Certainly, there are problems with either extreme. For younger leaders, there’s a serious possibility that one’s desired legacies will change over time, as the individual matures and becomes more self-aware. For older leaders, there exists a danger that the process of thinking about legacy will expose regrets over roads not taken. At either extreme, legacy thinking can be unsettling or unfulfilling. But for all the people in between, and even for those at either extreme, the potential upside is greater.

Consider the reactions to the concept of legacy thinking among a group of senior executives from the real estate industry. They were a smart and successful bunch, assembled for an executive program at Harvard, and Rob (one of the authors of Your Leadership Legacy – Why Looking Towards the Future will Make you a Better Leader Today) had the pleasure of working with them for a number of sessions on a variety of topics broadly categorized as leadership.

As you can imagine, an extensive, if not excessive, number of topics fit under that umbrella, and he considered the topic of their legacies among them. So as part of their work together, on the eve of the last day of the program, he asked them to compile a legacy statement—a reflection describing how they wanted to be remembered—as part of their leadership self-examination.

Early the next morning, shortly before the final sessions began, one of the popular members of the group beckoned to Rob and said, “I think you may have wasted your time in asking the people in this group to fill out a legacy statement. It makes sense for someone like me, twenty years older than the average person here and close to retirement, but for the rest of them, I’m not sure it makes that much sense. They’re in the middle of their lives, worried about refinancing mortgages, removing personal guarantees, building wealth. They’re not focusing on things like their legacy and what they want to be remembered for.”

Rob asked him whether he would mind if Rob tested that assertion with the group, asking them up front about the topic’s relevance to their needs and their current existence. The man agreed, and when the class started, the two recounted their conversation. The intensity of the reaction surprised both of them.

They heard what can best be described as an outpouring of personal testimonies—story after story from people in their thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties, describing the impact and meaning they hoped their lives would have. Extremely successful people from all over the world talked about the importance of their work and described how this process of determining one’s intended legacy was among the most important tasks that one could face.

In follow-up conversations a year later with several of the attendees, we found that the topic still resonated. As some of them noted at that time, a thought process not unlike legacy thinking is triggered naturally when a crisis occurs (a life-threatening illness, taking over a parent’s business, and the like). But the kind of thinking that follows a crisis is driven by emotion, and, although it is powerful, the behavior changes it inspires are often not sustainable.

Engaging in legacy thinking in the absence of a crisis, on the other hand, fosters cleaner insights and results in changes that are sustainable. “You shouldn’t need a crisis to get that kind of clarity,” one manager said. “In fact, it’s probably the responsibility of leadership to act as if a crisis of some sort has already occurred, for the company’s sake and for yourself.”

Young or old, new leader or seasoned, legacy thinking helps good managers leverage their strengths and it helps struggling managers gain perspective.

Robert Galford and Regina Fazio Maruca co-authored the new book Your Leadership Legacy-Why Looking Toward the Future Will Make You a Better Leader Today. Galford also co-authored the bestseller The Trusted Advisor, as well as The Trusted Leader. A veteran journalist, Maruca is a former senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and former associate managing editor at the Boston Business Journal and New England Business magazine. For more information see www.yourleadershiplegacy.com.

Adapted with permission from Harvard Business School Press from Your Leadership Legacy – Why Looking Towards the Future will Make you a Better Leader Today by Robert M. Galford and Regina Fazio Maruca. Copyright 2006 Robert M. Galford and Regina Fazio Maruca. All Rights Reserved.