Are the leaders you follow role models of everything you aspire to be and do? No-one is perfect of course, and how far does role modelling need to go?
Wikipedia suggests that a role model is “a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people.” Are these all behaviors, or just some of them?
The best role models appear to me to be people whose main character threads and demonstrations of their innermost person are ones that I would like to emulate. It’s not just the single thread of principle on a given topic, or example of opinion on a specific theme, but something far deeper than that.
Should we even expect leaders to be role models? Aren’t leaders unique in their achievements and approach to life? And shouldn’t we just aspire to be authentically ourselves rather than try to model ourselves on others? All very legitimate questions …. let me tackle these one at a time.
Should leaders be expected to be role models? The very fact that someone is called “a leader” doesn’t make them a leader. Neither does it necessarily make them a role model. I know many people in leadership roles who I would not want to emulate. I also know leaders who I admire and respect, and who consciously or unconsciously I regard as role models. From the earliest years of infancy, we learn to copy. As adults, we have often built up patterns of behavior and values based on impressions gained through growing up. The more emotionally intelligent we become, the more we can make choices about new patterns we wish to adopt, or new people we wish to “copy”, and to jettison previously held patterns of behavior or conviction. There is something innately normal about role modelling – either to be a role model for others, or to copy other people as role models. Leaders who wish to lead others should understand that they will be scrutinized and evaluated by others as to whether they display characteristics and examples of behavior that others count worthy of following and admiring. A leader who doesn’t consider themselves a role model should examine their values and example before taking on the mantle of leadership.
Aren’t leaders unique, and why does being a leader necessarily make them a role model? The best leaders are authentic, and in their own way are uniquely different. Like it or not, the uniqueness of a leader, whilst not characterizing them as a role model, makes them a role model. Let me unpack that! A leader, who is secure and confident in their own true self, doesn’t necessarily set out to be a role model. They do however appreciate the impact and influence they have and may have on others. This makes them consider their behavior and example as even more important, given that others will undoubtedly use them as yardsticks for measuring their own contributions and development.
Should we even have role models? I think it is human behavior to observe others and either admire, criticize or ignore them. There is a phrase “imitation is the best form of flattery”. I think this is a truism! We love to emulate the best in people, and to distance ourselves from the worst. Whilst this can be entirely subjective and vary massively from one person to the next, most of us do in fact role model ourselves and our belief systems on our observations of others.
So leaders, be great role models of honest, moral, compassionate and wise convictions! We can all hope others will follow the best in us, and we can follow the best in others. Role modelling is often more impactful over the long-term than any training – that’s one reason why leadership development should always try to introduce the best role models to others and not just teach.