"The whole world is in chess. Any move can be the death of you. Do anything except remain where you started, and you can't be sure of your end. Were you sure of your end once?" As I am hip deep in Game of Thrones Final Season Mania, I thought I would indulge in another "sword and board" saga by catching up on the Director's Cut of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. It has been on my list for a long while, and I sat down to view it before the new episode of GOT. About a third-way through the film, I had another "A-HA" moment. Building a personal brand is not unlike the character arc and progression of the main protagonist throughout the film. The evolution of Balian of Ibelin from blacksmith to knight and lord has the same milestones as the promotion of an assistant to a manager, and even involves many of the same strategies. How does one compare the epic saga of adventures of a medieval crusader knight to the professional development and personal branding of an A/E/C marketer? The answers might surprise you.
Before the official review, first a note of reference. For this article, I viewed the Director's Cut (close to 3 hours of run time) as opposed to the theatrical version of roughly 2 hours. Many of my friends have recommended it, and the internet, as well as film critics, consider it the definitive version of the film. I will also not be reviewing the film for historical accuracy, as many have done in the last 15 years because the story and character arc are more relevant to marketing and personal branding.
In France during the time of the Crusades, a blacksmith named Balian has lost his wife from suicide after failed childbirth, causing him to nearly lose his own faith. The Holy Wars seem a world away from where he struggles to maintain his daily routine until a stranger comes to town. Sir Godfrey, Baron of Ibelin, arrives to seek his forgiveness as a father who was never there to claim his bastard. He invites him to his camp and to travel with him to Jerusalem, which Balian initially refuses. A heated moment of anger causes Balian to murder a priest who defiled his wife's grave, casting himself as an outlaw, and seeking redemption for him and his wife. He catches up with his father who takes him in and trains him as a knight.
In Jerusalem, an uneasy peace lies between Saladin, king and leader of the Muslim world, and Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem and the Christian world. The House of Ibelin, and now Balian with it, serves the King of Jerusalem. Aiding the king is his advisor Tiberias, who acts as a kind of sheriff to keep the peace. The tension continues to grow as it is well known that Baldwin IV suffers from leprosy and his time is short. After the death of his father, he finds himself a world away from his beginnings as a blacksmith, engineer, and soldier. He is now lord of a barony, guardian of the people, consultant to the King, and an object of romantic interest to the King's sister Sibylla. Sibylla's husband Guy de Lusignan and his army of Templar knights are also in the mix with a taste for murder and their eye on the throne.
In the midst of political turmoil, religious contention, poverty and power, Balian makes his way up the ranks using his skills and gaining experience to become the defender of Jerusalem against an army of 200,000 Saracens. While he tries to find redemption and meaning for himself, he also inspires meaning in others around him, upholding the Knight's Code his father taught him to defend the helpless, speak the truth, and do the right thing in the name of God.
Personal branding is something we don't normally consider in A/E/C marketing. As marketers, it seems that we are so focused on promoting our firms that we often forget to promote ourselves. Maintaining a personal brand can be a challenge or chore, depending on how much effort you dedicate to it. I never realized how much work I had put into my personal branding until recently when I started a position with a new firm but one I was familiar with. In preparation for this new position, I chatted with my colleagues about opportunities, evolution and passion, wrapping up my first five years in the business, and what lies ahead. Leaving happy hour was when I had my "A-HA" moment, as I recounted that many of the professionals I had started working with already knew me through my reputation. I was a bit perplexed at first since we have only lived in town for a few years, but apparently, that's all it takes when you do the right things at the right time.
In the case of Balian, not only is he known for the service of his house, but by his father's reputation. In watching the film, this all started to make sense to me in a more profound and relatable way than I had seen it before. A house in the Medieval times was not unlike a firm; with a sigil, a creed, and a task. It is the same foundation that our A/E/C firms and businesses are built on. This got me to realize that Balian's character arc occurs because of his personal branding, much in the manner that I had done with mine. Yes, since I may never get to be a knight in this world (but I am still holding out hope), a marketer is very much like one in our world, and I suppose the next best thing.
