Being the tree, not its shadow: questions about character drive risks to your reputation
“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” – Abraham Lincoln
How your character is seen by others is affected by what you and your close friends and colleagues do. Most of the time you try to be good. Occasionally you get things wrong and sometimes your close friends and colleagues make mistakes that affect you as well. Mistakes like these make others question your integrity, trustworthiness and honesty, also known as your reputation character. This is linked to your promises to deliver what you said you would.
Integrity is one of the most misunderstood and misused words in the English language. It’s variously defined as ‘the quality of being good and having strong moral principles’, or as ‘the state of being whole and undivided’. But it’s much deeper than that. In my experience, it’s really to do with ruthless consistency in your values, principles, methods, actions, measures, expectations, and outcomes. In other words, what you stand for, what you do, how you do it, and what impact you have, all matter. Moreover, the integrity of your close friends and colleagues also counts against (or for) your integrity. The twist is that, like risk, integrity is in the eye of the beholder, and rather like humility, just when you think you’re a person of integrity, you’re probably not.
A synonym of integrity, trustworthiness is the ability to be relied on as honest or truthful. Honesty of course is a concept with many shades. One person’s honesty is another’s brutality. And truth? I like Darrel Hough’s skit in his great book How to Lie with Statistics: “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate. “Well it ain’t statistics” said a voice from the crowd. In other words, truth too is a many shaded thing. Nevertheless, trustworthiness is something you need to aspire to if you’re to be deemed of good character.
So, in character we have a truly complex and challenging trait, comprised of several more complex and challenging traits. When we overlay the impact of the perceived character or behaviours of others on your perceived character, we have a recipe for, as they say, “interesting times”.
How on earth do you manage the risks associated with this challenging element of your reputation? It has to start with situational and self-awareness. How you read and perceive cues in your world really matters. Self-awareness or presence in the moment is vital to spotting signals that might harm your perceived character and so your reputation. You cannot mediate risks to your character if you don’t identify them. Character is, as I’ve noted, a not easily defined trait, but that doesn’t stop others from knowing when you’ve got it or when you haven’t! It’s all about perception and that means you need to be deliberately creative in how you present yourself. It also means that good stories need to be told about you and your close allies and friends. Bad stories are just that: bad. Learning from errors is critical. It can’t be superficial. It has to be deep where character is concerned.
Character casts a long shadow across your reputation and can put your reputation equity at risk. Be of good character.