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Leaving a Positive Leadership Legacy Is Really About Living Your Values Now

How you will be remembered when you career is done is based entirely on who you help and what you build.

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For me, the most memorable event in the FIFA World Cup wasn´t the goal scoring, the lifting of the golden trophy or the multimillionaire superstars. It was the wonderful story of the Japanese squad cleaning up their locker room after their narrow 3-2 defeat against Belgium and leaving a thank you note in Russian to their hosts.

Gary Burchell | Getty Images

It got me thinking about building positive leadership legacies. We seem to spend so much of our time chasing targets and calculating our next leadership move, rather than focusing on what it is that we want to achieve and be remembered for as organizational leaders.

Related: It's Not Too Late to Start Thinking About Your Business Legacy

Research suggests people are more motivated to avoid a negative legacy than actively building a positive one. This certainly was the case with Alfred Nobel of Nobel Prize fame.

Nobel made his fortune as a Swedish arms manufacturer who invented dynamite. When his brother Ludvig died in 1888 in Cannes, a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary of Alfred Nobel entitled, "Le marchand de la mort est mort" ("The merchant of death is dead"). On reading his own obiturary, Alfred Nobel was mortified that he would be remembered thus and promptly bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to establish the Nobel prizes. His positive legacy lives on each year.

But you don´t have to read premature obituaries or feel the sense of an ending to start thinking about leadership legacies. Start legacy building from day one of your leadership assignment and factor legacy into everything you do as a leader. Ken Blanchard writes in the foreword to Your Leadership Legacy, "The legacy you live is the legacy you leave.”

Here are three things to keep in mind when building a leadership legacy.

Don´t leave legacy building to luck or chance.

Successful people never leave anything to luck or random circumstance. Be introspective, work out your core values, and think about how you would like to be remembered as a leader. Shape these thoughts into a personal mission statement and look to live your legacy every day.

Focus on the environment, not on yourself.

Andrew Thorn, author of Leading with Your Legacy in Mind, writes “You must lead by asking: How can I make things better around here?” Empathy, consideration of others, and creating an inspirational environment that will outlive you and create future benefit is key to leadership legacy building and not an obsession with reputation or eponyms.

Pick up your trash.

Occasionally we make mistakes or take a wrong path. We can disappoint, blow fuses and destroy trust and reputation. Be big enough to go back and pick up the trash you generated by rebuilding bridges and trust. There are plenty of leaders who were pugnacious to the end. They left their trash lying around, driving their reputations and businesses to the wall. The legacy of such corrosive leaders live on in biopics and MBA case studies.

Related: 3 Ways That Your Actions Today Will Shape Your Company's Legacy

The culture of continuous improvement and legacy building was further exemplified in the World Cup by the Japanese fans who, rather than heading to the bars to sing rowdy anthems, stayed behind after the match and picked up the litter and recyclables. Legacies spread. The notion of recycling -- Japan has one of the most efficient recycling industries in the world  -- is a powerful metaphor for leadership legacy building.

In 1950 psychoanalyst Erik Erikson listed "generativity" as the seventh of eight stages of psychological development. It is the stage of life when adults shift focus on what will outlast them. The term basically means “I am what survives me.” Caring for others and the environment is really what matters. Leaders come and go. Policies and procedures that are meticulously built by leaders can be swiftly swept away by successors. Organizational cultural legacies -- the recruitment choices you make, the people you develop and inspire to do great things -- are durable. Those endure in the DNA of the business.

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