“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” — Abraham Lincoln
From this quote we can begin to understand some of the intricacies that leadership encompasses. There are trees, and then there are trees. Willow trees bend in the wind, they are flexible under the stress of snow and ice, and they bounce back. Oak trees grow tall and straight, are not swayed by stormy weather, and are the safe haven to a vast array of birds and animals. Pine trees, on the other hand, are fast growing, dependable, and for the most part quite short-lived.
These three examples of character are reflected in human beings too. We have known many different characters in our places of business that are flexible, rigid, or dependable. Most of what we see though is merely a small fraction of who the person really is. Depending on the situation – akin to the angle the light is shining – determines what aspect of that tree or person we see. If all we see is a sliver of a shadow, our perception of that person is incomplete. In some cases, the light can strike in such a way as to produce a halo effect. Neither situation reflects the real truth or inner power of the person (or the tree).
As leaders, we must reveal more of our true character through our actions and our communications. How we connect with other people is the shadow they see. To be an effective leader, we need to show more of ourselves than reflected light. We need to expose our inner selves. We need to show that we are vulnerable, that we respect those around us, and that we have a vision. Our reputation may not accurately reflect who we really are. We must learn to trust our inner voice enough to express it through our actions.
Leaders are called leaders because they go first. Perhaps our role is to shine the first light on the solution to a challenging situation. Perhaps we must demonstrate flexibility or inflexibility. But demonstrating true character is essential. When we allow others to see our true selves, mutual trust can develop. With trust, healthy connections are established and strengthened. This is the crux of true leadership. Come out of the shadows and become the tree in the forest, not merely the shadow. Let your character and your reputation become one.