What My Sabbatical Taught Me About Reputation

When I left my corporate job of sixteen years to begin a year-long sabbatical I had no idea just how deeply it would change me. Over the course of that year, I touched the bones of dinosaurs and gazed upon cave paintings made by early humans. I walked on one of the world’s few remaining glaciers. I stood in the ruins of five thousand year old temples. I met a survivor of the Holocaust. I drank tea with a Bedouin family while surrounded by their herd of goats. I am a different person today than I was before I left.

Since my return I’ve been reflecting on all of the ways my sabbatical has deepened my appreciation for how reputations are built and lost. Here are a few thoughts:

Reputation is fate

I mean this quite literally. In the course of my travels I became a student of history. One of my favorite ways to spend a long train ride was listening to The History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud. In an early episode he discusses the Greek word “pha,” which meant “to say.” This word was borrowed into Latin as “fatum,” which meant “that which has been spoken.” It was borrowed again into English, this time as “fate.” Whether it was the gods or other people doing the talking, your fate had everything to do with what was being said about you. I don’t think much has changed. Our reputation still rests with what others think and say about us. It’s still our fate. 

Reputation is about the long view

The ancient Egyptians believed that the key to immortality was name recognition. That’s why they chiseled the pharaohs’ names so deeply into the walls of the temples. In some cases the carvings were so deep I could have slid the full length of my hand inside them. In business there is a tendency towards obsessive loyalty to monthly and quarterly metrics. When it comes to reputation, however, meeting short term goals is not enough.

Reputation is about deciding on that one thing you want to be known for and then chiseling your name deeper and deeper into that stone. I’ve seen a lot of reputation programs launched with great fanfare only to be abandoned because the payoff wasn’t quick enough or because the executive sponsor lost interest. The temples in Egypt are thousands of years old and we still know the names and exploits of the pharaohs. The empire may have fallen (as empires do), but the reputations of the pharaohs live on.

Reputation is not branding

It’s a lot of fun to build a brand – to cultivate an experience that inspires people. Branding is about preference. Reputation is bigger than that. I was reminded of this as I walked through the old headquarters of the Knights Templar in Tomar, Portugal. They had a solid mission, a huge following, and a logo so simple a child could draw it. But a strong brand wasn’t enough. Over time they’d developed a reputation for being overly secretive, unscrupulous, and too tolerant of criminal activity in their ranks. It didn’t really matter whether any of it was true. Their reputation had weakened, and that was enough for more powerful interests to exploit them. The reputation of the Knights Templar had decayed so much, in fact, that by the time they were headquartered in Portugal they had re-branded themselves the Order of Christ.

Reputation will be tested

Building a reputation takes time, and it will be tested in a crisis. A strongly ethical culture is a must for getting through a crisis. You must additionally:

  1. Declare what you want to be known for
  2. Associate yourself with others who are like minded
  3. Take consistent actions that support your position (i.e., make it part of your metrics)
  4. Bring data to the field

Do these things consistently and you’ll have built a strong reputation. If you don’t have the fortitude for the long haul then you’re just pretending at a legacy.

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