From my observation, very few leaders leave an admirable legacy — many cause divisions, and some are downright dreadful.
The late John Wooden was an American basketball player and coach — one of the most revered coaches in the history of sports. Wooden’s nearly 30-year coaching career and overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim have created a legacy of great interest in not only sports, but also in business, personal success and organizational leadership.
I admire Wooden’s legacy, and I have yet to find anyone who disagrees. I believe this is because he built his leadership philosophy on objective, timeless truths about human behavior.
I’ve worked with very few people in the mold of John Wooden — men and women of high character and high competence. Wooden’s faith strongly influenced his life and, hence, his leadership.
Last week, we commiserated the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court for almost three decades.
Ginsburg spent much of her legal career as an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights, including the right to abort an unborn baby and redefine the meaning of marriage. She received attention in American popular culture for her fiery liberal dissents resulting in the moniker, “RBG.”
Undoubtedly, her perspective on leadership was based on subjective truths about human behavior. The window through which she saw the world looked back upon the garden of her own personal experiences as a young woman entering the workplace. Ginsberg was personally non-observant in the faith in which she was raised.
The challenge with RBG’s legacy is some agreed with her decisions and some didn’t. I’ve worked with many leaders like Ginsburg who made decisions that were celebrated by some but were deep disappointments to others and caused much division. That’s the problem with personal bias and selective subjectivity.
Dennis Kozlowski was the former CEO of Tyco International. In 2005, he was convicted of crimes related to his receipt of $81 million in purportedly unauthorized bonuses, the purchase of art for his Manhattan apartment of $15 million and the payment by Tyco of a $20 million investment banking fee for his own personal gain.
He had Tyco pay the $30 million for his apartment, which included $6,000 shower curtains and $15,000 dog umbrella stands, not to mention charging back one-half of the $15 million bill for his wife’s 40th birthday held on an Italian island.
Kozlowski was sentenced to serve up to 25 years in prison. He was also directed to return $500 million in compensation and benefits he’d received during his tenure at Tyco under New York’s “faithless servant” doctrine. Interestingly, he’d attended a private Catholic university and so, surely, he’d heard a sermon or three about servant leadership?
Between 2008-10, I worked with a team of other leadership experts to help rebuild the culture Mr. Kozlowski had systematically destroyed due to his self-centered choices. The tyranny within Tyco had trickled around the world as we were asked to facilitate leadership training in China, India, Belgium and Pennsylvania for the company that had arisen from the ashes: Tyco Electronics.
I have often pondered the choices that lay before leaders of the past and those that are ever-present on the pathways people choose to walk down today. Ultimately, we become a succession of our choices. How do we know which is the right road to take, especially as a leader? Our choices can have significant ramifications for years to come.
“Leadership” is a word that’s easy to say and, some people claim, hard to do. I don’t believe leadership choices are that hard. Innately, we know if a decision is selfless or selfish. The compass of our conscience, regardless of how the magnetic fields may be shifting, can still direct us toward true north. Just like Wooden, RBG and Kozlowski, our leadership choices may be analyzed by others, long after we’ve gone and will, I believe, echo for eternity.