As concerned as departing leaders generally are about their legacy, quite a few are hesitant or simply unwilling to undertake the effort required to articulate and formulize what their legacy is about. For some, their involvement in day-to-day affairs – until the last day – precludes them from doing any of the kind of reflective work necessary to capture their legacy in writing; for others, their sense of practicality recoils undertaking a structured legacy exercise. If only they work hard enough and forcefully instill their sense of values, so they reason, their legacy will live.
The reality is that stories and examples do live on, but policies and norms have a shorter half-life. Once the leader moves on, he or she will continue to be referred to, but without a formal statement, signed and blessed by the family or the founder, successors are likely to disagree on significant points of both content and process and may even come into conflict. If the original leader is still around to be consulted, he or she may be called upon to take sides; if not and sometimes even if so, disagreements of this kind can lead to governance challenges and major disruptions in the life of the organization.
For these reasons and even if they know that the so-called “hand from the grave” can undermine the functioning of the organization and limit its adaptability, many people at the top of family and founder-led businesses choose to formalize their legacy in the shape of mission and vision statements, sometimes also complemented by value statements. Formalizations like these are supposed to prevent conflict for generations to come. The irony, of course, is that in preventing conflict, they may also get in the way of necessary change.