By traditional measure my first professional mentor was a failure. Make no mistake, he was a good man and a good leader, and over four years of grueling work I watched him take our failing organization and turn it into a disciplined project management run shop. He poured his heart and soul into that group, but when he left for another job our organization crumbled, reverting to the same pattern of failure it had before he had arrived. And this failure left me confused. He was a profoundly influential person to me, and what did this failure say about him and his leadership? Had he failed as a leader? Had everything I learned from him been suspect, or even wrong? What legacy had he left behind?
My story isn’t unique. Throughout their careers, most people will serve as both leaders and followers in some capacity. As such, they will both create and watch similar situations. They will leave organizations and watch their efforts dissolve. They will, like me, watch their boss’ hard work come to naught. What does this say about the success of their leadership? What does it say about their legacy? The questions have driven me to explore the concept of legacy, and how it leaders can ensure that the legacy they leave is a positive one.
I have been grappling with these questions, but I did not know them as “legacy.” I didn’t know what “legacy” was. I am not sure I can completely define it today. But after lengthy exploration, I am closer to understanding it, and that’s what this is about, the weird path I took and the connections I have made to answer these questions.
This journey started with an obsession. For the last year and a half I have been researching the Battle of Britain, a seminal aerial battle of World War II. I found deep lessons on leadership in the history of that conflict, and began to see the beginning of an answer to my questions about legacy.
I don’t intend for this to be a detailed history lesson. But you’ll need to understand a few things for context, so let me give you a brief synopsis.
The Battle of Britain
In September 1939 the Germans invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany but for about six months not much happened. The combatants watched each other warily across the English Channel, but did neither took the offensive. The chattering classes jeered and called it the “Phoney War” or the “Bore War.”
In April of 1940 the Germans struck, invading Norway and Denmark. In May they turned their blitzkrieg against the British and French forces in France. The Allies were caught by surprise and within weeks they fell back in retreat. In the opening days of June, the British Army found itself surrounded at the French port of Dunkirk, with their backs to the sea.
British military leaders predicted a grave disaster, yet against all odds More than 300,000 men of that army were miraculously saved, pulled from the beach by the Royal Navy and British citizens in any vessel that could float. But it was no victory. The British Army had run for their lives, leaving all their weapons and equipment on the beaches of France.
When the French surrendered several weeks later, the British were alone and disarmed. By any reasonable standard the war was over. Hitler and his allies were the masters of Continental Europe. Britain stood alone.
With the army in disarray, only the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command, led by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, and his second in command Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, stood between Britain and the expected Nazi invasion. They led the squadrons of young, carefree pilots, like Pilot Officer Albert Ball, who Churchill would later immortalize as “The Few.”
These boys flew planes like the Hawker Hurricane and the legendary Supermarine Spitfire.
As the Germans hurled the might of their air force against English shores, the RAF struggled to survive and stop German bombers intent on breaking Britain’s will.
It seemed an impossible task. The world thought they would lose. They were tragically, comically outnumbered. Germans planes outnumbered them 4.5 to 1 and German pilots were battle hardened veterans. Royal Air Force pilots were barely out of school.
In the long, hot, deadly summer months of 1940 something astounding happened. The Royal Air Force held on.
In the face of overwhelming odds they held their ground and as the summer slogged on they begin to grow stronger. By October, they had beaten off the Nazi hordes and Hitler, his air force demoralized and the RAF Holding firm, called off the invasion of England. He turned his treacherous gaze instead to the east and invaded Russia, where he would break the back of his armies. Britain, and ultimately the free world, were saved.
How did the RAF win? How were they able to beat back the overwhelming hordes of the Luftwaffe? Was it superior people? No. The RAF pilots were less experienced and inadequately trained compared to their foes. At the height of the battle, pilots were reaching the squadrons with less than fifteen hours of instruction, and the results were tragic. Was it better planes? No. Even the famous Spitfire was just barely good enough, and in many ways inferior against the German machines.
No, they won because of superior leadership. Leadership from men like Dowding and Park. I want to focus on Park specifically here because it is his story that started answering my questions about “legacy.”
