The leadership eulogy – it’s a good thing

Donald Trump should write his eulogy. Not that he’s soon to be dead. But if leaders, while they are alive and well and supposedly leading, were to think more deeply about what they want their eulogy to say, they might rethink what they are doing while alive.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about humility and narcissism as diametrically opposed character traits in leaders, and now I want to add to the conversation the concept of the eulogy as a litmus test for the depth of a leader’s character, values, and achievements.

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, writes in his book, The Road to Character, that a person’s “résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being––whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”

I would add to a leader’s eulogy such traits and values as trusted, humble, empathetic, grateful, contemplative, inspirational … brought out the best in people, personified wise discernment, had worthy goals and a higher purpose, strove for mastery, had a generative spirit, and was loved and respected by many. In our hearts, we all know what we would like our eulogy virtues to be. And at this point in our life, if we genuinely contemplate them, we can measure how close we are to being the person we want to be, and we can see how close we are to “standing to our full height.”

Most leaders when speaking about their success rattle off the highlights of their résumé and income statement, which is more like an egoic itinerary than a deeper set of values by which they navigate life. Perhaps as a measure of leadership value, we should ask those who profess to be leaders to write their own, hypothetical eulogy. It could even be part of their performance review, and updated annually with the final revision coming the day after they die, as a final passing grade.

I don’t mean to use Donald Trump as the piñata of a flawed leader (we’re all flawed), but he does provide fodder for anyone interested in understanding leadership through stark contrast. By observing Trump and the others “applying” to be the de facto leader of the free world, we can assess several behavioral characteristics fundamental to leadership. I suggest one way for candidates or organizational leaders, or ourselves, to strengthen leadership capacity is to write out the eulogy virtues considered most important, and then work toward living by them, every day.

I reject the use of “successful” as a code for monetary wealth or position. If leaders, or those evaluating the character of leaders, apply the “eulogy test,” they can avoid doing what David Brooks claims most of us do, “… [we] foolishly judge people by their abilities, not by their worth.”

Try it. Write down what you want your eulogy to be. Or write a eulogy for someone in a leadership position as if you were to speak at her or his hypothetical funeral. For example, rate on a scale of 1-to-10 these five key character traits (there are more), and then only use those in the eulogy that rate at least 7 out of 10.

a) Trusted
b) Honest
c) Humble
d) Kind
e) Brought out the best in people

Today, too many leaders fail the eulogy litmus test. And yet, in a society soaked in narcissism, we need leaders who are committed to a higher purpose, not just peddling the furtherance of their résumé. We need leaders who bring out the brilliance in everyone, not just touting their own brilliance. We need leaders known for their wise discernment, not just listing itinerant accomplishments. We need leaders respected by everyone, not just expecting indentured allegiance. We need leaders seeking mastery, not just pursuing unpardonable paydays. We need leaders committed to eulogy virtues.

Achieving leadership of this stature is a lifelong work-in-progress, and it is attainable if the personal will and commitment are there––before the eulogy.