Creative LeadershipEngaging Culture

How A Single Issue Can Destroy Your Perception (and Reputation)

Regardless of what you may think of President Bush and his legacy, some really positive things have happened during this tenure that the media isn’t much interested in reporting. Under the direction of drug czar John Walters, teen drug use is down 25% over the last 6 years. There are 860,000 fewer teens using drugs than in 2001.

The Medicare drug benefit plan has been a success – enrolling 24 million seniors with premiums running about 40% below projected costs. Even his hard stand on stem cells, trying to balance scientific progress with moral concerns appears to be vindicated. And even Democrats admit the surge is working in Iraq.

But overall, the war itself continues to drag his approval ratings into the cellar. It’s the type of issue that overshadows progress in other places and will imprint his legacy forever. Other presidents have faced similar issues – Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson with the war in Viet Nam, or Bill Clinton with a certain infamous intern.

Jimmy Swaggart did some amazing things for decades through his international ministry, and I understand at one time was the single largest donor to Assembly of God causes. He held evangelistic crusades in multiple nations, had a successful national television program, and built a Bible college. But a moral weakness pretty much wiped the slate clean when it came to the perception of the public. He seems to have resurrected his ministry and media outreach, but while it apparently is bringing in a lot of money, he’s never been fully accepted back into the mainstream ministry world.

Little will be mentioned in the future about the enormous size and impact of the church Ted Haggard built in Colorado. Thousands of people, hundreds of outreaches, lives transformed, and more. But once again, his name doesn’t come up without reference to improper sexual allegations in a Denver hotel room.

My point is that a lifetime of great deeds and accomplishment can be wiped out by one bad – or challenging – decision. It’s not always “failure” – but even something the public perceives as a mistake, can render a lifetime of work pretty much worthless.

In many cases, it’s a matter of not understanding perceptions. Oral Roberts had one of the largest and most influential ministries of it’s time. He built a great university, and attempted perhaps the largest faith-driven medical center in history. He was the most popular religious leader on television during his peak, and yet few will remember Oral without referencing the “$30 million or God will kill me” incident. I knew Oral at the time, and that implication was far from his mind – but he was from a generation that didn’t really understand the power of perception, and the way he expressed it in the media did irrevocable damage.

Consider the power of perception. In my book “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media” I talk about the fact that a great brand isn’t what a company says, it’s what the public says. No matter how great you think you may be, the public makes the real decision.

Good perception can transform a project, organization or person, but when it’s negative, it is unforgiving, swift, and cruel.

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  1. Sounds like your past experiences took on a more personal nature and tianted your perception of what God and His Word can do in the life of say, a scoundrel, sinner, reprobate or even heretic.  We all know, "The wages of sin is death."  But in God's world, there is life after death…which is often what is needed.  In the final analysis, there often must come a death before real life (eternal) can spring forth, ie., Ted Haggard.  I've been in this longer than most and have seen, "the good , the bad, and the ugly" within the church, coming in all shapes, sizes and colors.

    Since it was such a "life-changing event," maybe you need to move on and become one of those who is "the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in."

  2. The problem W has is the lingering nature of this war. Americans like quick wars where we can fly in and guide bombs directly into the teeth of anyone smoking a cigarette. Desert Storm. Grenada. Panama/Noriega. The air raid on Libya.

    Hit quickly and get home before the seasons have time to change.

    Deposing a government and installing a new one is much harder and thankless work. At least in the short term. Only history will reveal the full effectiveness or futility of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But perceptions are created quickly and massively on our media driven planet. A coaching legend like Woody Hayes is best remembered by many for a punch at a photographer. And who can forget (as hard as we try) the ghastly display of Roseanne Barr singing the National Anthem before a baseball game?

    For me it was getting caught picking my nose in kindergarten. To this day, I still get hate mail about it from traumatized classmates.

