Creating heritage is every business leader’s responsibility and opportunity

1st October 2023

South Africa’s Heritage Day on Sunday was another opportunity to celebrate the wisdom of those who brought us freedom and democracy. They turned Shaka Day, a potentially divisive commemoration of the creator of the Zulu nation, into an occasion for national unity – even if the most uniting symbol that could be found is a braai.

Celebrating the heritage left by our heroes inevitably raises the question of what legacy the current lot in charge will leave as a heritage for future generations. From that depressing thought, the next step is for each of us to consider the legacy we will leave.

The business community recently lost Raymond Ackermann, someone who surely left a fine legacy. We like to speak well of the dead, but the warm tributes were genuine in his case. He built a fine, innovative business in Pick ‘n Pay, and on the way left innumerable stories illustrating the principles that guided him, both in public and in quiet personal care away from the spotlight.

I looked up my column in January 2020, celebrating the life of Richard Maponya. He left a mall, but he left much more in his example and the support that helped so many other entrepreneurs get going.

What sort of legacy will you leave? Life happens, and before we know it, our legacy is created or lost in a way we might not have intended. This is an important question business owners and leaders should all pause and review from time to time.

If you will forgive a personal perspective, I realised just in time that I had just such an opportunity. I was in Nairobi over the past week, meeting with our top team to consider our plan for 10X growth over five years – a next step towards creating the scale that would leave a visible legacy. By very good fortune, and I confess quite unintended, my wife and I had three days in the Drakensberg before I travelled, walking and contemplating. I set myself the task of listening to the wilderness and the Spirit.

A personal perspective turns Heritage Day from a celebration of the past to a vision for the future. It may be inspired by past heroes, but requires an honest perspective on what has to change for us to leave a better world after us.

There is no merit in looking back to a golden age that never existed. We need to look forward to a future that many young people are claiming, to which the harsh lessons of history should be calling us. If my generation does not discover and teach the hazards of living globally without morals and rules, shame on us. It will make the task of the next generation that much more difficult.

As we hurtle towards climate change, while planning to settle in space; as we use gene manipulation to create new forms of life, while refining our capacity to destroy humanity with weapons of mass destruction; as we create extraordinary machine-based intelligence, while struggling to develop the capacity for global empathy that will determine whether these amazing technical developments rescue us or destroy us, we have to stop and listen and think. It’s every leader’s responsibility.

What legacy will you leave? To answer this myself I need to be clear about the values I espouse, and I have to embed them practically in the stories, behaviours and processes of the company. I doubt I have enough time left to see us fulfil our mission on the scale I dream of, so the critical question becomes: How do we create an organisation fit for our mission, and then how can I extricate myself so that no one notices I’ve gone?

I think that’s a good question even when you are young.

Jonathan Cook, a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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