Leaving a Legacy: How Should Our Leaders Be Remembered?

Dennis Chung has always been one of my favorite private sector people, as he has a refreshingly straightforward approach and an ability to boil things down to their essentials. I saw a snippet of a speech he gave a few days ago at the University College of the Caribbean (UCC) on television, and asked him for a copy. I am reproducing it here. I think we need to think a great deal more about (and around) the issue of leadership in general – perhaps political leadership in particular, as elections are still hovering in the air. I hope you find Dennis’ comments of interest.

Dennis Chung - economic analyst, accountant and author - is CEO of the PSOJ and wears other hats, too. Gleaner file photo)
Dennis Chung – economic analyst, accountant and author – is CEO of the PSOJ and wears some other hats, too. (Gleaner file photo)

Salutations.

I want to first thank UCC for inviting me to address you, at what is the launch of a very important series on leadership. Let me applaud UCC’s insight in seeing the critical role that leadership plays in development and success.

The Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) is happy to have UCC as a member, which has through initiatives like these cemented itself as a very important part of the academic landscape in Jamaica.

I have been asked to speak to you today on the topic “How should leaders be remembered?” under the overall theme “Fostering Leadership and Innovation.”

I will address this very important subject by looking at what leadership should do to create a positive legacy that lives on. This is very important to understand as we have had many persons in leadership positions, who do not take care to ensure that they create a positive legacy, but rather create a legacy that is not one to be envied.

One of the most common areas where we see negative legacies being created is in the area of governance and politics, as many politicians are not seen in a positive light when they leave office. This is because in my view too many of our political leaders do not govern with the long term view of ensuring that they leave a positive legacy, but rather focus on short term interests and sacrifice their long term legacies. In many instances by the time they realize that their legacy is in jeopardy, they try to create a project and put their name on it, with the hope that this will save their legacy. This however never really works, and because of the distrust and failures they have built up over the years they end up coming to the end of their careers and never truly recovering to leave a positive legacy.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore, died earlier this year, leaving a strong legacy.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore, died earlier this year, leaving a strong legacy.

We can contrast this to some political leaders, who have left very positive legacies. These include Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore), Nelson Mandela (South Africa), Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher (England), Gorbachev (USSR), Ronald Reagan, JFK, Bill Clinton, and even Obama (USA).

There are also business leaders who have left rich legacies, which include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Welch. Closer to home we have many. Most notable from the PSOJ’s perspective are our Hall of Famers, including persons like Hon. Carlton Alexander, Hon. Gordon “Butch” Stewart, among others, and someone I have had the privilege to work very closely with, Hon. Dennis Lalor.

On the business front also we have had many leaders who themselves have left very bad legacies such as Ken Lay (Enron), and many we would want to soon forget from the 2008 financial crisis – even some in Jamaica also.

So we can confidently say that one of the very important things that leaders, whether at the national, business, community, or family level, need to be concerned about is – what sort of legacy or reputation will I leave when I come to the end of my career or life? I believe that if we start out by concerning ourselves with our legacy or reputation, then many of the things that we need to do to make sure we leave a good reputation will come naturally.

I recall that when I was much younger and a Commissioner at the Betting Gaming & Lotteries Commission (BGLC), our Chairman at the time, Gordon Robinson, used to say that “before we do anything unethical we will eat bun and cheese for the rest of our lives.” Of all the things that we accomplished on that board, this is the statement I remember the most, as it speaks to the important point that as leaders we had to set the tone for the organization about protecting reputation first.

In order to protect that reputation, however, behaving in an ethical and responsible manner alone is not enough. The fact is that before anyone can be considered a successful leader, you must ensure that you meet the fundamental objective of the role you have. In other words even if you are the most ethical person in the world, if as a business leader for example you do not run a successful company, then you will have failed to leave a good legacy as a leader.

Nelson Mandela in his old prison cell
Nelson Mandela revisiting his old prison cell. He knew what his core objective as a leader was – to liberate his people.