  3. There is a huge difference between building God’s Kingdom on earth His way and building one’s empire in the name of the Kingdom of God. The former makes the those who build it forsake their own reputation and live their lives in the light of Him; the latter is deemed on the basis of the personality of the builder and in the light of the people. Unfortunately in the West especially the US there is a corporate mindset concerning the things of God and not a Kingdom mindset where it is the King’s mindset regarding the matter and all belongs to Him not us – we are just partakers/stewards/beneficiaries of His Kingdom. In reference to your statement “Consider the power of perception. In my book “Branding Faith” I talk about the fact that a great brand isn’t what a company says, it’s what the public says.” you are very correct because this is in regards to a westernised, democratic and corporate American mindset which unfortunately many churches are building on. The Body of Christ is first and foremost God’s family on earth and an extension of His Kingdom – it is not a republic neither a government operated by the people through the leaders but a government operated by the King for His people. The King is responsible for His subjects (Romans 14:4) no matter their condition but the subjects are responsible to the King and His servants/children (Galatians 5:13-16). If the Prodigal Son can be forgiven restored and welcomed back to His Father’s house who are we to write off anybody based on the perceptions and failed values of a world that does not operate on love but on a sin concept which is performance based. That is not where I get my values from anymore.

  4. That's a common misconception that sounds very religious, but is actually quite naive.  The Bible talks about (1 Thessalonians 5:22) – "Abstain from all appearance of evil."  So perception is important – not just to the world, but to God's people as well.  The prodigal son was restored, but chances are few other than his father would have allowed him back to a position of authority.  God forgives, but it would be irresponsible to put a leader back into a position of authority without a long process of restoration.  Why go through that?  Make your life transparent, and do your best to respect the damage a single mistake or wrong perception can cause.    

  5. I realize it's a parable too and too much shouldn't be read into it, but the loving father, even while rebuking the older brother for his lack of love for the returned brother, still affirms to him that "all that I have is yours" meaning that even through the prodigal son was forgiven and restored to the position in the family, his inheritance was still gone and the eldest son not penalized in this way.

    That's a bit of a stretch hermeneutically to rest a case on, but it is consistent with a multitude of passages relating to leadership.

    If there is one element of the Christian community I observe today that gives me grief it is this idea that forgiveness and restoration means an elimination of temporal consequences and the accusation that any who advocate otherwise are either being judgmental or unforgiving.  What frustrates me about it is that that attitude is one of the reasons why the Church has more than its share of toxic leaders and is in fact being rebuked and ridiculed by the world. 

    The more severe examples are the sex scandals in the Catholic Church, but they are not unique there.  Failure to discipline and then placing and replacing problem priests and ministers without disclosure and without a period of time of discipline, counselling etc. on the basis of showing forgiveness and not being judgemental is irresponsible and completely foreign to how I understand the scriptures to address these types of issues.

    I'm all for restoration, grace, mercy and love being shown to the highest degree possible.  However, restoration to the body at large and leadership within it, are two separate issues.  It's not a given that a leader will be restored fully to a prior position.  In the example of sexual abuse, it's actually pretty well proven that the incidence of repeat offenders is so high, that it is irresponsible to place a leader back into a situation that allows for unrestricted or unaccountable access to children or counselling etc.  God forgives.  The body forgives and extends love and mercy.  That doesn't mean the same leadership opportunities remain open. 

    Gordon MacDonald is a great example for those who want to examine a case study of a well known pastor who fell and a responsible Church body that worked with him and saw a restoration to ministry, but it took time and the process wasn't easy and further there was no guarantee that restoration to the pastorate would be a given.

    I Corinthians deals with this to some degree.  Christians are very prone to falling into camps based upon strong, charismatic (in the personality sense) leaders.  So much so, that there's a danger that we identify by those leaders more than we identify in Christ.  Paul saw it and guarded against it in his ministry and warned the Corinthians to avoid it.  When it happens and an environment of near absolute trust in a leader is manifested to where even questioning such a leader is equated with attacking God's annointed, toxic leaders are given power and license to abuse the flock and the price is high.  Accountibility is good for all of us, including and especially those of us with the highest callings of leadership in the Church.  Servant-Leaders model accountibility and if they are in a situation where there is none, they take the lead to make themselves accountible to a board, other elders etc.  Those who don't, leave themselves open to the perception of evil and far too often the temptation to abuse power is too great and they fall.

    History and today's newspapers are replete with multiple examples.  It saddens me more than any other element I had to deal with while I was in formal ministry.

