The Illusion of Scale

Personas tempt us with cheap power because credibility requires substance.

Scaling yourself—the real you—isn't possible. Politicians and influencers want you to think they are a movement or a platform or a brand. But they aren't actually those things, even if they represent them or lead them or are their namesake. They're people.

Your power (the ability to do something) and influence (the capacity to sway others to some end) are things that aren't entirely in your control but are malleable. Because the actual you has limits and the perceived you exists in the minds of yourself and others, the more you step into the public eye, the more tempting it becomes to focus on the perception of you and less on the actual you. (Or at least, that's how our political climate would reward you.) You carefully develop and manage an image of yourself—someone to take you further than you could go on your own—an imaginary friend. A measurable, marketable, scalable phantom. A persona.

In a 1972 conversation between the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan and Maclean's editor, Peter C. Newman, McLuhan mulled the temptation politicians face in constructing something beyond themselves:

The successor to politics will be propaganda, not in the sense of a message or ideology, but the impact of the whole technology of the times. So politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be so much more powerful than he could ever be.

This is the temptation with all work—especially the work we care about most deeply. You begin to prefer the representative image version of yourself as more people look to you for direction, knowledge, provision, or entertainment. And you don't need to be a politician to unknowingly adopt an informal reputation management regimen. You construct a version of yourself—in the way you tell stories or in the details you withhold. In how you listen or don't. In what you read or watch. In how you work or associate with others.

Our focus slowly shifts from the substance of our contributions to the reactions of others. And this becomes a campaign that never ends. You begin to identify more and more with the avatar and lose touch with the person who inhabits your skin. Your imaginary friend begins to feel like an imaginary tyrant.


Propaganda is trust that's in a hurry. It is a trust that is highly conditional and potentially superficial. It is inferior to trust built on transparency, consistency, and credibility.

It's not that things like reputation or perception don't matter. They do. In many ways, the problem with image management is the shortcuts. It's all hat, no cattle. Instead of trying to earn trust, you heavily focus on persuasion at the expense of substance. Instead of submitting to the slow process of growing as a leader, you use the language of leadership but skip the experience of actually leading people you could name. And in the case of elections, it spirals into punch and counterpunch.

Disrupting the incentive structures of image maintenance requires coming to terms with losing. It requires being wrong and admitting fault. It means making peace with a pace of change that is slower than you envisioned, but more consequential than you could ever force. It requires looking in the mirror and seeing a beloved child of God.

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