08/20/2013 08:29 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

The Legacy of Leadership

What will be your legacy? What is your personal brand? What do you want to be known for after you leave this role? This organization? This life?

These are big questions that many leaders have tried to answer. Their coaches ask them. They reflect privately on them. I have asked them myself of the leaders with whom I work.

They are good questions because they cause a leader to be more conscious of the impact he or she wants to have and then to seek to align their words and actions with their desired impact. The leader has a road map -- a plan -- something on which to focus.

When you really give thought to these questions, you do clarify the things that are most important to you as a person and leader. Often, people even surprise themselves with their answers. The questions and the answers do change their lives -- and, the lives of many people around them.

Consider this, though. The legacy of leadership far transcends a leader's line of sight. A leader can never know the extent of their impact on others, on the community, on the world. A leader will never really know what will be his or her legacy.

It is not only the big decisions that a leader makes regarding personal legacy or brand, strategies or alliances, corporate giving, or environmental initiatives, that begin to mold a legacy. A leader's legacy is determined in large part by the small things, the individual actions and decisions of a leader, inside and outside the organization they lead, personally and professionally.

A leader's legacy may be molded by the words the leader chooses to say in a speech that morning and the impact they have on those listening, and the people they tell, and the people they tell. It may be molded by how many people the leader looks in the eye each day, and smiles, or whether the leader shows up at a funeral of an employee's family member, or how the leader explains his company's wage rates.

Even though many a leader would like to think that he or she can keep personal and professional separate, like church and state, it does not really happen that way. As compartmentalized as a leader tries to make his or her life, it is still one life, and will leave one integrated legacy.

A leader's personal life and decisions are better known by the organization then they realize, and play a role in his or her legacy. So, the COO who is known for his emphasis on leadership is also known for his personal ambition, which colors perceptions of his motives and values, and therefore his legacy. The Chief Marketing Officer who is famous for her customer relationships is also known for lying about her education. The military general who has a lifelong career of leadership and protecting the country all of a sudden is known for betraying the trust of his family.

Or, the CEO who stumbles with decision making is also known for the love of his family.

The opportunities to impact a leader's legacy, and for that matter, each of our legacies, happen every single day. Some of these opportunities are part of a bigger plan; some are not. Some, we might proactively influence; some, we might not.

All any leader can and should do is to be as conscious and proactive as he or she can be about the legacy they would like to leave and the day-to-day actions and decisions that are consistent with that.

All any leader can and should do is ask themselves the big questions, and challenge themselves to give big answers.

All any leader can and should do is understand the impact they want to have on others, in the community, and in the world - and know, that there is no legacy but for this impact.

There is no legacy but for others.