“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” – Socrates

When you think of a brand, certain things come to mind: Coca-Cola, Nike, Apple, Disney, and any number of other variations on the theme. On any given day, we’re inundated with marketing campaigns that parade major brands before us. Brand matters. Whether you’re talking about a custom Breitling watch or an ice cold pint of Yeungling, how a brand is perceived is important. A good brand creates value. And the higher the perceived value, the greater the lengths we’ll go in pursuit of that brand.

So why should it be any different for you? Whether or not you realize it, you already have a personal brand. Shouldn’t your personal brand be synonymous with quality performance? Don’t you want your name to be first on the proverbial “short list” for promotions, key jobs, and career opportunities? Wouldn’t you want to be perceived as someone who adds value to an organization? The answers seem obvious.

But do you manage your brand? Probably not. You work hard, put pride in your performance, and trust that your reputation will speak for itself. For some, that works. For the rest of us, it doesn’t. Take a moment and you can probably name any number of talented colleagues who failed to achieve their professional potential. In most cases, it comes down to an unwillingness or an inability to reflect inwardly, to see themselves how others perceive them.

Managing Your Brand Requires self-awareness

Ideally, your personal brand is a strong reflection of your values, work ethic, performance, reliability, leadership style, and a myriad of other attributes. For most of us, we focus primarily on our brand identity: how we see ourselves. How others perceive us – our brand image – is the essence of our reputation. To paraphrase Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, it’s what other people say about you when you leave the room. A difference between your brand identity and brand image – known as an authenticity gap by professional brand managers – can mean that you’re failing to meet expectations and can set you on an especially difficult career trajectory.

We’ve all worked for someone who lacked self-awareness; can the same be said about you? Have you ever hit a career speedbump and not understood why? Have you found yourself holding everyone else up on the evaluation totem pole? Oftentimes, it has less to do with talent than it does personal brand management. Yet, most of us overlook our personal brand. We take it for granted. We leave it for others to manage for us.

If you really care about your future, that ends now.

Be prepared for brutal feedback

Acknowledging your personal brand is the first essential step in taking control: you define it, you describe it, you deliver it. You decide what constitutes your personal brand, not someone else. Taking control of your brand involves a difficult personal journey of self-awareness and reflection. And that’s the key: seeing yourself more clearly. To many of us, that’s a frightening proposition. Better to slouch along through life ignorant to how others “see” you. But if you’d rather “Be All You Can Be” than “An Army of One” you have to be willing to seek and accept honest feedback on your performance, good and bad.

Those closest to you – your “circle of trust” – are vital to this process. People who will offer direct, honest, and sometimes brutal feedback and advice. This is also the most difficult step in taking control of your personal brand, because it involves confronting perceptions of you that may be unpleasant. Are you someone others can count on in a pinch, or are you the first person out the door at the end of the day? Are you really the critical thinker you believe, or are you the office meercat whose blundering forces everyone else to work twice as hard? You might not like the answers, but you need to hear them, and you need to take them to heart.

Taking control of your personal leader brand has the potential to fundamentally change how others perceive you, but it also translates to an incredible sense of power and liberation. This is the point in your career where you stop allowing others to define you and decide your own fate. And everything comes down to you making a decision: Do you want to control your future, or do you want someone else to do it for you?

Good or bad, it’s your personal brand. Own it. Make it count.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.