Taking the Helm: Reputation can make or break a leader’s influence

Sep 13, 2018 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Influence, not position or title, is the foundation for leadership, and leaders build their influence through behavior. As you might guess, acting with integrity, competence and respect towards others tends to develop positive influence, while being a jerk, authoritarian or controlling tends to develop negative influence.

Influence, either positive or negative, is created when people see us in action, while reputation, put simply, is what people say about us to others. Reputation can be seen as a form of influence over those who have never met or interacted with us and only know about us through word of mouth. This can be tricky because people will share negative experiences much more quickly than positive ones. Seen this way, our reputation is incredibly important.

Reputation affects how others interact with us, helps set the stage to build respect, affects the types of jobs we’re offered, helps determine the type of people who want to work with us, and more. From a leadership perspective, reputation is doubly important since it impacts not only the influence we have with others, but also whether someone outside of our direct sphere of influence wants to follow our direction.

While we shouldn’t necessarily worry about what others think of us, we do have to pay attention to how we project ourselves out into the world. The reason is that others often decide our fate, whether it’s someone hiring us for a job or accepting us for a position in a school program. All it takes to sway the decision one way or another is a word from a trusted source.

I’m currently working with a captain, we’ll call him Joe, who has a poor reputation. Those on the rotating shift want nothing to do with him, and neither does the training officer, crewing officer, crew supervisor or anyone else. You may ask why he isn’t fired, which is a good question. The answer seems to be “government,” which ends discussion.

For some reason Joe seems oblivious of the impact he has on the people around him or he doesn’t care, which has led to his current situation. Joe’s been moved from department to department, and everywhere he leaves there are stories of the poor job he’s done or the way he’s treated people.

Individuals I’ve spoken with are now basically unwilling to work with Joe, based solely on what they’ve heard. Joe’s negative reputation slows everything down, since no one will ever jump into action to assist him.

On the flip side, an unwillingness on the part of others to work with someone is also unhelpful in the workplace.  Since we don’t normally have a choice of whom we work with, sometimes we have to suck it up, hold our nose and just get the work done. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some roles are critical to the success of the organization and coworkers must figure out how to interact with each other, no matter the reputations of those involved.

Still, when we meet someone with a reputation for being a jerk, our responses will be filtered through that lens. A leader must understand how their reputation impacts their leadership.


  • Do what you say you will. It’s easy to talk and make plans, but often challenging to make the plan a reality. When we follow through, our reputation will grow. If we have a tendency to say one thing and do another, our reputation will suffer.
  • Help others. Our reputation is spread by others. When they say good things about us because we helped out in some way, our reputation benefits.
  • Under-promise and over-deliver. When we’re seen as the one who goes the extra mile to succeed, our reputation
  • Act with integrity. Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. Acting out of greed, jealousy and selfishness hurts our reputation. Be honest and forthright in all circumstances.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and now a commanding officer in the Canadian Coast Guard. Comments are welcome below.