Thought Leadership

Re-defining and Harnessing the Power of Role Models

Lynette Ooi – Amazon Head of Legal, ASEAN, Consumer

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines the term “role model” as “a person who someone admires and whose behavior they try to copy”, and offers the words “hero/heroine” and “idol” as synonyms. This “hero” construct of the role model is widely prevalent in popular culture and has been woven into some highly-celebrated success stories. For example, Steve Jobs considered Edwin Land (the founder of Polaroid) to be his hero and modeled his career after Land’s. Both men were obsessive about product design, built multibillion-dollar corporations, and believed in the power of scientific demonstration.

While this “hero” notion of the role model has value, it also has significant limitations. First, adopting such a narrow approach can make it difficult to find the perfect “fit”. At one Women In Law Circle meeting, I asked each participant to submit a photo and biography of their role model. During our discussion, several participants expressed that they found it challenging to find the right role model. It turns out many of them were looking for someone exactly like themselves in nearly every way – gender, ethnicity, profession, marital and parenthood status; even perceived wealth. This is aligned with studies which have shown that individuals are more likely to select role models who they perceive as similar to themselves. However, this can cause individuals to exclude many possible role models, missing out on the potential benefits. This is a particular problem for women and other minority groups, who tend to be underrepresented in positions of influence.

Second, seeking to emulate an individual as a whole could lead you down a negative path. Studies of children and adolescents indicate that youth who look up to role models that engage in negative or risky behaviors (e.g. drugs, drinking, promiscuity, violence) are more likely to follow suit and eventually engage in similar risky behaviors. In other cases, a role model “gone bad” could cause the follower to become disillusioned – for instance, imagine a sportsperson who idolized Lance Armstrong. Finally, focusing on another individual’s aspirations and journey could cause you to lose sight of your own priorities and purpose in life.

In my personal experience, and in coaching others, I have found it more helpful to incline towards the Merriam-Webster definition of a role model – “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others”. I would go even further and offer a new definition of a role model as someone who is worthy of being imitated with respect to a particular talent, skill, or character trait. This approach has several advantages: it allows you to stay focused on your own goals and aspirations, it broadens the field of role model candidates, and it offers you the freedom to choose multiple role models, each addressing a particular need.

So how do you go about choosing your role model(s)? Here’s a suggested approach:

1. Identify your aspiration or growth area. This could be starting a new business, building a high-performing team, or even a specific skill like public speaking or effective writing.

2. Cast your net wide to explore potential candidates. Look at colleagues you work with directly or indirectly, friends and networking contacts. There is no need to limit yourself according to arbitrary factors such as age, gender, etc. For example, my role model for leadership is a non-lawyer who works in a different industry, and my role model for writing business documents is my American male ex-boss. If you can’t find someone that you personally know, then feel free to choose a public figure such as Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, or Malala Yousafzai. What’s important is that you have access to how this person thinks and operates, for example through biographies or other research materials.

3. Tap into their wisdom. Read and learn as much as you can about how this person exercises their specific talents, and if you know them, ask them out for coffee. You’ll be surprised at how willingly people share their secrets with those who take the time to listen!

One of the mentees I work with, who has gone through this thought process with me, recently said: “To start off the new year, I think it’s time for me to refresh my panel of role models,” with which I enthusiastically agreed. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to do the same.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and not her employer.

Originally published 17 Feb 2021

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