What do you (really) stand for?

This week saw some interesting anniversaries.

200 years since Napoleon died.

200 years since the Guardian made its first appearance (as the Manchester Evening Guardian).

And 100 years since Coco Chanel launched the legendary Chanel No. 5 perfume.

What I find interesting about all three is how their reputations have changed over time.

Napoleon was a small man, but a towering historical presence. He was born Italian, but became an iconic symbol of French greatness. Modern-day Paris is still dominated by landmarks and railway stations bearing the names of his military triumphs.

Yet modern-day French politicians are often careful not to associate themselves too closely with Napoleon, because he was also an avowed racist, who reintroduced slavery to French possessions in the Caribbean and cynically betrayed the Haitian independence leaders who had helped him fight the British.

Not a great look for the leader of a Republic based on liberty, equality and fraternity.

Coco Chanel is another iconic French figure: an intuitive designer, spectacular self-publicist and subtly pioneering feminist, who dragged herself up from poverty to define the style of a generation.

She was also an unapologetic anti-semite and Nazi cheerleader, who spent her war years shacked up in the Ritz hotel with a German diplomat – and was only spared imprisonment because of the personal intervention of her friend Winston Churchill. 

My point is that reputation is never set in stone: glorious achievement in one field won’t prevent your reputation being tarnished by failings in another.

However, the good news is that it also works the other way.

The Guardian was first published by Lancashire mill-owners. In its early years, it was derided by the labour movement as a mouthpiece for capitalist exploitation. During the American Civil War, it loudly supported the Confederate states in their struggle to keep slavery.

Yet, over time – and under the careful stewardship of a new owner – the Guardian gradually established an editorial position more consistent with its lofty pronounced ideals.

During the Spanish civil war, it was the only mainstream British newspaper to oppose Franco. Just as it was the first British newspaper to ring alarm bells about the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, long before that become a fashionable position.

Now, I don’t say this because I’m a particular fan of the Guardian. The truth is, I rarely read it these days and, when I do, I often disagree with its editorial positions. 

But I’m glad it’s there. I think it plays an important role in keeping our leaders honest and promoting a fairer society – and I’m not alone in thinking this.

Opinion polls regularly show the Guardian to be the most trusted source of news, both online and among mainstream print media. 

It’s taken them 200 years to build that trust. Which is an example worth remembering next time you’re thinking about your organisation’s values.

You build trust by doing what you say you’re going to do and by living up to the things you say are important.

In other words, values aren’t optional. They’re not something you can disregard when it’s inconvenient or difficult (when you need to close a factory, say). 

If you do, you will lose trust – and all your other brilliant achievements won’t protect you.

So choose your values carefully.