Law 5 – So Much Depends On Reputation – Guard It With Your Life
Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once it slips, however, you are vulnerable, and will be attacked on all sides. Make your reputation unassailable. Always be alert to potential attacks and thwart them before they happen. Meanwhile, learn to destroy your enemies by opening holes in their own reputations. Then stand aside and let public opinion hang them.
Observance Of The Law 1
During China’s War of the 3 Kingdoms (207-265), the great general Chuko Liang, leading the forces of the Shu Kingdom, dispatched his vast army to a distant camp while he rested in a small town with a handful of soldiers. Suddenly sentinels hurried in with alarming news that an enemy force of 150,000 troops under Sima Yi was approaching. With only 100 men to defend him Liang’s situation was hopeless, and the enemy would finally capture this renowned leader.
Without cursing his bad luck, or trying to figure out how the enemy had managed to track him down, Liang ordered his troops to take down their flags, open up the city gates, and hide. He then took a seat on the most visible part of the city wall, wearing a Taoist robe, lit some incense, strummed his lute, and began to chant. Minutes later the enemy army appeared, and pretending not to notice them, Liang carried on chanting and playing his lute.
Soon the army was at the town gates, and Sima Yi immediately recognized the man on the wall as Liang. As his soldiers itched to rush through the city gates, Sima Yi hesitated, held his army back, studied Liang on the wall, then ordered an immediate and speedy retreat.
Chuko Liang was known as the “Sleeping Dragon”, and his exploits in the War of the 3 Kingdoms were legendary. Once a man claiming to be a disaffected enemy lieutenant came to his camp, offering Liang help and information. Liang instantly recognized this as a trap, and ordered the man to be beheaded, but just as the axe was about to fall Liang stopped the execution and offered to spare the man’s life if he would become a double agent. The man agreed, began supplying Liang’s enemy with false information, and Liang won battle after battle.
On another occasion Liang stole a military seal and created false documents dispatching his enemy’s troops to distant locations. Once the troops were well away he captured 3 cities, so that he controlled an entire corridor of the enemy’s territory. He also once successfully convinced his enemy that one of their top generals was a traitor, forcing that general to flee over to Liang’s side and join forces with him, bringing valuable information. Liang carefully cultivated a reputation as being the cleverest man in China, one who always had a trick up his sleeve, and this was as powerful as any weapon as it struck fear into his enemy.
Sima Yi fought against Liang many times and knew him well. When he came to the empty city, and saw Liang praying on the wall, he was stunned, and interpreted it as a trap that Liang was just willing him to walk into. The ploy was so obvious it correctly crossed Yi’s mind that the city was empty, but so great was his fear of Liang that he didn’t dare risk finding out, such was the power of Liang’s reputation. A solid reputation can put a vast army onto the retreat without a single shot being fired.
“For, as Cicero says, even those who argue against fame still want the books they write against it to bear their name in the title and hope to become famous for despising it. Everything else is subject to barter: we will let our friends have our goods and our lives if need be; but a case of sharing our fame and making someone else the gift of our reputation is hardly to be found.” (Montaigne, 1533-1592)
Observance Of The Law 2
In 1841 the young PT Barnum, trying to establish his reputation as America’s premier showman, decided to purchase the American Museum in Manhattan and turn it into a collection of curiosities that would secure his fame. One problem – he had no money, and the asking price was $15,000. What Barnum managed to do was put together a proposal that appealed to the Museum’s owners, even though it replaced cash up front with guarantees and references.
The owners came to a verbal agreement with Barnum, but at the last minute the principle partner in the museum changed his mind and the museum was to be sold to the directors of Peale’s museum instead. Barnum was furious, but the principle partner explained that his change of heart was because Peale’s had a reputation where as Barnum had none.
Barnum decided that if he had no reputation himself to rely on, he would ruin the reputation of Peale’s instead, so embarked on a letter writing campaign in the newspapers, calling the directors “broken-down” and who had “no idea how to run a museum or entertain people”. He warned the public against buying Peale’s stock, as the purchase of another museum would inevitably spread its resources thin. The campaign was effective, the stock plummeted, and with no more confidence in Peale’s reputation the owners of the American Museum once again changed their mind and sold the museum to Barnum.
It took years for Peale’s to recover, and they never forgot what Barnum had done to them. Mr Peale decided to attack Barnum by building a reputation for “high-brow entertainment”, promoting his museum’s as more scientific than the “vulgar” one of Barnum. For a while this tactic paid off and crowds flocked to Peale’s museums, so Barnum decided to attack Peale’s reputation yet again.
