Leaving a legacy

“There comes a time in your life when your focus shifts from success to significance”
– Edward G. Happ (Chairman NetHope, CIO IFRC)

Throughout my close to twenty years of volunteering and working for non-profit organizations, I have had the honor of leading some great teams of people who all shared the common goal of doing something good for others. In my mind, as a leader, your role is not to direct those people or to manage them. In my mind, as a leader, your role is to help them build that shared vision and then do everything you can to eliminate any obstacle they may face in achieving that shared vision.
This is particularly true when you lead a time through a crisis, such as when responding to a large scale natural disaster. During those times, your task as a leader is to keep your team focused on the task at hand and help shield them from all the distractions that are all around such as media, humanitarian politics and other operational issues. Furthermore your task during those difficult times is to ensure that the morale of the team and the individual wellbeing of each team member is high, so that they can deal with the difficult tasks at hand.
To be given an opportunity to lead teams of great people in difficult times that are all focused on helping their fellow human beings is a great honor and privilege. At one point in my life, I was offered to go back into a highly paid job in software development after having worked for a few years in the humanitarian world. The decision to continue working on helping other people in need was a simple one. My life’s focus had shifted from success to significance as Ed so nicely put it.
But what is it that draws people into this world? It is certainly not the complex international and organizational politics that way to often hamper progress. It is certainly not the adrenaline of operating in dangerous environments. For me and many of my colleagues it is that smile on a person’s face once you know you have made a difference in their life. In her beautiful song to the humanitarian community, the singer Beyoncé, put it very nicely. She talked about leaving a footprint on this earth, a mark that said “I Was Here”. 
The late author and visionary Stephen Covey also put it very well, when he said “the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence, and contribution”. His definition on the need to leave a legacy fits very much with my own sense of purpose. For many people, leaving a legacy means having “monuments” rise that they can point towards and say “I did that”. For many people, leaving a legacy means becoming popular, talked about or even famous. For many people, leaving a legacy means achieving certain titles or positions of power. 
But for me, leaving a legacy is about knowing that I made a difference in people’s lives. It is about knowing that those that I worked with, felt they were better people because they knew me. It is about knowing that those people that me and my team tried to help, felt they were better off because we helped them. It is about knowing that things may be done better in the future because of some work that I and my team have done.
As a leader, it is also your role to ensure that your team feels that their own legacy is growing when being part of the team. Sadly too often we see conflict arise within teams or organizations because people feel that other team members are “claiming the success” of the team effort. But a true leader knows that nothing is achieved only by an individual. It is the whole of the team that creates the result. A true leader therefore tries to ensure that all team members, no matter how big their role is, understand that their effort was a key part of the integral effort required to achieve the common goal. Together the team leaves a footprint saying “We Were Here”. 
As part of being nominated for the Microsoft Alumni Foundation Integral Fellows Award this year, then I was asked what I would want my legacy or major contribution to have been. This was a question I asked myself a few years back, so it became easy for me to provide an answer. 
Having been in the field during a number of disasters around the world, I realized that there were many great opportunities for significantly improving the way we prepare for and respond to disasters. Following Gandhi’s advice of “being the change I want to see in the world”, I try to work hard towards bringing those improvements about. But that is not something a single person can do, it takes a group of people from various sectors, various walks of life and various nationality, who all share this same vision. 
If my legacy becomes that I was one of those who helped lead the effort of bringing together those people and drive forward improvements that help build disaster resilient communities, help create a move towards community based humanitarian response and enhance the decision making and coordination in the aftermath of a natural disaster, then I will be satisfied with a job well done.
In closing I want to quote one of my favorite authors, Robin Sharma, with the best advice he ever got, which was from his father. This advice was based on the old Indian saying: 

“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Published August 23rd 2012 at DisasterExpert