Great Leaders Leave a Genuine Leadership Legacy



“There is no success without a successor.”
– Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker’s memorable quote is a fitting definition of legacy. Obviously, a legacy is something we leave behind. It can be possessions derived through our material success, or people we’ve influenced through our moral significance.

Have you given any thought to what you’ll be leaving behind? This question is especially important for leaders because they have the privilege of influencing a lot of people. Are you making a meaningful difference to the people who matter most to you? Or will your legacy be tarnished by deception, misdeeds, shame, regret, hypocrisy, or a failure to reach your potential?


Prof. Lere Baale

It is likely that you’re a leader or working towards becoming one. That’s why this lesson is about how to leave a legitimate leadership legacy. Studies and observations of hundreds of leaders in the last 30 years have revealed some important lessons about what it takes to leave a legacy that truly matters. Over the course of the next few months, my goals are simple:

First, if you who are doing your best to leave a legitimate leadership legacy, this lesson will reinforce what you’re doing right and, hopefully, help you stay on this worthy path for the rest of your life. Second, if you who have some work to do on your legacy, this lesson will provide a model to measure up to in the coming years.

This legacy model is comprised of four challenging standards according to Dick Biggs:

  1. Character, which is about being and becoming a moral example.
  2. Choices, which are about thinking clearly and making wise decisions.
  3. Conduct, which is about doing the right things consistently well.
  4. Consequences, which are about having the harvest of what’s sown.

These four standards build upon each other. Character, or lack of it, influences our choices. Choices have a direct bearing on our conduct. Conduct helps determine our consequences. And consequences are a reflection of our character, choices and conduct.

These standards have been hammered out on the anvil of time and proven to be true. We can embrace these truths and leave a legitimate legacy; or we can reject them and leave a legacy that’s lacking in legitimacy.


  • The first standard for leaving a legitimate leadership legacy is CHARACTER – being and becoming a moral example.


The dictionary defines character as “moral excellence and firmness”. Words associated with character are values, virtues, ethics, morals, ideals, creeds, principles, beliefs, standards, credibility and trust. But the two words associated with character most commonly are integrity and honesty.

Integrity is being true to self. Honesty is being truthful with others. If we aren’t true to ourselves on the inside, how can we be honest with others on the outside? Integrity is the non-negotiable starting point for people who desire unquestionable character. Henry and Richard Blackaby say it this way in Spiritual Leadership, “Integrity means being consistent in one’s behaviour under every circumstance, including those unguarded moments.”


Origin Of integrity

Did you ever wonder where we get the word integrity? General Charles Krulak, former commandant of the US Marine Corps, had this to say about the origin of integrity in a speech delivered in 2000:

Integrity is a word that comes from the ancient Roman Army tradition. During the time of the 12 Caesars, the Roman army would conduct morning inspections. As the inspecting centurion came in front of each legionnaire, the soldier would strike the armour of his breastplate that covered his heart with his right fist and shout, “integritas.” That’s Latin for material wholeness, completeness and entirety. The armour over the heart had to be the strongest to protect the soldier from sword thrusts and arrow strikes. The inspecting centurion would listen closely for this affirmation and the ring that well-kept armour would give off.

About this time, the praetorians or imperial bodyguard began to ascend into power and influence. They were drawn from the best “politically correct” soldiers of the legion. They received the finest equipment and armour. They no longer had to shout “integritas” to signify that their armour was sound. Instead, they would shout “Hail Caesar” to signify that their heart belonged to the imperial personage. Instead of being true to an institution or code of ideals, their hearts belonged to a single man.

A century passed and the rift between the legionnaires and the imperial guard grew wider. To signify the difference between the two organisations, the legionnaires would no longer shout “integritas” but “integer,” which is Latin for undiminished, complete, perfect. It not only indicated that the armour was sound, but that the soldier was of sound character. His heart was in the right place. He was not associated with the immoral conduct that was rapidly becoming the signature of the praetorian guards.

As a 4th century Roman general wrote: “When, because of negligence and laziness, parade ground drills were abandoned, the customary armour began to feel heavy since the soldiers rarely, if ever, wore it. Therefore, they first asked the emperor to set aside the breastplates and then the helmets. So our soldiers fought the Goths without any protection for the heart and head, and were often beaten by archers. Although there were many disasters, which led to the loss of great cities, no one tried to restore the armour to the infantry. They took off their armour, and when it came off, so too did their integrity.”

It was only a matter of a few years until the legion rotted within and was unable to hold the frontiers. The barbarians were at the gates. Just as it was true in the days of imperial Rome, you either walk daily in your integrity, or you take off the armour off the ‘integer’ and leave your heart and soul exposed and open to attack. My challenge to you is simple but often very difficult. Wear your armour of integrity. Take full measure of its weight. Find comfort in its protection. Do not become lax. And always, always remember that no one can take your integrity from you…you, and only you, can give it away!

