I’ve been pondering my own professional mortality a lot lately. Not that there’s anything imminent on the horizon, but I’m constantly reminded that nobody lasts forever. Such reflections don’t have to be morbid, but sometimes I find that a touch of morbidity brings home the lesson. Regardless of how we get there, we will all be replaced someday. Nobody stays in their job forever, despite how we might feel on any given day. Dismissal, resignation, retirement, and yes, even death waits for us all at some point. It’s an important thing to keep in the back of our minds.
The reason I think this is so important is it has a huge impact on how we approach our relationship to our work. It’s a key to help unlock healthy work/life balance, and gives us insight to how we relate to our work organizations. We can love our work, and even be devoted to the organization for which we work. But in the end, our seat will be vacant. And the organization, if it is to go on, will replace us. It’s a basic reality, and possibly sobering. But I take some measure of comfort in that, nonetheless. It’s incentive to really build something bigger than myself; to communicate my values and vision to others and empower them to carry on the work.
I’m reminded of the words of John C. Maxwell in his 21 laws of leadership:
A leader’s lasting value is measured by succession.John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
Maxwell sees the communication of vision and values as the final end-stage of developed leadership. Instead of leading by doing or merely through those who work for us, we actively create new leaders and pass the baton to the next generation. It’s about reflecting on our legacy, what we wish it to be, and yes, that begins by acknowledging that someday we will have to leave it all behind and trust our successors to carry forward the work. And Maxwell also points out that the only way to create a lasting impression is through people. We can’t trust to systems, or organizations, or other impermanent avenues, as those are impotent to carry forward the work themselves. It’s always people who make the most difference.
In this light, our personal and professional relationships are subject to a profound persepctive. Others are partners in collaboration in a long chain that alters the course of events.
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.Henry Adams
I’ve known colleagues who crave influence, but seem unable to achieve it. I think a lot of the frustration born of that difficulty is caused by a narrow perspective. To successfully build the partnerships that will carry forward a legacy beyond oneself, it’s necessary to elevate others and push them forward. When we fall prey to the myopic view of the nuts and bolts of accomplishment, we fall short of the highest levels of leadership. But when we can get out of the way and focus on helping others to do great things, we build our influence and people will recognize in us the sort of person who empowers instead of tearing down. And if we can accomplish these things, we stand to reap the reward of fulfillment in seeing a vision brought to life that will stand the test of time, as well as the exponential benefit of bringing along others who will in turn improve upon us and communicate to their followers in turn. None of that would be possible if we lived forever, constantly filling a role alone. We have limited time. That’s not cause for too much complaint; it’s a call to action while time lasts.