Leaving a Mark That Matters

The other day, I finally tackled a long-overdue task: reviewing a stack of VHS tapes to see what was on them and whether it was worth digitizing. Amidst the usual detritus (Patriots games and Saturday Night Live episodes of yore), I found an unexpected discovery: a tape of the 1993 lesbian and gay march on Washington. Replaying those clips, I realized the difference two decades has wrought — not just in the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the workplace, but even more so in our ability to create and access information that matters, and the responsibility that entails for every business leader.

I remember the April day of the march, though I couldn’t attend. I was a teenager living in a small town in North Carolina where I didn’t know any other gay people, so I spent the entire day inside watching the march on C-SPAN. When they announced a band or speaker I liked, I’d run up to the VCR and hit “record.” (We didn’t have a remote.) Information in those days was scarce — and ephemeral. Sans YouTube, it was obvious I had to be inside watching the proceedings, or I’d never have another chance.

Back then, when I felt alone, I would pull out and watch the tape to see hundreds of thousands of people like me — though they weren’t exactly accessible. (No listservs and chat rooms and blogs, where we could build actual relationships with actual people.) Back then, in taping the march, I positioned myself close to the TV — ready to spring at a moment’s notice — because there was no good way to edit the video down once it was recorded. (Alas, no iMovie.) Back then, like the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge, I too played the guitar and wrote songs — and dreamed of recording an album. My parents kindly ponied up for studio time, but once my collection of songs was recorded, there was no way to distribute it beyond friends I could dub a copy for. (No Facebook, no iTunes, no “share this” button.)

In some ways, this democratization has cheapened information. I don’t have to record TV programs anymore, because I’m certain I can find them on YouTube or Hulu or Netflix streaming. I don’t have to carefully pick my mixtape of the day to tote around because I can rest assured I have my entire collection in my phone. There’s no need to treasure or obsess over a song or video because it’s always accessible: the cloud has you covered.

But this proliferation has also added a new urgency — a new requirement — to what it means to be a business professional and a leader. Twenty years ago, it seemed like speaking up only made sense if you were a celebrity. If you were a CEO, or an elected official, or a well-known entertainer, the media would cover your remarks, print your op-ed, or put you on TV. For the rest of us, there was almost no point: who wants to spend their time creating something no one will see? Staying silent — not just about social issues, but about our perspective in general — was often the default, because there was simply no means of distribution.

Today, all that has changed. You can edit videos on your laptop with tools only George Lucas had 20 years ago. You can publish your ideas worldwide for free, instantly, and interact with your readers. And you can be sure there’s a point to creating it because, thanks to the Long Tail of the Internet, someone (and maybe a lot of people) will see it and, hopefully, find it meaningful. You can create a legacy that will be archived forever — something only the most exalted among us could ever hope for in 1993.

The tools of today have created a new responsibility. Not just in terms of job descriptions (though plenty of executives grouse about social media expectations). It’s a responsibility to yourself, your company — and your legacy. As a teenager, I would have relished finding a chronicle of others’ experiences; when you feel alone, a little wisdom and perspective can go a long way. Today, as a business consultant, my concerns are different — I’m writing about strategy and marketing and branding. But I’m doing it in a spirit that I think my 14-year-old self would have appreciated. Because for all us, no matter our backgrounds, we have to consider: what value can we add? How can we help others by sharing ourselves? What do we want our impact to be in the world?

So take up that microphone. Start writing that blog. Go live with that Twitter feed. And ask yourself: what are you doing to leave a mark that matters?

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on May 15, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.