Help me out here, everybody.  I’ve been hearing some hush-hush snippets of conversation in the hallways lately about Tiger Woods and some kind of naughty e-mail he sent out or something.  I think there was something on TV the other day, too, when I was flipping channels.  Can anybody enlighten me?  Has Tiger engaged in some kind of recent behavior that was impolite or improper?

Just kidding, of course.  One would seriously have to be living under a rock these past few weeks to have avoided the deluge of media coverage regarding Tiger and his adulterous ways.  Frankly, I’m not even sure that would do it.  This story is EVERYWHERE and is truly a sad state of affairs for all concerned — including the PGA, which is likely going to lose hundreds of millions of dollars (I’d guess) of sponsorships and ad revenues due to Tiger’s infidelity.  And while we may never fully know the true mix of motivations (if any exist beyond the obvious ones)  that drove Tiger to risk everything, when to all appearances he seemed to have everything going for him, it just goes to show you that it takes more than fame, fortune, and god-given talent to secure your place in this world as a happy, well-adjusted human being.

In fact, when I was feverishly flipping channels the other day trying to find a station that WASN’T wallowing in 24×7 “BimboGate” coverage, I coincidentally tuned into an ESPN show featuring the revered college basketball coach John Wooden.  For those unfamiliar with Mr. Wooden, the Cliff’s Notes version is that he is largely considered the wisest and most influential athletic coach that’s ever lived, at least among the U.S. sports scene.  His teaching are SO timeless and relevant to all aspects of life, in fact, that I’d highly encourage you to familiarize yourself with this man here if you haven’t already.  But back to the story.  After flipping away from the orgy of Tiger coverage for a second, I happened to tune into a clip of Coach Wooden reciting one of his more memorable quotes: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

Pretty appropriate for the situation, wouldn’t you say?  Had Mr. Wooden coached golf, instead of basketball, perhaps we would have avoided this whole fiasco!  But what struck me about the above quote, more than anything, was the clear tie-in to my work with people on networking and personal branding.  In my meanderings around the career transition scene, it seems like there are quite a few people out there putting the cart before the horse and concentrating on the less important component of the equation.  Instead of focusing your time and energy on trying to create the PERCEPTION that you are a certain type of person — a great connector, a trustworthy confidant, an astute listener, a loyal friend — start by being one.  Make sure that you actually are these things you’re claiming to be and that your daily actions and behaviors reflect this.  As Tiger’s story illustrates, while you can fool some of the people, some of the time, especially if you have a team of highly-paid publicists at your beck and call, eventually the truth will come out — and your carefully-crafted reputation will crumble if you haven’t shown the character required to back it up.   Character always wins out.  You either stand by your word — or you don’t.  Or you treat people respectfully — or you don’t.  Or you go the extra mile to help people — or you don’t.   And if you think for a second that your friends, customers, or job search acquaintances are too stupid to notice, I’ve got news for you.  You’re in for a rude awakening!

This lesson, to me, is not just limited to individuals.  It’s equally as important for organizations to follow.  You simply can’t have your “character” and your “reputation” operate too far out of alignment if you want to succeed over the long haul, especially in the social media era where news (and opinions) travel like wildfire.  For example, I’ve heard more than one story about certain employers in town who consistently win awards of the “best company to work for” variety, but then don’t back these accolades up with an ounce of authenticity or substance.  In fact, one of my recent clients used to work at one of these places, and claims it was actually MANDATED by management that all of their employees nominate the company, each and every year, for a particular award of this type.  How’s that for irony?  Think these employees are going to be out telling all of their most talented friends to come work for the organization?  And don’t get me started on companies who shed whole departments of employees at a moment’s notice, the moment the going gets tough, but then turn around and act outraged at the “disloyalty” of the occasional individual who decides to move on to greener pastures of their own volition.

At any rate, I won’t ramble further, but as you can tell I found the character/reputation observation expressed by Coach Wooden to be deeply profound — whether one is talking about a certain famous golfer or whether we all simply look in the mirror and take stock of our own attitudes and activities.  In fact, amongst the sea of possible New Year’s Resolutions we could all choose to embrace in a few weeks, I think we could all do far worse than striving to achieve more alignment of these factors in our own lives.  Let’s traipse into 2010 committed to remembering (and practicing) the concept that “character counts.”