At the turn of the year, we often pause for a few moments to consider the passage of time, and perhaps sigh with either disappointment or contentment.  It would serve most of us well to expand this moment of reflection into something more lasting and useful.

I was pleased to have a recent opportunity to hear Richard Leider describe the research for his book, Whistle While You Work. The clarity of his findings is extremely compelling, and it illustrates principles that apply to businesses and organizations as well as to our personal lives and careers.

Mr. Leider is the author or coauthor of seven books and partner in a training firm in Minneapolis. His research involved interviewing scores of elders to ask what they regretted about their lives, and what they would do differently if they could do it again. His three key findings are summarized below, along with my own interpretations and suggestions for business and organizational applications.

First and foremost, the elders said they would be more reflective. They wished they had taken time to stop and look at the context of their lives, to see the big picture and remember their priorities. All too often, this happened for them only at times of loss or crisis.

The application to organizations is direct: make time to consider the big picture. This can (and should) be a part of your company’s on-going dialogue, or you can consciously include it in a strategic planning process. How it gets done is not important, as long as it gets done consistently and thoroughly. For organizations, this big picture emphasis translates into a strong vision, a clear mission and set of values, and specific goals and objectives.

Mr. Leider’s second key finding from the elders was that if they had a chance to do it over again, they would be more courageous. They would take more risks and be more daring, both in love and in work. For most of us, work requires roughly 60 percent of our energy and time investment, so it is worth the effort to make the most of it.

For businesses and organizations, this again comes back to the benefits of strategic planning, which is really strategic thinking using a structured methodology. With the safeguards of an analytical, participative group decision-making process, risks can be evaluated and selected. A healthy company with clear goals and values that understands its strengths (and weaknesses) is in a good position to take calculated risks.

On an individual level, being more courageous in the workplace means bringing more of who you are to your work, being more authentic, more willing to share the breadth and depth of your experience and skills. It may mean having the courage of your convictions, taking more initiative, or speaking your truth even when it is a minority or solitary viewpoint.  Please note that this is not a rationale for being inconsiderate, unkind, or impulsive. Having the maturity to be authentic also means taking responsibility for your actions.

In the third key finding, the elders said they would live with more purpose, leave a legacy, and make an imprint. In essence, they wished they had lived their lives with more meaning. On an individual level, this is a question that we would all do well to consider consciously and regularly.

On an organizational level, by considering this question of legacy, your company can find ways to manifest its values and leave an imprint. A fine start is simply by making a conscious effort to create a good place to work and to sustainably produce or provide something useful to the world. With focus and effort, your company can go even farther toward being a positive influence for the greater good.

For leaders, here is a very important and even poignant question: how can you use your position to make a positive impact and leave a positive legacy? I strongly encourage leaders to consider this question, even as they wrestle with the stressful demands of leadership. It is one of the golden opportunities that can balance the burdens and responsibilities of a leadership position.

A good leader can become a great leader by leaving a legacy that continues beyond his or her tenure, a legacy that becomes part of the company culture in the values, stories, and traditions that comprise the history of the organization.

Think of Hewlett-Packard and the lasting impact the two founders had on the culture of that organization, their industry, the Silicon Valley and beyond. Their influence was felt long after their retirement. A great leader serves as a positive role model, and the effects ripple throughout the organization over many years, inspiring younger generations to take up leadership roles.

In summary, dedicating time on a regular basis to pause and reflect on issues of meaning, courage and legacy—on both the personal and organizational levels—will reduce the likelihood that you will one day wish you had done it differently. Make yours a life well lived and an organization well led. History will be taking note.


Mary Luttrell is a business strategy adviser who has helped hundreds of companies increase their success. She provides services in strategic planning, marketing, organizational performance, and executive/leadership coaching. Ms. Luttrell is a Certified Management Consultant whose firm has been named one of the 100 Leading Management Consulting Firms in North America. Contact Mary at 707-887-2256 or thecoach@sonic.net.  Visit her website at www.maryluttrell.com.