The Role of the Role Model

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Many of us have at some point tried to take after someone in our field.

Usually, that person embodies some combination of personal virtue and professional success. But, as the New York Times reported the other day, “recent research into role models says we may be choosing the wrong people to emulate, and that could be hurting us professionally.”

That’s in part because we often pick the most extraordinary performers, and the circumstances and behaviors of such people are almost by definition exceptional and hard to replicate. Citing the studies of Chengwei Liu, an assistant professor of strategy and behavioral science at the University of Warwick in Britain, the Times suggested that “we may do better to look to solid workers who aren’t as flashy as those at the top, but consistently perform well.”

Peter Drucker recognized the impulse to emulate successful elders, especially among young newcomers to the workplace, and he therefore reminded bosses to be mindful of their visibility. Executives, Drucker observed, “set the tone, create the spirit, decide the values for an organization and for the people in it. They lead or mislead, in other words. And they have no choice but to do one or the other.”

Indeed, because the leaders in an organization are setting the pace, it’s crucial to get the right people into the most senior positions. “In human affairs,” Drucker noted, “the distance between the leaders and the average is a constant. If leadership performance is high, the average will go up.”

In the end, though, Drucker thought it was important for people to look within themselves—rather than to a boss or to someone renowned in their profession—if they want to be at their best.

“Work with your own strengths,” he advised. “The road to effectiveness is not to mimic the behavior of the successful boss you so admire, or to follow the program of a book (even mine). You can only be effective by working with your own set of strengths, a set of strengths that are as distinctive as your fingerprints. Your job is to make effective what you have—not what you don’t have.”

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