Building a Leadership Legacy

By James Tollefson

Updated Over a Week Ago

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To build a leadership legacy, we have a responsibility to realize we won’t be around forever.

When we leave, whether, by retirement, resignation, or promotion, it is our responsibility to have prepared someone to take our place.

Besides the fact that an employer will feel a lot better about promoting you if they know there is someone competent and ready to take your place, training a successor also cements your legacy as a leader. I first learned this lesson in the Army.

Leadership Legacy

I first met Nick in 2008.

I was still a young leader at the time, with less than two years of rated leadership time, and I was serving as an assistant team leader on a scout reconnaissance team.

As airborne infantry scouts, we operated in six-man teams and were trained to parachute into enemy territory and conduct a variety of reconnaissance and security missions.

Due to the nature of our mission, we were a selective outfit – every one of us was handpicked for this assignment.

Nick arrived in my platoon as a brand new soldier, fresh out of Basic training and Airborne school. He was exceptionally fit, highly motivated, and obviously eager to do great things in his new career.

Getting selected to the Scout platoon was a significant achievement for a young soldier, and our men were top performers.

Even so, Nick stood out. He consistently displayed the traits that make new soldiers stand out: he was disciplined in the face of pain, an excellent marksman, and fearless in following orders.

Short Shelf Life

I had noticed repeatedly during my short career that highly motivated, capable young soldiers like Nick tended to do one of two things within the first two years of their careers.

They would either be given a chance to excel and become outstanding young leaders in their own right, or they would not be given a chance to excel, and their motivation and energy would rapidly turn into resentment against a system that they felt had shortchanged them.

High performers like these have enormous potential, but they also have a very brief shelf life – neglect them, and they find something else to do where their abilities will be recognized.

I had been that young soldier myself, and I recognized the same drive in Nick. I determined to do my best to give him the opportunities that I felt he deserved.

Chest Chest Candy from a Legacy of Leadership

Chest Candy

In the Army, chest candy is everything.

The more badges you have on your uniform, the better the soldier you are. This is especially true in the airborne community, where senior leaders have often earned every badge the Army offers.

Young soldiers live and breathe opportunities to earn these badges – everyone is on the same level coming out of basic training, and everyone wants to rise above his peers.

As a result, getting slots in the schools that provide these badges can be very difficult. For very young soldiers, whom senior leaders often think haven’t earned the privilege of having badges on their chest, it is virtually impossible to get school slots.

Adopted Protege

So when an opportunity came to send soldiers to one of those schools, Air Assault, I tried to get Nick a slot. I failed. I was told he didn’t have the rank to go, which I knew to be untrue.

My squad leader and I talked about it and decided to send him anyway as a walk-on student – that is, he would show up with the appropriate paperwork and then take any vacant seats that presented themselves.

It worked, and he got to go.

Nick graduated, of course. We who knew him never doubted he would. Suddenly he was the envy of his peers and the adopted protege of the same senior leaders who originally hadn’t thought he should go.

More importantly to me, however, his commitment to our team was solidified.

His team leader and I, in looking out for him, had shown that we cared. We had earned his loyalty.

Two Options

Months later, I came to the realization that what Nick really wanted to do was not reconnaissance but target interdiction. He wanted to be a sniper.

My team leader and I toyed with the idea of making him a sharpshooter for our team, but in a platoon, with a ten-man sniper section in it, there was little sense in such a scheme.

Ultimately, we realized we had two options. We could keep him on our team and ignore his desire to be a sniper, or we could trade him to the sniper section for someone else.

Nick was one of the strongest soldiers in the platoon, and losing him would certainly hurt our team.

We agonized over whether we should choose to protect our team or move him where he had the best opportunity to contribute to the entire unit.

In the end, we chose to move him to the sniper section, where he quickly became one of the most proficient snipers I have ever seen.

Just as giving him the opportunity to go to Air Assault solidified his commitment to our team, making him a sniper solidified his commitment to the profession.

He did great things in our ensuing deployment to Afghanistan – fought battles, won medals, and became a leader in his own right.

Back to School
Happy high school learners walking down college corridor and chatting during break

Bragging Rights

When we returned from that deployment, I left the active-duty Army and went to school. Nick, a staff sergeant today, stayed in. He has since surpassed me in the very trade I once schooled him in. He has no shortage of badges and bragging rights now.

He has graduated from a dozen military schools, deployed twice, led men in battle, and proven himself repeatedly as one of the best in his profession.

Looking back, I take great satisfaction in Nick’s professional achievements. I took the time to train him and look out for his career, and when I left the Army, I did so knowing that it was in good hands.

Had I not taken the trouble, there might have been no one to replace me when I left.

I’m proud to say that I did the right thing, and my old unit is as strong and capable now as it has ever been. There are a few lessons that I take away from this.

Leadership Climate is Everything

My team leader, Steve, and I were a real leadership team – we were in sync with our decisions and approach to leading the team, and we took time to actually discuss every important decision.

Steve was honestly one of the best leaders that I have ever had the privilege of serving with, and his candor and honest concern for his troops made possible everything we achieved.

Sometimes you have the sacrifice your short-term interests for the greater good.

It would not have been the wrong decision to keep Nick on our team. The sniper section leader didn’t even want Nick at first for reasons I still don’t understand, and his continued presence would have made our team stronger.

Keeping Nick on the team might have been a good decision, but it would not have been a great decision. Sending him off to grow and develop as a sniper was a great decision because it ultimately benefited the entire platoon and not just our team.

Developing high-performers is time-consuming.

It has to be.

The simple fact that I knew what Nick wanted in his career was a product of the fact that I invested my most precious resource, time, in getting to know him.

