Your reputation precedes you

The bible tells the story of two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Their story sheds light on how we develop reputations. As Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky points out, both Jacob and Esau have their names changed in the story. Jacob’s name was changed to, “Israel” after outsmarting his uncle, Laban, fighting with his brother Esau, and battling an angel. For Esau the story is different. Esau’s name was changed as well to what is loosely translated as, “Blood-hungry Wild Man” simply for the way that he asked for some of his brother’s red lentil soup.

Rabbi Kamenetzky asks, “It is quite disconcerting. Each brother had a name change. But [Jacob] had to have his hip dislocated, he had to battle an angel. All [Esau] had to do was slurp some soup, and he acquired a demeaning name for eternity. Is that fair?”

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While it may not be fair, it is an important lesson in life, especially for leaders. It is much harder for a leader to positive a reputation than it is for them to earn a negative reputation. For example, I remember a colleague of mine once giving me some good advice: “In managing people, there are no throw away lines.” Lack of clarity can throw a team into chaos and this sentiment could one day evolve into a leader developing a reputation for being a bad communicator, for example.

The solution to managing our reputation is self-awareness and the ability to control our emotions. We do that first by being intentional about what we are trying to accomplish and what reputation we need to accomplish those goals. For example, as a leader, I feel that it is a regular part of my job to remind my team that I am a human-being and that I make mistakes. In being transparent, my goal is to help build a team culture where we give everyone the benefit of the doubt (this only applies for team members without performance issues – that’s a different topic) so problems come to the surface to be solved. At the same time, I need to balance this by being self-aware about over-sharing, which could cause undue stress to the team.

In contrast to self-awareness and emotion managing, some leaders have a reputation for being pushy, unreasonable, and generally challenging to work with. However, they develop a reputation that, in spite of their behavior, “they get things done,” which justifies keeping that person in a leadership role on the team. That reputation can hurt a leader in a role with transformational goals because the leader’s reputation is that they cause havoc among teams, but the ends justify the means. That kind of transactional reputation undermines the leader’s abilities to be successful in achieving transformational goals, as the culture will be inherently more resistant to any suggestion made by a bulldozing leader, as it would be seen as more hierarchical than transformational.

Regardless of the specific line of work, a leader’s reputation precedes them. People will always talk about the leader, and whether a leader can control it or not, he or she will always have a reputation. Even the bible tells us that it is easier to earn a negative reputation than a positive one. It is for this reasons that leaders must become self-aware and manage their emotions, so that they can manage many different situations without being burdened by a negative reputation.

KEY TAKEAWAY: If you are a leader, you already have a reputation. Is it a good one or a bad one? If you could be an invisible, “fly on the wall,” what would people say about you? How does that help or hurt you accomplish your goals?