The Cult of Personalities

In 2011 I went to a conference where I was hoping to snag an interview with one of the keynote speakers.

For reasons that will become obvious in a moment, I won’t give you her name but – suffice it to say – you would definitely know her work.

On the day of the event itself, I picked out my best suit, grabbed my best video camera, and came armed with my best plan.

Step one was to buddy-up to the conference organizer and persuade her to introduce me to the speaker before she went onstage.

It worked.

And despite the fact that I was obviously nervous, the speaker was gracious and warm and, best of all, she agreed to chat with me on camera.

So far so good.

I took my seat and proceeded to watch as a true star delivered onstage.

She was confident.



Everything the brochure said she would be.

Afterwards, I waited around as she signed autographs, took selfies, and – when I was able to catch her attention – I said, “I’ve got our camera set up next door.”

She looked at me somewhat quizzically and replied, “Great. I’ve got a book signing now but we can chat afterwards.”

I walked back in to the room I’d prepared, triple-checking the set-up, reviewing my notes, and pacing like a teenager on prom night.

Then I returned to her book signing and caught her eye from the back of the room.

This time, her glance was different.

It was stern.

Chilly even.

According to the official schedule, she had about five minutes left in her signing but there wasn’t a line, so I purchased a few books as gifts and made my way over to her table.

As I handed them over, I said again, “We’re all set up and I’m ready whenever you are.”

She signed the books and handed them back to me.


I pretended not to notice her energy had shifted dramatically.

“Excellent,” I smiled. “See you in a minute.”

I walked back to my camera and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After about 10 minutes, I found the conference organizer and asked if she’d seen the speaker.

“She’s left.”


“Yeah, a few minutes ago.”

After some probing – accident? emergency? – it was clear that nothing had gone wrong.

The speaker had simply stood me up.

I’ll never forget how I felt in that moment.

And yet I’m glad it happened because I learned a much more important lesson from her behavior than I could have ever learned from her words.

Namely, I learned that every time you come in contact with another person you are given a choice in the impression you make.

Here’s a hint: Authenticity is everything.

People will root for you, stand up for you – even forgive you – time and time again if they know you genuinely care.

And if you’re faking, well, we know that too.

Stephen Covey geniusly called this the “character ethic” versus the “personality ethic.” In other words, after combing through more than 100 years of success literature, he discovered the proverbial crack in the foundation of leadership:

Somewhere along the way, we started to celebrate our personalities more than our principles.  

In Covey’s words, success became a shell game of “appearing to be” rather than “actually being.”

Sound familiar?

It should because we see it all around us.

I see it these days every time I catch a glimpse of a brochure or a webpage touting that keynote speaker.

I know she has long forgotten about our meeting – but I haven’t.

And, frankly, I’m so grateful for it.

Because I learned that even “little” moments are opportunities to figuratively (and literally) show up.

The question is, do we?


P.S. To listen to Stephen Covey explain the difference between character and personality ethic, check out this video. Well worth the eight minutes. 



Back to top