Thursday, March 08, 2007

The paradox of role models

There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of most processes using role models: the people who serve as models are unlikely to be people who followed models. High achievers in most fields do not follow in someone's footsteps. They carve their own path. They want to do something with such powerful integrity that they make it happen. All the energy, passion and focus they have works toward achievement. They are explorers, not followers.

Many of our models come from athletics. Athletics is interesting because the high performer is usually separate from the person who creates the model of achievement. Somewhere in the background (and sometimes in the foreground), a master coach sets the path to success. The relationship between coach and athlete is quite different than the relationship between a role model and a follower: it is rare for a high-performing athlete to become a coach of high performers. In the world of athletics, they are understood to be separate functions.

In other worlds - business, medicine, teaching - we assume that the best performers make the best coaches. We assume that being a role model is the same as being a great coach. It's not. The best role models teach us to stop looking at them and start looking within ourselves. They teach us to summon our own energy, passion and vision and put it to work. They teach us that high performers don't follow: they set their own course.

Role models don't know what is happening in your experience; often they are not even aware of what is happening in their own. Their eyes are always focused on the next step into new territory. If you want to follow a role model, forget the role model and become more completely yourself.

Coaches turn their eyes on their athletes. The new territory they explore is within someone else's experiences. Their own performance depends on the accomplishments of the people they coach. If you want to have the success you see in high-performing athletes, learn to choose great coaching - and to listen to it.

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