BY SUE M. COBB, U.S. Ambassador (Ret.)
Many individuals who achieve important leadership roles in business, government and philanthropic organizations, when asked about their paths to challenging and rewarding positions of influence, will include in their responses a reference to one or more ‘role models’.
What is a Role Model?
A role model is obviously someone to whom the person has looked to emulate successful behaviors in their chosen field. Role models can appear in most any type of group from police departments to orchestras to churches to business associations, to most any field in which practitioners communicate. They usually, but not always, relate to a younger admirer and an older role model and more often than not, again not always, relate to persons of the same gender.
I had the good fortune of having an exceedingly successful female friend, whom I will call Dorothy, who was close to my own age and with whom I shared many years of friendship and conversation. She had a particularly keen interest in mentoring and in role models. About five years ago she did an informal survey of successful women who were members of a large philanthropic organization. She essentially posed the same question that I ask here: What are the common characteristics of persons identified as role models? What are the traits that people identify in individuals they call ‘their role models’?
Describing a Role Model
Unfortunately, Dorothy did not formalize the responses she received, but she shared the notes she made on her 10-15-person query. Many traits were identified, but a handful stood out as being repeated often. I set forth below the descriptive words included in responses from that particular group, as well as some of the phrases that seemed most pertinent to me.
The Words: inspirational, high integrity, ethical, character, dedicated, decisive, thoughtful, maturity, wisdom, judgment, mentally tough, calm demeanor, hardworking, composed, unflappable, kind, gracious, inclusive, passionate, confident, committed, innovative, determined, intense, diligent, courageous, positive, fair, upbeat, achievement-oriented, accomplished, helped others, problem solver, soft but strong, solid, stable.
Of those many words the ones that appeared most often (or virtually a synonym thereof) were inspirational, high integrity, decisive (or confident), composed, diligent, positive, thoughtful, helped others to succeed.
There also were some longer thoughts and phrases that caught my attention:
- My role model was always looking for ways to help the younger or less experienced members of the team succeed;
- My role model’s demeanor, accomplishments and achievements served as proof that other women could be successful. She was inspirational and confident and gave us all confidence
- My role model is immediate, tangible evidence that the American Dream is alive, healthy, and achievable by women;
- My role model served as proof to me that other women (including me) could be equally successful;
- My role model was a shining example of the contributions a woman can make to our community, state, and nation. If she can do it, I can do it;
- My role model extends mentorship and friendship in equal doses to the women who work with her and for her, leaving each of us who come into contact with her richer and more focused.
While I don’t have the same examples to give from a group of men, I am sure that they are similar in nature and I’m sure they would come from an equally broad spectrum of our diverse citizenry. I personally consider General Colin Powell to be one of my own most powerful role models. I learned from his book “My American Journey” and I had the exceptional opportunity to learn from him personally.
Many of the words above would be applicable to Colin Powell. As I departed for my assignment as Ambassador to Jamaica, I boiled his message down in my mind to a short admonition: Take care of the troops, accomplish the mission” – a phrase useful in many situations.
Assuming a specific role model has some combination of the requisite qualities identified above, I would like to comment on what I think just might be the role model’s most necessary personal attribute: it is what my friend Dorothy called ‘enhanced observationness’. (Yes, that’s a new word not to be found in the dictionary).
Both situational awareness and personal awareness are absolute prerequisites to be both the commander of the operation and the caretaker of the team, to know how, when, and where it is possible to be a mentor, to exert efforts to help others be successful. ‘Enhanced observationness’ means to watch, to learn the character of and to learn from those with whom you are routinely engaged. And it also means to act on what you learn; to communicate with both junior and senior members of your group for the good of the whole; to understand that communication also means to praise in public and criticize in private. Observing, acting upon observations and communicating are not responses received from the test group, but they are definitely part of being an effective role model.
With only a little experience in any new environment, you too, can be a role model. You will, after all, have more experience than those who come into the group after you do. To conclude, in my judgment the most important thing you can do for that newcomer, or in fact for any colleague, is to help them be successful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Cobb and I co-chaired the Foreign Service Institute’s Ambassadorial Seminar, mandatory for all outgoing U.S. ambassadors, from 2002 to 2005. Her background as Managing Director and General Counsel for Cobb Partners, Inc. and her experience as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica made her an ideal role model. Ambassador Cobb also served on the Board of Directors of BankUnited, as as Secretary of State of Florida (2005 to 2007.) She remains active on several boards.
This article is a part of the Marketplace of Leadership Stories series.
- How did your role models influence you?
- To whom are you a role model?
- How do you want to influence your admirers?