The role of leadership in reputation – lessons from history

By Holly Wallis

Throughout history there has been overwhelming evidence that suggests a correlation between organisational leadership and reputation. I first picked up on this during my undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, where I took a course that examined the past few decades of the American bureaucracy. It offered me a unique, historic perspective on the way in which strong leadership has grown to become a crucial necessity for achieving a favourable organisational reputation. I share some of the relevant insights, below. Though these political theorists describe leadership in U.S. public administration, I believe that their views on the topic are equally applicable to privately-run companies, around the world.

In this increasingly interconnected world, where internal reputation drivers are more directly impacting external reputation, attention towards ensuring proficient business leadership is essential. We certainly live in a time where there is an unprecedented expectation from corporate leaders, both in terms of leadership qualities as well as social media presence, whether that be in terms of self-marketing or in terms of how they are described by stakeholders on online platforms. I believe that the points below are more relevant than in previous decades, for this reason.

Leaders define and articulate purpose and values

Philip Selznick, professor and author in organisational theory at the University of California, Berkeley, states that a leader is someone who helps to define the purpose and values of the organisation and “infuses with value” the work that the agency is carrying out. Good leadership gives a sense of purpose to the organisation, which Selznick equates with “the promotion and protection of values”.

Engages with stakeholders and reaches out to potential partners

Dr Jonathan Chausovsky, professor of political science at Fredonia State University of New York, describes how in the Bureau of Commissions, “leaders communicated with key members of Congress and with a network of businessmen, lawyers, and academics”, which served to leverage the agency’s reputation. This is an example of how leadership can be important for gaining external political support. He states that the efficiency of a public agency can be strengthened by the streamlining of resources and staff, acting under precise direction by leaders. Chausovsky also underscores the value in having longer tenures of leaders on the agency’s performance which serves to increase the organisation’s autonomy. When applying this principle to private companies, leaders may want to consider investing in their people, rather than relying on contractors, or on a high turnover rate.

Helps to drive organisational culture change through tangible action

Leaders’ roles in concretising or changing an organisational culture within a public agency is paramount. Terry Terriff, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, gives the prime example of General Gray, of the Marine Corps, who displayed the three necessary features of a strong leader that are necessary for leaders that must enact organisational change. These include 1. Helping to drive a change in the narrative of the organisational culture, 2. Putting in place the implementation of a range of initiatives that change the behavior of the employees, and 3. Demonstrating that the new value/approach that the agency is adopting has benefits for all employees. Therefore, strong leadership is crucial for successful organisational culture change. This applies to private firms – corporate leaders play a vital role in helping to articulate the benefits of organisational change to their employees and providing a shift in organisational narrative, via clear and consistent internal communications.

Advocates for a ‘safe’ psychological culture and a fail-fast environment

Professor of public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, Kimberly Isett discusses how leadership is crucial for the successful enactment of change management, where strong leaders have a responsibility to create a ‘safe’ psychological space for making change. For Isett, leadership actually meant the absence of a visible single leader, allowing the frontline staff more opportunity to put forward their own ideas. In this way, Isett is a proponent of a balanced approach of a “champion-led change” and “genuine participation from frontline staff”. Likewise, Gene Brewer stresses the importance of leadership as being not about a specific leader, but more generally about a strong team of frontline supervisors. Good leadership will incorporate a full-range leadership model, prioritising transformational leadership over transactional, making clear efforts towards encouraging intrinsic motivations rather than extrinsic motivations for job engagement. According to research, this allows for greater collaborative management, greater ability for employees to learn from errors, and a better handled change management system.

Is willing to serve as both listener and analyst

Perhaps one of the finest examples of inspiring leadership, however, is demonstrated by Charles Rossotti, who took over the IRS as Commissioner in 1997. His leadership style was well-known, as he had a unique ability to be both the listener and the analyst. According to this passage in the Public Administration Review, Rossotti, “convinced many of the people with whom he worked that he communicated sincerely and effectively and that he valued participatory decision making.” He managed to almost single-handedly transform the reputation of the IRS in 1997, in the wake of many “complaints of abuse of both IRS workers and taxpayers.” By the time that Rossotti had left, the IRS’ U.S. tax system experienced a renewed and a more highly respected international reputation.


Reputational success often hinges upon an organisation’s leadership. Leaders serve to underpin the organisation’s mission, purpose and values and they are key drivers of culture. The given examples of excellent leaders during the last few decades, help to offer up some key considerations for private companies to consider in this digital-overload era. We are all too aware of the new-found pressure on corporate leaders to stay tuned-in to technology 24/7 and to constantly perform as the ‘activist CEO’. This is why investing in strong leadership skills is an increasingly vital consideration when reflecting on ways to effectively boost your company’s reputation.

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