Abraham Lincoln suggested, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” So, it would seem quite simple that if you wanted to build a good reputation you would work hard to be how you desired to appear. And, if you spent your time helping other people build good characters and reputations, it is more than likely that you would have built a fine reputation for yourself in the meantime.

As a cultural economist, I sometimes think that the mechanism of the reputation was designed as a method of social control. Whether it was designed or invented as such, it certainly works that way. Reputation is the opinion that people typically hold about the quality or character of an individual or entity. That opinion is formed by a social evaluation based on some set of social criteria. In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about managing your reputation or your company’s reputation, and even how to salvage a reputation that has been lost or tarnished.

Businesses have become more conscious of their perceived reputations because they are discovering that a noble reputation is valuable, and can be bartered in the public square for trust. That same trust can then be cashed in when it comes to premium prices to be paid, readiness to invest in corporate stock, and willingness to hold on to shares in times of crisis. To state it plainly, a good reputation is one of the essential forms of company capital. Even employee loyalty and supplier service is affected by the reputation of a business.

After a period of time, attributes such as reliability, credibility, and trust worthiness that result from sterling character will generally manifest themselves in honorable reputations. It is just good personal and corporate business to possess a reputation of goodness. Dwight L Moody used to say, “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of me.”

In June 1998, I was requested to travel to Tirana, Albania. The news was full of reports of ethnic Albanians being massacred in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbian Yugoslavia. It sounded like a bloody repeat of the recent Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia atrocities. Widespread violence had erupted resulting in riots, where angry mobs attacked military arsenals and stole all the guns, grenades, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. The weapons were instantly spread to the hands of the citizens. The ethnic cleansing situation in Kosovo had destabilized the entire political environment in the Balkans. Thousands of refugee families were escaping the Kosovo area in farm wagons and carts and fleeing into Albania. The architect of that diabolical scheme of the ethnic cleansing was Slobodan Milosevic. With the help of Radovan Karadzic and his underling, Momcilo Krajisnik, well over 200,000 men, women, and children were massacred.

On Tuesday, June 23, I traveled from Athens, Greece, to Tirana, Albania, with Captain James Terbush, the US Department of State’s medical liaison for that part of the world. Upon our arrival, we were met by the Albanian Minister of Health, the director of the large Mother Theresa Hospital, and the US Ambassador to Albania, along with her senior staff members. Everyone had been made familiar with Project C.U.R.E. before we arrived, and they all knew of our mission to bring badly needed donated medical supplies and pieces of medical equipment into the refugee camps and the Albanian hospitals and clinics.

By 1:00 that afternoon, we were scheduled to appear at the Presidential Palace for formal meetings with Rex Mejdani, President of Albania. The US Ambassador led our entourage to the Palace. As we walked up the entrance steps, the colorfully clad soldiers drew their swords and held them up in a parade salute position. As we passed by, they turned together, and we passed under the tips of their swords into the Palace, where government officials and the President’s security men warmly greeted us. 

US Ambassador Lino opened the meeting and gave a brief situational overview, and introduced me to President Mejdani. For two hours we made plans regarding the needed medical supplies for the refugees as well as the hospitals and clinics in the war-torn areas.

Upon our return to Athens, Greece, I was summoned to the US Embassy for a meeting with US Ambassador Nicholas Burns. As I was being introduced, the Ambassador held up his hand and broke into the conversation, “Oh yes, I am thoroughly acquainted with the wonderful work of Project C.U.R.E. around the world. The Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and I and a handful of others were just in Hanoi, Vietnam. They told us there of all the things Project C.U.R.E. was doing in Vietnam, and how Project C.U.R.E. had agreed to help in a big way at the hospital in Vietri, north of Hanoi. Since I heard about Project C.U.R.E. with Secretary Albright, I have wanted to meet the founder, Dr. Jackson. It was my pleasure and delight to meet personally with you this morning!” 

Well! After I had stopped choking on my own tongue, I blinked my eyes and was able to respond in a dignified fashion to the Ambassador. That was the first time I had ever experienced the fine reputation of Project C.U.R.E. going out in advance and influencing folks at that level of global importance. I had never really given much thought about enhancing or managing the reputation of Project C.U.R.E. I wasn’t consciously thinking about our reputation. I was just trying to busy myself around the world making other people’s lives and reputations better off, and, lo and behold, our own reputation had miraculously placed us in a position of positive international influence. We were working on the tree, and others were seeing the shadow of the tree.