How to be an effective role model

by Stuart Duff, Partner and Head of Development at Pearn Kandola

Everyone wants to be a good role model. Whether it’s to your children, employees or even strangers, we all want to make a good impression on the people around us. But being a role model means something different to everyone.

Think about some of the most popular role models of modern – and indeed previous – times. Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson and more recently, Malala Yousafzai spring to mind. They have very different qualities, but they’re all seen as role models by one person or another. So, what really makes a role model?

Well, they’re the activists that we all look up to. Whether they stand up for a moral argument that they believe in or have built something from scratch, they’re all inspirational. Most likely, your role models will have achieved something that you dream of achieving yourself. They might be averagely intelligent, talkative, considerate and task focused – all that social psychology research suggests they should be as a role model.

Why are role models important?

From an early age, humans learn through observation. We watch others and copy their behaviour, whether that produces a positive or negative outcome. Role models can influence the way in which their observers think and act in either a personal or working environment. More often than not, they inspire those who watch them to take on challenges and achieve great things.

It’s vital that a role model’s behaviour exemplifies the values that they hold, as their observer will build goals in their mind that they then refer to when faced with making a decision. This is known as a ‘cognitive representation’.

The core features of a role model

Whilst role models might mean something different to every individual, there are a few shared qualities that should be associated with the term. These are success, integrity, quality, visibility and positive behaviour. But what do each of these qualities really mean?

Success is something that allows us to gauge how effective a role model is. When you think of people that you admire, most of them have either achieved something you value or have a capability you desire. Their ownership of these qualities makes them successful in your eyes. So, it’s important to understand what success means to you, and identify an achievable aim. Whatever your end goal though, make sure that you consider the impact your goals will have on others.

Having integrity as a role model, or ensuring that you live out certain values, is vital. This might mean adhering to company values in a work setting, or even just behaving in line with your own personal values. Hard work, for example, is a value that both organisations and individuals will hold. For a role model to be effective, they must demonstrate that they’re putting in the effort in order to reap the rewards of success.

Being able to focus on and produce high quality outcomes is a valuable skill, and that’s why it’s such an important trait for a role model to have. We all admire high quality things, whether that is a top-of-the-range car, or a piece of art. Say, for example, that you’re leading on a new project at work. To make sure that the work the team produces is of a really high quality, you’d need to ensure that everyone clearly understands your expectations. Pointing out previous examples, or showing the team how you personally will work to achieve these results, might help others achieve those high standards.

Maintaining a visible profile as a role model is important, as it allows others to see how you work and enables them to learn from your actions. Being transparent isn’t all about status and maintaining a profile, but is a way of helping others understand what good behaviour is and how they should conduct themselves. It allows people to better understand how they can achieve their concept of success.

Finally, role models aren’t all positive, but they are all highly likely to display some sort of positive behaviour. That’s because their behaviours are linked with some kind of success or value. Observers make an association between the behaviour and the role model’s success, regardless of its outcome.

Common misconceptions about role models

There are a huge number of misconceptions about what role models are and how they function. One common misconception is that all role models need to be charismatic. Whilst it’s certainly true that a charismatic person could inspire others with their energy, mood and confidence, charisma isn’t the be all and end all of a role model. The most important thing is focusing on what you’re trying to embody. So, you really don’t need to be charismatic to be an effective role model.

Another misconception is that role models have to be the most successful people in society. Granted, success is important, but everyone’s idea of success is different. Your view of success depends completely on your goals and personal situation. Often, it is not the outcome of someone’s actions that makes them a role model, but the steps that they take to get there.

Many people don’t believe that they’re capable of becoming a role model. They might not consider themselves as ‘role model material’. However, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be considered one. Why not take a step back and think about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and what you’ve achieved?

When you start to look at yourself from afar, it becomes easier to find positive aspects and work out what you embody. These are the qualities that someone else would look up to.

How to become a more effective role model

If you think that you can be a positive role model for others, but aren’t quite sure where to start, it’s worth thinking about areas in which you can improve and focusing on personal development.

First, try to gather feedback on your current performance. Others around you will be able to offer insight that you’re unable to see yourself, so don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from them. You may even find it useful to have a record of your current performance as a benchmark.

Second, to become an effective role model, you need to have your own positive role models to look up to. Consider who the role models are in your life and identify the attributes they possess that you admire or would like to emulate. This may seem daunting if you feel there’s a big difference between yourself and your role models, but this is just the start of your development.

Finally, once you’ve established your goals and preferences, put together a personal, focused development plan that will help you improve your effectiveness over time. Then, look for opportunities to practise. Whether you’re at work or at home, try to practise the behaviour you want to exhibit as a role model or improve your profile.

Becoming an effective role model isn’t easy, but it is certainly achievable. Many of us don’t think we have the qualities we need to become a role model, but the most important thing to remember is that success means something different to everyone.

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