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The One Thing That’s More Important Than Your Reputation

For years, educators, employers and parents have told our young adults to build their personal brand. Now that folks can do this on-line, it’s become the pursuit of millions of 20-something Millennials and teens from Generation Z. Every young person wants people to recognize and follow their “brand.”

However, because our personal brand can be constructed through an inaccurate persona we post on social media platforms, I am concerned our students have received the wrong message. They are in a hunt to build a “reputation,” but they are building it on an insecure foundation.

This is a subtle shift from the past, but an important one.

While I believe our reputation is vital in a community (a school campus, a club, a company or with our social media followers), it is an outcome that can be achieved artificially with little or no substance. I have never seen so many young people pursue “image management” as I do today. Unfortunately, our young people have learned this from their elders. After all, most of the outcomes we’ve put on them are external (like grades, behavior, or athletic performance), not internal.

Our Culture’s Push to Create a Reputation

Coach John Wooden always said, “Your reputation is who people think you are; your character is who you really are.”

I have seen this quote illustrated countless times. It takes the form of a college student who works tirelessly on his or her reputation but has very questionable character. When people discover who they really are (which eventually happens in time), the truth is a letdown and their social media reputation eventually catches up to reality. The resume they padded, the Instagram account they set up, the website they built, the social media messages they sent—all lose meaning. In short, people discover our true integrity via intimacy. When our integrity is sketchy, intimacy is lost and reputation sinks.

Once again, it’s a let down.

Author Donald Miller echoes this when he says, “People don’t judge who we are, they judge who we’ve led them to believe we are. The more time and effort we put into making ourselves look great, the longer and harder the fall when the truth comes out. And eventually the truth comes out.”

My Resolve to Change Pursuits

Over the years, I have decided to ditch working on my “reputation” and work on my “reality.” In other words, my integrity is the key to solidify how others view me. Remember, the term “integrity” simply means “one” or “whole.” In math, an integer is a single digit. When I have integrity it doesn’t mean I’m a perfect leader. It means what I say and what I do are the same. I am transparent about who I am. It’s the opposite of hypocrisy. As I work on my character my reputation takes care of itself, because I am not pretending to be anyone other than who I really am.

At Growing Leaders, I air much of my dirty laundry to my team and we laugh at my humanity. As a Type 1 diabetic, they’ve all seen my vulnerabilities, when my blood sugars go low and I can’t think straight for a bit. They’ve seen my weaknesses because I disclose them. I ask for help. I don’t merely hide behind my strengths. We talk through the glaring mistakes we all make so there are no “elephants in the room.” The phrase I often use with our team is: Let’s take our mission seriously, but let’s not take ourselves too seriously. This doesn’t mean I am not serious about building my character, it simply means I am authentic in the process.

Integrity beats image. Character beats reputation.

So, let’s allow our reputation be an outcome, not a pursuit. Let’s work on our character and not on our image. When others judge us, let’s not react, but stay steady, developing a robust character that will cause others to not believe any gossip about us and hence, maintain our solid reputation.

Consider this statement Donald Miller makes: “People only judge those who claim to be better than others…more righteous, more moral. When I’m ethical, I just look good. When somebody who works on their reputation isn’t ethical, they find themselves in social court. Working on our reputation is just a dumb move.”

Axioms to Live By:

1. To the degree I pretend, I lose a proportionate amount of intimacy. I can’t be close to someone if there is pretense. Intimacy demands transparency.

2. When I focus on reputation, I turn life into a game or contest and keep others at arm’s length. I wear myself out keeping score on both me and others.

3. When I’m caught up in my image, I must remember all the white lies I’ve told, which becomes laborious in relationships. We can forget who we really are.

4. When my pursuit is an amazing reputation, I can be prone to distort, deceive, or exaggerate my stories or descriptions. The end justifies the means.

5. When I am proactive about my lifestyle, and live by principles, most of my reputation and image issues take care of themselves.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation is like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, the tree is the real thing.”


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  • gschneider

    There’s another great book that speaks to this even in more depth & goes hand-in-hand with what’s been shared here – Scary Close by Donald Miller. It’s about being brave enough to drop our pretense & mindfully be more authentic in our relationships with others.

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