In Leadership (and Life), Let Your Reputation Take Care of Itself

For many leaders, concerns over how their actions will impact their reputation have a huge impact on their choices. But they don’t realise that this focus will never achieve its intended goal…

14th July 2009 published by


I often talk about the ability of the ego to sabotage our success. It interferes with relationships, decision making, our ability to perform in all sorts of situations and our general peace of mind. It makes us overly sensitive, self-indulgent, selfish, fearful, materialistic and likely to exploit others for our own personal gain.


In this article I want to focus on the tendency of our ego to get hung up on what other people think of us: our reputation. For leaders, in particular, this can have a huge impact on performance.


The error in focusing on reputation is that it is completely beyond our control and that at the same time we are making our own happiness dependent upon it.


As people become more successful in business (or life), the likelihood that they will experience rejection increases. Really successful leaders are routinely rejected even by people who have never met them. Plus, we all know that it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time - and attempting to do so a recipe for failure.


Worrying about what other people think about them leads people away from being authentic in towards saying and doing things just to get the approval of others. They start to ask themselves, "What will they think? ", "Did I say the right thing?", or "What would others do now?". And this kind of thinking becomes habitual.


An example of how badly questions like these affect us can be observed in the common fear of public speaking - said to be greater for many people than even the fear of death! I know from working with my clients that it definitely holds back even people who are already highly successful.


The problem with public speaking is that it holds the very real possibility that we may “say the wrong thing” or “cause others to think badly of us” with a large number of people all at the same time. Most people learn to become effective communicators one-to-one, but what gets in the way of them doing the same thing to large groups is their ego fears relating to their reputation.

Like so many of our habits, we become so used to these types of thoughts that few people stop to realise how much they shape their behaviours. The only way to eradicate them effectively is to understand the root cause then to remove it.


So why does having others think well of us have such a powerful control over us?


The answer to that question lies in childhood. Sadly, it is extremely common for parents to have completely unrealistic expectations of their young children. Expecting them to keep quiet, to sit still, to concentrate for extended period, or to keep their rooms tidy are good examples. This is not how most youngsters naturally behave.


The problems begin when a parent gets upset or angry with their child because they fail to meet their expectations. They get told, “Be good or I’ll get angry.” It is a natural conclusion, therefore, that when their parent gets angry the child thinks it must be because they are “not good enough” (it is thought that we all hold this belief to some degree at the subconscious level).


At the same time, every child wants to be loved. Before long, parents or some other authority figure in their life come along and provide the solution. They teach the child that it can get approval by doing what they want by giving a very positive response to “good” behaviour. The child feels happy - good about itself - and seeks to please more often.


Eventually the subconscious belief system forms that "what makes me good enough is having people think well of me." So when others aren’t thinking well of us we feel bad about ourselves.


Any time anyone doesn't like us, rejects us, or thinks poorly of us, the underlying belief "I'm not good enough" is uncovered and stares us in the face, raising self-doubts and producing anxiety. So we end up depending on something outside ourselves in order to feel happy, and we devote an enormous amount of our energy to making it happen. We feel good only as long as we can maintain it.


I had one client who was so controlled by this need that it was almost like a drug to him. He would attend meetings even when he knew that he would make no useful contribution if by doing so he would get some positive feedback or other evidence that he was accepted and valued by other people. He was addicted to the need for others to feel good about him.


The solution for him was the same as it is for anyone else with a similar problem – to remove the limiting belief at its core. This is most likely some variation on, “I’m not good enough.”


If you’ve ever experienced the “Impostor Syndrome” you almost certainly have this belief. The Impostor Syndrome refers to people who are unable to internalise their accomplishments. Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved or what external proof they may have of their competence, they remain convinced internally they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are actually frauds. I am constantly surprised by how many of my clients suffer with this problem. However, I also know the feeling because it affected me for many years.


Attempts to maintain reputation will at best provide temporary relief from the self-doubt that drives this behaviour. This is why I believe that the development of self-confidence and self-esteem is a vital part of leadership development and training. As self-belief grows it is accompanied by a huge sense of freedom and a reduction in stress as the need to attempt to control external conditions diminishes.



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