What’s my ethical legacy?–how leaders leave the world a better place

Scientists recently announced the arrival of light from 10.5 billion years ago. 

It reached earth from the most distant known supernova. It had been travelling all that time. Such a journey offers a sobering insight on personal ambition. No human being can hope to make an impact lasting for even a smidgen of that total. 

Someone asked China’s leader in 1971 about the impact of the French Revolution. Premier Zhou Enlai replied: 

Chinese Premier
Chinese premier Zhou-Enlai

“It’s too early to say.” 





Despite these daunting perspectives business leaders still get asked:

“Once you depart, what kind of a legacy do you want to leave behind?”

A legacy is central to what it means to be human.  Without a sense of working to create a legacy, adults can lose meaning in their life. It offers a glimpse into human relationships, communities, and the human spirit.

A positive legacy could be the most important thing a business leader can achieve in life. It means exerting an influence well into the future. Beyond one’s short stay here on earth. Yet creating such a legacy proves both complicated and difficult.  Most FTSE-100 company CEOs only last about five years. Not much time to build a strong legacy.

Remember me?

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel

How will Martin Sorrell now ex CEO of WPP be remembered? Is this empire of 130,000 people really his legacy? Or is there more to life than making a fortune from advertising? 

Alfred Nobel read a bleak obituary about himself before the died.  It trashed Nobel for inventing dynamite and selling arms. Worried how history would judge him, Nobel left his entire fortune to the Nobel Prizes. And that’s how most of us remember him today.

Answering that question:   “What do you want to be remembered for?” 

can be the start of defining a worthwhile legacy. For millennia, leaders everywhere have wrestled with this issue.

The greatest of the Egyptian Pharaohs was Ramses II, or Ozymandias.  None of his great works have survived. In a famous poem Percy Bysshe Shelley evokes a picture of a single pedestal half buried in the desert. On it are the words:  

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;PHAROAH
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Three other Pharaohs did rather better. They built the pyramids at Giza to endure an eternity. So far they have done just that.

Talking of builders, you can still visit Sir Christopher Wren’s famous legacy. In London’s St Paul’s Cathedral there’s a wall plaque with a Latin inscription. It translates as:

          “If  you seek his monument, look around you.”

Leadership legacies can be be almost anything. From a building, to a resilient reputation, such as Nelson Mandela’s.  Alexander the Great conquered half the world and cut the Gordian Knot. The latter was a metaphor for solving intractable problems. A less impressive side of his legacy was destroying Persepolis .  The Greek city was one of the most advanced and civilised in the world.

Henry Ford’s legacy was a process. His moving assembly line slashed the time it it took build a car. Instead of more than 12 hours, Ford did it in two and half.  His legacy lives on in countless factories around the world.

More recent business legacies? How about Anita Roddick’s Body Shop, Steve Jobs’ iphone, and the Internet of Tim Berners-Lee?  

The legacy puzzle 

Only the most committed business leaders crack the legacy puzzle.  Many struggle to make a significant difference in the short time they have at the top.  For instance, how do you leave a long-term legacy of sustainability

What at the time can seem so permanent, may soon fade into insignificance.  The much admired “HP Way” once described the approach of the two founders of Hewlett Packard.  Yet what’s left of “The Way” resides in history, not daily practice.

Jack Welch of GE
Jack Welch of GE

In the 1990s Jack Welch must have thought his legacy was secure. After all, Fortune magazine named him Manager of the Century .  Admired for leading the best-run company in the world, he generated double-digit earnings. Meanwhile other conglomerates fell apart. 

Yet within a few years his successor dismantled Welch’s legacy. Worse, a relentless re-examination of that legacy marked him a bully and a tyrant.

This paragon of managerial expertise often humiliated people in GE meetings. Many witnesses confirm that Mr Welch could be a formidable, even terrifying, boss.  One former GE executive confessed that one of his boss’s attacks “caused me to soil my pants”.

Few business leaders leave anything approaching a worthwhile,  lasting legacy. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Even in the firm they ran no one may even mention their name, especially if they die or get fired. 

Leaving a negative legacy

No so those who bequeath a negative legacy. Years later people still talk about them.  Their harm and the hurt they caused may live on  It’s like lava from a volcano. Their terrible reputation slowly sets hard, becoming immovable.  

For example, Al Dunlap, also known as the Chainsaw, continues to appear on lists of the worst ever CEOs. He spent his career hopping from one corporate boardroom to the next. Dunlop made thousands redundant without a second thought. Finally, he engineered a massive accounting scandal at Sunbeam Products. The firm never recovered and filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

Fred the Shred
Fred Goodwin of RBS

For almost destroying the Royal Bank of Scotland, CEO Sir Fred Goodwin, was dubbed “Fred the Shred”. The Queen undubbed his knighthood. 

