A Question for the New Year: What Do You Want to Be Remembered For?

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This is a time when many of us turn inward. We consider what we’ve done over the past 12 months. And we resolve to do better during the 12 months ahead.

For Peter Drucker, though, such a pensive posture wasn’t simply the stuff of New Year’s. In fact, he was always asking the question, “What do you want to be remembered for?” He asked it of his corporate clients. He asked it of his university students. He asked it of himself.

“It is a question that induces you to renew yourself,” Drucker wrote, “because it pushes you to see yourself as a different person—the person you can become.”

At the Drucker Institute, we raise this question a lot, as well. Phalana Tiller, the host of our monthly podcast on management and leadership, “Drucker on the Dial,” ends every interview by asking an executive, author, academic or other guest what he or she wants to be remembered for.

“It’s as if I’ve sucker punched them, but with the gentlest and most loving soft blow,” Tiller says. “Having to name and share the thing they want to be remembered for requires them to consider what they’re doing in their daily choices, actions and interactions. It places a mirror before them where, for a brief second, they have to confront whether they’re actually living up to their stated values.”

For those in business, the question is also a powerful reminder that there is more to what they do than simply trying to maximize profits—or at least there should be.

“I don’t want to be remembered for an athletic shirt,” Kevin Plank, the founder and chief executive of Under Armour, the sports apparel company, told Tiller. “I’d like to build a great brand, but I’d like it to be more than convincing someone to buy my shoe because athlete X wears it and it’s really expensive and I can make a great margin on it. I want our brand to be inspirational . . . that it gives you that ability to want to get up and want to go do something important yourself.”

For Paul O’Neill, who once ran the aluminum giant Alcoa, the idea of legacy is tied directly to worker safety. “When I was the CEO . . . I did say that Alcoa would become an institution where people were never hurt at work, and we substantially achieved that objective,” O’Neill said. “When I was there, there were 143,000 people and our injury rates were behind the second decimal point. I think there are more and more places where people are striving for that, and I would take a little bit of credit for that.”

Tom Gardner, who co-founded the Motley Fool, the financial-services company, wants to leave behind an organization that will sustain itself long after he is gone. “I want to be like Jim Sinegal at Costco,” he explained. “When he stepped away as CEO, the announcement of his departure was in paragraph 12 of their quarterly earnings announcement. I think the best way to be remembered is that your organization thrived without you.”

Paul Zak, whose research as a neuroeconomist has led him to explore why people engage in what he calls “courageous acts of compassion” in the workplace and beyond, would like his insights to have a lasting impact. “I think if I increase the love in the world a teeny bit, that’s a great thing,” Zak said. “That’ll cut across my family, the people I work with and maybe complete strangers. That would be fine by me.”

Philip Levine, the former poet laureate of the United States whose verse captures the grittiness of blue-collar Detroit, suggested to Tiller that he already may have achieved what he wants to be remembered for.

“I got a letter the other day from a 25-year-old guy who lives somewhere in Pennsylvania who has been teaching himself to become a poet . . . and he bought one of my books, and he read the poem called “You Can Have It,” which is a poem really about my brother and me,” Levine recounted. “He said he read it to his mother, and when he finished reading it they were both weeping, weeping with a kind of joy, because of the love that was expressed in the poem. It was one of the most touching letters I’ve had in years, and I thought, ‘Oh god, I did what I wanted to do.’”

As for Drucker, he was first asked, “What do you want to be remembered for?” when he was a 13-year-old schoolboy in Austria, and his teacher, Father Pfliegler, posed the question to the class. At that tender age, Drucker recalled, “None of us, of course, could answer it.”

“I didn’t expect you to be able to answer it,” Father Pfliegler replied. “But if you still can’t answer it by the time you’re 50, you will have wasted your life.”

Drucker noted that he and some of his classmates began to wrestle with the question in earnest when they were about 25, though most of them “answered it foolishly” at that point. That’s not surprising. What you want to be remembered for “should change both with one’s own maturity and with changes in the world,” Drucker observed.

Over the course of the next 70 years, Drucker settled finally on his answer—one that I find both humble and inspiring. “My definition of success changed a long time ago,” he said. “Making a difference in a few lives is a worthy goal. Having enabled a few people to do the things they want to do, that’s really what I want to be remembered for.”

Here’s hoping that all of us make a difference in a few lives in 2014.