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Twelve years ago, Fred Sturdivant supervised Mark Johnson, a shooting star who’d become a senior vice president by age 29. After the young man left for an executive job at a tech firm, married and started a family, the two men stayed in touch.

Johnson died suddenly of a heart defect at age 38. Sturdivant was at the funeral when he heard his own name and found Johnson’s father talking about him, saying that Sturdivant had had a profound influence on his protégé, helping him find his way and live up to his potential.

Astounded, Sturdivant recalled that Johnson at first had a casual approach that didn’t quite mesh with the style of a top management consultant. Sturdivant had spent a little time offering pointers on Johnson’s dress and presentation, but the young man had so much going for him in the way of brains and integrity that Sturdivant didn’t consider his input significant.

Later, he told Johnson’s father that he’d had no inkling of his influence on Johnson. It was true, the father told him: “He often spoke of how you taught him the real protocols for being a top manager. You even taught him how to dress and how to carry himself.”

In fact, Sturdivant had hesitated to offer “personal” advice to those who worked for him. He remembered talking once with Johnson about business suits, but he’d hesitated.

“Had I known that that kind of one-to-one exchange was valuable,” Sturdivant says, “I might have done more of it.” “I guess I didn’t realize the difference that something like that could make.”

Lesson: Sturdivant caught a glimpse of what most leaders never get to see: their leadership legacy.

—Adapted from Your Leadership Legacy, Robert Galford, Regina Fazio Maruca, Harvard Business School Press.

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