The Leadership of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park
Keith Park was the number two of Fighter Command, responsible for managing the daily operations of the squadrons Fighting Germany over Southern England. As German raiders crossed the English Channel, he decided which squadrons to send to stop them. Send too many planes up and his forces could be decimated. Send too few and the Germans would make it through. Raids showed up on British radar, but it was often unclear if incoming planes were a feint intended to draw out his forces or a real bombing run. Every day for four months he played a chess match with grave consequences.
Here he is sitting behind the desk at his headquarters outside London. It is a rather standard picture of a military commander. But the truly interesting thing about Keith Park is that this is not how the men and women under his command would recognize him.
This is how they knew him, in a Sidcott flying suit and Mae West life vest, wearing a leather flying helmet and goggles. During the summer months, after he finished his duties at headquarters, he would put on his flying gear, climb into OK-1, his personal Hurricane, and fly to his squadron airfields. He’d arrive alone and unannounced, shunning both spectacle and entourage.
Once on the ground he would talk with the pilots, the armourers, the ground crew, the civilians, anyone he could find. He listened to their problems, addressed their concerns, and answered their questions. But he was also able to see for himself how things really were on the front lines, without filter and without bias.
In this pursuit he willingly placed himself in danger despite the consternation from his superiors at the Air Ministry. OK-1 was the last British plane to fly over the evacuated beaches of Dunkirk. It was circling the smoke stained skies over London’s East End when the German bombers launched their Blitz on London. As the long, breathless summer wore on he logged over 60 trips in OK-1. And his people loved him for it.
After the Battle of Britain was over, Park commanded the air defense of Egypt and then Malta, where he broke the German siege and regained air superiority over the Mediterranean. He was later promoted to Air Chief Marshall and given a command in the Far East. Throughout those commands, he never lost the habit of talking directly to the men and women on the front lines.
Here he is, at the height of his career, sitting cross-legged with his men on the front lines in Burma. I am impressed with this photo. Could you imagine another General, or a CEO doing this? This is obviously not a press meet and greet. There was not a photo op. Look at his shoes. The sole is coming off. Here is a man who leads on his feet.
But that’s just my interpretation, I never met him. What did those who actually served under him think of the man and his leadership? Park’s biographer, Vincent Orange, interviewed people who served under Park, and here are a few of their accounts:
“George Westlake, later a decorated Group Captain, recalled a day in August 1940 when his engine cut dead somewhere over the Isle of Wight amid a great many aircraft, British and German. He promptly spun down to about 10,000 feet and since no one had followed him, he decided to attempt a landing at Westhampnett. Everything went so well that he reckoned he could even land wheels down. Unfortunately, ‘a bloody great line of poplar trees appeared at the last moment, causing him to wreck his Hurricane though he himself escaped unhurt. He was ordered to report to Park at Uxbridge next morning. After he had told his story, Park asked him how many aircraft he had shot down. ‘One, Sir,’ Westlake proudly announced. ‘Pity,’ replied Park. ‘Now your score is exactly zero, isn’t it?’ He then quietly took Westlake to pieces – for not bailing out, for trying to land wheels down without engine power, for hitting the poplars and, in short, for being an idiot. Finally, he told him not to rush back to Tangmere. Westlake, thinking he had been grounded, almost collapsed.
‘No,’ said Park, ‘take the morning off and read the papers in the Mess. I’ll be in at lunch-time and you can buy me a beer.’ “I not only bought him a beer,” Westlake recalled, “he bought me a few, then he asked me to join him for lunch and to this day I simply cannot remember who else was there. As far as I was concerned, I could only see the great Keith Park – what a man. From that day on, I worshipped him.”
Here is another account of Park:
“In January 1942 Park sailed aboard the ship The Viceroy of India and a young New Zealand pilot, John Mason, travelled on the same ship and recalled an occasion when a Major ordered him and some other pilots to leave the boat-deck, where they had been sunning themselves, because that deck was reserved for senior officers. When Park was informed, he at once told all the senior officers that, ‘these young gentleman have faced and will face dangers that none of you will ever meet. They will share any facilities on board this ship equally with you.’ Needless to say, added Mason, this arrangement lasted only until Park disembarked.”
