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Who needs role models?

Stan Soderstrom | Mar 10, 2020

Stan Soderstrom “I'm not a role model,” basketball star Charles Barkley once declared in a nationally broadcast commercial. “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids.”  

That was in 1993. For more than 25 years, we’ve been debating a basic question: who counts as a role model?  

Once upon a time, the answers were pretty consistent: religious leaders, famous businesspeople, great athletes. Trailblazers like Amelia Earhart. Geniuses like Albert Einstein.  

But society shifts and changes. And so does the public’s relationship with these traditional categories. In our mass-media age, we can learn enough about specific people that we don’t necessarily give automatic veneration to a person in a particular job or position.

You might think that’s wise, or you might think it’s cynical — or maybe a bit of both. Personally, I wouldn’t want to give up completely on the idea that kids should be able to look up to adults outside their families. After all, I’m the executive director of an organization that gives adults a chance to serve kids — and to mentor them.  

I’ve seen how much it matters when adults help young people develop leadership skills. In fact, I was a member of Key Club, our service program for high school students, so I know the importance of a good example from that perspective too.

But now that I’m in a leadership role among professionals and accomplished adults myself, I wonder if we need to ask the question from a different angle: Who needs a role model?

The answer: everybody, really. Because it isn’t just wide-eyed kids who take their cues from others.  

When it comes to your company, your club, your department — whatever group you’ve been entrusted to lead — people learn from you what standard they’re expected to live up to. Or what they can get away with.  

Of course, that also gives people on the outside a sense of the culture inside — the ethics and values and overall effectiveness. Because it’s not just embodied in your officially declared principles. It’s in the way you live up to them, day by day.  

For me, that’s a good definition of a role model — one worth remembering in my own work. Am I the kind of leader I’d want to work with? It’s a good question for each of us to stop and ask ourselves. If you’re like me, you prefer to think the answer is yes. But that much is up to us.  

As leaders, we establish the tone. An important part of our responsibility is to make it the right one.

Stan D. Soderstrom is the executive director of Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children’s Fund. His background includes global and community-based work in the public and private sectors. 

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