Indeed, those are powerful words from a former Marine commandant. It speaks volumes about the importance of integrity and character. The mighty Roman Empire, which lasted some four centuries, fell morally before it fell militarily. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the army general in charge of the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, thought so much of character that he said: “Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without strategy.”

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As a Marine sergeant in the 1960s, I can assure you that this is an amazing statement since generals spend much of their time dealing with strategy. General Schwarzkopf understands that the troops have to trust their leaders. It’s why John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership includes The Law Of Solid Ground, which says: “Trust is the foundation of leadership.” Trust begins with integrity, or being true to self.

Lack of character

Now, let’s look at what happens when a leader’s character goes astray. CSPAN commissioned 58 historians from across the political spectrum to judge the 41 American presidents from Washington through Clinton. The survey rated each president on these 10 leadership qualities: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/agenda setting, pursuit of equal justice for all, and performance within the context of his times. The top five presidents were: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

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Interestingly, the survey said Richard Nixon, a Republican and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, would have finished a lot higher in the overall standings if not for their poor ratings on moral authority. On the other hand, George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington and “Honest Abe” Lincoln finished 1-2 in moral authority, 3rd and 1st overall, and their legitimate leadership legacies are secure in American history.


Image vs. integrity

Obviously, character counts. Even though most of us aren’t going to have our legacies recorded in the history books like Clinton and Nixon, that shouldn’t keep us from being people of character, nor deter us from setting a good example to the people we have the privilege of influencing.

People of character are authentic. They understand that integrity is more important than image. Image is what others think you are. Integrity is the real you. Do people have the wrong image of you? Or do they see who you really are?

Here is a powerful lesson about what happens when image and integrity aren’t congruent. A client hired D. Biggs to do a host of seminars for the company’s sales organisations in cities across America. The topic dealt primarily with ethics and professionalism in sales.

On this particular day he was in Dallas, and the room was filled to capacity. A young man said to him prior to the session, “Mr Biggs, I flew in from a little town in Arkansas because I’ve heard good things about your seminar. I just got promoted from salesman to sales manager, and I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this important topic of ethics and professionalism in sales.” The first image of this young man was that he was serious about learning.

The young sales manager sat on the front row, took copious notes, nodded in agreement, and asked thoughtful questions. At the end of the seminar, he shook D. Biggs hand and thanked him for a wonderful day. Now, the image of this new sales manager had shifted from eager learner to someone who was going to share this message with his sales force.

  1. Biggs packed his seminar bag and walked out into the hotel lobby to catch a cab to the airport. The young man from Arkansas spotted him and inquired, “Mr Biggs, are you flying out of Dallas?” D. Biggs told him yes, and he asked, “Well, if you don’t have other plans, can we ride together, split the cab fare, and talk some more about today’s session?” D. Biggs agreed.
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He talked incessantly about the value of ethics and professionalism in sales. He repeated some of the things he heard during the seminar. He stressed how valuable the day had been. As they arrived at his terminal, the image of this young man had gone from an eager learner willing to share this important message with his salespeople to, “Wow, D. Biggs had really had a big influence on this fellow’s life.”

The fare was $40. Each paid $20, but the young man asked the cab driver for a $40 receipt. Pocketing the inflated document, the sales manager winked at D. Biggs and boasted, “I learnt that trick from my general manager!” This action made D. Biggs speechless, but here’s what D. Biggs was thinking en route to his own terminal:

  1. What other “tricks” had his general manager taught him?
  2. Would he be teaching these “tricks” to his sales force?
  3. Had he heard anything that day?

Obviously, the image of this person changed drastically when he failed to be true to himself. He was a man saying one thing and doing another. Regrettably, D. Biggs’ message didn’t have as much impact on this young man as he had been led to believe. It also reinforced the fine line between image and integrity.

Amazingly, audience members often ask two questions after hearing that story. First, is that really a true story or did I just make up a story about integrity? Second, what’s the big deal – he cheated his company out of only $20. Well, you need to hear the rest of the story if you think stealing $20 from your company isn’t a big deal. Eight years later, and after sharing that story a few hundred times, a woman approached D. Biggs following a presentation. “Mr. Biggs,” she said, “I know who that young man is in your cab ride story.” She identified the man’s name, hometown, industry, employer and what happened to him a few months later after the seminar.

“The owner found out about the cab fare scam,” she explained, “and fired him on the spot. That sales manager was bragging to his co-workers about his little trick and it got back to the owner. Can you believe it? That young man lost his job over $20?”

Actually, madam, that young sales manager lost his job due to a lack of integrity and character.


You can’t spell inteGRITy without the word grit, which is defined as “a firmness of mind” or “unyielding courage.” Friend, it takes a great deal of courage or grit to be true to self. In the end, though, it’s worth the effort because our legacies are going to be impacted greatly by our integrity, or lack of it. As Samuel Butler said in The Way Of All Flesh: “Every man’s work…is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him.”

(Continues next edition)



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