Later in the war, Park was placed in command of the air defense of the island of Malta. Malta was suffering under German bombardment, which Park ultimately stopped. This story is recounted from his time there.
“Park was the first Vice-Marshal anyone had seen doing his rounds on a bicycle. He would arrive at an aerodrome by other transport and then, because of the desperate petrol shortage, pedal his way from squadron to squadron. Soon, however, he obtained a small MG sports car, painted bright red. The sight of Park threading his way through cratered streets in his ‘fire engine’, as it was popularly known, lifted morale everywhere in the island. He enjoyed driving it and he always picked up walking servicemen if he had a spare seat. Lieutenant Commander E.W. Whitley, a squadron mechanic, recalled one such lift, but not what they talked about: ‘From my position, he was almost God!’ Whitley admired the way Park got about on his own, ‘without a tribe of staff officers following, seeing for himself what was going on.’”
These accounts paint a more complete picture of the man, from the people who knew him personally. But what do these stories about an obscure RAF officer have to do with the concept of “legacy?” I’ll share my thought processes through a quick exercise. If I asked you to describe Keith Park, what would you say?
Here are the adjectives I’d use:
Those adjectives describe who Park was. But I haven’t really detailed his accomplishments; the things that Park did. I won’t go into great detail, but here is a short list:
- Shot down 22 enemy fighters in World War I
- Led the air defense over Dunkirk
- Led the RAF to victory during the Battle of Britain
- Broke the aerial siege of Malta
That’s a pretty solid record of achievement. His leadership in the Battle of Britain alone would be enough for most people. Park literally saved the free world. As a leader, Park’s accomplishments speak for themselves.
So imagine my shock when, during my research, I came across a story about a statue to Park that was recently unveiled in London. When I saw a picture of the statue I was dumbstruck. In a moment, that picture answered the years of nagging doubt I’d been having about legacy. Since that moment, it has become one of my favorite statues.
That’s a statue to the man, not the Air Vice Marshal. It captures his leadership, not his accomplishments. Here he is, in his Mae West and helmet, pulling on his gloves. Resolute, calm, determined. His statue states simply, “let’s get to work.” Whoever designed the statue knew the sort of person Park was. It blew my mind. I was not used to looking at statues that way.
Here, Park was immortalized for who he was, not what he accomplished. But is that true of all leaders? Is it that simple, that we are remembered more for who we are than what we accomplish? If that’s the case, it should have a profound impact on how leaders approach their legacy.
Not content with a data point of one, I started looking at the statues of other leaders from the Battle of Britain, curious to see what their statues would tell me.
Sir Winston Churchill
Let’s start with Winston Churchill, arguably one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century. More a force of nature than a man, he overcame a childhood of parental neglect and early political missteps to become the embodiment of his country’s defiant stand against Nazi Germany. He was a bombastic, uncomfortable cauldron of ego and inspiration, selfishness and sentiment, strength and softness. But these qualities and his complete abandonment to them made him the galvanizing leader who rallied his country during World War II. But that is how I see him from my research. What did those people who knew him think of the man?
There are too many stories about Churchill that could be told. Too many facets of his personality that could be explored, so I’ll focus on a few anecdotes from his leadership during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. One such anecdote is from General Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s long beleaguered chief military assistant:
“There was a terrific blitz going on upstairs. The whole of Carlton House Terrace was in flames, and the bombs were dropping all around. Churchill came up smoking his cigar and put on his tin hat. In front of the door of the underground offices was a concrete screen, and everybody tried to prevent him walking out because there was so much metal flying about but he went out and I can see him today with his hands on his stick, smoking his cigar. ‘My God,’ he said, ‘we’ll get the buggers for this.’”
William Manchester, a biographer, describes Churchill in the aftermath of a German attack on London:
“Bundled in a heavy topcoat, his odd little homburg pulled down low, he hurtled through the city streets in an armored car. As soon as it delivered him to a scene of destruction, out he’d take off on foot. He might poke at the edge of bomb craters with his walking stick, or scramble up a pile of rubble to get a better view of the damage. He left his aides, literally, in the dust. With a careless slouch and his shoulders hunched, he charged down the streets, through puddles and over fallen bricks. Always, he sought out the people. He possessed a great gift for making them forget discomfort, danger, and loss and remember they were living history.”
