Your Legacy

Dec. 21, 2004
How important is it to you?

A year ago I recommended a young man for a Media Fellows Scholarship at DePauw University, my alma mater, and, incidentally, Vernon Jordans. I suggested that my young friend accompany me to Greencastle, Ind., so he could see the campus, meet the admissions officers, visit with some faculty and students, and get answers to his questions from folks less prejudiced than I. I also wanted my guest to see my fraternity house "Bum Room." It was our holy of holies. Each brother carved his name in a table top. When the surface was full, the tops were hung on the wall to be regarded with reverence by future brothers. But my friend and I couldnt get into the room because the shrine had been turned into a dog house for the fraternity mascot. As I turned away with cheeks burning, it occurred to me that my brothers had done a smart thing. Names are not to be worshipped. The comfort of a house dog is infinitely more important that a collection of dusty names. Names are remembered when their namesakes do something memorable -- good or bad. Legacies are formed over time. They are fragile and fickle. They change with the years as new knowledge surfaces. Today, Presidents of the United States are having their private pasts exhumed so that we can all examine their warts. Why? Because the current President is facing allegations that he committed adultery, perhaps perjury, or perhaps suborned others to commit perjury. Carvilles commandos are flaunting the sins of past Presidents to justify the alleged sins of the incumbent. Although I, too, am interested in the future of our nations chief executive, there is little I can do to help him or to change him. In any case, I do have some unsolicited advice that may be appropriate for those of you who are leaders of your companies. In three years William Jefferson Clinton will be a former chief executive. Time will determine his legacy. In three years most of you will still be corporate chief executives. Your legacies are still being developed. So if you are interested in protecting your legacy, I recommend these helpful tools:

  • Zippers must stay zipped. The zipper should be installed in both the mouth and the trousers.
  • A hearing aid is a must. It will help you listen better. Chief executives learn nothing new when they do all the talking.
  • A mirrored office floor will be helpful. It will allow you to see yourself from your employees point of view instead of your own.
  • A glass office door is as much privacy as you need. Isolation has the potential to get you into trouble.
  • A good travel agent will enable you to fly commercial. Corporate planes nearly always have more seats than people. One way to fill them is with people who have the potential to make trouble for you. People who are as infatuated with you as you are. People who dont love other people but love to talk about them. Or people who want to tell you how to run the business.
The smaller the company, the more opportunities exist for a chief executive to play God or mix business with pleasure. The bigger the company, the more likely the chief executive will be the victim of nasty anonymous letters or e-mail that leak his personal secrets. Either can be big trouble for chief executives without the sense to keep their personal sides to themselves. I mentioned earlier that Vernon Jordan and I are graduates of DePauw. The Vernon Jordan I know is an honorable man. Ive met him on many occasions. Jordans reputation and professional credentials are outstanding in every respect. What now threatens to tarnish his legacy is something we should all be wary of -- blind loyalty to our friends. If Jordan is found guilty of an illegal act, I shall continue to think highly of him. But I shall think far less of the alleged friend who took advantage of his friendship. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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