He may not have been a shouter. But he bullied senior managers during his daily 9.30 am meetings. He questioned their competence. He too could reduce a senior executive to tears. 

[spacer height=”20px”]How does legacy building work?

How people make decisions that affect future generations suggests some specific strategies. Ethical leaders will be the most likely to leave an ongoing legacy. They do so by refusing to go for the quick fix. They maintain a relentless focus on the long term. They show personal respect for others, and a determination to do what’s right. 

What sort of legacyThrough social commitment business leaders make more than a passing impression. See panel on the right: What sort of legacy?  

Social commitment now appears on many corporate agendas. There’s a growing resistance when short-term comes at the expense of senior employees and shareholders.

Yet few companies have taken the necessary step back. Only the most insightful business leaders see the link between short termism and social inequality. 

In fact, short termism can distort corporate strategy. Many business leaders feel compelled to focus on satisfying activist owners. Or to pursue corporate arrangements such as mergers and acquisitions.

Warren Buffet
Legendary investor Warren Buffet

Not all companies and leaders though, succumb to the siren voices calling for short termism. Famous investor Warren Buffet sets the CEOs in whom he invests some hard to ignore goals. These stress the long term--“you can’t sell it or merge it for at least a century”.

Major Indian firms like Wipro and Tata Group build social commitment into their culture. They have won the trust of their stakeholders with such commitment. It has helped develop their legacy.
Jamsetji Tata.
Jamsetji Tata founder of Tata Group
People still talk of the ethical approach of the founder Jamsetji Tata of Tata Group.  Business he believed, must respect the rights of all its stakeholders. It was there to create a benefit for society.

Ethical behaviour remains intrinsic to how the company conducts its business. It’s part of the founder’s legacy.


A research perspective

In studying the legacy issue PwC  described an

“increased attention to the relationship between business and society as part of a company’s ethical legacy”

Over seven years to 2014, PwC found that CEO’s responses to the legacy issue had changed.  Creating social value had become more important. Many wanted their legacy to be a long term one. It included:
  • Making their business a pioneer in its field
  • Introducing a culture of innovation
  • Entering new markets
  • Growing a company against all odds.
Many CEOs felt personal attributes were important for their leadership legacies. Such as integrity, honesty, ethical leadership, transparency, and fairness

Tips on creating a legacy


 ESG–a possible route to a legacy

One way to help identify a possible legacy is by focusing on ESG factors. These refer to Environmental, Social and Governance issues. Many investors now take these into account when making their investment choices.

Stuart Rose
Stuart Rose, ex CEO of M&S

Using the E of ESG, a leader may decide to make a difference in areas dealing with environmental factors.  For example, Sir Stuart Rose, then CEO of Marks and Spencers produced his Plan A for the company. This steered the entire organisation towards sustainability practices.

The S of Social Commitment might include: make a difference in how a company treats its employees. Or how it responds to the human rights of the people and the communities it touches.
Finally, Governance can be yet another route to a legacy. No longer confined to rules and regulations it encompass a far wider remit. Land use; energy; water; emissions, human rights, equal opportunity, and health, safety, and wellness, volunteerism and so on.

See also ESG: How just three letters can help define your ethical leadership

Keep the end in sight 

Anyone wanting to leave behind a legacy might best start by reflecting on the shortness of life.
Second, hold onto the aim of remaining in other people’s memory. Turning such thoughts into action play an essential role in a sustained legacy. Committed ethical leaders must therefore aim to create something meaningful–that is leaving something that will outlive them:

“Your legacy touches people you do not know and may never meet”
E.Bell Smith, Professor of Business Administration, Centre for Leadership

7 ways to leave a legacy

The right time to start building a business legacy is now!



  1. Wade-Benzoni, Create Your Legacy as a Leader HBR December 2016
  2. Chesley, Legacy: what CEOs say they want to leave behind, PWC, Sept 2015
  3. J.Boss, 6 Principles Of A Leadership Legacy, June 12, Forbes, 2014
  4. T.Blackwell et al, Markets need to thing long-term to benefit society, Daily Telegraph, 31st May 2018.
  5. Martinuzzi, What type of legacy do you want to leave? Open Forum
  6. Leaf, Why Companies That Manage for The Long Term Perform Far Better. And Why Most Still Don’t. Fortune, May 21, 2018
  7. Stewart, The Legacy of IKEA Founder Ingvar Kamprad, Strategy and Business, Feb 12 2018
  8. Linda Fisher Thornton, Are You Leaving a Positive Legacy? Leading in Context, Jan 2018
  9. J.Comey, A higher Loyalty, Macmillan, 2018

Recommended reading:

A Leader’s legacy, James M. Kouzes, Barry Z. Posner, ISBN: 978-0-7879-8296-6, August 2006, Jossey-Bas


Comments are closed.