Leaders everywhere have an unfortunate tendency to focus their time and attention on their worst team members – the ones who, no matter how much time and effort is invested in them, will never excel.

This is a mistake.

It is the best people that you need to be spending your time with because they are the ones who need it the most.

Your best people need attention, or they will wilt. They work hard, have great aspirations and dreams, and know their own worth – and if you don’t give them the respect that they deserve from you and focus your attention on them, you are wasting both your time and their talent.

These two things, time and talent, are your most precious resources. Don’t squander them for the sake of someone who doesn’t deserve the former or possess the latter.

Leaving a legacy is all about developing other people. It isn’t about getting a school named after you or a shiny plaque on your office wall.

It’s about building others up so that they can one day outshine you in every way, as Nick did me. Start building your legacy today.

Are You Building Your Leadership Legacy?

If you have ideas for building a leadership legacy that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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James Tollefson
James Tollefson
James is a soldier, training manager, and writer who lives in the great State of Alaska. As a paratrooper and Ranger serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, he developed an appreciation for the vital importance of leadership. He now writes about the challenges of leadership on his blog The Six Element and on his Facebook page.
  • LowellandLoretta Tollefson says:

    I’m impressed! But then I knew I would be……

  • Yuvarajah says:

    Greetings James,

    I am a retired Major and current work in Corporate HR.

    I agree when you talk about people at work, it boils down to leadership. But, leadership is nothing without followership. You were fortunate to have someone like Nick, a unpolished diamond, to demonstrate your leadership. He was the good best guy.

    But, I beg to differ on what you said on, “It is your best people that you need to be spending your time with because they are the ones who need it the most”.

    True leaders will recognize that every follower is talented, in their unique ways. If they have made the cut into your team then each & everyone must be unreservedly seen & treated as the “best”. If they aren’t the “best”, then it is incumbent upon leadership to fix it, one way or another. Who needs more opportunity & help – the strong or weak link in the chain?. Your story on Nick’s case is testimony of what has come to be termed in the corporate world as Talent Management – recognition, development & placement. Unfortunately, the talent is being hyped as something scare & limited characteristic in employees.
    The only 2 limited resource that leaders ever face in managing their workforce is courage & time. If you don’t have the luxury of one, then pick the other. If you have the time, then spend it wisely on those that need most – good, bad & ugly.
    2 cents.

  • James Tollefson says:

    Respectfully, sir, I completely disagree. I used to think as you do, that as a leader it was my responsibility to rehabilitate incompetence, laziness, and dishonesty in the followers who were assigned to me. I devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to doing so. At the time, I thought it was my duty. I thought that the only difference between a capable and trustworthy subordinate and a conniving, worthless one was
    the quality of that individual’s leaders. I learned, eventually, that I was wrong.

    I have come to realize that some individuals are incapable of doing what they ought to do. It may be that the particular organization you serve is not a good fit for them; it may be that they have higher priorities and simply do not care about their work; or they may simply be bad human beings, incapable of doing what is morally and ethically right. In each of these cases, time spent on these individuals is time wasted.

    I believe that as a leader we owe it to ourselves and our organizations to make rational decisions about where and how we invest our time, our most finite and precious resource. Just as the financial manager makes decisions after carefully considering the likely return on investment, or ROI, of each alternative, we as leaders must invest our time in those places where it is most likely to reap long-lasting and valuable returns.

    I do not mean that we have no responsibility to those who do not, or cannot, excel. We owe every one of our followers, as a moral obligation, the fundamental respect and dignity due them as human beings. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking that every employee or follower we have will prove up to the challenges our missions will pose to them. That would be completely and unforgivably irrational.

    I have had many followers over the years who proved not to be up to the challenge of the mission at hand. In my particular experience, that was military service. As a combat veteran, decorated multiple times for valor, a man who has taken human life in service to his country and seen his comrades horribly killed and injured, I know the price of incompetence and unpreparedness on the battlefield. I would much sooner boot a bad soldier out of the Army than take them to war. This is not an act of judgement or unforgiveness, but rather one of compassion. On a lesser scale, the same is true in every organization. If we invest our time in those who can never succeed in our organizations, do we do that individual any favors? Do we not indeed harm them by retaining them in a position where they can never truly express their God-given abilities, whatever those may be? I do not think so.

    Talent Management has both positive and negative connotations. We like to picture it as being all about the improvement and education of people, selecting and promoting people to fulfill their potential. But does this not have an obvious and necessary corollary that for every one chosen there must be one or more who are not? And are we not irresponsible not to consider what our obligations are to those who we deem unfit to rise, or to lead, or to serve?

    In an ultimate moral sense, every human being deserves to be invested in. In the context of organizational life, however, this is not true. We select the best and give them the opportunity to achieve more, and we discard those who prove themselves
    unfit. It is as Jesus’ parable of the talents: “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” This is not to say thatthe rich ought to get richer, and the poor poorer. It is simply recognizing that those who give of themselves deserve more from us than those who refuse to do what is expected of them.

    This was a lesson I did not learn easily, and I think that it is one of the most important things that a leader can learn. Leadership is not all about good feelings, well wishing, and making people shine. Sometimes we have to make hard decisions about people, and we must have the courage to do so.

  • Ron Whitaker says:

    Thanks for your insight, James. Lowell and Loretta – you did a great job!

    James, I completely agree with your leadership philosophy.

    There are those that fit the position and the organization’s culture and those that do not. We best serve those that do not by giving them the opportunity to move on to something that does work for them.

    Beating square pegs into round holes is a fools errand.

    • James Tollefson says:

      Thank you, sir. I agree.

  • Daniel Welsh says:

    Great article my friend. I especially like the part about the ‘short shelf life.’ Without expressing one’s potential, one can easily wither and die. Continue developing amazing proteges like Nick!

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