John Eales explains why role models don’t have to be perfect
IN a famous Nike campaign in 1993, Charles Barkley, the brash NBA basketballer, challenged the celebrity cult of role models and became the anti-hero to what he saw as the many saccharine alternatives:
“I’m not a role model, I’m not paid to be a role model, I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models, just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Outside of my parents, among my first role models were our milkman, who made his daily deliveries with a dash of free advice, a neighbour five years my senior who taught me the things I wasn’t supposed to know, and a host of Australian sportsman. Kids are easily influenced. Role models are a part of life whether we like it or not and they come in many forms – sports stars and scientists; legends, such as the great Aussie battler or our own digger; and even our parents or an aunt or an uncle. There are no limits to our universe of role models, with each representing images of our most aspirational self.
As parents we use role models in day-to-day instruction, not always remembering that in all likelihood we fulfil that very same role ourselves – to the good and to the bad. Unfortunately though, role models are often projected as mistake-free, paragons of virtue and we rarely see the warts-and-all reality of life. This is both dangerous and limiting because it sets unrealistic expectations on those who admire them. The victims of this syndrome can just as easily be teenage kids, middle-aged mothers or investment bankers, each under the spell of an unattainable dream. Role models are most useful when represented as normal, flawed individuals who have desirable attributes which are truly attainable. Here are four key points when considering role models.
It all starts with you:
First, understand who you truly are and be yourself. In some of my early leadership roles the best advice I got was to just be myself. But I didn’t take it. I tried to be a little bit of Nick Farr-Jones, my first captain in the Wallabies, Allan Border, and throw in a bit of Nelson Mandela or others who I admired. In the process I forgot who I was so I probably wasn’t anybody in the end. To know how to get the best out of others’ journeys but remain authentic to your own you need to first know yourself and build from there.
Being paid to kick a ball, race a car, sing, act or sit in the C-Suite doesn’t automatically qualify a person as a good role model. Choose someone with similar values, and someone whose story has useful and attainable parallels with your own.
Learn from their successes and their failures:
Whether on the sporting field or in the boardroom, mistakes will be made. We can learn as much from watching how role models deal with mistakes as we can from how they achieved their successes.
Value their skills as much as their story:
Tiger Woods was a prodigious golf talent who despite some serious errors in judgement can teach us a lot about the value of a work ethic and composure under pressure. James Dewey Watson, one of the team who discovered the DNA double helix, was a Nobel Prize winner and thought leader, but the latter part of his career was marred by some of his racist comments. Both made mistakes but there are still lessons to learn from them.
It is useful to strike a balance between role models and mentors. A role model, who has a hands-on mentoring role, coaching you and developing your skills, will have a profound and long-lasting effect. Charles Barkley was true to his character. And that’s the key. when used as an instructive complement to your best self rather than absorbed blindly, role models can be useful aids. Even a short cut to success. Don’t limit yourself to one or even a few and accept them warts and all for there is also much truth to the saying that no-one is a total waste of space, you can always be used as a bad example.