Build Your Character, Not Your Reputation


That’s a three with ten zeros behind it. This was how much it was worth for the biggest project I had ever worked on. Not only was the amount of money staggering, but I also got the opportunity to work with some of the best minds from around the globe. Our consortium consisted of nine partners from five countries and regions, including China, the US, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Some of them were among the leaders in their specific fields, such as live entertainment, sports venue design and construction, technology and e-commerce.

The project we were going after was the Kai Tak Sports Park. The biggest sports design, build and operation project in Hong Kong history. The total costs for design and construction alone were HK$30 billion, which includes a 50,000-seat Main Stadium with a retractable roof, a 10,000-seat Indoor Sports Center, and a 5,000-seat Public Sports Ground, as well as more than 8 hectares of open spaces, outdoor ball courts, a health and wellness center, a bowling center and retail and dining outlets. The winning bidder of the project will also be awarded a 25-year inclusive operational right to the entire park.

The largest sports venue in Hong Kong – Kai Tak Sports Park – a multi-purpose sports complex next to the famous Victory Harbour

There were six bidders competing for this project and our group was regarded as one of the favorites to win this design-build-operate contract as our group was like an all-star team, containing some of the biggest names and companies that were well-known locally and internationally.

As expected, we were shortlisted in the first round as one of the final three tenderers by the government. Just one more round to go to win the ultimate prize.

However, in the end, we didn’t win the ultimate prize. Not only didn’t we win, we crumbled. Not only did we crumble, but we also fell out and turned against one other due to the two biggest partners, both owning 15% respectively, wanting to be the largest controlling shareholder of the consortium. This titanic power struggle among torn us apart into two competing camps – the East vs the West, or the Locals vs the Foreigners. Partners became enemies, and friends became foes.

Despite receiving an urge from the government to resolve our differences internally, both camps still decided to submit their own separate application for the project again. As a result, both camps were disqualified by the government.

We let our own egos and self-interests drive us into self-destruction. $30 billion went down the drain. A year of effort, time, and preparation costs all went down the drain.

I still remember an email I received afterward from one of the partners, it just had one sentence: “Lesson learned – choose your partners very carefully.”

He hit the nail on the head. An all-star team like us brought more harm than good if everyone acted like an egotist who was wheeling and dealing for their own good.

First Who, Then What

It reminded me of a concept developed by management guru Jim Collins in his book Good to Great – “First Who, Then What” — first get the right people on the bus and wrong people off the bus.

Those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus and the right people in the key seats before they figure out where to drive the bus. They always think first about who and then about what. When facing chaos and uncertainty, and you cannot possibly predict what’s coming around the corner, your best “strategy” is to have a busload of people who can adapt to and perform brilliantly no matter what comes next. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.

Jim Collins

So I asked myself this question, “If we could do it all over again, how to choose the right partners or the right people?”

I believe it all comes down to one thing – character.

Many people confuse character with personality. According to Adam Grant’s explanation, personality is how you respond on a typical day. Character is how you respond on your worst day. It’s easy to demonstrate integrity, respect, and generosity when things are going well. The real challenge is can you uphold these values when things are going south.

So what kind of characters are we looking for to find the right people?

Before answering this question, we must understand the relationship between character and values. Values are simply what we value – things that we believe to be right or important to us personally, such as integrity, selflessness, compassion, courage, respect, freedom, generosity, patience, gratitude – these are deeply held beliefs that guide our choices and influence our emotions.

Character = Values + Actions

Character, according to the research report, has been defined as “values in action”, representing the psychological manifestations of moral values, reflected in thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In other words, when we put our core values or what we deeply believe in into action, we build character.

The way we treat people we think can’t help or hurt us — like housekeepers, waiters, and secretaries — tells more about our character than how we treat people we think are important. How we behave when we think no one is looking or when we don’t think we will get caught more accurately portrays our character than what we say or do in service of our reputations.

Michael Josephson

A person of character doesn’t just talk about values or beliefs, he walks the talk. He knows the difference between right and wrong and always chooses to do the right things even when the right things aren’t the easy things to do. This is what “lead by example” means. And these are the people we can trust.

I think the best demonstration of the strength and importance of character is in the military, after all, what is more challenging and demanding than making life-and-death decisions in the most dangerous and highest-staked situations?

In American Generalship – Character is Everything: The Art of Command, the author, Edgar Puryear, spent 35 years doing prodigious research, interviewing more than 100 four-star generals and over 1,000 leaders of every stripe, studying hundreds of biographies, memoirs, and military texts in his search for patterns and role models. He finds character the single most important element of exceptional leaders like George Washington, Geroge Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, etc.

There are some qualities absolutely necessary for successful (military) leadership: selflessness; the willingness to accept the responsibtility; an aversion to “yes men;”…The greatest of all is character, which is everything is leadership. It permeaters throughout all the qualities essential for leadership in success.

Edgar Puryear

Ultimately, our character defines the quality of our leadership and the lives of the people who follow our lead. Whether in the military or in business, in the war zone, or in the boardroom, or in a partnership, people of character are the people we can trust and follow.

Character vs Reputation

However, these days we are obsessed with image and impression management. We filter, cut, crop, and curate our lives and careers to create the perfect perception on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. We are more concerned about our reputation – how others perceive us – than our character – who we really are as a person.

Good character is more important than wealth, fame, good looks, and popularity. These things do not guarantee long-lasting happiness and fulfillment, and often they become obstacles to developing good character.

Lincoln described character as a tree and reputation as its shadow. The tree will always be what it is but the shadow we see depends on where we stand and the angle of the light. The shadow is just an illusion, it comes and goes and is out of your control, the tree is the real thing.

Character determines how we lead our lives, how we deal with life’s unearned fortunes and misfortunes and how we make choices that determine how those fortunes and misfortunes work to make us what we become.

Put simply, a man’s character is his destiny.

Always remember this: Build your character, not your reputation. Build your character by earning the trust of those around you through your words and actions.


I sum up the process of how to choose the right people in the following chart for an easy understanding:

Published by Anthony Tsang

I’m a bookworm, a sports & fitness addict, an adventurer, and more than anything else, I’m a permanent work-in-progress, always learning and evolving till the day I die.

4 thoughts on “Build Your Character, Not Your Reputation

  1. Reputation is loud but character is strong but the weird thing is that we are living in a world where our image speaks instead of us and most people are willing to listen to the reputation more than the character.

    Such profound and meaningful words you have shared here Anthony.
    Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Kariuki. Character is something inside you, others can hardly see it; reputation is something outside, everyone can see it. That’s why the world is obsessed with reputation over character. It’s about what you can show instead of what you possess.

      Liked by 1 person

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