The Fame of Infamy

Rob Ford is in the news again. His addictions, poor judgment and increasingly churlish and intolerant views are, once again, on the front page, the lead story on news programs around the world and fodder for comedians and late night talk show hosts. But then that’s not really news any more. What should be news is how quickly work that began during the Renaissance on a purpose-built philosophy and values system of reputation, morals and virtue, work that continued for 500 years, has been quickly undone in our efforts to feed the insatiable content beast.

Ford’s antics have become a media expectation. But, what does it say about a man’s character when the use of drugs is to be forgiven because it was one time while in a “drunken stupor” and what does it say when he, seemingly, is in on his own sad joke while appearing on the Jimmy Kimmel show? More importantly, what does it say about us?

It says we have an unhealthy and troubling fascination with infamy. Consider Oprah’s interview with Lance Armstrong, the salacious interest in celebrity wrongdoing and our fascination with Dennis Rodman’s fascination with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s Supreme leader; we don’t seem to see or care about the difference between fame and infamy. It is a thin line between the two and a line that the media has tripped over many times. The problem is that the media pratfalls over fame and infamy are affecting us. We seem to be losing our bearings and perspective on the matter.

How else to explain people’s fascination with having their picture taken with Rob Ford? It has been widely reported that Ford has been mobbed at sporting events and hounded in nightclubs by people clamouring to have their picture taken with the infamous mayor. Chuck Klosterman, of The Ethicist column for New York Times Magazine took a shot at the issue of selfish selfies with infamous people. In his view, if our actions around the infamous have to do with motives of ridicule and for the sake of hilarity then it is simply demeaning (assumingly for both parties). If our actions have to do with satirization of the individual because we think the policies and ideas espoused are dangerous or troubling, then criticism is deserving and arguably an expectation.

The only thing holding the line between fame and infamy is a sense of virtue; in the doer and in the beholder. Virtue was the cornerstone of the Renaissance view of fame. The view that virtue in action led to fame was an Ancient concept that was imitated and iterated by Renaissance leaders into fame becoming a sense of magnificence from actions and the courage and strength to do great things. Fame became a transformative power by which architecture and artistic masterpieces were created in flourishing community cultures. The idea of fame and honour being intertwined held in the emerging Renaissance business world as well and was a contributing force to the rise of the middle class or popolo and professional classes.

Social historians have argued that the rise in artistry and architecture had something to do with greed. Greed for honour, glory and with it, fame and the possibility of good became an engine of change. While greed for honour is possibly selfish it is also reputational in nature and shows a hunger for good and an interest in progress that improves the current state. Renaissance leaders concluded that those concerned with honour are likely interested in lasting positive change.

This attitude toward fame certainly worked in the Renaissance but could it work today or have we sufficiently worn down the idea of fame being a sense of magnificence and courage to its current indistinct state that it cannot be reconstituted? Perhaps we see it as a time-honoured tradition or an anachronistic idea that has no place in 21st century business or society. But, when you look at fame through the eyes of your customers or a citizen we see that the Renaissance version of fame with its sense of virtue, magnificence and courage is exactly what they are looking for. They seek goodness in your products and services, they demand corporate social responsibility in your actions and they expect leadership from those of you in charge. This is 21st century virtue, magnificence and courage. And this is the perfect time for it.

The stakes for leadership have never been higher and our trust in leaders never lower according to PEW Research and the Edelman Trust Survey. Real fame in business or any organization is about virtue and a sense of purpose. Purpose and virtue is the difference between doing great things of lasting consequence and doing things for the fleeting media glow of greatness. The recent Deloitte study on purpose neatly quantifies the upside for great things. Every organization and every individual in the organization has the potential for fame. Let Purpose be their guide down the razor-thin line between fame and infamy and lead your organization with a purpose built philosophy and values system that will make you all famous. For all the right reasons.


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