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Folks don’t talk directly about “honor” anymore, not out loud, except perhaps in the military. It isn’t common language. But honor plays a part in every interaction, and is the basis for our enduring reputation in our community.

Perhaps the concept closest to honor is a current word (a marketing term in social media actually), “authentic.” Authentic is what is real; it is what makes people trust you. Authenticity is the face of the honor underneath.

Tylenol 1982: well handled
In 1982, Johnson & Johnson displayed its honor (and got its public relations reward) by quickly announcing a poison scare in its top product, Tylenol, and recalling all 31 million bottles of the product in distribution, at a loss of $100M. The poison had been introduced into the product by an individual not connected to J&J, killing several people. The poisoning was no fault of J&J’s. Johnson & Johnson kept the public apprised of its actions, removed the product from the market, and re-introduced it later in a safer form that resisted tampering (caplets), and adapted new standards of safe packaging.  

The J&J credo begins “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, and patients, and to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.”  

Johnson & Johnson upheld its credo. The consumer response to the Tylenol scare was gratitude for its honorable behavior, and a brand that has persisted since its founding in 1886.

Toyota 2010: badly done
Toyota’s current reputational damage is not only about its sticking accelerators. The distrust is a result of the information that Toyota knew about the problem and still allowed these dangerous cars into the worldwide market. Toyota cared more about its profitability than about its customers.

Citigroup: questionable behavior 2010
Citigroup has been announcing its new program to fund $200M to generate small business loans in low income communities in the U.S. This is not honor or authenticity – it is public relations. We may appreciate the Fund, but we still don’t trust Citigroup, because we can see its balance sheet and the profits it makes in light of its banking scandal.

The trouble with behaving dishonorably to people, or in your own self-interest, or in letting folks see that your self-interest is primary, is that they don’t trust your word, or your intentions, or your likelihood of offering them a fair deal.

Once your reputation is tarnished, the community carries a context that you cannot be trusted, and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men cannot put your reputation back together again.

And in this age of social media tools and public profiles, you might think you can maintain a “persona” that you control. But these same tools allow for the multiple-click background check, so you cannot afford to be less than your real self. And if you can avoid appearing as a result of any search (I have heard of two such persons recently), then you are even more untrustworthy, likely a myth or a spy or a crook, for who could not be found by the powerful search engines now, 15 years after the Web has been in play?

How do we display our authentic selves? We tell the truth. We promote, but we don’t pretend we can do something for which we have no expertise. We return the extra change to the teller when it is wrong. We don’t rip people off. We don’t take their money and not deliver the goods.

In our customer-centric marketplace, the new currency is authenticity and the fair deal (honorable behavior) with the customer’s best interest at heart. It is keeping your word.

What is the best thing anyone can say about you as a CEO? That you are an honorable person. That you can be trusted. That you do what you say you will do. This is usually, “He’s a standup guy.” Or “You know, she always delivers what she promises.” The world assumes that your personal characteristics as CEO will be reflected in your corporate culture. The trust your customers put in you and your word trickles down throughout your company. Or, conversely, “a fish rots from the head down.”

I have often heard, “You know, it is really rare to work with someone who actually does what she says she will do.” This always surprises me, both from a personal and a business point of view.

So, perhaps, in your own self-interest, it is now wise to behave with some grace and generosity. If you are a selfish person, perhaps it is self-serving for you to learn some new ways of authenticity.