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Character versus reputation: Implications for leadership

SHARE   |   Tuesday, 21 August 2018   |   By Dr Letshwiti B. Tutwane

Dr Letshwiti B. Tutwane

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Africa Awake!


Our focus this week is on the relationship between character and reputation. Let us start with definitions. I will use my own and keep away from the dictionary but I guess I will still achieve accuracy. Character is your true self and includes secrets such as bad habits that you know are unacceptable but you manage them by hiding them. These might include indebtedness (but you give the impression of a very rich guy), drunkenness, prurient habits, inclination to lie, and others. Other traits might be in the open such as late coming, use of vulgar language, favouritism (i.e. not appointing people on merit), and so on. Reputation on the other hand is what people think about you or what you make them believe you are. It normally takes the form of ostentatious behaviour; either language or dress or both. This flamboyance may also extend to frequenting expensive hotels, restaurants or renting expensive places and driving expensive cars. Whilst there is an impressive public display going on, in private this poor soul is troubled. He/she is stressed and may be battling creditors.  But in public they may wear a wide smile and walk confidently. Most people are fooled and life goes on.

From the foregoing we can see that good leaders need to invest in their character. Even if they have no reputation they will build it. Their results will speak for them. You shall know them by their fruits. A good reputation on the other hand cannot mutate into good character. Instead it will eventually be overtaken by character. You cannot brand rubbish. No matter how much money you spend on selling a fake brand, in the end it will show that it is fake. A bad leader will only last for a short time. (That is why if they are presidents they become dictators in order to survive). And when his character defects show, they will blow up on the organisation badly. The shame and embarrassment will be huge.


Unfortunately our society fails to realise these things. We are often persuaded by flamboyance and sound-bites. We can even break rules to accommodate such. But when we learn about organisational management we find that organisations must train their own people, teach them organisational culture and let them rise up the ladder. An organisation should sustain itself by self-renewal: producing fruits of its kind. That is why John Maxwell says reproduction is the highest stage of leadership. Exemplary leaders adhere to high standards of leadership. They teach these to the young ones/subordinates and these then take over. A good leader thus boasts of cohorts of leaders that he/she has produced. He /she is never intimidated by talent. Organisations that are properly run hardly run out of leaders. Actually they have a good pool from which to select. When organisations desperately and frantically scout for leaders it’s a sign of impending disaster. Of course this depends on what kind of organisation this is. International organisations and companies typically by nature routinely recruit new people to fill leadership/management positions. It may actually be a requirement. The same cannot be said for national voluntary organisations, especially ones that have been running for decades. They must produce leaders from within. The danger is if they cannot do so, they will pick just anything that looks like good leadership. And that often will be based on reputation. A serious organisation cannot pick somebody from the street and expect him or her to be a good leader. Proximity to an organisation and demonstrated commitment to its core values is critical. This is a sine qua non actually.  A leader who has no proximity to an organisation but suddenly finds himself/herself at the top will not value that organisation. You find that quite often during the time of elections, some political parties in Botswana approach anybody that they come across and recruit them to be their candidates, especially for parliament. It is short term convenience. It’s a simple and cheap strategy. But we know that cheap is expensive. The organisation normally pays a price for that. The candidate and the organisation do not know each other. They only discover each other along the way. It is trial and error and gambling with people’s lives. The results are normally nasty. It is bickering after bickering. An organisation cannot go far with this kind of behaviour. It must set itself high standards of leadership.

As I wrote recently, leaders are made. They are not born. Organisations need to groom their own people. When one looks at successful companies that have been running for decades or centuries you find that they are very particular about leadership. (You may wish to refer to Jim Collin’s book: ‘Built to last’.) Their leaders must adhere to their ideology, comprising of purpose and values. This explains why these organisations are very sensitive about what their leaders do. In the workplace and away from it they must lead by example. Any blot on the name of the leader is taken as reflective of the organisation. This is often internalised by the leaders. That is why in the West these leaders often resign on their own. They don’t wait to be pushed. And they will even apologise for their conduct.


However in our part of the world fanatics of these leaders will often go in a frenzy trying to defend them. They engage in aggressive polemical debates that do not reflect any appreciation of leadership. Recently I was engaged in a leadership debate with a fellow academic who tried to make a rabid defence of his leader. His lame excuse was that ‘everybody has a defect’. Unfortunately a leader is not everybody. The bar is set high for him/her. It is important to note that there are certain leadership defects that automatically disqualify somebody for leadership in the first place. If you overlook this for convenience you are only postponing your problems. If one is lazy, is a pathological liar, can’t keep secrets, can’t take advice from anybody, is a crook, for instance, they are not fit to hold office at all. They must be disqualified ab initio. Choose character over reputation. 

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