Leadership Spotlight

The Legacy of a Leader

Stock image of a woman standing on a map with several others standing behind her.


“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”


As a young child, I watched my mom carefully clean a crystal figurine she had in the China cabinet. Before she started, she put on cotton gloves. Next, she removed the figurine and carefully wiped off all the dust. She then returned the item, placing it under the light inside and positioning it just right to refract the most beautiful colors. When I asked her why she did this, her answer was simple—if she treated the crystal with care and placed it in the best light, the beauty would be on display for others to see.

As a leader, is our legacy how we treat others? Do we owe it to them to care for them and place them in the light for others to see their brilliance? I could tell story after story of individuals whose fingerprints were left behind damaging my ability or desire to shine. When we speak about leadership, we ask students to identify the three best leaders they have ever worked for. Inevitably, finding three good leaders often is difficult. Next, we ask students to identify the three worst leaders they have ever worked for. The overwhelming response is “Only three?” Sadly, we already know the legacy this group has left behind. Their fingerprints smudged our crystal!

Similar to the forensic science field, the amazing thing about leadership is that every contact leaves a trace. Whether in a formal position of leadership or an informal leader in your agency, you are creating your legacy for the future. Never underestimate how your actions can impact your organization not just at the moment but for years after you leave. 

Many of you have probably experienced “seagull” leadership, which is when someone flies in, dumps all over everything, and then leaves. The impact of this experience can have a devastating effect on an organization. Morale, community relationships, and trust in your organization can deteriorate quickly and may take years to rebuild. 

Being a leader is an enormous responsibility often taken for granted. The ability to influence the behavior, attitude, and morale of others can make or break an organization. Your legacy is so much more than having a building named after you or a plaque on a wall. Did you treat people with respect and dignity? More important, did you place others in a position to shine? 

Most employees genuinely come to work to do a good job and want to take pride in the work they do and in their organization. Unfortunately, bad leaders often leave a bad legacy that lingers well beyond their service to an organization. So, ask yourself this question—What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

Kenneth Kilbride and Michael McAuliffe, instructors assigned to the Center for Police Leadership and Ethics at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.