Remember These Ideals When Building Your Legacy

What will your legacy look like when you hand the baton off to the next-generation leader?
What will your legacy look like when you hand the baton off to the next-generation leader? (Flickr )

I've been involved in a great many organizations transitioning to next-generation leadership, and the issue of "legacy" always comes up. How should the founder be remembered? When should the founder let go?

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association asked some of those questions when organization officials designed the BGEA library and museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. Many nonprofit and ministry organizations are making that transition right now, and when it comes to the hand-off, here are some thoughts:

1. It's never too early to start. If the founder has reached his or her late fifties or sixties, it's time to start thinking about legacy. At that age, the slightest health problem could derail their work, so we need a back up plan. Especially if you've built a major church, ministry, or non-profit, you need to start thinking about a successor. The succession doesn't need to happen right away, but you need a solid plan. I know major ministry leaders who died unexpectedly, which made for some serious scrambling by their organizations. So don't be caught off guard.

2. The line, "Success without a successor is failure" is a myth. The fact is, not every organization is meant to extend to the next generation. Sometimes, a ministry or non-profit is created, does amazing work, and then it's time to shut it down. Trying to prop up a ministry so it can extend into the future isn't always the way it should be. I've seen far too many millions of donor dollars wasted trying to extend something that wasn't there.

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3. Think of how you want to be remembered. It shouldn't always be about a monument or a building. Think about intellectual content. One pastor I know had us help him create a searchable database of every sermon he'd ever done, so future students and researchers could benefit from his lifetime of work. Another endowed a chair at a major Christian university to help fund future pastors. Another created a foundation. Use your legacy to extend the kingdom of God—not necessarily to set up a monument to your memory.

4. Perhaps most important, if you do have a successor, and the time is right, get out of the way. One of the great tragedies of leadership is when founders retire only when you pry their cold dead hands off the steering wheel. In those cases, it often takes years, sometimes decades, for the organization to recover—and sometimes it doesn't. Some second-generation ministry leaders are like Prince Charles because it seems they will never get their chance. In many cases, they move on for a better opportunity, causing a great loss for that organization or ministry. One of the most gracious and important things leaders can do is step aside when the right time comes. 

At some point, it will be time for the next-generation leader do his or her thing. Sure they'll do it differently, and sure they'll make mistakes.

But so did you.

An internationally known writer and speaker, Phil Cooke has actually produced media programming in nearly 50 countries around the world. In the process, he has been shot at, survived two military coups, fallen out of a helicopter and, in Africa, been threatened with prison. And during that time—through his company Cooke Pictures in Burbank, California—he's helped some of the largest nonprofit organizations and leaders in the world use the media to tell their story in a changing, disrupted culture.

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