In his final HBO comedy special, seventy-one year old George Carlin walked onto the New York stage to a standing ovation and opened his show with the following comment:
“I’d like to begin tonight by saying: Screw Lance Armstrong!”
“I’m tired of that idiot. And while you’re at it, screw Tiger Woods, too. There’s another idiot I can do without. I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country. Aren’t you sick of being told who your role models ought to be? Being told who you ought to be looking up to? I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much.”
THAT’S THE GOOD NEWS: You don’t have to be a professional athlete, international humanitarian or slick politician to become a role model.
People who earn the title of role model rarely do so because of their achievements – they do so because of their attributes.
It’s not about performance – it’s about personhood.
It’s not about what you’ve done for yourself – it’s about what you breathe into others.
It’s not about being in the public eye of the world – it’s about being in the private hearts of the people.
HOWEVER: Becoming role model isn’t something you just “decide” to do.
Being a role model is the residue of mattering consistently.
Being a role model is the after shock of contributing persistently.
Being a role model is the incidental consequence of the intentional commitment to operate from the best, highest version of yourself.
Maybe the real question isn’t, “Are you a role model?” but rather, “When people listen to your life speak, do they take notes?”
Here’s a collection of ideas to make sure they do:1. Refuse to sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate. The reason delaying gratification is such an admirable quality is because so few people possess the patience to do it. We live in a world of Veruca Salts: Accepting periods of minimal progress along the windy road to success isn’t a favored pastime.
Instead, people are addicted to short cuts. Which, last time I checked my GPS, don’t work. Shortcuts cause stress, rarely succeed and often backfire. They never go unpunished. They are a refuge for slackers and a lazy man’s panacea. Not exactly role models.
My suggestion is to stop looking for the easy win and start running the developmental gauntlet. Be patient with, have confidence in and add value to your own resources. As a result, you won’t just become successful – you’ll be emulatable. Are you willing to risk today’s time for tomorrow’s treasure?
2. Be a human being. Nobel Prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer famously suggested, “Search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.”
A few examples: Communicate less perfectly. Disclose your vulnerability. Pepper in ordinariness. Publicly celebrate mistakes. Scrap your title.
The cool part is, the collective consequence of actions like these infects people with possibility. Namely, the possibility that your success could happen to them too. Not without hard work, of course.
But by fully integrating your humanity into your profession or position, you compel people to declare, “I believe in this, I can do this, I’m willing to try this!” What about your life speaks straight to the heart of the human experience?
3. Idolatry is insufficient. I recently read a fascinating article by Steven Resnick on The Bleacher Report. His claim was that professional athletes weren’t role models as much as they were idols.
“On the basketball court, Jordan could do pretty much what he wanted: He could shoot, he could pass, he could defend, and he could literally fly through the air. But does that really make Jordan a role model?”
No. It’s not to say that professional athletes do not do good things for their communities. But to say that athletes are role models just because they are in the spotlight is a ridiculous assertion. The biggest part to being a role model is the personal interaction you have with the person.”
Lesson learned: It’s not about being the life of the party – it’s about bringing other people to life at the party, then convincing those people that they were the ones who turned the switch on. Whereas idols are regarded with blind adoration, role models are regarded with substantial connection.
It’s not about performance and perfection; it’s about personhood and connection. And within the relationships that matter, your challenge is to make that move. From the superficial to the substantial. Otherwise you’re just a statue. Do people idolize you or identify with you?
4. Succeed in spite. Another attribute shared by many role models is their uncanny ability to win notwithstanding the surrounding chaos. And it takes all kinds, too. Around the world, role models are the people who succeed:
In spite of overwhelming poverty. In spite of devastating toxicity. In spite of endless hurdles. In spite of gnawing self-doubt. In spite of efforts to crush their spirit. And in spite of countless people calling them crazy.
That’s the secret: Deciding what’s (not) going to be part of equation for you, making yourself the exception to the rule and giving the middle finger to the forces of mediocrity that attempt to crush your spirit. Do you demand abstinence from all that proves to be poisonous?
5. Character isn’t enough. My mentor always taught me that character was the degree to which your actions mirrored your values. Which kind of makes it like tofu: Character absorbs the flavor of whatever sauce it’s cooked in.
The problem is, if you’re a man of great character – and the values mirrored by your actions are dangerous or disrespectful – you lose. And the people around you lose.
Take Saddam Hussein, for example. He was a man of great character. Too bad the values he stood for were responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people.
Therefore, your challenge as a role model is to assess both the consistency and the content of your character. Will your commitment to your value lead to development or detriment?
6. Enable others to build their success around yours. In 2007, David Letterman’s production company became the first to cut a deal with the striking Writers Guild of America. This enabled his show to resume production with their writing staffs.
“We take care of our people. And we’re happy to be going back to work, and particularly pleased to be doing it with our writers,” Letterman told the New York Times in 2007. “But this is not a solution to the strike, which unfortunately continues to disrupt the lives of thousands. But I hope it will be seen as a step in the right direction.”
Furthermore, Letterman also agreed to pay his other non-working staff members (hair, makeup, grips, prop guys, etc) until the end of the strike – out of his own pocket.
Now, you might not have a production team of a hundred people. But I imagine there’s a constituency that gravitates toward you, hoping you leadership will help enable their success. Who’s warming their hands by your fire?
7. Be just as much of a rockstar when you’re off. Off stage. Off court. Off duty. Off campus. Off air. Off camera. That’s the real stage. That’s the true catwalk of being a role model: When your applause is a distant memory, when all the reporters have gone home and when there’s nobody left but you and that poor guy who drove two hours through the hail just to see you.
The question is: Will you blow him off so you can rush back to the tour bus for the groupie party? Or will you stick around for an extra ten minutes just to make that guy’s trip worthwhile?
Role models stick around. Role modules remember that one person is still an audience. And role models know how unbelievably easy it is to make people happy.
That’s consistency. And it’s far better than rare moments of greatness. Practice that, and you’ll get a standing ovation every time. How many different versions of you do people see?
REMEMBER: A role model is a person others want to emulate.
And you don’t have to be a celebrity to make that happen.
Focus on personal attributes – not professional achievements.
Focus on expressing yourself fully – not on proving yourself incessantly.
Focus on commitment to values that matter – not on conquests of wars that don’t.
Do that, and your example will be worth copying by the people you love.
Take that, Lance Armstrong.
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That Guy with the Nametag
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