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What kind of legacy are you handing over?

At the end of 2021 I have found myself on the brink of a new chapter in my life, and also looking back on the last chapter.

A quick recap – I studied fine art and psychology, post-grad psych, then worked in the media as a journalist, and for the last 10 years have been involved in education as well as the entertainment industry.

I’ll continue working as a musician and teacher in my work going forward, but I’m closing a chapter on teaching in South Africa for now as I look ahead to studying further while working in the UK.

Taking stock at sunset.

After 10 years, as the sun sets on this chapter in my life, I’ve had to stop and ask myself: what have I achieved? What have I done?

I assume this process of reflection is normal. And I think there’s wisdom in taking stock.

I have a couple of thoughts. The first, and very sobering thing for me to realise, was that I was replaced quite easily in terms of the jobs that needed to be done. I was still working in schools alongside people who were going to take over my jobs.

My insecurity lasted a few hours and then I got over it. It is true: no one is irreplaceable as far as jobs go. Yes, you need a skill set and yes, you need certain qualifications… but the big wheel keeps on turning and life goes on. Someone else steps into your shoes once you’re gone.

I’ve thought about this regularly through lockdown. The key question for me is: what is it that we’ll be remembered for? Is it the systems that we put in place? Is it the strategic planning that helps your organisation gain momentum? Is it money? Is it resources and facilities? The answer is… perhaps. But perhaps not. More importantly, I ask myself questions about what legacy I’ve left behind.

I’ve come to understand that legacy is less about what we leave behind for people, and more about what we leave behind in people. It’s the memories locked away in our hearts. It’s the tough times where we fought – sometimes against each other and sometimes alongside each other against greater odds. This is the stuff that crafts a legacy in people.

I don’t think I was particularly consistent, but once I gained an understanding of this idea, I tried to get creative about my own legacy.

The one organisation I was involved in had a daily tea time at 10am. One Wednesday, it happened to be Secretary’s Day. So I asked the secretary what she would like. She told me wors rolls.

So I ran to my car, drove down the road to pick up some wors sausages, rolls and some charcoal. I returned, lit the braai fire at 9am and cooked up 30 wors rolls for the staff by 10am. The smell of meat sizzling over the coals drew everyone together, which was a welcome moment. (Everyone had been shelled up in isolation through Covid lockdown protocols.) The rest of the week everyone kept commenting on how great that day was. So I did it again the next week. And the following week. And made a hashtag about it – #redeemthewednesday

I continued on through the year, voluntarily fetching and cooking the wors rolls each week, and watching people come together as a result. So when news was spreading around that I was going to be leaving this particular organisation, the immediate concern wasn’t who was going to do my job, but rather “who is going to braai every Wednesday?”

That’s a legacy worth leaving, I think.

Another thought I have around this idea of legacy is that often people work their way up some kind of organisational ladder and then leave when they retire. In the process, they leave a void. Things like institutional memory, experience and tried-and-tested skill sets. But recently, I came across something I haven’t seen too often.

The head of department at a school that I worked over the last few years stepped down to make room for other younger teachers. She’s not retiring, but rather staying on to work as a teacher, which is her first love. Additionally, she’ll act as a mentor for the younger teacher taking over her leadership role.

I like this a lot – because handover and mentoring often look different if people retire and leave the organisation. In this case, the mentor will still be there, in the trenches, helping and assisting the new head of department.

It takes a special kind of person to step out of the way and hand over responsibility. In doing so they give away a measure of power and a position of privilege to someone else. When we recognise people who are better at something than we are, we should make space for them to grow, and encourage them to grow. The goal should be to teach and foster others who can be way better at something than you are.

Because when we encourage others to do that, we leave a legacy in them, not for them.

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