Manchester also recalls a conversation with John Martin, about an event that occurred at the height of the Blitz, when the British were being pummeled by nightly German bombing:
“Churchill, intensely vulnerable to sentiment, witnessed many scenes which caused him to succumb. While driving to Chequers (his country estate) one day, he glimpsed a line of people. Motioning the driver to stop, he asked his detective to enquire what they were queuing for. Told that they hoped to buy birdseed, Churchill’s private secretary John Martin noted: ‘Winston wept.'”
Based on what you know and what those stories have told you, describe Churchill. Take a few minutes and write down a few words. Here are the words I used:
Those adjectives describe Churchill’s personality, but what did he accomplish? Churchill is best known for his leadership as Prime Minister during World War II. He rallied the British people in their darkest hour, when they faced Nazi Germany alone. Like Keith Park, that is accomplishment enough. But he was a prolific man of many talents. Just a few of his many accomplishments are listed below:
- Served in the last cavalry charge of the British Army in Sudan
- Captured by the enemy in the Boer war and escaped
- Served as First Lord of the Admiralty during the World War I
- Served as a Battalion Commander in the trenches during World War I
- Prime Minister of Great Britain who led the country to victory in World War II
- Forged the “special relationship” with the United States
- First person to be named an Honorary Citizen of the United States
- Time Man of the Year 1940, Man of the Half Century 1949
- Published 43 books
- Won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1953
- Painted over 500 paintings as an accomplished artist
So what does the statue of Winston Churchill looks like? Here is the most famous one, in Parliament Square, London.
What does that statue say about how he is remembered? I see his stubbornness and defiance. It is a bronze representation of his storming through London while the streets are ablaze. But I also think the statue is even more powerful from behind.
From behind the statue is stooped and hunched; struggling under a great weight. The statue’s combination of defiance and burden, strength and weakness is simply fantastic. It captures the contradiction of personality that defined Churchill. I cannot think of a better symbol of his leadership. Is this a statue of an accomplished Prime Minister? A monument to a Pulitzer Prize winner and Man of the Half Century? Or is it the man himself captured in bronze?
As the leader of the USSR during WWII, Stalin did not directly participate in the Battle of Britain. It would however, be difficult to overestimate the impact he had on the course of the war. In the late 1930’s he led the Great Purge, exiling or executing millions of “dissidents” in the government and armed forces. He also entered into a secret pact with Hitler to divide and occupy Eastern Europe with the Nazis. These actions came to a fateful head in 1941 when Hitler double-crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Facing a decimated and demoralized Red Army, the Nazi invasion rolled across the Russian steppes to the suburbs of Moscow. Stalin rallied his industry and armed forces to counter the German threat, mobilizing 34 million men into a revitalized Red Army that ultimately crushed Nazi Germany.
But his dictatorship was a dark and twisted chapter in Russian history that has left a confusing legacy in its wake. Even casual students of history have heard of his darker side, but here is an observation from no less a close colleague than the father of Communism, Vladimir Lenin:
“Stalin is excessively rude, and this defect, which can be freely tolerated in our midstand in contacts among U.S. Communists, becomes a defect which cannot be toleratedin one holding the position of Secretary-General. Because of this, I propose that the comrades consider the method by which Stalin would be removed from this position and by which another man would be selected for it; a man, who above all, would differ from Stalin, in only one quality, namely, greater tolerance, greater loyalty, greater kindness, and more considerate attitude toward the comrades, a less capricious temper, etc.”
Simon Montefiore, a writer for the Daily Mail, recounts a story told to him by Maya Kavtaradze. She was a child in Soviet Russia during Stalin’s reign. Her father Sergo had been a close friend of Stalin during the Russian Revolution, but during the power struggles between Stalin and Trosky, Sergo had backed Trotsky. When Stalin prevailed and came to power, Sergo and his wife were imprisoned and sentenced to be executed. Their daughter Maya wrote Stalin a letter pleading their innocence. For some reason it worked and Stalin had his old friend and his wife released and reunited with their daughter.
