march on reputation


I started reading a great book today. In fact, overall this is turning out to be an exceptional semester of reading (expect a post soon on Randall Collins’s Violence). Today’s book was On Leadership by James G. March and Thierry Weil, a collection of essays based on March’s lecture notes from his legendary Stanford course on leadership. (Thierry wrote the original set of essays in French; the English version was translated back into English by Matthew Clarke.) The book is nontraditional social science, drawing on literature rather than scientific evidence as a way to think about the puzzles underlying leadership and the human condition.

Numerous passages deserve mentioning, but one paragraph stuck out. I’ve been trying to think of a good way to explain the difference between reputation and actual performance as I prepare for next semester’s graduate class on organizational reputations. Conceptually, March and Thierry state the distinction as well as anyone.

We evaluate individual leaders, assessing their reputations for having done well or having done good. Reputations are typically not self-evident. There is often ambiguity about outcomes and their attractiveness. There is ambiguity about who is responsible for the outcomes. As a result, reputations are social constructs negotiated among observers, accountants, journalists, academics, leaders, competitors, friends, and enemies. Reputations diffuse through a population of observers and often change over time (pg. 7).

What’s notable about this definition is the attention to ambiguity. If assessments of quality were evident and clearly communicated, reputations would only be lagged perceptions of quality. But as it is, assessments are often made based on ambiguous criteria and evidence. Besides that, different audiences use different criteria for assessing performance (or interpreting performance).  Thus, reputations emerge as the mixed interpretations of quality based on divergent and sometimes opposing points of view held by organizations’ various audiences, each with limited information. By pointing out that organizations do have multiple audiences, March suggests that organizations can have various reputations.

On Leadership is a short but rich book, full of nuggets such as this. If you don’t have time to read it now (with all of the grading and end-of-semester busyness) let me suggest that this would be a great Christmas break read.


Written by brayden king

December 3, 2007 at 11:04 pm

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  1. […] great Christmas break read Brayden at orgtheory has a suggestion: On Leadership is a short but rich book, full of nuggets such as this. If you don’t have time to […]


  2. […] of insights about organizations, social relations and management. Per Brayden’s suggestion (see this post), I’ll of course check out March & Weil’s book On Leadership to see what they have […]


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