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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