Does Legacy Matter? (On Influence – Part IV)

The night before I left the field hospital Rinaldi came in to see me with the major from our mess. They said that I would go to an American hospital in Milan that had just been installed. Some American ambulance units were to be sent down and this hospital would look after them and any other Americans on service in Italy. There were many in the Red Cross.

–  E.Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

It was 1918, and World War I was closing in on its fourth dramatic year. The American Red Cross was energetically sending over a  contingency of nurses, medical doctors, volunteers, and aid workers  to the Allied forces in Italy, Britain and France.  Ernest Hemingway’s description in the novel A Farewell to Arms aptly provides a glimpse into the American Red Cross presence during World  War I.

For over one-hundred and fifty years, the Red Cross has been on the frontlines of catastrophes by providing crucial aid around the world. A testimony to the organization’s legacy is the fact that all of us recognize the infamous red cross as the symbol of humanitarian aid amassed through the hard work of a seemingly neutral organization of goodwill.

1 red cross poster

In this fourth piece on organizational influence, we look at the notion of legacy. What does legacy actually mean? In what ways is it valued in organizations? How does it co-relate to the notion of influence? How does it affect an organization’s influence, and how is it affected by organizational behaviour? Far from being a static concept, legacy is dynamic –contracting and expanding, shifting  back and forth according to old and new emerging conditions.  Just as legacy can take decades to build, it can take days to expire, and years to re-emerge.  The Red Cross for instance has historically been viewed in the Western hemisphere as a trustworthy, politically-neutral humanitarian organization. Yet, in the 1990s and 2000s scores of humanitarian workers were hurt and killed in countries like Afghanistan,  Somalia, Mogadishu, Syria, and other parts of the world.  What happened? Our understanding is that while the role of the Red Cross has not changed, the political, social and economic contexts of many of these formerly colonized nations has been reshuffled with new governments and heads of state warring for leadership.  The shift in context has eroded the constructed narrative of the Red Cross as an inviolable, politically neutral humanitarian organization. The injuries and crimes inflicted against humanitarian workers forced organizations like the Red Cross, the United Nations, Western governments, and the larger public to recognize that these organizations (and their legacies) no longer signified sacrosanct, universal humanitarian aid.  Rather, with conflicts resulting from decolonization and political change in these countries, these organizations increasingly represented a Western authority whose welcome was ambivalent. How societies and nations have responded over time to symbols like the Red Cross illustrates the constructed  nature of the notion of organizational legacy.

The fast-paced world in which many of us live has shifted the way we think about time, the past, and legacy. Some things that we had held dear in the past have receded into the caveats of our minds. Other things that we had barely regarded have now resurfaced as treasured objects of memory.  Society’s changing views on legacy, history, and places of memory are part of this shift in the same way that memory and narratives are constructed, reconstructed, and bolstered over time.

But first, what do we mean by legacy? Legacy is closely tied to the notions of history, narratives, and heritage. It is something–conceptual or material–that we pass onto our loved ones, our community and onto larger society over the years.  Usually viewed as a positive contribution, legacy–like reputation–is developed over time through the perception of our actions, words, deeds, beliefs, and ideologies carried over in our lifetime.  In organizations, much like in individuals, a strong legacy usually evokes strong influence. Similarly, the more powerful the influence, the stronger the legacy.

Organizational influence is earned in most institutions through hard work, success, and its public perception that it is acting as a responsible party working toward certain kinds of goals with integrity, legitimacy, credibility, and trust. We view legacy as part of a helix in organizational influence. Much like other factors attached to the notion of organizational influence, legacy does not operate independently. It works in conjunction with other factors–reputation, legitimacy, resources, brand–that also contract and expand over time and space. And, much like these other factors, legacy exerts influence in organizations in combination with other factors like legitimacy and reputation.[1] Interestingly, legacy, legitimacy, and reputation exist in dynamic interaction.[2] Some non-profit organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for instance exercise tremendous high-profile influence in combination with tools like, legitimacy, resources, and reputation in the absence of a longstanding legacy. By contrast, the Rockefeller Foundation purports a lasting legacy championed through its resources, legitimacy, reputation, and longevity during which the organization has trail-blazed new fields, convened unlikely partners, and sparked new innovations that have led to transformative change in society.[3]

True, not all organizations develop a legacy. And, when an organization has garnered a legacy, it becomes a useful tool for organizations to exercise further influence. What are some of your organizational stories? How do these narratives speak to your organization’s legacy? In what ways has your organization’s legacy evolved over time? How is the legacy of your organization currently used by your organization to exercise influence?

Finally, what other factors contribute to organizational influence? Join us in our next piece as we continue to unpack the notion of organizational influence.

[1] Robert Stewart and Charles Lusthaus, “Conceptualizing and Evaluating Organizational influence.” Unpublished Paper, 2015. With special permission from the authors.

[2] Stewart and Lusthaus, p. 2.

[3] Accessed 12 July 2015.

Co-written by Charles Lusthaus and Sonia Cancian

For over 30 years, Dr. Charles Lusthaus (@CharlesLusthaus) was a Professor in the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in Education at McGill University. During that time, he taught Educational Management courses in organizational theory and behaviour, strategic management, organizational development, planning, and monitoring and evaluation to over a thousand graduate students. Dr. Lusthaus is also a founding partner of the Universalia Management Group and is reputed for having pioneered an approach to institutional and organizational assessment (IOA). Today, the framework is used by a variety of international bodies including CIDA, IDRC, IDB, IUCN, and ILO. 

Dr. Sonia Cancian is a historian with a large number of publications on gender, family, and emotions in migration studies in Canada, the United States, and Italy. She has taught at Concordia University’s Dept. of History, and is affiliated with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) at McGill University as well as with the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University.

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