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A Leader’s Reputation

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icon-11dAlright. The dumbest thing I ever did… I debated whether or not to even share this. It’s kind of private. But, in the end, I figured that it’s worth learning from. It was Spring 2011, my Freshman year in college.

I’m not going to lie, I was bored out of my mind with the classes I had to take. It was a bunch of general classes that didn’t relate to my major, with like a gazillion people in each class, and all the same material I had learned in high school, pretty much.

The only real saving grace was that I got to hang out with some cool friends and go out for lunch between classes. On the day of complete dumbness, as it has been called, I went out with a group of friends to Arby’s.

We ordered our food, sat down at the table, and began unloading the stresses of college. We took turns going round the table and it went something like, “Ugh. I’ve got a six page paper due tomorrow and I’ve got to work tonight… I just took a math quiz today and totally bombed it! … My professor is dumber than a box of rocks…” and so on.

Somehow, the conversation degenerated into an overview of how horrible everyone’s first year of college was. The feeling was that college was a royal pain in the neck… and by all accounts, I honestly felt it had been a real letdown up to that point. Each person took turns telling horror story after horror story about being advised to take the wrong classes, how the professors didn’t seem like they cared much to teach, how all of the general education classes were worthless.

Here’s the really dumb part: I joined in on this college bashing and followed suit by explaining how I was prepared to give college up after my lackluster start in fall quarter. I proceeded to tell my freshman year horror stories, going on and on how much of a flop my professors were, and how I couldn’t believe they had been certified.

I didn’t feel the professors made much of an investment in the student, and that they just didn’t care about young adults. And by all accounts, that was my honest conclusion after what I had experienced. I focused a great deal of my time bashing my math professor.

He had a strong foreign accent, and was difficult to understand at times. I heard through the grapevine that he had a stroke a few years earlier, and that he had never recovered. I wondered if it was a good idea for this professor to come back and teach at all, especially after all the students complained that they couldn’t understand him, and that he couldn’t teach worth beans.

I suggested that he retire, and that the school hire someone who could communicate the concepts clearly. My friends in the group sympathized with me, and agreed. They told story after story about how they felt there was a huge disconnects between teachers and students, and the one thing that many of the professors lacked was a genuine caring for the students. Wow! Weren’t we a bunch of debbie downers? We continued eating, and started talking about popular television shows.

It wasn’t about 4 or 5 minutes into the new conversation that one of the people in the group pointed behind me and whispered “Hey, isn’t that the math professor you were talking about?” I turned around, and my heart jumped out of my chest. It was the math professor. He had been sitting right behind me the whole time. My face turned beat red. My goose was cooked.

Everyone in the group busted up in a silent laugh, so much so that they began crying trying to hold it in. I tried to hide my face with my hand. The math professor stood up, picked up his tray, and slowly walked right past our table with his head held high.

He threw his trash away and left the restaurant. “Maybe he didn’t hear me…” I said. “Are you kidding me,” one of my friends said, “He was sitting RIGHT BEHIND YOU eating by himself. What else did he have to do other than listen to our conversation?”

It was at that moment I realized what a terrible mistake I had made. In the pursuit of wanting to fit in with my friends and share my frustrations, I lowered my guard and trashed my college experience, namely disrespecting a professor and probably ruining his day, perhaps week, or even worse – his entire view of his life’s work.

You can see why this experience has stuck with me, and I consider it one of the dumbest things I ever did. It’s kind of hard to even talk about it, considering it makes me look like such a fool.

The part that sticks with me the most is that here we were – a group of students – saying that professors should have more compassion for the students. Yet we were saying the coldest things about the professors, and disrespecting them to high heaven. What a double standard. The inconsistency struck a chord in me, and I realized that if I was going to talk the talk, I needed to walk the walk.

How much trust do you think others will have in you after they know you go around talking bad about other people behind their backs? Very little. If you’re willing to talk negative about someone else behind their back, there’s a good chance people will suspect you talk about them behind their backs, too.

One of the main principles I learned is that if you’re going to talk about people behind their back, you should be saying positive and encouraging things to give them a strong reputation to live up to. That way, people know that you talk good about people behind their backs, and suspect that if you are talking about them when they’re not around, that you’ll be saying something good.

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Mother Theresa: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” It’s easy to be judgmental towards people, but it takes great courage and a strong character to respect people for who they are.

Ever since that day of my freshman year of college, I’ve worked towards respecting people for the value that they provide or can provide as opposed to measuring them to the value they don’t or can’t provide. I’ll be honest, I’m not batting 100%. But I know deep down that I do my best to respect people for who they are. And who knows… If you give other people a good reputation to live up to, they might just give you a good reputation to live up to.

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