Brand U: Five Reasons Why Your Personal Leader Brand Matters

 “Your personal brand is what others say about you when you leave the room.” - Jeff Bezos

I was having lunch out with a couple of friends recently, savoring the thought of a good burger and fries. When the server came to take our drink orders, I smiled and asked for a Diet Coke.

"Would Diet Pepsi be okay?”


‘Okay’ is probably the best word for what I was thinking at that moment. I am a Coke drinker, always have been. I’ll drink Pepsi on occasion, but not as a first choice. When someone offers Pepsi as an alternative to Coke, it’s a little disappointing. The image the Coke brand carries is important to me – it conveys a better flavor, a little more bite, a higher quality.

“Sure… a Diet Pepsi is fine.”

Brand matters. Whether you’re talking about Apple computers, Breitling watches, or Coca-Cola products, how a brand is perceived is important. It creates value. And the higher the perceived value, the more revenue the brand generates.

So why should it be any different for you? Shouldn’t your personal leader brand be synonymous with quality performance? Don’t you want your name to be first on a senior leader’s mind for career opportunities and assignments? Don’t you want to be perceived as someone who adds value to any leadership team?

Yet most of us overlook our leader brand. We take it for granted. If – and that’s a strong if – we even consider our brand. Because, to be completely honest, most of us don’t.

And we should.

Whether or not you realize it, you already have a leader brand. You bring it with you everywhere you go. It encapsulates everything about you: values, work ethic, experience, style, and a multitude of other facets of your persona. It’s a reflection of your reputation. Or, to paraphrase Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, it’s what people say when your name is mentioned.

But you don’t manage it like a brand. You work hard, put pride in your job, and trust that word-of-mouth will serve as your professional calling card. That works for some people. But usually it doesn’t. Give it some thought and you can quickly name a handful of exceptionally-talented colleagues who never achieved their professional potential. Unrecognized talent is the punch-line to a really bad joke. And you really don’t want your career to be a punch-line.

This is the point where some of you shake your head and say, “Why does it matter? My work ethic speaks for itself. My boss will look out for me.” Yeah… it really doesn’t work that way. That might make you feel good, but it won’t get you far.

Whether or not you realize it, you already have a leader brand.

Acknowledging your leader brand is an important first step to taking control of your own brand. Own it. Good or bad, it’s your brand. You can either control it or cede control to others. It’s a choice.

What does your brand do for you? That’s the million-dollar question. Unmanaged, your brand does little for you. But with some careful planning and focused effort, your leader brand can do five very important things to help you chart and control your professional career:

1.  Image control and power. As you peel back the onion on your personal leader brand, the first thing that you’ll find is that you’ve likely allowed others to control your brand for you. We have a tendency to push as hard as we can and, when the time comes, have others tell us how we measure up. If we don’t earn the recognition we feel we deserve, we put our noses back to the stone and continue to grind. There might be a little give-and-take, some basic negotiation, but generally the formula remains unchanged. The problem with that approach is simple: in a profession lacking any true system of talent management, we tend to – as former Air Force officer Tim Kane wrotebleed talent. And you don’t want to be part of that bleed-out.

Controlling your own brand translates to power. Because this is the point in your career where you stop allowing others to define your brand. It’s as liberating as it is empowering. And it all comes down to a decision by you to take control of your leader brand.

2.  Identity and differentiation. Personal branding begins with identity – who are you and what do you bring to the organization? Remember, in a profession where uniformity is often valued over individuality, differentiation is the key to a leader brand. What makes you special? What do you do better than anyone else? What makes you a “go-to guy”? Those are important questions to ask yourself, and even more important to answer.

We typically allow others to define what differentiates us, writing between the lines on performance evaluations. What does it really matter when someone remarks that you are “a consummate team player” or that your “integrity is above reproach”? Wouldn’t you rather be “the driving force behind positive change” or “the most innovative leader in the organization”? A big part of taking control of your leader brand is defining it yourself. You define it, you describe it, you deliver it. You decide what constitutes your personal brand, not someone else.

3.  Self-awareness and reflection. A personal brand possesses a certain yin-yang quality: brand identity (how you see yourself) and brand image (how others see you). When those are out of balance, the results can be as comical as they are tragic. We all know people who are completely out of touch with how others perceive them. They put up a facade and hide behind it, either blissfully ignorant or in a state of denial. They either lack self-awareness or just don’t care how others perceive them, neither of which is a good thing.

Taking control of your leader brand requires a personal journey of self-awareness and reflection. Identifying and focusing on your strengths is one thing. Recognizing and addressing your weaknesses is another. Trusted friends and mentors are essential to this process, people who will offer frank, honest feedback and advice. This is probably the most difficult aspect of the personal branding process, because it involves confronting perceptions of you that may not be pleasant. But managing your personal leader brand means acknowledging the gap between your brand identity and your brand image.

Park your pride at the door. You need this.

4.  Vision and goal-setting. Ultimately, controlling your leader brand helps you to align your vision with your personal and professional goals. For those who manage their careers through a deliberate strategy (a “five-year” plan, for example), including personal branding elements into the design is a relatively simple matter. For those who tend to manage their careers in a more “carefree” manner, taking control of your leader brand might involve some additional effort.

In either case, managing your brand will help you focus your goals toward a brand image that you control, setting the foundation for your long-term success. It just might take some work to get there.

5.  Visibility and presence. Finally, taking control of your personal leader brand has the potential to fundamentally change how others perceive you. Set your goals appropriately, develop an action plan to build your brand, and the outcome should increase your visibility and presence significantly. This can be either positive or negative, depending on how realistic you are with your personal leader brand, how honest you are with your own self-assessment. The results you achieve will be consistent with the amount of effort you dedicate to defining and delivering your brand. If you put in the appropriate effort, the results will be positive.

Your personal leader brand matters. For you, it can be the difference between an Apple and a Gateway computer, between a Breitling and a Timex. Professionally, your brand is what opens doors for you, what provides opportunities that can define your career. Taking control of that brand means taking control of your career and your future. In the end, it’s your decision: do you want to decide your future or do you want someone else to do it for you?

Steven M. Leonard is a former U.S. Army strategist and the creative force behind Doctrine Man!! He is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild and a regular contributor to the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare Project. Follow his writing on The Bridge or his personal blog, The Pendulum, and on Twitter @Doctrine_Man.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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eader Image: Gen. James Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. | Thomas Brown