What is Your Legacy?
How do you want to be remembered? What is your lasting legacy in this world? When we ask ourselves these questions we plant seeds for living a life that we ourselves can deeply value. And, in the end isn’t it what we leave behind that matters most?
What Kind of Leader Are You?
In January of 2019 I agreed to teach a class at UC Berkeley called Effective Leadership. I took on this responsibility because I deeply wanted to understand what elements comprise a great leader and how do we strengthen those inherent characteristics in ourselves, learn new leadership skills, and become better at what we do? These are enormous questions with a billion facets. This challenge came a few months into both my children being away at college for the first time. I had time on my hands in a way I had not had for decades. So, I spent the next six months reading. In case your wondering it would take three life times to read all of the books written on leadership, leadership theory, and the thousands of biographies written on the greatest leaders of our time. This is not to mention the countless articles and videos on the subject. Layer on this the many movements of this period of time #metoo #blacklivesmatter and so on.
I spent day and night reading preparing for this class, but the funny things is that when I read my student reviews the students said one of the highlights of the class was hearing about my experiences and the 20 years I spent working in corporations and the senate. They particularly liked my stories of sexual harassment.
However, I began by reading the 1,300 pages I was assigning to my students that coming summer. I had inherited the class, syllabus and reading material. As per the Dean I could only modify the syllabus by 15%. I used that 15% to restructure the class and update three of the topics to reflect the current leadership issues of our time. One of the books I inherited was A Leaders Legacy by Kouzes & Posener. When I read that by determining our legacy we are forced to think of today’s actions in a larger context I stopped short because the essence of true leadership is this single question. What do we leave behind and how does every decision and action we take play into that?
The Work We Chose to Do
After my husband died four years ago I was forced to make money to support my children. My husband was a Chief Financial Officer for a mid-size company and he did, or did not, do most of our financial planning. I have a real estate back ground so I focused on our three properties, my marketing consulting company and our children. Needless to say when he died of a sudden heart attack at 54 years old I had to scramble to pay the bills and get our two children into college and pay for it. I had just started my company Ocean SF a sustainable and ethically produced sportswear brand and didn’t want to see that die as well, so I took on every side hustle I could find and fit into my schedule. I would often work 15 days in a row. Looking back I regret none of it because I taught my daughters how to work hard. It was also an entrance into worlds I had before no idea existed.
One of my favorite side hustles was working for a wedding cater where I catered 26 weddings one spring and summer. Another was working for a distillery where I bottled boutique liquor with other day laborers. These were fascinating gigs that I would at this point in time pay to do again. Eventually, I gravitated to the jobs where I could have the most impact. Refilling a buffet of food was fun, but the impact I was making was minimal. Helping Gold Bar bottle whiskey had a significant impact because I saw in the owners the kind of dedication I had for my own company, and I wanted to be the sort of worker that I would like to have. That gig also had other perks which included meeting engaging people employed in the gig economy and for me lots of whiskey. Not everyone got whiskey, but I did, so I drank a lot of high quality whiskey that year.
Finding Your Legacy & Providing Impact
My next side hustle became one of the most important things I would ever do in my life, and one that provided the most impact. I answered an ad on Craig’s List looking for educators to train in educational therapy. I would be teaching language arts to struggling readers K-6 grade. By this time I had spent four years teaching at UC Berkeley in their International Division Certification program. I taught marketing then, just one class per semester. With this experience I was hired. The Learning Therapist job was close to home and I worked 3–6 p.m. leaving plenty of time to bottle whiskey, cater weddings and build my brand Ocean SF. I was also a security guard once a month at Treasure Festival on Treasure Island, you can read more about that here.
The legacy perspective explicitly reveals that we make a difference. Then the only question remaining to consider is, What kind of difference do I want to make? — A Leaders Legacy
At the time I wasn’t thinking of legacy I was thinking of impact. I wanted my time to matter and I wanted to have as much influence as possible. When someone you are married to for 20 years goes to work one day and doesn’t come back this gives you a very different view of the world and your place in it. I remember thinking at the time that everything I did moving forward would matter very much to my daughters and it certainly did. I was changed by what happened and from then on I didn’t want to waste a single moment. I had no time for television, or hanging out with people I didn’t like, or doing work for difficult people and because my heart was broken I felt entitled to do this for myself. In the past I had let things slide. I would tolerate difficult situations so as not to cause problems, but no more. There came a point where I simply could not compromise.
When I was younger I thought my family would be my legacy and I would be the sort of wife and mother who played a supporting role and hosted large holiday dinners. Although this is still part of how I see myself, and after all of that catering I am an effortless hostess, there is still so much more that I can give and offer the world to establish a meaningful legacy.
Since I began this chapter of my life I’ve taught dozens of children to read. I’ve unlocked this mystery for them and with them and this is an amazing feeling. I’ve also taught three semesters of adult leadership giving my students new tools and concepts to apply to their lives and work. And, my socially and environmentally conscious company Ocean SF is thriving. Everything I do every day has high impact and contributes to the legacy I leave behind.
Love and blessings to all.
This article by Sydney Chaney Thomas was first published on April 8, 2021 on Medium.com.