Leaders’ actions are inspired by the past, and they answer present needs, but they often lack forecasting and fail to transform in order to adapt to change—which is key to leaving a legacy. The time and energy spent worrying about protecting an association’s legacy can be spent in much more constructive and positive action.
I, for one, highly valued legacy until I read Milan Kundera’s book Immortality. That’s when I came to the conclusion that legacy is an overrated concept. This may sound strange since I’m writing an article on how association leaders contribute to association legacy, but if there’s one place where contradictions exist, it’s in the association world. Don’t get me wrong, I value legacy. But my understanding of legacy is a bit different from the definition of “what we leave behind to be remembered by.” This is simply because I do not think we really control how we are remembered, especially not today and certainly not in the future, when we are no longer around.
If we really care about the impact that our association and us as association leaders may generate, I believe that there are three elements we should closely consider: ego, ownership and disruption.
Associations, especially trade or professional, tend to define themselves solely through the interest of their members without understanding their relative position in the wider environment where they operate. This introspective view limits the understanding of the greater picture and the boundaries of their impact. But they can easily capture this impact in their vision and purpose statements, where they usually talk only about themselves (the association, sector, members) and how great they would like to be.
They often forget that their greatness might be of no one’s interest and, even worse, that their greatness may negatively impact others. We are not alone in this world and we cannot solely control our fate. To create legacy and allow it to flourish, we need to create value that will not benefit only us, but also benefit those that are affected by us—including the planet.
Associations are structures, and while people can be inspired by their authority, they can’t connect with them. It is other people like us that we connect with. More and more, CEOs are becoming the face of an association, embodying their values and vision. Their personality becomes an indivisible element of the association brand, and their voice becomes the voice of the membership.
Despite their enormous influence, association leaders are just the caretakers, not the owners of the association. We cannot own the vision of an association, for the simple reason that it will stop being the vision of the association and it will become our personal one. Association leaders should recognize the boundaries of their role, enjoy it as long as it lasts, and pass the responsibility on to the next leader. If they’ve created value as leaders, they will successfully continue their path and keep on building their legacy.
As a caretaker, despite your and your association’s organisational skills, you will have to deal with unpredictable situations and crises. This is especially true today, since we operate in a very disruptive environment that requires resilience and creativity for us to remain relevant and sustainable. In addition, association leaders, as the face of the association, have to navigate in an extremely challenging environment where every communication—true or not—is publicly available and can virally spread and create a large positive or negative impact. Today’s digital media environment brings forth the simple notion that controlling our legacy is an extremely difficult and technical issue.
Maybe a good way to escape from legacy’s continuous stress is to understand our relative position in this world and to be honest with who we are, what we do and what drives us. Let’s try to leave behind our ego and be ready for change—and legacy will surely follow.