Dec. 21, 2004
Preserving your legacy might mean saying goodbye.

Bill Clinton has less than a year to finish fashioning the legacy he will leave when his days in the White House are history. Across the Atlantic Ocean, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the uniter of Germany and a founding father to Europe's common currency, finds this legacy being called into question after disclosing that while Chancellor he accepted secret payments to his Christian Democratic party. Politicians in the U.S. and Europe worry about their legacies. As do those in virtually every other country on the planet. And the reason, you be may be thinking dismissively, is because they are, well, politicians. But I would argue that in the tens of thousands of companies around the world, CEOs and other senior executives also need to be concerned about their legacies. They should be concerned about the kinds of companies they leave behind. They should be concerned about the goals they set -- and how they are achieved. They should worry about the value they help create -- and, most important, about the values they personify. I believe corporate executives contemplating their own legacies would do well to think about the legacy that Elliot L. Richardson left behind. Richardson, who died Dec. 31, 1999, was a politician in the best and broadest sense of being concerned about the whole complex of relationships among people living in a society. His political career reflected this. Richardson served as attorney general and lieutenant governor in his native Massachusetts and in Washington as undersecretary of State, Secretary of Health Education & Welfare, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Commerce, and Attorney General. And in London as the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's. He was the author of two articulate, thoughtful, and not-sufficiently noted books: The Creative Balance (1976, Holt, Rinehart & Winston) and Reflections of a Radical Moderate (1996, Pantheon Books). However, the events of Saturday, Oct. 20, 1973, will forever publicly define the remarkable character of Elliot Richardson. It was on that day that Richardson, then Attorney General of the United States, refused a presidential order to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into the Nixon Administration doings collectively known as Watergate. It was on that day that Richardson himself resigned, the first of a series of dramatic actions that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. For Richardson, resignation was a matter of principle. During his confirmation hearings, he had given his word to Congress that he would not interfere with the special prosecutor's decisions or actions. And in what must have been a tense confrontation, Richardson reiterated that position to President Nixon on the afternoon of Oct. 20. Nixon, Richardson wrote in The Creative Balance, criticized him for putting personal commitment ahead of the public interest. Richardson, in turn, stressed that his resignation was in the public interest. Few people in the history of the Untied States have served the country as widely and as well as did Elliot Richardson. And relatively few people will have such an opportunity in the future. However, many more people -- and not only those in the United States -- will have the opportunity to serve in senior positions of responsibility in industry. They will, in their times, confront conflicting courses of action. They will confront situations that will pit commitment against personal ambition and juxtapose principle and self-interest. Perhaps we will never know how easy -- or how difficult -- it was for Elliot Richardson to resign. His resignation, after all, came in the same month of the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East, the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, and Nixon's nomination of Michigan Congressman Gerald R. Ford to be vice president. It came, too, in the context of Richardson's personal senses of loyalty and respect for the office of President of the United States. The times were turbulent. But in their own ways, the times in which executives in industry must choose which interests they will serve are no less turbulent. The context of creating value for shareholders, employees, and customers, of being responsible citizens in the communities in which the company operations, of being ethically mindful is no less complex. And in making their choices, executives in industry around the world would do well to emulate Elliot Richardson. They would do well to act out of their larger commitments and not out of narrow self-interest. And ultimately they would do well to resign their positions of power rather than pursue courses of action they believe to be wrong. Although examined by hundreds of academics in the 27 years since the event, Richardson's resignation was no academic issue. Nor should it be for executives in industry.

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