Abraham Lincoln observed, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its 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 spend your time helping other people build good characters and reputations, it’s more than likely you will build 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 an 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’re 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 trustworthiness that result from sterling character will generally manifest themselves in honorable reputations. It’s 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 previous atrocities committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Widespread violence had erupted, resulting in riots where angry mobs attacked military arsenals and stole all the guns and grenades and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. The weapons were instantly spread to the hands of the citizens. The ethnic cleansing in Kosovo had destabilized the entire political environment in the Balkans. Thousands of refugee families were escaping the Kosovo region in farm wagons and carts and fleeing to Albania. The architect of that diabolical scheme of ethnic cleansing was Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, in which more than thirteen thousand Kosovar Albanian 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 Teresa University 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 deliver badly needed donated medical supplies and equipment to the refugee camps and the Albanian hospitals and clinics.
By one o’clock that afternoon, we were scheduled to appear at the presidential palace for formal meetings with Rexhep Meidani, the president of Albania. The US ambassador led our entourage to the palace, and as we walked up the steps to the entrance, 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 Marisa Lino opened the meeting, gave a brief situational overview, and then introduced me to President Meidani. For two hours we made plans regarding the needed medical supplies for the refugees as well as for the hospitals and clinics in the war-torn areas.
Upon my return to Athens, Greece, I was summoned to the US embassy for a meeting with Ambassador Nicholas Burns. As I was being introduced, the ambassador held up his hand and broke into the conversation, “Oh yes, I’m thoroughly acquainted with the wonderful work of Project C.U.R.E. around the world. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and I and a handful of others were just in Hanoi, Vietnam. They told us of all the things Project C.U.R.E. is doing there, and how Project C.U.R.E. has agreed to help in a big way at the hospital in Viet Tri, north of Hanoi. Ever since I heard about Project C.U.R.E., I’ve wanted to meet the founder. It’s my pleasure and delight to meet personally with you this morning, Dr. Jackson!”
Well! After I had stopped choking on my own tongue and blinking my eyes, I was able to respond to the ambassador in a dignified fashion. That was the first time I had ever witnessed the fine reputation of Project C.U.R.E. going before us and influencing international leaders at various levels of government. 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 its shadow.