As you may know, I put much faith in what chess can teach us, so it is no surprise that I felt the line that Baldwin IV gives Balian in his counseling when he says "The whole world is in chess. Any move can be the death of you. Do anything except remain where you started, and you can't be sure of your end. Were you sure of your end once?" This reminded me of our perennial SMPS joke "Nobody wanted to be an A/E/C marketer when they were young, but here we are." You truly do never really know what you want to be, but more so what you want to do, what your passion is, and where you hope it may take you. In Balian's case, he is a builder, a smith, and knows how to handle a sword. His situation takes him as far as Jerusalem, but his skills, talents, code, and passions help him to make a name there. He works his land, digs a well to engineer irrigation, feeds his people, consults the king on the building of siege engines, and in one of my favorite scenes, uses his military surveying skills to win a battle. He is not unlike our own engineers, but one that lived 1,000 years ago. The best part is, when he is using his mind and his hands, his expression is genuinely happy, and I think that is the goal of most professionals I know. This development that he undergoes is best summed up by his father Godfrey who tells him "You are not what you were born, but what you have within yourself to be." That is why he is a knight, not because of his parentage, but because of his potential.
Balian also unknowingly develops his personal brand. While most of us in marketing think of branding for our firms, we rarely consider branding for ourselves. Branding is more than just a logo and a color scheme, it is the sum of actions that determine your professional reputation. Josh Miles, the author of Bold Brand 2.0, defines branding as "the act of intentionally positioning your company in a specific place in your prospects' minds, through visuals, language, collateral, and the over-arching experience." While in some cases the positioning may be unintentional, the consistent delivery of expectations and actions can also define a brand. In such cases, a personal brand can be defined as "the constant signal to colleagues, managers, and potential employers of what you’re all about". Personal branding can lead to jobs, positions, an advantage against the competition, and much more. Laura Lake of the The Balance notes "If you don’t develop your own personal brand, others will do it for you. Developing your personal brand is the proactive way of controlling your career development and how you are perceived in the marketplace."
Balian sticks to his code of ethics and morals, despite feeling that God has abandoned him. The Director's Cut version of the film tells a better story to reinforce this. He is against violence, keeps his word, defends the innocent, and even defies the King of Jerusalem when his conscience is questioned. He explains to the King "It is a kingdom of conscience, or nothing." Because of that creed, he is even respected among his enemies. When he refuses to kill an enemy in cold blood upon landing on the shores of the Middle East, and spares his life, this man tells him "Your quality will be known among your enemies, before ever you meet them." This same man is Imad, chief general to Saladin, and a leader of his army.
The key to any branding, both personal and professional, is consistency. Each instance can be thought of as a building block, and when they are consistently used to build, the result is your reputation. However, if this consistency is negative in nature, your reputation is torn down. Reputation may sound like a relic of high school days gone by, but in our industry in this day and age people talk, and the talk can determine who gets hired. Like Balian, I arrived for my first week at my new firm and discovered that people had been talking about me, as well as my skills, talents, achievements and work ethic. I felt that they expected great things, and to be honest I was nervous about delivering. After a month or so of re-calibrating, I was back in my game like it was an extension of me. What comes naturally cannot be ignored, and in this way I felt like Balian in the film. This idea of reputation is real, it is not medieval fantasy but historical fact, and I have seen it work both ways to build and to destroy.
Nothing is more competitive than a clash of religious kings, as shown in the film, and Balian's greatest weapon and asset is his honor. His father recites their code of honor to him before conferring his knighthood - Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath." The best part follows where Godfrey slaps him across the face and follows with "and that's so you remember it." It may seem that chivalry is dead, its beliefs still live on in those who would do good in the world. What Balian believes is carved on the beam above his forge when he is nothing - What man is a man who does not make the world better. It's as simple and effective a code as anyone needs and it works for him through poverty and progress.
One of the strongest lines that spoke to me personally is what the culmination of personal branding looks like. Balian is a great example of progress, but what does perfection look like? In his confrontation with Saladin, a king with a powerful army that takes back a city after 100 years of occupation, Saladin commends Balian's bravery and skill as a formidable enemy. He offers to release all Christians within the City and give them safe passage to Christian lands. Balian questions him and mentions "When the Christians captured Jerusalem, they massacred every Muslim in the city walls..." Saladin responds quickly with "I am not those men. I am Saladin. Sala-hu-din!" The delivery is epic and the words so simple, but the emphasis and meaning behind it guarantees that Balian will have to trust his word. Very few can bank on a name, and that is the loftiest goal of personal branding. Saladin has spent a lifetime creating what that name really means to the point where it is all he needs.
Check out the clip below if you are in need of extra motivation to meet a deadline, put up with your project manager, or defend you firm from invading armies.