Barnum organized a rival mesmeric performance in which he himself apparently put a little girl into a trance. Once she appeared to have fallen deeply under, he tried to hypnotize members of the audience, but no matter how hard he tried none of the spectators fell under his spell, and laughter broke out.
A frustrated Barnum finally announced that to prove the little girl’s trance was real, he would cut off one of her fingers without her noticing, but as soon as he began to sharpen his knife the little girl’s eyes opened and she fled into the audience. He repeated this routine for several weeks, and soon no-one could take Peale’s shows seriously, and attendances plummeted. Within a few weeks Peale’s shows closed, and over the next few years Barnum established a solid reputation for top class showmanship that lasted for his whole life. Peale’s reputation never recovered.
Barnum used two different tactics to ruin Peale’s reputation. The first was simple: He sowed doubts as to the museum’s stability and solvency. Doubt is a powerful weapon, and once you let it out of the bag with rumours your opponents are in a horrible dilemma. On the one hand they can deny the rumours and maybe even prove that you slandered them, but a layer of suspicion will remain – why are they defending themselves so desperately? Maybe the rumours have some truth to them? On the other hand they can ignore you, but unrefuted the rumours grow stronger.
If done correctly, the sowing of rumours can so unsettle and infuriate your rivals that in defending themselves they will make numerous mistakes, and this tactic is perfect for those people who have no reputation of their own to work from.
Once Barnum had a reputation of his own, he used a second, gentler tactic, the fake hypnotism demonstration, and ridiculed his rivals’ reputation. This was extremely successful, as once you have a solid base of respect, ridiculing your opponent puts him on the defensive and draws more attention to you, enhancing your own reputation.
Outright insults and slander are too strong at this point, as they look ugly and will most likely hurt you rather than help you, but gentle barbs and mockery suggest that you have a strong enough sense of your own worth to have a good laugh at your rival’s expense. A humourous front can make you out as a harmless entertainer while poking holes in the reputation of your rival.
“It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900)
Keys To Power
The people around us, even our closest friends, will always to some extent remain mysterious and unfathomable, as their characters have secret recesses that they never reveal. The unknowableness of other people could prove disturbing if we thought about it long enough, since it would make it impossible for us to really judge them. What we do is to ignore this fact, and to judge people on their appearances, on what is most visible to us – clothes, gestures, words, and actions. In the social realm, appearances are what we base almost all of our judgements on, and you must never be misled into believing otherwise as one false slip can prove disastrous.
This is the reason for the huge importance in making and maintaining a reputation that is of your own creation. That reputation will protect you in the dangerous game of appearances, distracting the probing eyes of others from knowing what you are really like, and giving you a degree of control over how the world judges you – a powerful position to be in. Reputation has the power of magic: With one stroke of its wand it can double your strength. It can also send people fleeing from you, and whether the exact same deed seems terrible or wonderful can depend entirely on the reputation of the doer.
In the ancient Chinese court of the Wei kingdom there was a man called Mi Tzu-hsia who had a reputation for supreme civility and graciousness, and he quickly became the ruler’s favourite. It was a law in Wei that “whoever rides secretly in the ruler’s coach shall have his feet cut off”, but when Mi’s mother fell ill he used the coach to go and visit her, pretending that the ruler had given him permission. When the ruler found out, instead of ordering Mi to have his feet cut off, he simply replied “How dutiful is Mi Tzu-hsia! For his mother’s sake he even forgot that he was committing a crime making him liable to lose his feet!”
Later however envious fellow courtiers damaged Mi’s reputation by spreading rumours that he was devious and arrogant, and the ruler came to see his actions in a new light. Mi now had to face the penalties of his actions, and his feet were cut off.
In the beginning you must work to establish a reputation for one outstanding quality, whether generosity or honesty or cunning. This quality sets you apart from other people and gets people talking about you, and once this happens you subtly make your reputation known to as many people as possible and watch as it spreads like wildfire.
A solid reputation increases your presence and exaggerates your strengths without you having to expend much energy, and it will create an aura around you that will instil respect and fear. In the fighting in the North African desert during World War 2, the German general Erwin Rommel had a reputation for cunning and deceit that struck terror into everyone who faced him. Even when his forces were depleted, and when he was outnumbered by 5-1, entire cities would be evacuated at the news of his approach.
