John C. Maxwell: 3 Ways to Pursue a Lasting Legacy

UPDATED: December 19, 2016
PUBLISHED: December 19, 2016

Sociologist Anthony Campolo tells about a study in which 50 people over the age of 95 were asked “If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?” From their answers emerged three themes:

  • If I had it to do over again, I would reflect more.
  • If I had it to do over again, I would risk more.
  • If I had it to do over again, I would do more things that would live on after I’m dead.

The bad news is we can’t go back in time and make different choices. But the good news is that, every morning, we can choose to do things that live on beyond our lives. As leaders, we have the ability every day to build a legacy that lasts and makes a difference long after we’re gone.

Related: 5 Undeniable Reasons to Leave a Legacy

But how do we determine the choices that build a lasting legacy? It starts by focusing on what’s truly important in life. Many people attempt to be remembered through goals accomplished, records set or awards won. But the principal foundation of a leader’s legacy is the people they develop rather than the things they achieve. Why? Because legacy is continued impact after you’re gone, and only people can do that. Achievements, awards and possessions don’t have that power.

As an achiever, you have probably succeeded at accomplishing a lot of things. You might enjoy many of the trappings of success. But you will build your legacy only when you change your focus from pursuing personal success to developing people. Equipping your followers to grow and reach their potential is an investment that yields long-lasting rewards.

Starting today, choose to pursue…

1. Significance Over Success

I’m not saying success is bad, but it’s not enough. With every generation before the millennials, it’s taken some time in the workforce for people to figure out that chasing after success alone doesn’t ultimately satisfy. With my generation of baby boomers, for example, we discovered the limitations of success in middle age. At that point, people realized achieving success didn’t leave them feeling fulfilled; instead, many felt empty. They realized what they ultimately wanted was to do something meaningful or make a difference. Deep down, they craved significance over mere success.

For some reason, the younger generations are better at this than we were. They tend to be passionate about doing things that matter, not just finding jobs that lead to personal success. What I’m suggesting is that you do what many millennials seem to do instinctively: Choose to pursue significance now. And the best way to make a difference in leadership is to focus on helping your people reach their potential. When you equip and develop people, you will build something that lasts beyond your lifetime; your life will yield more satisfaction and fulfillment.

2. Influence Over Awards

Awards are nice. It’s an honor to be recognized for your accomplishments, and it should be celebrated. But there is a limitation to most awards: You are only a recipient. Plaques and trophies are wonderful, but they seldom change lives or make a difference in the world. Their impact ends with you.

Related: 11 Quotes About Leaving a Legacy

Influence, on the other hand, is given not received. Its benefit doesn’t end with you; it begins with you. And developing people is a wonderful way to positively influence them. Your efforts can make a lasting difference and even change the trajectory of their lives. If you effectively model people development, it’s possible for your influence to be passed down from person to person for years to come. That kind of legacy is so much more meaningful than your name on a building or statue.


When you focus on developing people rather than chasing achievement, you will discover personal fulfillment. But more than that, you will plant seeds of significance in the lives of others.


3. Impact Over Income

For many achievers, it’s easy to make income the overriding objective in life. After all, it pays the bills and to a large degree determines our lifestyle. I believe income is a wonderful tool because it provides options. But it’s only a tool because, like success, money is never enough. Wealth alone doesn’t satisfy in the long term. We all eventually discover that, deep down, we want to live for more. We want to leave our mark on the world and do work that has meaning. We want to make an impact. Income is empty; impact is fulfilling. It’s what gives life meaning.

And once again, developing people is the key. Lasting impact comes when we invest our time and energy into the lives of other people. Adding value multiplies impact because the people we develop usually turn around and develop others. And the legacy continues.

The author and theologian Elton Trueblood wrote, “We have made at least a start in discovering the meaning in human life when we plant shade trees under which we know full well we will never sit.”

When you focus on developing people rather than chasing achievement, you will discover personal fulfillment. But more than that, you will plant seeds of significance in the lives of others. We might not live long enough to see the trees grow from the seeds we plant today. But the fulfillment that comes from the awareness that they are growing is worth more than any award, reward or achievement. That is a legacy worth creating.

Related: This Is How You Leave a Legacy


This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.