essential variables. One of the things you’ll want to start thinking about is how much money you will consider giving away. How will the funds be dispersed and used? Who will benefit from your charity? How involved will you want to be? Finally, of course, you’ll want to look at your taxes. Tax benefits are affected by many factors, including your overall income, the amount of money you plan to give away and how you will give it away.
You will need in-depth conversations with your legal and financial advisors and affected family members with most of these decisions. It will also be essential to think strategically about long-term impact and your legacy. Talk more about foundations, charitable trusts, funds, community foundations, etc.
Do something: volunteerism and civic engagement.
I get love talking about volunteerism and civic engagement.
Though money is helpful, many times, your time and engagement are much more powerful and impactful than just writing a check.
I’ve outlined several ideas for getting involved, from donating a few hours to taking on an entire project. However, no matter what level you can get involved in, your investment of time can be significant to an individual or an organization.
Adopt something: schools, organizations or even an entire country!
Many local schools still struggle to hire teachers, purchase supplies, and repair equipment. Rarely do we hear about expanding education budgets. Schools are also considered non-profit organizations. You can donate directly to a school corporation and designate how to use the money.
You may also consider helping to establish or support an existing foundation for a particular school corporation. Setting aside money will provide the school with help for emergencies and projects that aren’t allowed in a tax-funded general budget. For example, some schools cannot use public tax funds for extracurricular activities, band programs or sports. As a result, upgrading or repairing a football stadium or basketball gymnasium may be funded solely through private funds.
In addition to simply donating money, schools are a great place to be involved as a volunteer. Depending on what types of skills you want to share, there are plenty of opportunities. For example, you can help with elementary field trips, tutor high-school students, and assist with extracurricular activities and sporting events.
For you, faith may be fundamental. Many people have a solid connection to their home church, faith organization or a particular outreach ministry. Whether or not you already tithe regularly, you may consider giving above and beyond to help with special programs, support missionaries, build a new wing or even help with a church plant.
Faith-based organizations genuinely embody the ideals of using time, talent and treasure to impact their mission. There are opportunities to be involved locally or at a much larger level around the globe.
Country or Community
Another, and maybe most fun topic, is considering adopting a country. Yes, an actual country! Why not? Think about it. For what country have you always been curious about or had a passion? What issue or world problem has always been on your mind and heart to help one day? You could seriously make a significant impact on a small country, halfway around the world, through your donation of time, resources, money and care.
I know, this sounds huge!
How would you even get started?
But, it is certainly something to think consider.
Maybe you start small and focus on the issues that you care about the most. Select a non-governmental organization, make a regular donation, become an avid supporter, and eventually volunteer for a mission or project.
The more you learn about the country, the more ways you’ll find to increase your impact.
Vote, volunteer or run for public office!
Civic engagement is one of the most original forms of community impact, dating back to our earliest days as a country.
Volunteering to help with local government, politics, and the civic processes was a huge part of community gatherings and communing.
Unfortunately, politics gets a horrible reputation, and we tend to think about all of the negativity surrounding politics.
It’s important to remember that politics starts at the local level, and many good people are involved. For example, people volunteer with elections, help with campaigns or even educate citizens on local issues and voting.
You may consider helping with campaigns, supporting the electoral process, or even running for a public office as you think about politics. There are many levels to get involved in, from local school boards and town councils to gubernatorial campaigns and state legislature offices.
Of course, we all know about federal opportunities such as Congress, Senate and President. Also, many local and state offices are part-time commitments, so you can still run your business while serving your community. You can support campaigns by volunteering, knocking on doors, making phone calls, and donating money. Local volunteers serve on boards and commissions, volunteer on Election Day, and write letters to the editor on issues.
Be something: servant leadership, kindness, pay it forward
This is my favorite topic!
A simple smile, a kind word or generous action can change a day or a life.
In a world as crazy as ours, simple acts of kindness can have a lasting impact with tremendous ripple effects.
Actor Tom Hanks recently starred in a movie about Mr. Rogers. In describing the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, Hanks used the phrase “aggressive generosity” to explain his approach to life.
What a fantastic set of words to suggest a way of life in treating others.
What if each of us embraced this leadership approach, serving others, and meeting the needs of those around us.
I encourage you to think about serving in your role as a leader.
Think about kindness as your guide when engaging others.
Consider what you can do, unscripted and uncelebrated, to impact random people when the opportunity presents itself.
Make a plan.
The simple next step to getting started is to make a plan.
I work with people each day to help them figure out their plan for creating a legacy worthy of the life and purpose they live.
As you create your plan, think about where you can start now. Remember: start small, start now.
Resist the urge to jump in headfirst with big plans and big ideas. Instead, find a good balance between your time, resources, and current commitments. Then you can scale to a more significant commitment from there.
Also, remember you must connect your personal mission and values to everything you do.
Whether it’s cramming a bunch of old clothes in the trunk of your car or delivering a jet full of humanitarian supplies to a third-world country, your impact is needed.
When you connect your personal mission to the right cause, lives change. No matter how big or small the gesture, lives are changed.
Your legacy starts to become a reality when you impact lives through your engagement.
Your next steps:
- Define your personal mission statement.
- Determine your Start Small, Start Now steps.
- Develop your plan and get to work!
Let’s get to work!
A leader’s coach and skilled communicator, Micah Maxwell is the founder of DiamondCrest International. Over the last twenty-five years, he has guided thousands of leaders to find purpose and meaning in their personal and professional lives. He helps people who want more out of life but don’t know how to get it by developing a personal mission that empowers them to create real impact in the world around them.