  6. I never mentioned anything about putting a fallen leader back into a position of leading other people in my comment – please don’t put words in my mouth or make assumptions that I was not referring to in the first place. Also what are you referring to in my statement as a common misconception here that sounds religious? BTW if the Father restores you are restored period. I can see this becoming another theological debate and personally I am not interested as you are entitled to your opinion but it appears to me that many are very happy when a leader fails at any level in the Body of Christ and we are just so quick to join the world in shooting them down and we don’t see how that affects us. What would happen if that was your child that fell publicly – or do you think they are incapable of doing it? What then would you do? It is only when it comes close to home that we are now more compassionate – and it doesn’t have to be that way if we recognised that we are in the same family. I think in the US many Christians have forgotten what it means to suffer for their faith. Life is too good for many of you and therefore there is no need to dig deep into your faith. There is nothing right now that is making you know how much you need each other and it will take some devasting events for many of you to remmeber the love of Jesus Christ amongst yourselves. When the opinions of the world have higher regard in terms of a fellow brother and sister especially when it goes from constructive criticism to plain outright mockery whether we like it or not we are affected. You place yourself as if you are above failure but what if you were not born in Christian family?

  7. King David fell but paid a terrible price but was fully restored.

    Job suffered much loss because of the fear in his life…"the thing I feared."  His life was a type of scandal with all the critics and, "What did you do?"  Whether true or not it was devastating.  In the end, he was restored to even a "higher position" with greater possessions than he started out with.

    The Apostle Paul, before his Damascus road experience thought he was doing right by living by the law.  In Romans, he tells of the struggle in his life…though this was actually presalvation…wanting to do good but ending up doing the bad.  After the Damascus road experience, he did spend a period of years in submission to God and tutelage.  Christians kept him at a distance.  But he proved himself by his character and obedience.

    At any given moment, God would have taken Judas back and restored him to the original twelve but he "could not find a place of repentance."  God was willing but Judas could not find it in himself to forgive himself, forget and move on.  The twelve Apostles were some of our first church leaders.

    The saying, "God forgives and forgets but people do not," is sadly often true.  The scarey part, Breaklight, is the people who have sinned, secretly or otherwise and have never been "caught."  Yet, they will place themselves in a position of judge and jury, condemning others for their public sins.  How many times have we seen those doing the condemning, only to find out later of their own "secret indiscretions," leader or layman.  The door swings both ways.  That is why, "The measure with which you judge, will be the same measure used to judge you." 

    I am with you Breaklight in your estimation…"U.S. many Christians have forgotten what is means to suffer for their faith."  "There is nothing right now that is making you know how much you need each other and it will take some devastating events to remember…"   Those are some strong but necessary words….hence, Gal. 6:1-10, admonishing the body to restore, love and forgive, lest the same happen to us."  Sin has it's wages but grace and mercy are always available.   "Religious?"  I guess it is a matter of what you believe…God's Word or man's word.  Breaklight, I think your last statement nails it…"to place yourself above failure," that is selfrighteous, smug and "religous."  Yes, we should be so thankful we are in the Christian family where there should be more "esteeming the other brethren more highly than ourselves."  I have no idea what is going on in ones life…sadness, joy, anger, hidden sin…but grace, forgiveness and restoration are always available…too many success stories to argue with.  There will always be those who major on the minors and seemingly capitalize on the failures of others.  I call it the carnal, piranha feeding frenzy.           


  8. There's no question that there are spectacular instances of Grace and Restoration in the Bible and in the body today.  Thank God for that.  We're all sinners and we're all in the process and have not arrived.

    There will always be a tension between the positional and the practical and the Scripture itself recognizes it.

    It's ironic though to me that those who wish to condemn any form of "judgmentalism" in this regard are themselves offering a judgment.

    It's was a life-changing event for me in having to deal and be involved with many tragic issues in the Church.  I thank God for the grace available to us all.  Those who wish to speak of consequence free immediate restoration should spend some time sitting in a room looking into the eyes of violated teenage girl and her family, or a betrayed husband or wife, and consider the risk and wreckage that comes when sin is glossed over.  Eternal forgiveness doesn't alway equal immediate suspension of temporal consequences or relieve Church leaders of their responsibility to protect God's Flock.

  9. It is so hard for us to get the focus off what we, the church think, and to what the world sees.

    Maybe what Phil C is talking about is the perception the wider community has when they see Christian leaders fail. We can restore them, forgive them, whatever our theological bias is….but the world will always refer to them as 'that leader who sinned in such and such a way". 

    This is why I believe that the best way to deal with a situation is to tell the truth, and the whole truth….be as open and transperant as possible. Once the story is out there, then the sting is taken out of it.

    Case in point…Haggard. While Haggard seems to be tainted by the issue, the leadership at New Life Church are perceived to be a great group of people, because they kept the public informed all the way. Even in recent times when they are clearly not happy with Haggard breaking off from the restoration process, they let people know.

