“Your personal brand is what others say about you when you leave the room.” – Jeff Bezos


“I need someone who will roll up their sleeves and work, not an information concierge.” Although I wasn’t quite certain what an information concierge was, I was fairly confident that it wasn’t good. One of the surest ways to gauge someone’s perceived value is to be a fly on the wall when their performance potential is the topic du jour. People don’t usually hold back in those circumstances, and the honesty tends to be brutally raw.

The individual in question was probably fortunate to avoid the conversation, although he might have benefitted from a clearer understanding of his own leader brand. In this case, his brand hovered somewhere between New Coke and a Ford Pinto. Not completely useless, but something to be avoided if possible. A fact to which he was completely oblivious.


Whether or not we realize it, we all have a leader brand. It often arrives before we do, follows us wherever we go, and lingers long after we leave. It captures who we are and what we represent: our values, morals, work ethic, personality, and a multitude of other facets of our leader persona. It’s more than just a reputation; it’s a reflection of how others perceive us. Or, to paraphrase Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, it’s what people say when our name is mentioned.

Yet most of us overlook our leader brand. We take it for granted. We don’t manage it like a brand. We work hard, take pride in our performance, and trust that a stack of evaluations and word-of-mouth will serve as our professional calling cards. Many of us are content not to know what people think about us, perfectly happy to remain blissfully ignorant of our own failures and shortcomings.

You have a leader brand. But do you manage it? No doubt you can quickly name a handful of exceptionally talented colleagues who never achieved their professional potential. It wasn’t that they lacked talent, they just made little effort to manage their leader brand, and no one recognized their potential. Unrecognized potential is the punchline to a really bad joke. And you really don’t want your career to be a punchline.

Brand matters. Whether you’re talking about automobiles or soda, how a brand is perceived is important. It creates value. And the higher the perceived value, the more revenue the brand generates. So why should it be any different for you? Shouldn’t your personal leader brand be synonymous with quality performance?


Acknowledging your leader brand is an important first step to taking control of it. Own it. Good or bad, it’s yours. You can either control it or let others control it for you. It’s a choice.

What does your leader brand do for you? That’s always the million-dollar question. Unmanaged, your brand can be a serious liability. But with some careful planning and focused effort, your leader brand can do five very important things to help you chart and control a successful career:

1. Image control.

We have a tendency to push as hard as we can and, when the time comes, have others tell us how we measure up. If we don’t earn the recognition we feel we deserve, we put our noses back to the stone and continue to grind. Controlling your own brand translates to power. Because this is the point in your career where you stop allowing others to define your brand. It’s as liberating as it is empowering. And it all comes down to a decision by you to take control of your leader brand.

2. Identity.

Leader branding begins with identity—who you are and what value you bring to the organization. We typically allow others to define our identity, writing between the lines on performance evaluations. However, in a profession where uniformity is often valued over individuality, differentiation is the key to a leader brand. What makes you special? What do you do better than anyone else? What makes you the “go-to” person? A big part of taking control of your leader brand starts you: you define it, you describe it, you deliver it. You decide what constitutes your brand, not someone else.

3. Self-awareness and reflection.

A leader brand possesses a certain yin-yang quality: brand identity (how you see yourself) and brand image (how others see you). When those are out of balance, the results can be as comical as they are tragic. Taking control of your leader brand requires a personal journey of self-awareness and reflection. Identifying and focusing on your strengths is one thing. Recognizing and addressing your weaknesses is another. Mentors are essential to this process, trusted agents who will offer frank, honest feedback and advice. Park your pride at the door. You need this. We all do.

4. Vision and goal setting.

Ultimately, taking control of your leader brand helps you to align your long-term vision with your personal and professional goals. For those who manage their careers through a deliberate strategy—a “five-year” plan, for example—doing so is a relatively simple matter. For those who tend to manage their careers in a more “carefree” manner, taking control of your leader brand might involve some additional effort. In either case, managing your brand will help you focus your goals on a brand that you control, setting the foundation for your long-term success.

5. Visibility and presence.

Finally, taking control of your personal leader brand has the potential to fundamentally change how others perceive you. Be honest with your self-assessment, set realistic and achievable goals, develop an action plan to build your brand, and the outcome will significantly increase your visibility and presence. The results you achieve will be consistent with the time and effort you commit to defining, describing, and delivering your brand. If you put in the hard work, the results can be life changing.

Make a difference with your brand

Your leader brand matters. It can be the difference between a BMW and a Yugo, between a Rolex and a Timex. Professionally, your brand is what opens doors for you, providing opportunities that can (re)define your career. Taking control of your career means taking control of your leader brand and, ultimately, your future. In the end, it’s your decision: do you want to decide your future, or do you want someone else to do it for you?


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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 senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.