I confess that the mere notion of a personal brand makes me cringe. It connotes many of the things I find most disturbing about the ‘me culture’ perpetrated by social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and even LinkedIn.
It is an idea I have struggled to even commit the time to write about. But, after some personal wrangling, I’ve formed the conclusion that it is inescapable — it is something that leaders need to seriously consider.
In saying that, I want to put aside judgements about self-aggrandisement, gigantic ego trips or, even worse, narcissism. I want to instead suggest that for people who find themselves in positions of influential leadership, the idea of a personal brand really does matter. Not so much for you and your personal advancement, but because it unavoidably impacts the school you represent.
Let me begin with some basic observations about brand. First, brand is a very esoteric and frequently misunderstood concept, but Adam P Adamson’s definition in his book Brand Simple is especially insightful: “… a brand is something that lives in your head. It’s a promise that links a product or service to a consumer. Think of the inside of your head as a computer desktop. When the brand comes up in conversation you mentally ‘click’ on the brand file name. When it opens, the associations you link with that brand are set free. You feel something — positively or negatively.”
Secondly, whether we like it or not, every one of us has a brand, whereby thoughts are triggered in people’s heads when they hear our name or see us walking towards them. This principle applies equally (if not more so) to people we have never met. For example, if I say “Donald Trump” you will most likely feel something — be it good, bad or indifferent.
It is critical to realise that brand is not always about the truth of that person — it is more about your perception of the truth. We rarely meet the public figures who we may form a view upon, however I once met a politician of whom I had a rather dim view. After sitting with them amongst a group of people over lunch, my perception was challenged and transformed. They were personable, gracious and highly intelligent. It turns out I had judged them largely on how they came across on the evening television news.
Unfortunately, public figures don’t have the chance to meet everyone face-to-face over lunch, so our view of them (that is, their personal brand) is inevitably shaped by the comments of others, how they appear in public forums, their communication style and even, sadly, their personal appearance. I dream of a world where so-called ‘beauty’ will be discarded as a measure of a person’s skill or popularity, but I would be lying if I said it did not matter.
In saying that, I am not suggesting you rush out the door for plastic surgery or a makeover! My point is you need to consider that, as the person who carries the title of the school Head, you inevitably influence how people perceive the brand of your school.
So, what should you do? The most critical action is accepting the importance of self-awareness. To put it another way, it is about what people might consider to be a ‘good look’ versus a ‘bad look’. This is especially the case in times of crisis, where leaders who hide away lose brand appeal very rapidly and, in the process, damage the brands with which they are associated. I think Scott Morrison (maybe unfairly) found this out during Australia’s disastrous bushfires in 2019. Staying on holiday in Hawaii while people’s homes were burning was not a good look. It unquestionably damaged his brand, along with his government’s.
In this day and age, people expect leaders to show compassion, respect (especially, to marginalised groups), evidence of a willingness to listen, of self-control and strong personal values. Every time you step out, speak, write or interact with others in public, you need to be mindful that judgements about you are constantly being made.
If that feels like pressure … well, it is. But it is also what you signed up for when you took on the job. To be blunt, school Heads who cannot get to grips with the notion of managing their personal brand are facing a tough time in this facile world in which we live.