Looking around, I was impelled to write about and reflect on the concept of reputation. Since time immemorial, reputation has been an aspect of personal value and wealth, ever present and recognized but never entirely definable.
It has been so with the reputation of individuals, of communities, and of nations. It has always taken decades and generations to build. And again, always taking a few hours or days to destroy!
Two happenings in the recent past prompted me to write this piece. I came across a very interesting book entitled Reputation Rules by Daniel Diermeier of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (subtitled: Strategies for Building Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset).
The other was, the president of US, addressing a large, motley group in Washington and inciting them to attack Capitol Hill. A far cry from the model of president, set up by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
When I was still in junior school and went back to my village in Goa for the summer holidays, I heard about a young man in the village, who had sexually abused a girl, and when her objections became loud and violent, he just strangled her to death.
The villagers all got together and hounded him and handed him over to the police. I know that he finally got a long sentence in jail and after he was released, he never came back to the village. His reputation was ruined. He could not face anyone again, or look at anyone straight in the eye.
When I was in high school in Mumbai, there was a tax inspector, who lived in our neighborhood and lived in a style as if he were the mayor of the city… and more!
Of course, all the people around knew that he and his family were living well beyond his known source of income. They had little to do with them and all lived in a climate of peaceful but friendless coexistence.
When I was still in college, there were the well-publicised resignations of TT Krishnamachari (TTK), the then union finance minister, over a finance scam, and the resignation of Lal Bahadur Shastri as railway minister, because he took responsibility for a rail mishap where many passengers had died.
Although Mr Krishnamachari or Mr Shashtri were not directly involved in the situation, they took moral responsibility, and accepted the happenings as a blot on their reputations.
From these attitudes of 50 years ago, we seem to have come to a stage where wrong doing and loss of personal reputation seem to be accepted and even condoned. There is no longer any social sanction against criminals, black marketers, and wrong doers.
Not just that, but they may even be accepted back into a (not so) well-ordered society and given places of importance.
How else can you explain that over 30% of the members of India’s parliament have criminal cases filed against them, sometimes even multiple cases?
Is it not a paradox, especially in a land of great religious fervour and traditions of a thousand years?
There are situations now, (unthinkable 50 years ago) where a person goes up the political ladder, is then found guilty of corruption, and sentenced to jail. Much of the time of the jail sentence is spent in five-star hospitals because he has been diagnosed as ‘seriously unwell’.
When he is out of jail, he is again reinstated and even becomes a minister in the government. He also improves considerably in his health, so he is back to ‘business as usual’!
Obviously, in the new world in which we live, there is no understanding of the concept of reputation. How times have changed!
Sure, other countries are also touched by the evil of corruption and disregard for reputation. The consolation is that one at least sees some action being taken. For example, the former prime minister of France; the former president of South Korea; the former president of Samsung; the former prime minister of Malaysia and others in many different countries. One hopes that they also will not develop total immunity!!
There is data from a series of polls (2003/2006/2009) conducted by Harris Interactive (Reputation Rules, Preface).
Respondents were asked, which of these industries do you think are generally honest and trustworthy, so that you normally believe in a statement by a company in the industry?
And we see an overall erosion of trust across industries with a striking collapse in the banking industry:
This is just a sample. There are many other categories that are not mentioned above but it shows how the cancer has spread and is only getting worse.
When and how can we come to our senses, and stop the blur between right and wrong to make this a better world where norms of justice and fair play prevail?
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia. His latest 3 books written in collaboration are 5Gs of Family Business; Marketing in a Digital/ data world; and Customer Value Starvation can kill. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)