One night, not long after, Maya recalls that there was a knock at the door. When Sergo’s wife answered she found her husband standing there meekly. Beside him was Stalin and Beria, Stalin’s notorious head of Secret Police, who was also their personal torturer during their years of imprisonment. Sergo nervously announced that the family was having “guests” for dinner. The night quickly grew ominous, as Simon records. In the middle of small talk, Stalin stopped and asked suddenly:
‘Where’s Maya? I admired her letter.’Her parents were chilled. ‘It was best to keep children out of any politics and away from Stalin,’ Maya told me. But the tyrant insisted. Sophia went to Maya’s room and said: ‘Stalin is here and he wants to meet you.”
‘I don’t want to,’ whispered Maya. ‘I hate him for what he did to you and Papa.
”Say nothing of that,’ hissed Sophia. ‘You must meet him.’
Maya dressed and came out. ‘When I saw him there it was like a poster brought to life,’ she recalled.Stalin greeted her warmly. ‘
Thank you for your letter,’ he said, asking her to sit on his knee. ‘Do you spoil her?’ he asked her parents. ‘I hope you do.’
He questioned Maya about her life when her parents were in jail. Sergo and Sophia tensed – one whisper of complaint could have doomed them all – but Maya, then aged 11, answered him carefully.’My poor parents dreaded what I might say to him,’ she said. ‘He was so kind, so gentle – he kissed me on the cheek and I looked into his honey-coloured, gleaming eyes, but I was so anxious.’
Then Stalin turned to Sophia: ‘We tortured you too much,’ he said.”
Same exercise again. How would you describe Stalin as a man? Here is my list:
But Stalin was more than a mad tyrant. He had an impressive record of achievement. Here are some of his most lasting accomplishments:
- Rapidly industrialized the feudal Russian society through his 5 year plans
- Mobilized the transport of Russian industry beyond the Ural Mountains after the Nazi invasion
- Mobilized and equipped the Red Army and crushed the Third Reich
- Turned the USSR into the world’s second nuclear power
So what would Stalin’s statue look like? Not surprisingly, it is hard to find statues to Stalin that are still standing, but here is a photo of the statue that was raised in Budapest as a “gift” to Hungary on Stalin’s 70th birthday.
What does this statue say about Stalin? Like most Soviet statues, its huge, larger than life, imposing. A testament to Stalin’s arrogance and ego. A fitting tribute to his need to dominate and overpower his countrymen. Interestingly, Stalin was only 5’4″ in real life.
But the truly interesting thing is that the people of Hungary tore this statue down five years later. And they didn’t just tear it down, they demolished it and left behind only the statue’s boots. What remains today is what may be my second favorite statue.
That monument says it all. Despite all of his accomplishments, he was so reviled by the people who lived under him that they tore his statue down. And they won’t let him be forgotten to history either. They left his empty boots as a reminder of their contempt. What does that say about leaders who try to write their own legacy?
So What is Legacy?
Even after exploring the topic for a few years I’m not sure I have a complete definition. But I can say that legacy, at its most basic, is how a leader is remembered after they are gone. It’s their echo. But I am convinced, that who that person is becomes more important to defining that legacy than what they accomplish.
Legacy is the sum of the stories people tell, and history has taught me that they tell stories about the person, not the deed. This may seem obvious, but we still talk of legacy as the sum of accomplishments. Near the end of their last term, every US president makes a push for some agreement, some deal, some problem solved to cement his legacy. Nearing retirement, CEO’s look for a deal, a product, a sales number to ensure their legacy. Leaders all yearn for the lasting achievement, the tangible thing, the glory to live on after they are gone, but the simple fact remains that they have already built their legacy long before they left. By their behavior, their daily interactions, by the kind of person they were while they strove for those lofty accomplishments.
The truth is that very few leaders will ever have a statue built. But they would be better leaders in their lives and their business pursuits if they conducted themselves as if they would. Perhaps they should pause and ask themselves, ‘what do I want my statue to say?’