You probably have not heard the name George St. John. George was the headmaster of the Catholic Choate School in Connecticut in the 1930s. But you likely have heard a line from one of George’s sermons that he preached to his young students at the weekly chapel service. He wanted to inspire them to do something important and lasting with their lives, and to view their time at school as a time not to just receive instruction, but to give back. One of his students would eventually go on to become President of the United States, and at during his inauguration in 1961, took a line from his then-unknown teacher that has resonated to this day: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” It was an extrapolation of the line St. John preached to his students, “Ask not what your school can do for you, but what you can do for your school.”
St. John’s line, made memorable by President Kennedy, reminds us of the power and purpose in building a legacy. So much of our lives are spent building our own lives and futures. But at some point, usually not long after we have kids, we begin to think beyond ourselves at what our lives will mean not to our own generation, but to the next. If you are an inventor or entrepreneur, your legacy may be something tangible, like a product or a company. But nearly everyone’s legacy at some level is contained in the relationships you have—the people you are impacting with your life, right now, and into your future years.
While children are a legacy, their existence shouldn’t be the only thing we leave behind when we are gone. Much of what you leave to others can be found in the character of your children, as well as other relationships you have during your life. Your legacy can be found in three key areas.
Your leadership legacy. How you lead in your marriage, family and business paint a picture for your spouse, children and employees of what being in charge should look like. Your sense of fairness, how you handle difficulties, adversity and decisions, how you communicate, and how you develop others to be their best will be your legacy as a leader. The most memorable leaders are not those who spend years “shooting from the hip”, simply using their given leadership ability to push things forward. Rather, a memorable leader is one who is constantly imparting leadership principles and processes to others as they lead.
With your leadership legacy, think about who you are pouring your life and skill-set into right now—your subordinates at work, your children and other family members, your church and civic organizations. Who is learning from you, right now, how to lead? And when you make decisions, are you sharing that information and thought process with others, so they will know how to make those kinds of decisions in the future, when it’s their time to lead?
Your character legacy. John Wooden famously said, “Character is who you are when nobody is watching.” How your life portrays honesty, integrity, determination, care, concern, and other aspects of personal character, is something you will leave as a legacy to those who know you. Wooden also said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And he is right, because many men pursue their public reputation with far greater passion than they do their own character.
For your character legacy, look to enlist people of high character for key roles. Constantly be talking to others about important character traits, like telling the truth, keeping promises, being loyal, living up to responsibility, pursuing excellence, and being kind and caring. Reward those who demonstrate good character, so that others will see the value you place on character in your own life and the lives of others. And treat all people with respect, regardless of whether or not they deserve it.
Your faith legacy. Ultimately your faith says more about you than anything else, because it is aspect of your life in which you have placed the most trust. You can have a faith legacy apart from God, because you could place your faith in your talents, or your possessions, or your own passions. All of these faiths may bring you success in life, but eventually they will fail you in death. Rather, faith in God, a true spiritual foundation, will prove a trustworthy pursuit not only in life but for all eternity.
For your faith legacy, have you shared your faith with your immediately family, including your spouse, children, parents and in-laws? Are you regularly growing your own faith in the company of your family and friends? Are you investing your life in a spiritual community, a church, fellowship or other place where like-minded Christ-followers are gathering to learn and live out your faith.
A legacy is not by accident. According to population statisticians about 151,000 people die every day—55.3 million people each year. Though we would like to think all of these are remembered, the reality is that few people leave a lasting legacy beyond the memories and shared sentiment of their closest loved ones. In your own life, you can probably name only a handful of people who have died and left you something of lasting value. Your legacy is not something that will come automatically. A legacy should be thought about, planned and pursued through a life lived handing down to others those most valuable of things you have learned and lived. In this way, your life’s meaning is all the greater, as it will be lived again and again in those you have poured your legacy into through the years.