All leaders have a brand. Whether that term is used or not, leaders have an identifiable persona that is a reflection of what they do and how others perceive them. I call this the leadership brand.
When it comes to cultivating a leadership brand, look no further than Oprah Winfrey, who recently announced that she would be ending her popular talk show in 2011. In a perceptive analysis, New York Times media columnist David Carr suggests that Winfrey's brand and the key to her longevity is a combination of things she didn't do as well as things that she did do. On the "don't do side," she did not over-merchandize nor take her company public; she kept control of her products and thereby her image, unlike Martha Stewart. On the "do side," she always stayed true to herself. As she told her business partner Gayle King years ago, "I don't know what the future holds but I know who holds it."
The lessons of Oprah's brand are relevant to any leader. First and foremost, understand that brand is what you develop as well as what others perceive. The balance between reality and perception can be shaky if you are not careful, but as we have seen from Oprah, not impossible.
Here are some lessons for cultivating your own positive leadership brand.
Practice what you preach. It's easy to say, but when the going gets tough, how many supposed leaders disappear into the shadows? Those who lead by example are willing to make tough decisions and be accountable for the consequences. They are also willing to lend a hand to colleagues and direct reports. These are go-to people who work extra hard when necessary. Nothing is stronger than seeing the boss do heavy lifting alongside an employee during crunch time.
Act on principle. This applies to work, where principles determine the quality and attention you deliver, as well as to values, where principles determine behavior. Employees who see their bosses standing up for the right way of doing things in the face of competition (from inside and outside the organization) will believe and follow. For example, make certain that employees are compensated (either monetarily or in time off) for overtime and are receiving recognition for jobs well done.
Insist on integrity. When it comes to a leadership brand, integrity is the lever one uses to get things done the right way. That means treating people with respect, regardless of their positions. Act for the benefit of the organization first and yourself second. Do things that honor the work you do as well as the people who work for you. Talking about integrity is one thing; insisting that you and your colleagues abide by is what matters.
Integrity is not reserved for big corporate dealings; it can focus on small things. For example, in tough times, make the choice to fly economy class rather than business class.
Some who read this might be thinking, poppycock! As a leader my job is to lead others not worry about my image. True, but not entirely. Your job as a leader depends upon getting others to follow your lead; they must trust you. Trust is essential to leadership, and a brand — how people perceive you — is critical to encouraging followership.
And there's one final point. Leaders make mistakes. A strong brand, just as a strong sense of self, can aid in a comeback. People will readily forgive a misstep if they believe your intentions were good. This applies not only to mistakes in business judgment but mistakes about people too. If you have done well, but make a bad call about a product or process, or even if you insult a colleague, a strong brand will give you a safety net. As long as you act quickly and make amends, you can restore trust because you have created a legacy of good will.
In short, your brand is a reflection of your credibility. Develop it wisely and nurture it carefully and it will help you create strong bonds of trust with your followers. Any doubt, just ask Oprah.