Our Role Models, Good and Bad

1 02 2013

My last post explored the idea of great problem-solvers as great leaders. I said that when I think of great leaders, I tend to come up with people who made their mark on history by solving the big problems of their day. These are the kind of people that inspire great admiration. 

We also tend to admire people who achieve things others can’t, whether due to intellect, athletic ability or simply being in the right place at the right time. We’re a country built upon the idea that individual achievement will be rewarded, regardless of our gender, race or some other characteristic of birth. We’re a “can-do” country so we revere the doers, especially when they do things most of us can’t do. Just think of the times when another person made your jaw drop. I bet they were doing something you couldn’t do. 

Charles Barkley, ex-NBA basketball star, made a commercial for Nike many years ago that generated a lot of controversy because the core message of the ad was that he wasn’t a role model. The point of the commercial was that kids shouldn’t put him on a pedestal; they should look up to their parents. But many people argued that he wasn’t recognizing the powerful impact he had on kids as a result of his profession and ability. 

I get both points and when I was younger I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Now as a  father with kids of my own, the argument he created resonates with me more deeply. Personally I don’t think he was abdicating his responsibilities as a role model as much as he was emphasizing our society’s infatuation with athletes. 

In the wake of revelations by more recent “role models” like Lance Armstrong, General David Patraeus, Tiger Woods, Martha Stewart, etc., it’s hard not to think we’d all have been better if we’d listened to Barkley in the first place. 

Or maybe we need to take a different view of our role models. In most cases, we don’t know these people, not in the way we know our family, friends and co-workers. So we probably shouldn’t be so quick to idolize. Also, it’s possible to respect someone for the good they’ve done without endorsing all their faults.


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