So Your Values Live On: Sharing Your Leadership Legacy

Most successful businesspeople, by a certain age, plan to put their financial and material affairs in order to facilitate a smooth transition of business ownership and other possessions to the next generation.  But far fewer consider how they will pass on their non-material assets – what they want to be remembered for, what they see as their leadership and personal legacy.

Fortunately, the little known, but ancient tradition of ethical wills provides a beautiful vehicle to do this, and your forum can be the ideal place to begin the writing process in a confidential, supportive group of peers.

For centuries, both famous statesmen and average people have been moved to write their own ethical wills (also called “legacy letters”), to pass along not only possessions but also beliefs and stories to their children, grandchildren, and larger community.

To begin the process, forum members might ask themselves:

  • What do you wish you had been able to ask your parents, grandparents, or business mentors? (It’s likely your children, grandchildren, or business successors have similar questions for you!)
  • Who have been the biggest influences on your life? What lessons did those people teach you?
  • How have your most challenging life experiences shaped who you are today?
  • How has your life been different than you imagined? Do you have any regrets?
  • What lessons has your work life taught you? Do any favorite stories illustrate these points?

Conversations about these topics in your forum serve another critical purpose: The reflection and writing process can help each of us think deeply about how we want to live and lead in our own personal and professional lives today.  We are giving a gift as much to ourselves as to anyone else.    Simply stated, ethical wills have the power to make people confront the ultimate choices that they must make in their lives.  They can make people who are usually too preoccupied with earning a living stop and consider what they are living for.

A written ethical will is the traditional approach, but the concept is to share your legacy, not restricted to a particular format.  Each of us must chart our own course, as suggested by a recent New York Times article on bringing the ethical will into the 21st Century.  Some may choose to write a letter (long or short), others to record a video, and still others not to write or record at all, but to use their new thinking to inform their actions or to change the way they spend time with family and at work.

All human beings want to feel that their lives have mattered, that they have made a difference for the better in the people they have touched.  Read some examples of ethical wills prepared by others, discuss the idea in your forum, and then try your hand at writing one of your own.  You deserve to know what life has taught you, and the not-yet born children of your children’s children will thank you for it.

Bob Halperin received an ethical will from his grandfather, has written legacy letters to his children, and has led multiple workshops and retreats on this topic.