Leaders Leave a Legacy – or Not

Once upon a time, long, long ago I led an organization. I thought I was good at it, leading the organization to places that were new and different, initiating and implementing ideas that were widely appreciated and applauded.

After a time, I went on to do other things, foolishly thinking that what I had accomplished would stay accomplished. Was, in effect, engraved in stone, destined to stay in place if not exactly in perpetuity then, at least, for some years.

Wrong. No sooner was I out the door and replaced by someone else, brick by brick what I imagined my legacy was largely dismantled. Never since to be restored or replaced by anything like it. I should’ve known better – but I did not. I was not then but am now aware of how fragile a leader’s legacy. To be sure, it is not always fragile, not always vulnerable to the vicissitudes of change. But sometimes it is – depending largely though by no means entirely on who is the leader’s successor.

Since President Barack Obama moved out of the White House, he has had no choice but to stand by while President Donald Trump undid much of his predecessor’s handiwork. Notwithstanding Obama’s eight years in the Oval Office, in just half a year Trump has already discarded large parts of Obama’s legacy.

At this writing, the fate of the Affordable Care Act is uncertain. But this much is certain:

  • Obama’s sweeping trade deal? Cancelled.
  • Obama’s global climate change accord? Inapplicable.
  • Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba? Diminished.
  • Obama’s rules on the environment, labor, financial protections, internet privacy, abortion, education, and gun rights? Many already reversed.

It remains to be seen which of these two presidents will have the greater long-term impact. It’s certainly possible that Trump’s successor will resurrect some of what Obama originally effected. Moreover, whatever the ultimate consequences of what these two leaders did or did not do, in the end it’s the people, voters, who decide. Still, leadership’s deep dark secret is, however seemingly successful, often as not it’s only temporary.

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