Corner Office: Role Models or Road Apples?

Corner Office: Role Models or Road Apples?

Choose carefully and make sure skill sets and behavior are aligned.

Ask just about anyone what a role model is, and they will likely tell you about someone famous or someone they knew personally who influenced them and helped them become a better person. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “role model” as “a person who serves as a model in a particular behavioral or social role for another person to emulate.”

However, in today’s society, many so-called role models are celebrities and accomplished athletes who have failed to live up to the term. For example, I found this old quote from pro golfer Tiger Woods: “If you are given a chance to be a role model, I think you should always take it because you can influence a person’s life in a positive light, and that’s what I want to do. That’s what it’s all about.” Woods is one of the best golfers in the history of the sport. But no matter how great he is at golf, is that enough to earn him the title of “role model”? I don’t think so anymore—and neither do his departed corporate sponsors.

That’s what we have to keep in mind as executives and leaders, too. We have a responsibility to serve as role models in our organizations and our communities. Especially in today’s environment, when headlines seem to focus on bad examples of executive behavior, we must always remember that leaders are held to a higher standard and should act in ways that earn the respect of others. Respect is not a gift that comes with the title of chair, CEO, CFO, etc.; it is something that is earned daily by the actions we take that reflect our core values.

Many who have achieved success can attribute their achievements to the support and advice they received from a role model, such as Alex Rodriguez, who was guided by Cal Ripken Jr.; Barbara Walters, who was tutored by Mike Wallace; John Major, who was mentored by Margaret Thatcher; Michael Jordan, who was coached by Phil Jackson; Martina McBride, who was taught by Reba McEntire —and Luke Skywalker who was counseled by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda.

But did you also know that Fidel Castro molded Hugo Chavez and Joseph Stalin developed Nikita Khrushchev? While we tend to think about positive role models, also remember that negative influences can inflict a lot of damage.

When you single out people to be role models in your organization, evaluate not only their specific skills and experience, but the kind of attitude, behavior, and values they possess. Making selections based solely on narrowly defined criteria or skill sets carries risk. For example, I recently observed a CEO who was consistently singling out the work that his CFO did in creating reports and making PowerPoint presentations. But his peers saw the CEO as a brown-noser and an untrustworthy shark who took their ideas and claimed them as his own. The singling out by the CEO sends the message to others that this is the desired behavior in the organization. Pretty soon, the whole executive team will be driven solely by personal advancement instead of working for the good of the team. Dysfunctional behavior will reign.

Thus it is important that your role models aren’t road apples. For instance, if a football coach is committed not only to developing good football players, but also developing well-rounded young men who will be successful beyond their football years, then he must be very careful in selecting role models for his team. His first instinct might be use former players who achieved accolades for their skill. However, if those individuals have not been as successful off of the football field or their personal behavior is not respected by reasonable people, then the coach is risking the culture of the team, as well as the respect of his community.

I’ve observed this example first-hand, and believe that if the coach had selected individuals who were well-rounded and balanced in life, who were positive, honest, compassionate, intelligent, and articulate, and who had demonstrated success in life as well as in football, the team would have benefitted and the coach would have gained more outside support.

I recall when a vice president of sales and marketing chose his top sales rep to give the keynote address at the national sales meeting, despite this person’s rep for excessive drinking and extra-marital activities. The VP thought the top rep would be a good role model because of his sales success, but the other reps didn’t respect the guy because of his personal behavior. The whole thing created a lot of trouble for the VP because he forgot that role models must also have values and behaviors that support a larger notion of success.

Using role models is one of the great management tools we have as executives and leaders, and it can be very effective and positive for our organizations when the role models reflect not only the skills you admire, but the values too. Remember: We are responsible for our choices, whether they are values-based role models or gooey road apples that we step in.

Mark W. Sheffert, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies Inc., provides investment banking and corporate renewal/performance advisory services. Contact him at

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