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When ancestral legacy speaks truth to power

Establishing your values requires a depth of self-awareness that’s critical to your success as a leader.

6 min read


Ken Frazier

Frazier (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

I have long believed that the ingredients for a successful career include skills, passions and values. When you are able to work at the intersection of these three, you’ve found the “sweet spot” from which you’re likely to deliver your very best and enjoy a sense of thriving in your work.

While I have not changed my position on the importance of this triad, recent national events have reinforced the significance of two essential components of self-knowledge: values and ancestral legacy.

Establishing your values requires a depth of self-awareness that’s critical to your success as a leader. In fact, knowing yourself as well as you know your craft is the difference between success and significance. It invites a profound exploration of not only your past experiences and relationships, but also the ancestral legacy you carry, and the insights you’ve gained from it. 

Ancestral legacy refers to the experiences and stories passed down in your family (biological or other) and how they’ve influenced your development and thinking. They have a profound effect on your personal narrative, of course, but they also impact your professional life, including the perspectives and judgment that you apply to business decisions.

Values and ancestral legacy prompted 12 CEOs to withdraw from the American Manufacturing Council since June, with the Elon Musk of Tesla being the first to resign after the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. The Council finally disbanded on Aug. 16 after only 201 days in existence.  A similar cascade resulted in the demise of the Strategic and Policy Forum, which was formed to advise the president on improving the American economy through jobs creation. The CEOs who chose to resign from these advisory bodies had to weigh their values, with shareholder, customer and employee expectations. I imagine that it was not an easy process for some.

Following the president’s comments on the tragic, racially charged rally in Charlottesville, Va., my former colleague, Merck CEO Ken Frazier, was the first to resign from the American Manufacturing Council. As one of only three African-American Fortune 500 CEOs, Ken likely wrestled with both his personal values and ancestral legacy, as he sought to balance what was best for the company he’s charged with leading. It’s nearly certain that he considered the backlash that he would risk receiving following his resignation, which indeed was swiftly delivered by tweet. And, like many other black executives that I know, Ken may feel that he’s held to a higher standard, placing even more emphasis on carefully evaluating his decisions prior to taking action.

In an email to me, Ken reinforced that this decision was a matter of conscience. After reading his note, I reflected that skill set alone had not driven his choice, though Ken is a highly competent executive. It was his understanding of self, coupled with a capacity for reflection and meaning making that allowed Ken to incorporate his values and ancestral legacy to inform courageous action. This, I thought, was a defining moment that has penned a new and important chapter in his leadership story.

Other leaders, like General Electric’s Jeff Immelt, made value-centered decisions that carefully considered how remaining on the Council aligned with their company’s core beliefs. Immelt’s successor, John Flannery, addressed this directly in an email to employees:

“In many world events, there can be ambiguities and shades of grey, but that is not the case in Charlottesville. Saturday’s march was an extremely offensive and disturbing display of hatred, bigotry and white supremacist views, which ended tragically. These actions – rooted in division, prejudice, and deep bias – could not be further from the values that we hold dear for the General Electric Company. I have worked for GE for 30 years and always have taken comfort and confidence in the core pillars of our culture and values – things like meritocracy, diversity, inclusion, and integrity. “

As a leader, you cannot disconnect your values from your heritage. Nor should you. To capitalize on the diversity present in your work environment, consider the fact that diversity is more than race, gender, ethnicity or sexual preference. It’s also perspective, born of your own ancestral legacy. Take time to consider how the insights you’ve gained through your family experiences have informed your thinking and shaped your values. As you encounter business challenges, what new perspectives might you gain from the ancestral legacies of colleagues with whom you work?

Inviting the stories that have shaped you into the full light of day arms you with the leadership insight required for making principled decisions, and inspires you to speak truth to power when appropriate. Ultimately, your story and the legacy stories of everyone on your team, endows you with the responsibility to assure that your actions deliver on the promise of the company’s brand.

It’s the most powerful lever you have for business success.


Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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