A Leader's Legacy, What Will Yours Be?

Reflections on Dr. Allan Fromme's Legacy

Dr Allan Fromme

Life might be finite, but one’s legacy can be eternal.  Those who commit to a life of learning and teaching are bound to leave a valuable legacy.  That is truly the case with my grandfather, Dr. Allan Fromme.  June 14, 2015, marked what would have been his one-hundredth birthday.  He has been gone for twelve years now, but his legacy lives on in several forms.  For me, as an executive coach and organizational development practitioner, the concept of a leadership legacy has always been a source of fascination.  What will your leadership legacy be?  Below we explore Dr. Fromme’s legacy and its ongoing impact.

Life might be finite, but one’s legacy can be eternal

Dr. Fromme, or “grammpa” to me, was a psychologist, teacher and writer.  He taught at City College of New York, Sara Lawrence and Columbia University, wrote seven books and practiced psychology for over fifty years. He is also remembered for his popular lecture series at New York’s 92nd Street Y. A graduate of the City College of New York and Columbia University, Dr. Fromme was a life-long learner.  He firmly believed in the never-ending quest for knowledge, which is one of the most important leadership lessons he taught me.  Teaching and writing are about the transfer of knowledge to others: as we learn, we must digest our new insights. Two of the best ways to do that are through writing and teaching.

 As a child growing up in New York City, I was very fortunate to have my grandfather close by.  He served as my mentor, my hero and the second father figure in my life.  He sparked my interest in executive coaching, leadership development and organizational behavior at a young age.  While he kept most of his therapy-related work confidential, I was aware that he had many highly successful CEOs and business leaders as his clients.  He shared with me that success takes many forms.  Many of his patients had incredibly successful careers, but their personal lives were in shambles.  Being married to their work caused children, wives and family, in general, to take a back seat to their careers.  The end-result was an unhappy person with lots of money and few people with whom to enjoy it.  Dr. Fromme emphasized the importance of creating balance in one’s life. In his eyes, a happy marriage and healthy relationship with one’s kids, can be equally or more rewarding than a big business deal.  He helped his patients to realize that they were often looking at the wrong scoreboard.

 Practicing psychology with type-A business leaders takes someone with a special approach.  Dr. Fromme recognized the challenge of pulling his patients away from their work, even for a therapy session.  Many wanted to have him meet them in their offices making the session seem more like a business meeting.  While Dr. Fromme generally saw patients in his own office, from time to time, sessions were conducted while walking in Central Park, over lunch in an interesting restaurant or on the beach in the Hamptons requiring the patient to drive two hours each way for a session walking on the beach. The purpose was to stir change in one’s routine and daily behavior. In so doing, the businesslike atmosphere to which the patient was addicted was removed and a more personal backdrop was established.

 Knowledge might be power, but only if it is used.  Making a difference in the world is about sharing one’s knowledge with others.  Dr. Fromme in his book, The Book for the Normal Neurotics says:

Your knowledge and intentions, however great, are reduced to sad decorative landmarks of what might have been if you fail to act on them _ like empty excavations for buildings that never went up.
— The Book for the Normal Neurotics, Dr. Allan Fromme

Dr. Fromme believed in action and purpose.  Talking about things is okay, but doing them is much more powerful and rewarding.  He goes on to say,

We cannot alter the past; we cannot have it to do over, but we can have an effect on our tomorrows.

During an appearance on Richard Heffner’s the Open Mind in 1984, Dr. Fromme floated an interesting idea.  He posited,

“You know, just as college professors get sabbaticals every seven years, ideally I would wish that in every job in America a man had to take every sixth year off from work at full pay. And it would cost the employers no more because they would divide six years pay into, that is the five years pay into six years. That would mean that a fifth of the workplace was always at large, in a state of retirement for a year. Doing that would give leisure the good name that it really should have. Right now it doesn’t have a good name. if for example you are 40 years old and wandering around with nothing to do everybody would think that you’re a derelict or a bum or an irresponsible person. But if on the other hand a fifth of the population was so involved, people would get used to the idea of leisure, they would look at it differently.”

An interesting concept, well ahead of its time, and a practice that some technology companies are starting to explore today.  Creating balance in ones’ life leads to a reprioritization.  Rather than thinking about your leadership legacy in one’s sixties, I believe it is best to begin considering the leadership legacy question in one’s thirties.  This will cause you to be much more deliberate in your choices.

Twelve years have passed since Dr. Fromme’s death, but his legacy lives on in several forms.  Many of the books that he wrote are still in print, some continue to be used in psychology classes.  His lectures are archived online including his appearances onRichard Heffner’s the Open Mind.  Many of his former students have gone on to do great things.  His family remembers him daily and incorporates his teachings into their daily lives.  Most importantly, his patients’ lives were improved through his unique, yet effective approach to psychology and therapy. 

As I reflect on my grammpa, I am proud of the legacy that he has left and question my own.  That question, “What will be your legacy?” is a powerful one, indeed.  It is a question that everyone can explore, but I find it especially important for those who lead organizations. If you are leading an organization that is “Built To Last”, what will define the era in which you led the organization?  Leaving a positive legacy is important to me, and it is my hope that company CEOs and others in leadership positions will take the time to make it important to them, as well.