Spending father’s day with my Dad last Sunday prompted me to think about role models. The first ones we have are our parents and I thought mine were too strict, too old fashioned and very out of touch. Yet those very traits are embedded in me in ways that reflect none of those labels.
The moment we enter this world we are surrounded by role models. In the beginning we have a narrow field made up of family and extended family. They show us a way to be. What we do with that information shapes us. We grow up, get an education, enter the working world and continue to form relationships; all the while learning to become us – the people we are now.
We become the result of exposure to people who have both positive and negative influences on us. In both cases they serve as roles models. Good role models show us behaviors to emulate and model and are pretty easy to recognize. The opposite is not always easily recognized but just as important.
Both teach us, but I believe we learn even more from a bad role model. Bad examples show us the person we don’t wish to become. In retrospect we usually find we are grateful to those who have made life difficult for us through behaviors that test our limits.
Lessons like these are hard to recognize in the moment they occur, but the impact they have on us makes us appreciate the experience. We remember the individual(s) because of the impact they had on the way we think and act. We remember the experience as a lesson learned.
What Defines Us?
Role models mean different things to different people—some of us look for guidance in the business world, some in our personal lives, and some are trailblazers for the rest of us. Good role models are in the forefront of politics, sciences, the arts, sports, television, and the military.
Some of them are well known, but the ones I think about are everyday people who made me stop and think. All of them left an impression on me. These men and women mentored me, encouraged me and influenced me into the person I am now. I am a reflection of their behaviors.
When I think of role models, I remember teachers, counselors, special friends and even people I work with. They are the real influencers in my personal and professional life.
When I began my career in the high tech industry I was defined by my gender. The high tech industry was a man’s world back then; women in leadership positions were uncommon. I worked for a good company that offered opportunities for growth and promotion; one of which led to my first woman manager. Her name was Linda and I secretly worshiped her. She was my first career role model. It’s worth saying it could have gone the other way. Women in management often get a well-deserved bad rap.
Linda was a unique combination of intelligence and style. She was uber confident without being overbearing or egotistical. In fact, Linda had no hard edges. She was comfortable with who she was and at ease in any situation.
Her management style embraced her femininity but never lost site of the business responsibilities she carried. I did my best to emulate her. I was young enough to be easily impressed and paid attention to everything she did, including the way she treated people. Especially me.
She knew how to listen and encouraged contributions from everyone on her team. I credit her with my ability to mentor younger employees and my love of stiletto heels. It wasn’t long before another company lured her away and made her a vice president. I never forgot her.
Setting a Bad Example
Let’s face it; bad examples are all around us. The ones we notice most make the news or appear on reality programs. When I was raising my kids I pointed to the TV or a magazine cover on more than one occasion and said “Never do this.”
Everyone makes a poor choice now and again, but these individuals make a habit of it. It’s troubling when young people look up to public figures who continually demonstrate poor judgment and questionable ethics.
In the business world most of us have experienced toxic leadership and poor ethics—it goes with the territory. I’ve worked with misguided executives and incompetent managers. I know enough to know I won’t be emulating them and roll my eyes when the winds of change blow them on their way.
There are also everyday people who chose the wrong thing when the right things are right in front of them. It can be a power trip, narcissism, or even a form of mental illness. It impacts the way we feel and the way we are treated.
People get used to power and after a while they start to think that no matter what they do or say, they are somehow removed from consequences. They are blinded to the harm they are doing but they are some of the best teachers I’ve had.
The Role Model in You
You cannot be what you cannot see. We are all role models on the basis that we influence others through our behavior. It literally means we must talk the talk and walk the walk to have a positive impact. Each of us has the opportunity to be a role model—the choice we make is about what kind we wish to be.
Having good role models help us to interpret, define and engage in the world around us. The best role models in my life lead by example. There are too many to name, but spending the day with my Dad reminded me where it all started.