As they say your reputation precedes you, and if it inspires respect a lot of your work is done before you arrive on the scene, or utter a single word. Your success seems destined by your past triumphs, and much of the success of Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy depended on his reputation for being able to iron out differences – no-one wanted to be seen as so unreasonable that Kissinger could not sway them. As soon as Kissinger became involved a peace treaty was almost certain. Make your reputation simple and base it on one sterling quality, for example efficiency, and it becomes a kind of calling card that announces your presence and places others under your spell.
Perhaps you have already stained your reputation, so that you are prevented from establishing a new one. In such cases it is wise to associate with someone whose image counteracts your own, using their good name to whitewash and elevate yours. It is hard, for example, to erase a reputation for dishonesty by yourself, but someone who has a reputation for honesty can help.
When PT Barnum wanted to clean up his reputation for promoting vulgar entertainment, he brought the singer Jenny Lind over from Europe. She had a stellar, clean-cut reputation for high class entertainment, and the American tour that Barnum sponsored for her greatly enhanced his own image. Similarly the great robber barons of 19th century America were long unable to rid themselves of a reputation for cruelty and mean-spiritedness., but when they began to collect valuable artworks their names became linked to those such as da Vinci and Rembrandt, and they were able to soften their image.
Reputation is a treasure to be carefully collected and hoarded, and when you are first establishing it you must protect it strictly and anticipate all attacks on it. Once it is solid, do not let yourself get angry or defensive at slanderous comments made by your enemies, as that reveals insecurity in your reputation. Take the high road, and never appear desperate in your self-defence.
On the other hand, an attack on another man’s reputation is a potent weapon, especially when you have less power than he does. He has much more to lose in the battle, and your small reputation will give him little to aim for in retaliation. Barnum used such tactics to his advantage in his early career, but this tactic must be used with skill; you must not seem to engage in petty vengeance. If you do not break your enemy’s reputation cleverly, you will ruin your own instead.
Thomas Edison, considered the inventor who harnessed electricity, believed that a workable system would have to be based on direct current (DC), but when the Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla appeared to have succeeded in creating a system based on alternating current (AC), Edison was furious. He became determined to ruin Tesla’s reputation by making the public believe that the AC system was dangerously unsafe, and that Tesla was irresponsible for promoting it.
What he did was to capture all kinds of household pets and then electrocuted them to death with AC current, and when this wasn’t enough to convince the public in 1890 he got New York State prison authorities to organize the world’s first execution by electrocution, using Tesla’s AC current. The problem was that Edison’s electrocution experiments had been on small creatures, and when the man was electrocuted the charge was too weak and didn’t kill him the first time so he had to be electrocuted again, in what is one of the most horrific state executions ever carried out.
Although Edison’s reputation and name has survived in the long run, at the time his campaign did far more damage to his reputation than to Tesla’s, and he backed off his smear campaign. The lesson here is simple – never go too far in attacks like these, as they will draw more attention to your own vengefulness than to the person you are trying to harm. When your own reputation is solid, use subtler tactics, such as satire and ridicule, to weaken your opponent while making yourself out to be a charming rogue. The mighty lion toys with the mouse that crosses it’s path – and other reaction would mar his fearsome reputation.
Image: A Mine Full Of Diamonds And Rubies
You dug for it, you found it, and your wealth is now assured. Guard it with your life. Robbers and thieves will appear from all sides. Never take your wealth for granted, and constantly renew it – time will diminish the jewel’s lustre, and bury them from sight.
Therefore I should wish our courtier to bolster up his inherent worth with skill and cunning, and to ensure that whenever he has to go where he is a stranger, he is preceded by a good reputation.....For the fame which appears to rest on the opinions of many fosters a certain unshakeable belief in a man’s worth which is then easily strengthened in minds already thus disposed and prepared. (Baldassare Castiglione, 1478-1529)
There is no possible reversal. Reputation is critical; there are no exceptions to this law. Perhaps, not caring what others think of you, you gain a reputation for insolence and arrogance, but that can be a valuable image in itself – Oscar Wilde used it to great advantage.
Since we must live in society and must depend on the opinions of others, there is nothing to be gained by neglecting your reputation. By not caring how you are perceived, you let others decide this for you. Be the master of your fate, and also of your reputation.
The bits where it talks of guarding your reputation I agree with. We all know many people, both directly and indirectly, who have huge reputations, good and bad, and to take an example of Margaret Thatcher you knew if you were meeting her she would be headstrong, opinionated, and forceful, never wavering from her views, and this would put most people on the backfoot before even meeting her if they didn’t agree with her views.
The bits I don’t agree with are where it tells you to create smear campaigns etc against your opponents, as this is downright devious and underhand, and I believe that if you do that, however subtly, you will rightly get found out and get your comeuppance sooner or later.