Big Hat, No Cattle

cowboy-hatThere’s a saying in Texas (or so I’ve heard) when speaking of a particular type of person.  They’re called “Big Hat, No Cattle”.  It’s an interesting way of describing someone who talks a good game, but can’t back up their talk with any concrete action.  These types of folk tend to quickly gain a reputation as a person who can’t be trusted to follow through on what they’re talking about.  They can’t be relied on for anything, so they’re typically ignored, or even ostracized due to their poor reputation.

There are many examples of people such as this in our common lexicon, stretching back for many years.  A very familiar one (to those who’ve read the Bible at all, anyway) is the Apostle Peter.  Jesus spoke to his disciples, saying he would have to die for his message and that all his followers would desert him.  Peter chimed up instantly and said, “Not me!  I won’t let you down, Jesus.  I’ll die for you!”.  In the next chapter in the book of John, we read how Peter not only wouldn’t die for Jesus, but he wouldn’t even admit to knowing Jesus when questioned about it.  Big Hat, No Cattle.

Another example is the Boy who cried wolf.  The Boy wanted some attention, because he was bored with his job as a shepherd.  So, one day he decided to have some fun and raised an alarm that a wolf was getting ready to pounce on the herd and kill some sheep.  The villagers came prepared to defend the flock as quickly as they could, only to find the Boy there, laughing at them.  This happened again and again, until the villagers got fed up with it and refused to come the next time the Boy sounded the alarm.  Unfortunately for the Boy, this time a wolf really did come.  He told a lot of stories that didn’t stand up to scrutiny, and eventually everyone stopped listening to him.  Big Hat, No Cattle.

It seems obvious why, as a leader, this is one of the most debilitating reputations you can acquire.  Leadership is based on trust, and trust cannot be gained by someone who relays anything but the truth.  Your character (or, in current Web 2.0 parlance, your “personal brand”) is the only thing you have to show to others.  This comes through in the recommendations you have from former clients and in the amount of attention you’re paid within your area of expertise.  Until you’ve proven you can back up what you say with solid results, you won’t have any reputation.  If you prove that you can’t, your reputation is destroyed.

So, how do we make sure we don’t end up with this stigma?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Shut your mouth. Seriously, just be quiet.  We’ve all heard the adage that we’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t voice you opinion; just make sure you’re not doing it too often.  Authenticity is great, being true to yourself is great, and having self-confidence is really great.  Just remember, your personality (or anyone’s personality, really) isn’t for everyone.  You’re going to turn some folks off just by your being you.  This isn’t to say you need to be phony, or try to be something you’re not.  And it’s not to say that there aren’t somethings in life that are worth losing friends over.  Just understand that many of the things you say, while seemingly unimportant to you, might not be unimportant to someone else.  Pick your battles, and be willing to live with the consequences of being opinionated if you really have to say something.  Think before you speak, and if it isn’t worth losing some status over, then you might want to keep it to yourself.

  2. Work Hard. You need to have a good reputation before you can rest on it.  The only way to build a good reputation is by working hard and getting results.  At work, that means volunteering for projects that no one else wants to take.  With your friends, it means being genuine and open, doing things for other people with no thought for how they can help you in return.  In business, with clients or partners, it means going the extra mile.  I think most people have heard “Underpromise and overdeliver” as a motto for success.  I wouldn’t advocate that, because people will realize what you’re up to after a while.  Most people don’t like it when someone they work with always makes sure they leave a way out.  Don’t underpromise, but definitely overdeliver whenever possible.  If there’s one reputation you’d be well-served to have, it’s being the hardest worker in your field.

  3. Be Humble. When you’ve finally “arrived”, and have developed some standing as a leader/expert in the field your concerned with, don’t flaunt it.  Realize that you didn’t get there without a lot of help: from partners who believed in you, from clients and employees that allowed you to help them achieve what they achieved, and from just plain old luck/karma/the grace of God.  Whatever you want to call it, there’s a lot of “being in the right place at the right time” involved in anyone’s success.  Don’t be falsely modest, but have an honest picture of your strengths and weaknesses.  Know who helped you and how they helped you, and don’t forget to thank them fully and often.  For an outstanding example of this type of gratefulness, check out Chris Guillebeau’s 26 People I Highly Respect.

Finally, there’s no better way to ensure you have a sterling reputation than to help others get where you are and beyond.  No one succeeds on their own, and the folks that helped you get where you are were “paying it forward”.  They expect you to do the same thing for others that they did for you, because that’s what leadership is really all about.  It’s about helping other people reach there potential, wherever that may take them.  The choose how high they will rise, and there’s nothing more gratifying for a true leader than seeing a protege surpass you.  Help others out, and you’ll be an impactful leader.

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