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 career.

They would either be given the chance to excel, and become outstanding young leaders in their own right; or they would not be given the 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 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 in 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, so making him a sniper solidified his commitment to the profession.

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

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 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 to 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 your 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.

How Do You Enhance Belief in Others?

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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.