As an example, Lee Kuan Yew would not be considered a successful leader if he did not transform the Singaporean economy; Jack Welch or Steve Jobs would not be considered successful leaders if they did not increase shareholder value and make their companies huge successes; and Mandela or Gandhi would not be considered successful leaders if they were not able to successfully gain liberties for the people of their countries.

The point is that for leaders to be looked at as successful, it is very important that they understand the context they lead in and meet the objective of that time and the people they serve. In other words if the pressing issue in a company is profitability, then a CEO who focuses successfully on improving workers’ compensation without profitability would not be considered successful.

In Jamaica for example, the politicians of the 50s and early 60s (Norman Manley and Bustamante) were considered successful leaders because they were able to gain independence and improve workers’ rights. Even in the 1970s, when one defines Michael Manley’s success, even with the dismal economic failure, he is looked at as one who championed the cause of ordinary Jamaicans because coming out of the 1960s, social justice was the most pressing need for many Jamaicans. Edward Seaga was seen as successful because he managed to turn around the economic misfortunes of the 1970s.

Former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley.
Former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley (1924 – 1997)

The point is that the reputation (legacy) and success of a leader is defined by the need at the time they lead, and therefore all successful leaders must take time to recognize what the primary need or objective of their country or organization is. It is not necessary therefore that one needs to focus on the human needs to be successful; but one must focus on what objective is needed to define the success. A successful army general, for example, is not defined by how caring he is with the soldiers under his command, but by how many victories he has over the enemy.

Bearing this in mind though, it is important for a leader to understand that in most instances a crisis is what can help to catapult your success. This follows on from the need to understand what is required; if the need is to overcome a crisis that can enhance your reputation as a leader even more. Think of all the well-known world and business leaders and you will see that most of them emerged out of crises.

Mindy Gibbins-Klein talks and writes about "thoughtful leadership."
Mindy Gibbins-Klein talks and writes about “thoughtful leadership.” VISION is so important!

In creating a legacy, however, leaders must ensure that they are able to provide and inspire a vision. The following perspectives on leadership sum it up:

“Leadership is having a vision, sharing that vision and inspiring others to support your vision while creating their own.” – Mindy Gibbins-Klein, founder, REAL Thought Leaders

 “Leadership is the ability to guide others without force into a direction or decision that leaves them still feeling empowered and accomplished.” – Lisa Cash Hanson, CEO, Snuggwugg

 So any effective leader must have the foresight needed to share a vision and inspire others to that vision. This means of course understanding your constituents and being able to inspire them to that vision, even when they can’t see it themselves. Throughout history, when we look at all the great leaders one of the common traits they had was the ability to show people a path when everything seemed hopeless.

This is what politicians mean when they say all politics is local. Any good leader knows that it is more important to make the connection with the people you are charged with to lead than the wider society, in other words those that make or break you as a leader. For this to happen though, the leader must maintain a certain level of credibility and trust with the people he leads.

Two very important things that leaders do, and it is critical to their success are:

  • they choose the right people for the task and the culture, as the right skills that is the wrong fit for the culture, and vice versa is a problem; and
  • they inspire the people they lead to be the best they can be

People ask me many times for example, how I deal with being involved in many things. The first thing I say to them is: Get good people around you and allow them to perform.

It is usually the loss of credibility and trust that ruins a leader’s chance at success, as any good leader recognizes that it is difficult to be successful without the support of those you lead.

In summary, there are many books written on leadership that give different perspectives on what leadership is and what it is about. My own personal experiences and by observing great Jamaicans is that they first and foremost protect their reputations by doing the right thing all the time; secondly they always understand the context in which they lead and are not afraid to confront a crisis (turn crisis into opportunity or success); they are able to see success long before others can, and they are able to inspire persons towards that vision; and all successful leaders are trusted.

If as a leader you are remembered for these four things then you have created a very good legacy.

Dennis Chung

Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica

October 28, 2015

Dennis Chung makes a point at a Katalyxt Roundtable
Dennis Chung makes a point at a Katalyxt Roundtable at the University of the West Indies in January. (My photo)

 


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