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We earn the reputation we deserve


In the opening minutes of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid we see Sundance (Robert Redford) get wrongly accused of cheating in a high stakes poker game.

Back in the old West, being called out for cheating meant a guaranteed gun fight.  Sure enough, Sundance and his accuser soon square off.   Just then, Butch (Paul Newman) wanders into the card room, sizes up the situation  – and (thankfully) calls Sundance by name.

This is new information for the accuser.  And it changes everything.

“I didn’t know you were the Sundance Kid when I said you were cheating. 
If I draw on you, you’ll kill me.”

The accuser wants to live, so he backs down.  That leaves Sundance to pack up his winnings – and he and Butch head back to their day jobs as leaders of The Hole in the Wall Gang, armed robbers of banks and trains.

That’s the power of reputation.

The accuser kept his life by making the smart choice.  Sundance’s reputation as a sharpshooter preceded him.

Reputation was featured in another film I watched during the spring (and now this summer) of COVID.  In the absence of my usual sports diet on TV, I’ve been watching more documentaries than usual.  One of my favourites has been Becoming Warren Buffett.

Over the course of 90 minutes, I learned much more about the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ than I thought I knew, including:

  • His company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns holdings in 70-80 different businesses at any one time, investing only in companies he fully “understands” – the likes of Apple, Coca-Cola, Geico Insurance, American Express, Kraft Heinz, Bank of America and others.
  • He still lives in the same house be bought in Nebraska in 1958 for $31,000. (Buffett’s current net worth: $73 billion.)
  • He buys breakfast at McDonald’s every morning, even driving himself!  He spends either $2.69 or $3.17, depending on how the markets performed the previous day. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
  • He carves out time to read for 4-5 hours every day.

Each are strong traits of Buffett’s reputation – smart, focused, prudent, practical, frugal, principled, “the greatest investor of his generation.”

And all of this led to my favourite Buffett line in the documentary:

“Lose money for the firm… and I will understand.  Damage the reputation of the firm… and I will be ruthless.”

By this Buffett meant that reputation is everything.  Money can be recovered, but a tarnished reputation is hard to bring back.

So act accordingly.

Actions do speak louder than words.

Think of reputation this way:

  • Our ‘capability’ is what we can do.  (A lot of this is shaped in marketing our credentials and “story.”)
  • Our ‘commitment’ is what we say we’ll do.  (More marketing, often in the form of a promise.)
  • Our reputation is what we really do – our actions, our deeds, our actual behaviour and performance.

We earn the reputation our actions deserve.  Based on what we do, and how we act and behave.    

It’s not complicated.

If you’re a certain politician (ahem) who consistently lies, you earn a reputation as a liar who can’t be trusted.

Buffett has a reputation for being smart, focused, practical and frugal… because he acts that way.   Not sometimes.  All the time.

The Sundance Kid?   He had a reputation as a sharpshooter… because he was one.  (Sure enough, as Sundance walks away, his accuser can’t help himself.  “Hey, kid. How good ARE ya?”  And Sundance shows him.)

His actions earned him his reputation.

So ask yourself:

  1. What’s your own reputation?
  2. Have you looked to your actions for clues?