  10. With all due respect Amerikan, if you wish to compare your homespun wisdom in this regard with years of experience as a pastor and denominational worker who has been in the trenches, that’s your business.

    Thank you for your suggestion. I’ll give it all the consideration it is due.

  11. That's the classic example of business ethics as well.

    If you want a contemporary example now of a company stumbling in this area, there was a very recent instance in Russia involving Coca-Cola that is illustrative.

    Coke is declining in sales in its traditional markets such as the US and Western Europe.  Sports Drinks and Vitamin Water are increasing in market share.

    Worldwide sales are increasing because emerging markets such as Russia and India are surging.

    Coke has been in Russia since 1980 and put its first plant there in 1994.  In an effort to be culturally relevant, they recently designed new vending machines which have Russian Churches, the Kremlin and other Russian Icons placed in the front of the machine along with a large Coke Bottle.  Sounds nice, right?

    However, some of the artwork was flipped in the process and some of those icons, in particular the Russian Orthodox Church Crosses were inverted.  In that culture, that is a symbol of Satanism.  A large but growing outcry has been developing there since late December of last year when they hit the street.

    Coke has a choice on how to respond.  They responded at first, by downplaying it and admitting they made a mistake but that it was an innocent one and they didn't mean to offend.  More importantly, they left the machines on the streets.

    The outcry grew.  Coke finally offered a more strident apology, and announced they were removing the machines a couple of weeks ago.  There is still a lot of hurt and now a lawsuit.  Coke in the minds of a large segment of Russian Orthodox and more traditional people in Russia is now the company that disrespected their culture and religion to sell soda.  I imagine they'll survive and get through.  It's a classic example of cultural insensitivity and a marketing and branding nightmare though.

  12. My apologies on not recalling page 98 in your book. I was actually thinking about my media class at ORU. I remember reading and discussing the Tylenol company and thinking what a great company to be associated with.

    Remaining Steadfast,


  13. Hey Phil –

    I have been pondering this perception question a lot since I finished your book. It dawned on me today that I read about a perfect example of a company handling perception correctly.

    The Tylenol company had an incident a several years ago where some of their Tylenol was tainted. I don’t remember the exact facts as to how it became tainted except it was done by someone outside the company, but what I do remember is the response of the company. They knew that public perception could turn negative and their company would be over.

    So, they pulled all Tylenol off the store shelves and reaffirmed to the American public that their safety was of utmost importance to them and they would not put out a product unless it was safe.

    Now, had Tylenol not done that, they might not exist today.

    Other companies in comparison have defended themselves and turned to legal avenues and often suffered the consequences by losing their loyal audience/customers.

    Instead of losing their company, today Tylenol is touted as one of the best examples in Media of correctly protecting their brand and the perception of said brand by their audience by doing what was right and reaffirming the fears and concerns of Americans.

    Basically, that is what we as Christians should do. I am reminded of that verse that talks [and I am loosely paraphrasing here]about we are as Christians free to do anything under the law but not everything is profitable.

    In essence, what we do translates into how we are perceived which translates into how we are received.

    Remaining Steadfast,


  14. Phil… Always enjoy reading your thoughts on this site, and Chris Busch's responses and reflections as well.  Just one little correction in this particular article…  I believe OR was only going for 8 million dollars (not 30 million) at the time he went to the prayer tower and said God might "call him home" if he didn't raise it. (of course, you might have been adjusting for inflation)

    Also…. can't resist the opportunity to weigh in a personal comment on Bush.  I cannot think of a poorer example of presidential leadership projection, than what we have seen in the last eight years from the Bush White House.  The few positive accomplishments you cited seem totally unrelated to any affirmative agenda by his administration, and more a consequence of "in spite of George Bush'" than the result of any true leadership initiatives.  The single most important quality of a president and administration is the ability to appeal to our hopes and our best, to lift and to excell.  That has never been a priority or theme of the George Bush message.

    My personal perception of this president has never moved beyond that of the Yale fratboy who stumbled into, and subsequently squandered the inheritance of a good family name and political power.  In my estimation, the greatest single highlight of his infamous legacy will be how he so effectively and single-handedly eroded and diminished America' presence, power and prestige on the international stage.

    All for now…. Ciao!

  15. Well done Lynwood.  Jeff Pittman – television director at the ministry at the time confirms your number.  Oral was raising the $8 million based on the cost of $40,000 per year for 200 medical students, and that's where the number came from.  Thanks for the clarification!

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