Reputation as Idol by Alec Hill
The Dangers of Focusing on Reputation
Abraham Lincoln once wrote: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
Lincoln is saying two things. First, Character matters, and we should diligently seek to cultivate it. Second, reputation is derivative and ethereal. We are not to pursue it directly or prize it too dearly. It is a shadow that can quickly disappear.
Far too often, I have reversed this equation. As a people-pleasing leader, I have basked in the glow of applause while ignoring weightier matters of my Character.
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller defines an idol as “a good thing turned into an ultimate thing.” When reputation is placed first, it can become our idol.
The Bible presents two views of reputation.
Positively, Proverbs teaches that “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (22:1). And, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul expects church leaders to be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7).
Negatively, Jesus warns: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you” (Luke 6:26) and pronounced an unexpected beatitude: “Blessed are you when men revile you” (Matt. 5:11). In the Old Testament, Isaiah prophesies that the coming messiah would be “despised, rejected, and held in low esteem” (53:3).
How can these opposite views be reconciled?
The answer lies in the difference between byproduct vs. goal. When leaders are well thought of because of their strong Character, that’s good. Paraphrasing Lincoln, the beautiful shadow is a byproduct of a beautiful tree.
But peril awaits when building and protecting our reputation becomes our primary goal. In striving for others to think highly of us, we are tempted to enhance our public image at all costs. In doing so, we begin to cut ethical corners.
Feeding the False Self
Much has been written about the true vs. false self. The basic concept is that when our public face differs substantively from who we are, a “reputation-reality gap” is created. This can lead to concealment, deception, and hypocrisy.
Of course, we all project a bit of our false selves. Social media posts generally show us at our best. But we enter dangerous territory when we allow a small differential to become a gaping chasm.
When polishing our persona becomes too high a priority – using Keller’s phrase makes a good thing into an ultimate thing. Hence, I cringe when people say they want to “build their brand” or “leave a legacy.”
How can we reduce the reputation-reality gap? By being transparent and confessing our flaws. When we no longer pretend to be what we are not, we are freed from the self-doubt and anxiety associated with maintaining a false self (James 5:16).
Vindication is From the Lord
Ray Donovan, a former cabinet member in President Reagan’s administration, sat under a cloud of suspicion for two years on charges of commercial fraud. When acquitted, he asked: “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”
The answer, of course, is that no such office exists. When our reputations are tarnished – fairly or unfairly – there is little we can do to restore them.
Leaders often feel this sense of injustice. Even when we acknowledge our mistakes, some staff hold it against us for years. Worse, our public standing suffers when we are falsely vilified (and often can’t explain our decisions fully).
In the Psalms, David repeatedly expressed his frustration about attacks on his character and his desire for the Lord to make things right. For example, in Psalm 7, he pleads: “The Lord judges the peoples. Vindicate me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me.”
While it is legitimate for us to try to clear our names, we must accept the limitations of such efforts. Returning to the pre-crisis status quo is virtually impossible once a pillow has been ripped open and feathers strewn into the wind.
Like David, we must learn to channel our anger and grief to the Lord who vindicates – perhaps not quickly or in the way we want – but who is sovereign and faithful.
Let us lead with integrity and worry less about our reputations. We have but one master to please, and He is good. When others think less of us, we should accept this as part and parcel of our leadership roles.
Alec Hill is President Emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. He served for fourteen years as InterVarsity’s president and previously was dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University.
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