Our Legacy’s in the Water Bucket
“When you are beginning to think you’re so important, make a fist and stick your arm into a bucket of water up to your wrist. When you take it out, the hole you left is the measure of how much you’ll be missed.” - General Matthew Ridgeway
General Matthew Ridgeway commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, he later succeeded General MacArthur commanding UN Forces during the Korean War, and still later served as the Army Chief of Staff. In this quote, I believe he wanted to remind us that all of us are replaceable. The nature of things is that when we leave our organizations, they will inevitably close ranks and keep going forward, seemingly as if we were never there at all. Come Monday, someone new will occupy “your” chair. As an aside, thoughtful leaders should have trained those left behind to not only keep going but surpass what they have done; that’s part of our job as leaders: to develop the next generation to keep nudging the organization forward. Surprisingly, the higher up the food chain in the corporation we go, the seemingly the easier we are to replace. Sure, they may speak your name in hushed tones around the coffee pot or water cooler but for the most part, it is a matter of “out of sight, out of mind.” In terms of organization succession planning, that’s exactly the way it should be, the gears keep turning and the machine keeps grinding. I reference this quote often when I speak to law enforcement and military audiences about the importance of work/life integration. All of us have a professional expiration date. We need to prepare both our organizations and ourselves for the day when we’re that hole in a bucket of water.
Last weekend I attended the retirement party of a friend and it made me reconsider the general’s words. My friend had not climbed the ranks in the company, he retired as a journeyman. He had, however, carved a career as a subject matter expert, a master practitioner of his craft, a mentor and trainer for several generations of his peers and juniors. He was a true leader, though an informal one, influencing those above, below, and alongside him. Other attendees included retired greybeards like me, who came to honor his career and wish him well in his new adventures. Many of them were also journeymen who mastered their craft in theory and practice. They had collective careers spent learning, doing, teaching, training themselves and others in the art. They learned hard lessons on the street and passed along what they knew and learned to others. However, unlike the general’s example each of their retirements left holes. Yes, others have carried on and are doing some of the same work, some of it in the same ways. But it’s different. These might be the observations of a wistful, soon-to-be-old guy, but it was like seeing Old Timer’s Day at a baseball stadium. Yesterday’s heroes and legends standing shoulder to shoulder with the current players. Same team, but a different snapshot in time. So, while someone will fill your spot on the roster or on the organizational chart, there will never be another “you.” That’s where your legacy enters the equation.
Whether you are at the top of the org chart, or one of the spots down near the bottom, or any of the places in between, what you do in your “short” career matters if you make it matter. Honestly, those journeyman at the party are harder to replace than the managers “higher” up on the food chain. Their work and their influence will outlast their tenure. The new practitioners will add their spin and will probably make something slightly different, adapt to various changes; much the same way a new chef learns a recipe from their mentor but adds slightly different spices to create something reminiscent of the old but also very new. Each of us can and will be replaced, the organization will move on, but I believe that if we do it right – whether journeyman or leader – the legacy we leave behind will tighten up the hole left in the water bucket, and we will be remembered - maybe even missed too.
Nice piece George!