A pretty darn memorable leader in John McCain just passed, and a pretty darn memorable leadership (and life) lesson was just passed on by the Senator himself.
It can be found in a single sentence, about halfway through McCain's "Final Letter to America," which was recently read aloud by his former campaign manager, Rick Davis. The Atlantic published the full text, which you can (and should) read.
Here's the one sentence that shows the key to leaving a truly memorable, worthy legacy:
"Our identities and sense of worth were not circumscribed, but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves."
Your legacy is your profound "what." It's about the specific, lasting impact you make. What are you working on, of meaning, to tangibly leave behind? It's a lighthouse you place on the horizon of your life that steers you, gives you direction, and keeps you off the rocks. It provides tremendous focus and puts life's daily turbulence into perspective.
The most powerful legacies, as McCain noted, are ones that incorporate impressive accomplishments for the individual and serve a worthy cause greater than that individual.
To have had such an impact takes intentionality in defining, articulating, and pursuing one's legacy. So how can you specifically identify what you want your legacy to be?
Here are seven questions you can ask yourself to figure it out. I've been honing and validating these for two decades in keynotes and workshops. The desired legacy you articulate for yourself may very well lay within the answer to one of these questions:
If you knew you wouldn't fail, what would you try?
Imagine the courage you'd have if you knew you wouldn't fail. Imagine what bold goals you would set.
Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper once famously said, "A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for." We aren't built for port, either. That was the defining thought that convinced me to make the leap from corporate to entrepreneurship.
Think about something audacious you've daydreamed of accomplishing. Is a fear of failure holding you back? Remind yourself there are only three ways you can fail: when you quit, don't improve, or never try.
What missing accomplishment would cause you to label your life's work incomplete?
What task would gnaw at you most if you simply ran out of time to complete it? What are you so passionate about advancing that it pains you to be unable to give it attention? In this case, absence does not make the heart grow fonder--it causes it to palpitate.
Honesty is essential here. Don't just think about what you're supposed to be passionate about. Meaning starts with "me" for a reason.
What can only you lead?
What do you have more energy for than anyone? What unique skills do you possess that put you in a special position to accomplish something worthy? Are you in a position of leadership where you're best suited to lead something important?
Most of my greatest career accomplishments came from realizing that my skills, passion, and position were uniquely matched with an opportunity that would yield lasting impact.
If it is to be, it's up to thee.
What would you be proud to tell others you lead?
The ego isn't all bad. In fact, it can be used as a definitive source of good when it comes to identifying and pursuing a worthy legacy. When we take pride in something, it's because of the difficulty of the journey in getting to the end result, as well as the impact of the end result itself.
What would competitors be afraid you were doing?
Oftentimes the best performance comes from imagining how to ensure a competitor isn't as successful. So be it--that's business. It's fair game to leave a mark by leaving a mark of a different kind on the competition.
What could you put in place that will outlast you?
Some accomplishments are meant for the moment and are more transactional in nature-- and yet they also absorb a tremendous amount of your time. Step back and think what would stand the test of time and still be in place long after you're gone. These are the things that are especially worthy of investment.
Who do you admire for the difference they've made, and what about them could you emulate?
Leaders that inspire us do so because of who they are, what they've done, and how they do it. We can take cues from the net impression and depth of impact they leave behind to forge our own legacy.
No matter your politics or sentiments about Senator John McCain, one thing is undeniable. He left a clear legacy.
You can too.