Legacy Leadership

The basics of leadership effectiveness are still valid, even in the Facebook age!


If you recall the Hollywood movie, Space Cowboys, you know the gist of the story is that an old Soviet satellite is on a course to crash-land into the earth. It’s internal systems and software are old and none of the younger generation engineers know the old programming language or how the systems were put together. So they recruit a group of four former Air Force pilots and engineers who know the software code and the old systems. It’s a good drama where the best laid plans go wrong and the old guys save the day. Fun to watch, especially with James Garner, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland in the key roles.

Well the fact is, many computer systems and algorithms operating today, especially at the core of banking systems, are built with legacy code that is no longer used. Legacy code is source code that relates to a no-longer supported or manufactured operating system or other computer technology. Yet because these legacy code programs lie at the original platform level of a system and more modern software applications have been added to deliver specific functions and requirements, they are still the source or foundation and the modern applications need to be adjusted to interface well on the legacy platform. The legacy code drives the fundamental backbone of the entire system.


Legacy Leadership

The prominent theory of leadership today seems to be centered around successful “tech stars” and high-profile, wealthy business people. They tend to dominate the news and business articles and are somehow seen as possessing traits and characteristics not found in the majority of us. In many ways they epitomize a combination of the “Great Man” and “Charismatic” leadership theories. Dynamic, inspiring, innovative, insightful, feared and loved at the same time, but definitely different from you and me in many ways. Steve Jobs is most often portrayed as one of the most effective of this modern leadership style. And Donald Trump is a self-proclaimed example of modern-day successful business leadership.

But perhaps like the legacy software situation, there is something more fundamental, more basic than just the outward trappings of success and an ability to dazzle and dominate others into submission. Maybe there is a legacy code underneath all the various theories of leadership.

I have spent the past 35 years working with CEOs and senior executive teams to help improve business performance and people’s lives through coaching and consulting. And I have watched carefully those who are in leadership roles, and those who are leaders without the title.

Just last week I was sitting in the office of a former client who now has taken on a new role as CEO of a technology based airline and aircraft services firm. I last worked with him during the successful turnaround of an aircraft engine manufacturing company that was on the verge of bankruptcy.

We got to talking about leaders, leadership and in particular the informal leaders in an organization. Those who don’t necessarily have a huge title or salary or large span of control, yet whom everyone in the organization seems to listen to and seek out for advice and support. We both immediately landed on the same individual, a former US Marine officer who came to work in operations during the above mentioned turnaround.

He was not flashy, in fact rather low-key.  He was not particularly charismatic or dominating in his style. He wasn’t the most educated or highest IQ person in the company. He wasn’t the most vocal or outgoing either. But he was solid in his understanding of operations, and even more solid in his understanding of people. People sought him out for advice, even people from other departments. After an interaction with him people always walked away feeling good about his advice and also feeling good about themselves, even when they had messed up. To him, performance and human dignity went hand in hand. And those he terminated understood why, and most learned a valuable lesson as a result.

Yet he was not particularly favoured by the senior executives in the corporate ranks. He didn’t fit the modern mould of a “real leader” in their eyes. He was never given huge bonuses or offered higher leadership positions.

He was legacy, not modern!

Yet without his legacy leadership skills the transformation of a dejected, demoralized, angry workforce into a high performance team of employees who went from near bankruptcy and poor quality to winning the Shingo Price for Operational Effectiveness a few years later would never have happened.


Legacy leadership is the foundation, and without a strong foundation, the ultimate effectiveness of a leader, no matter how flashy or smart, is unsustainable. Don’t get dazzled by the outside, look deep at the legacy code before you put your faith in someone else.

The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith. ~Billy Graham

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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