“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” So mused humorist Mark Twain upon learning of his premature obituary in the New York Journal. On another occasion, a decade later, the New York Times declared him lost at sea yachting from Virginia to New York. Again untrue, Twain issued a wry statement: “I will make an exhaustive investigation of this report...I sincerely hope that…judgement will be suspended until I ascertain the true state of affairs.” In our own time, the combination of human error coupled with the speed of technology compounds this problem. On August 27, 2008, Bloomberg News inadvertently published the passing of Apple founder Steve Jobs to pancreatic cancer.
And while such mistakes were cause for humor, in the Jobs’ case, pause, the following errant story involving Alfred Nobel, the Swedish munitions manufacturer, totally changed a reputation for generations to come.
When Alfred Nobel’s brother Ludvig died in 1888, a newspaper ran a long obituary not of Ludvig, but of Alfred, believing he had passed. Alfred had the rare opportunity to read his obituary while still alive. What he read horrified him. For Alfred’s invention of dynamite, the article described him as the “merchant of death,” as he was the individual who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly and efficiently than anyone who had ever lived. Nobel was stunned and shortly after established the Nobel Prize. Chance or providence altered the course of the dynamite inventor’s life. How utterly unique that Nobel’s mission and public reputation was radically changed in such a dramatic way.
It is not often that we can know the impact of our actions and re-adjust our missions accordingly. This is especially difficult in our very public and transparent world which seeks to define individuals by a particular misdeed, action or ‘bad patch’ in their lives. We tend to recall public figures by those mistakes instead of the whole sweep of their lives. The media is not helpful in this regard since the sound bite culture provides convenient and ubiquitous ways to recall the foibles of the well-known. Consider President Ford when he tripped deplaning, Jimmy Carter’s confession of ‘lust’ in his heart, Vice President Quayle’s misspelling of ‘potato’ and a recent Delaware Senatorial candidate declaring she was not a witch. Displacing a negative image or altering a public reputation is difficult work. Ask Charlie Sheen, John Edwards or Lindsay Lohan. They will all spend a lifetime trying to ‘undo’ the damage of some bad choices. Yet I am certain that they are more than their public reputations would suggest.
An entire industry has emerged to assist those who are ‘reputationly challenged’. Consultants seek ways to reintroduce their clients to the public. A friend familiar with the Eliot Spitzer saga claimed that Spitzer had retained 2 public relations firms to assist with the rehabilitation of his public persona.
This matter of reputation is fascinating on many levels. When I served in the Reagan White House, I found myself in the General Counsel’s office for a meeting. Fred Fielding served several presidents dating back to service for Richard Nixon. On Fred’s wall was a Herb Bloc cartoon that captured the aftermath for former staffers of the Nixon scandal. The cartoon was of two individuals sitting in Sid’s Employment office. A grizzled man in a soiled shirt with a cigarette hanging from his lips stared intently at a young former White House staffer sitting across his desk. The white-shirted staffer was eager, listening to Sid’s every word. “You’ve got a great resume, kid, except for having been on the White House staff.” Whereas White House service was once a career maker, post-Watergate, it was not. Reputations are made or destroyed in a moment, particularly by association.
I asked Fred for a copy of the cartoon. Little did I know that the truth of it would extend to the recently tarnished reputation of my former firm, Goldman Sachs. Once the ‘gold standard’ on Wall Street, it now has a huge black eye. These days I find myself on the defensive when probed about the firm.
In some senses, a good reputation is overrated. Biblical figures whom we now celebrate, in their day had real ethical and moral challenges. King David was a murder and adulterer (great advertisement for your next church youth worker!). And consider Peter, the one upon whom Jesus built the entire church, denied even knowing the Savior on three separate occasions.
Perhaps we should hold this matter of reputation with an open hand. We tend to glorify earlier times and view the 50s, for instance, as problem free, full of goodness and light. Our current moral and political climate seems unique, much worse than at any previous time. But was it so very different during Lincoln’s day? Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, Team of Rivals, makes clear that it was pretty rough and ugly in those days too. Lincoln was attacked mercilessly for his inferior education, background, rough looks, even his intelligence. His foes constantly sought to ravish his public image and standing. Lincoln’s approach to his reputation was quite instructive because it was so utterly counterintuitive. When asked how he withstood the relentless criticism, Lincoln, rather than responding in kind, declared one sentiment repeatedly, ‘If my detractors could know what I am truly like, they would understand that I am far worse than they could ever know.’
The truth of our lives is that we are all flawed, much worse than others could know. Lincoln merely had the courage to say it.
In the late 70s, I had the experience to befriend former Governor and Senator from Iowa, Harold Hughes. Hughes was bigger than life in every regard, personality, physical presence, and yes, the voice. I once introduced him and said that if Senator Hughes read the phone book, audiences would be moved.
Harold Hughes had been a truck driver and alcoholic. When he was running for Governor, he was very candid about his problems. In one debate, Hughes challenged his opponent who had claimed that Harold had been in jail in 4 states for drinking and fighting. Hughes bellowed his retort, ‘that’s a damn lie...it was 6 states.’ Hughes won handily. The electorate was ready for such candor and rough genuineness.
It seems that we are all conflicted. On the one hand, we admire excellence and beauty, while on the other we don’t quite believe it to be the whole story. Remember in high school, were you drawn to your best looking or smartest classmates? I imagine not. We all feel safer with real people who seem to be comfortable in their skin.
Jesus again is our role model. He seemed intent on one mission: to please the Father. He was accused of being a drunkard and an associate of dubious types, prostitutes and thieves (tax collectors). Remember the time that a prostitute entered a room and washed his feet with her hair. How’s that for getting out of your comfort zone? Awkward! This certainly didn’t help his reputation. But his identity was not defined by any such association. No ‘image management’ here. In fact, he leveled withering criticisms not at ‘sinners’, but at the sanctimonious types: hypocrites, pharisees and religious leaders who relished in doing religious acts to be seen by others. They clearly put image before a pure heart. In fact, he referred to them as “white washed tombs”, attractive on the outside, dead within.
The story of mankind seems to be one of hiding. Hiding who we truly are and attempting to project a persona that is untrue to our reality. In the book of Genesis, it is recorded that Adam and Eve hid from God after they had sinned, fearing the consequences of God’s displeasure. God asked then and seems to be asking still: ‘Where are you?’
We all fear that if anyone really knew us, they wouldn’t like us. The striking thing to me is that God knows us completely and yet still loves us despite our failings and reputations, both good and bad.
Whether we have a very public reputation and image like Alfred Nobel, Mark Twain or Harold Hughes, or a more private one, it is important to remember how God views us, and that by living openly and lovingly, admitting our faults and shortcomings, we can perhaps affect our small circle of influence and make a positive difference.
J. Douglas Holladay is founder of PathNorth, which serves as a resource for business leaders to bring meaning and fresh perspective to both work and life.