The 7 Rules for Role Models

Is there someone you look up to with awe? Who inspires you to think or do something you otherwise wouldn’t have? Who ticks several of the boxes of the type of person you would want to be? We’ve all had a number of these people – Role Models – in our lives. A Role Model could be a business leader, a teacher, a writer, a sportsperson or a celebrity. And nowadays, ‘influencers’ on social media.

Role models are people we admire and want to emulate because they embody an ideal. We want to model our lives on them. We all need a little inspiration. And since role models inspire us to be better, its great having one. Yet, conditions apply! There’s a dark, sinister side to having role models. This article looks at the 7 rules to follow when you have role models.

Rule #1: Don’t idolize

Role models are often idolized. People look up to them as those who can do no wrong. Yet, role models are human. Like any of us, they make mistakes. They do wrong things. They lie. They cheat. Once we become aware of these character ‘flaws’ there are two possible reactions.

One, we feel let down and stop considering the person as a role model. Sometimes, it’s easy to drop a role model. The scale of their indiscretion is significant.  The other reaction is that we rationalize the ‘flaw’. And continue idolizing the person. It’s difficult to admit we’re wrong. And give up the ‘investment’ of time and effort in idolizing that ideal person. It may be a godman or a political or business leader. Once we idolize someone, being objective is difficult. We look at anything the person does uncritically.

Rule #2: Separate Role Model from ideal / values

I admire Eminem. He has succeeded spectacularly in a genre dominated by black musicians. I also find his music unparalleled while exercising. Sure, his expletive-laden lyrics can make you squirm. Sure, his personal life isn’t the best you’ll find. But you need to separate that from the ideal you can look up to. Beating the odds and making it big and making great (maybe minus the expletives) music.

Richard Dawkins is another person who inspires me. For provoking my interest in evolution, genetics and freethought. I love the way he writes and the way he proves his point through logical reasoning. But he’s not all great.  He frequently goes overboard while disparaging beliefs he doesn’t agree with. And seems to have this compulsion to right every wrong. Those are far from ideal traits. 

Bottomline? We must learn to value the ideals embodied in role models because those values are valuable. Separate the ideal or values from the Role Model.

Rule #3: Age is not directly proportional to ability to be a role model

In India, we’ve traditionally assumed that someone older has more wisdom. For instance, in the government, the senior-most becomes the top officer. Role models, the implicit thinking goes, need to be older than you. Yet, age isn’t necessarily equal to wisdom. Even children can be good role models. They say what’s on their mind, they live the moment, they have fun, they’re authentic and they ask for help when they need it. All super traits to have!

Rule #4: …. nor is inversely proportional

Some new-age companies have the opposite issue. Age-related discrimination or ageism is common. There is a bias towards youth. Oldies are shunned. Younger people are assumed to have a monopoly on understanding younger customers. Or a newer technology or technique.

Youth is seen as a desirable trait in role models. Ritesh Agarwal of OYO is more celebrated because he’s a super-young founder. Look at any of his interviews or features. His age is often a central part of the feature. Yet, the reason to consider him a role model is different. He’s been able to create this large entity, OYO, from scratch. A company that is surviving (at least as on 18 Feb 2020!) the rough and tumble of an established industry. Not primarily because he’s young.

Rule #5: Don’t ape

If you look at successful business leaders, they don’t have one set role model.  They have a role model for different aspects of their lives.  Or they don’t have a role model.  The closest Steve Jobs had to a role model was the inventor of the Polaroid Camera, Dr. Edwin Land.  And there too it was more about how Jobs saw similarity in the way he thought to that of Dr. Land.  He didn’t model himself on Dr. Land; he was just inspired by him.

Rule #6: Never use role models to define constraints

Role models can inspire us to set goals.  Yet, they can also constrain us to fixed goals and boundaries.  And prevent us from going further.  In 1954, Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in under 4-minutes. Breaking the 4-minute barrier was something top athletes had tried since 1886. Before the record, Bannister wasn’t a superstar. Nor a role model. Within a year of Bannister breaking the mark, four more runners broke the 4-minutes barrier.

What changed? Earlier, there wasn’t any role model who had broken the barrier.  So, it was generally assumed that it couldn’t be done.  Bannister proved that wrong.  Similarly, role models can constrain you and prevent you from trying out new things. ‘I’m not doing this since my role model hasn’t’.

Rule #7: Don’t believe all that you see

Unfortunately, what you see isn’t always true.  You might see a successful businessman with a happy family.  The reality may be an overleveraged business with a family which barely talks to each other.  The magic of good PR!  Which is why scandals come as such a surprise.  You never really know what’s going on till it becomes ‘breaking news’. 

So, that successful entrepreneur you aspire to be might be ‘faking-it-till-he-makes-it’.  Keep a healthy dose of pessimism while looking at how wonderful your role model’s life is. 

Closing thoughts

There’s an evolutionary reason we like having role models. In ancient times the more we copied a successful hunter, the better were our chances of survival. Yet, what worked for us a long time ago isn’t the best for us now. Our success depends on many more factors. And the ideal of each factor doesn’t reside in a few people.

Pick and choose the best parts of all the people who inspire you. That means you could have 10 role models or 100. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you choose the ‘ideals’ which you would like to emulate. And mix and match them. Also make sure that you aren’t trying to mimic the path to get to the ideal. That’s your journey. And yours alone.

Have some comments?  Post below.  Liked the article?  Use the Share button at the bottom.


  • Bharatesh Boke says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on role models. Apprciate your advise that one should not blidly folllow their role models but exercise their options in choosing what is good in a particalur role model, which is worth emulating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard