What we do in life echoes in eternity (GLADIATOR (2000)
An allegory is a poem, story, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden moral or political meaning. For example, Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of the spiritual journey. We find allegories in storied lives everywhere — legends without ending, just a place where the hero leaves the story.
During 2016, theatre companies in Britain and around the world staged special productions to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Concerts, lectures, and festivals drew crowds celebrating the enduring work that made Shakespeare the greatest playwright in the English language. His contemporary Ben Johnson wrote, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
Legends are timeless and heroic to be sure. But reputation need not derive from great acts, riches, position, or power. More often, local heroes are recognized for strength of character and perseverance. They face discouragement, serve with hope, and never give up. Emancipated slave Biddy Mason said, “The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance even as it receives.” This is legend with a legacy.
Legends of public service
Enlightened institutions acknowledge that public servants come to the game with a higher calling. They are driven to contribute by mentoring and coaching the next generation of public service leaders. Their mission is their legacy, which represents recognition enough for most. But what is their motivation?
Excellent leadership is instrumental in serving the public interest. Leaders who master the principles of good governance foster innovation with integrity, creativity, and results. They see the big-picture possibilities of connecting the dots across regions, nations, sectors, spheres, levels, roles, functions, and generations. Then they make policy, service, and change happen.
The example of Ian Macdonald inspires leaders in politics, public service, academia, sport, and international development. Professor Macdonald is President Emeritus of York University. He was Ontario’s first Chief Economist. He was awarded the Vanier Medal for distinction in public service in 2000 and is an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 2013, he was named a Legend of the Ontario Public Service. 2016 marked his 60th year of teaching excellence in public administration.
Professor Macdonald volunteered this reflection during a panel recognizing his milestone:
“I want to leave three thoughts of what I see for the public service in the future, addressed particularly to the younger members of the group. First of all, I believe you will be called to increasingly higher standards of accountability and ethical behaviour… Secondly, you will be expected to do much more in the performance of your jobs and to do it very differently and more innovatively… Three, in fulfilling those two requirements, you will all have a wonderful new challenge, a challenge in which you all can demonstrate your own forms of leadership.”
The Honourable Maurizio Bevilacqua, Mayor of Vaughan and former York student leader, responded:
“Ian spoke about being ready for the season when your talents, your point of view, and your leadership are called upon; all that education, all those briefings, all those exchanges you have with your colleagues, all serve a purpose. You will be called one day to make a very important decision, so be ready for it.”
Building a lasting legacy
Peter Drucker observed: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” What leadership legacy would you like others to associate with you? What legacy do you want to impart to those in your leadership circle? Why is it important to you, your organization, your team, and the public? What are the key components and good practices?
Middle managers who want to build a legacy must first create a vision of their leadership intentions. They need to consider many factors — direction, commitment, relationships, trust, ethics, performance. They must also be prepared to explain it to others in plain language.
A lasting legacy is built upon five strategies:
- Leadership – embrace inclusive values that characterize an enabling culture;
- Learning – aspire and strive to know, innovate, and improve;
- Love – cultivate relationships grounded in a passion for excellence in public service;
- Leverage – steward investment and development of assets for greater benefit; and
- Living Large – reach out in service to the public good.
Everyone can learn from a legacy of selfless service. The essentials of leadership form the baseline of what the next generation needs to know about serving the public good with distinction. There is no time like the present for students, new professionals, and managers to aspire to a new brand of leadership in a changing public service environment. And ‘there is no present like the time’ to inform the leadership requirements ahead. Our job is to teach what it means to be better than us.
John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. firstname.lastname@example.org. He was a career public servant and diplomat.