Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda
The evening was getting late when my friend’s date turned to my husband, Simon, and said, “Your last name is Siegl. Did you happen to know Eleanor Siegl?” “Why yes,” Simon replied. “Eleanor was my mother. How did you know her?”
“Your mother saved my life.”
Seeing our puzzled looks, our guest went on to explain that she floundered early on in school. As a result, she was miserably unhappy young child. At the suggestion of a family friend, her parents enrolled her in a private alternative school in Bellevue, Washington called The Little School.
From that point, she said, her life turned around. The school gave her just the environment she needed to learn and thrive. After she graduated from The Little School, her new-found love of learning continued throughout the rest of her academic life and eventually enabled her to have a successful career as a financial executive at a prominent Seattle company.
The puzzle pieces fell into place for Simon and me: The Little School was founded in 1959 by Simon’s mother, Eleanor Siegl.
As a young mother, Eleanor saw the challenges that many children, including her own, faced in a traditional learning environment. She believed every child deserved to thrive in school. Her dream was to create an environment that freed children from sitting behind a desk and allowed them to learn in their own way and in their own time. After completing her training at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City and moving with her family to Seattle, Washington, she found others who shared her vision to serve on her board and join her in her fledgling endeavor.
The school started in the basement of a Seattle church and then moved to its current location in Bellevue in 1968 after an anonymous donor donated 10 acres of land to the school.
Eleanor retired in 1988 and continued to serve the school as a director emeritus and consultant. She died in 1996, ten years before Simon and I met, so I never had the opportunity to meet this remarkable woman in person. I did get to attend The Little School’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2009 with Simon and his siblings.
In my work with leaders, I often talk about the importance of having and sharing vision so that you can attract the best team members and customers who appreciate your product or service. When you talk about a vision that will not only give birth to a new organization but allow it flourish and continue to have the type of impact that this school had on our dinner companion, long after its founder’s passing, you are talking about something truly rare – a legacy.
Think about all that had to happen for Eleanor’s first vision to carry on. For her to make her dream a reality, she needed to find mentors, earn her teaching credentials and attract people who could help her set up a new school, unlike anything that previously existed in the Seattle area. She had to build a strong organizational and governing structure, secure stable funding sources, and attract and train inspired teachers and staff to keep it flourishing.
The Lasting Power of a Vision Shared
Eleanor knew the importance of sharing her vision, both in the Seattle area and with the national educational community, which enabled her to create strong partnerships. She continued to grow professionally, later earning a master’s degree and, at the age of 60, her doctorate. No doubt she expanded her skill set as an administrator and a leader many times over as she grew her organization. Was she thinking about building a legacy all this time? I don’t know, but I am sure she kept of all those future generations of young students in her mind.
It’s likely that the Little School’s current staff and board members never met Eleanor. The students know her as a friendly presence from a photo that graces the wall in the school library. No doubt the school has evolved beyond Eleanor’s vision in ways she never could have imagined.
Eleanor planted the seeds. Because of the clarity of her vision, her tenacity in keeping it alive and the skill of her leadership, others are now the stewards who carry it forward into the future.
Do you have a vision for your organization that has lasting power? If so, what seeds will you plant today in your garden to create lasting power for your vision? How will you strengthen your organization’s foundation to withstand the test of time? How will you continue to grow as leader and share your vision with others in your world?
In honor of my mother-in-law Eleanor Siegl and my own mother, Margaret Owen, and all the inspiring mothers out there, Happy Mother’s Day!
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