Four Legacies of a Leader: Which one would you leave behind?

Four Legacies of a Leader: Which one would you leave behind?

There is a yearning in us to leave behind a legacy. Many focus on accumulating wealth and leaving behind property and bank balance. Others focus on their children and try to make them better than themselves. Leaders often think beyond themselves or their children. They think about a legacy that is memorable and whose reach would extend beyond their time.

Legacy of a leader can be of four types: Legacy of buildings, legacy of systems and processes, legacy of people, and legacy of ethical values [1]. 

We see great monuments and buildings that remind us of the leaders. Whether these are the Pyramids of Egypt or Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar in India, or the Süleymaniye Mosque in Turkey, or the Eiffel Tower of Paris, they stand for a long time inspiring people with their architecture and the history of the people who created them.  Buildings are often the first creation of a leader’s enterprise and is a reflection of how he wants himself to be remembered.  Taj Mahal as a symbol of love exerts the influence of beauty and perfection through its architecture. 

Ford’s Model T Assembly Line

Unlike the building which is rooted in a particular time and place, a system has a life of its own and has the ability to replicate itself and perpetutate itself in other structures and move across time and place, and across cultures. Leaders worrying about continuity of their control processes, establish the legacy of  systems.  Hence, we see the influence wielded by the systems and processes of the assembly line perfected by Henry Ford for the production of Model-T, which was then replicated across industries and which became the signature of the mass production sysem of the Industrial Age.  

British Raj in India

However, systems grow old and processes become outdated unless they are continuously re-engineered, improved, and modified. Eventually, they get replaced when their fundamental assumptions are challenged and exposed by more powerful new assumptions and paradigms. We see the classic text-book example of the bureaucratic system and processes that were imported in India by the British and were improved and perfected for the efficient control of its huge population. At the height of power of British Raj, their bureaucratic system enabled less than ten thousand white Britishers to control the entire population of the huge subcontinent! [Population of India in 1901, excluding princely states, was 210 million spread over an area of 2 million sq km.

Despite having left the subcontinent in 1947, the British legacy of the bureaucratic systems and procedures continue to exist till today. They control our masses by installing an elite class, which is distant and different in its lifestyle from the masses and do not share their aspirations. As the fundamental assumptions of this system are now challenged, the system has lost its ability to improve and sustain itself. Consequently, we see the decadence and deterioration all around us which is beckoning a new crop of leadership to come up and rethink of the fundamental assumptions and to leave a legacy that is nearer to the aspirations of our masses. Note that the Soviet system with its rigid centralized systems and processes, lost its ability to redesign according to the changing environment and thus folded and imploded under its own weight. 

Emphasis on systems and processes indicates a penchant for control of people and reflects a negative view about the human as an unthinking dumb machine part that requires external stimulus, direction and control. Even more important and more powerful than the legacy of systems, is the legacy of the people left by great leaders. Influence of such leaders projects in to the future for several generations because people are intelligent and thinking beings who can redesign the systems or even replace old systems with new systems. Effective leaders nurture the talents of the people around them, give them confidence, and enable the visions of their subordinates to surpass even their visions. Once the heart and minds of the people are opened in this manner, they are on the auto-pilot and they go on to create new institutions, in new places, adapt themselves and their orientation, design new processes and new systems. Built-to-last  corporations and institutions are good at producing inspiring leaders who can take the legacy forward, and can wield huge influence spreading across continents, countries and cultures. 

However, legacy of the people without the foundation of ethical values and principles can not go too far. Smart people who are too much engrossed in here and now in the quest for short term gains create crisis such as the great depression of 1930 or the great economic recession of  2008 where major banks and financial institutions of USA and the world got blinded by the corporate greed and brought the world to the verge of disaster. 

Buildings get destroyed, systems and procedures become obsolete and are replaced, and people die without creating successors. However, principles and values are universal and timeless. Truth, honesty, integrity, conscience, care for the poor, choosing-that-for-others-which-you-would-like-to-be-chosen-for-yourself are among the principles that are eternal. Irrespective of what Machiavellis, Hitlers, Stalins or Blairs would have us believe, lying and cheating will always be defeated by honesty and integrity. When the legacy of people, institutions and systems gets permeated with such timeless principles, they acquire universality and transcendence. Whether it is the exhortation of principles centered leadership, or the emphasis on ethics, the drive is to associate our work with the timeless values. 

Data Ganj Bakhsh’s Tomb

The message of truth, principles, and eternal values has a life which on permeating the mindset of people and the systems, imbues them with the characteristics of timelessness and universality. Thus, we see the message of Prophets continues to inspire people over centuries and millennia. Transmission of such values continues through sufi “silsala” (chains) such as the naqshbandis, chishtis, qadris extending over centuries across cultures, languages and continents. 

Janhangir’s Tomb

In one of my trips to Lahore when I went to Data Darbar and from there to Jehangir’s Mausoleum, I was struck by the contrast. One was alive with people praying, distributing alms, and thronging the  place with respect, day or night, as if in the midst of a perpetual fair. The other was desolate with an eerie silence, quiet with a few tourists trying to take a quick stroll and be out of the premises as quickly as possible. One can see the the contrast between someone who transmitted values and whose legacy is a source of sustenance to millions even after the passage of over ten centuries  and someone who crowned himself as the ruler of the world (jehan-gir). 

Without the principles and values, systems and processes die, buildings die, people die and are forgotten by history, or become footnotes. Many do not even get that small a mention. Many  multinational conglomerates have become transmitters of vices such as exploitation, greed and selfishness as evidenced by the destruction wrecked over environment and poor countries in West Africa (Blood Diamonds), Kenya (ivory trade and pharma), India (spices), Middle East (oil). These vices have robbed the environment of its natural ecosystem and has for the first time in human history brought the earth to the point of self-destruction through global warming and related degradation. This has prompted the business gurus such as Stephen CoveyPeter SingeJim Collins and others to promote once again the concept of values and ethics in promoting principles centered leadership. 

We in Pakistan are looking once again for a leadership that goes beyond buildings, systems and face of people to the values of justice, fairplay and integrity. 


Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson


[1] Talk of Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, founder president of Aga Khan University and Hospital, at South Asia Strategic Leadership Summit, April 2, 2013. This blog was triggered by this talk.

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  1. Sheheryar Mohsin Qureshi commented: (Yesterday 1:48 AM)

    Baar-e-dunya mein rahein, ghamzada ya shaad rahein

    Aisa kuch kar ke chalein taa ke buhut yaad rahein!

    Good work sir!

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