Forget About Finding a Role Model

Last Updated Sep 1, 2011 2:46 PM EDT

To be honest, I don't care that Steve Jobs resigned.

Millions do, though, and the announcement sparked considerable praise regarding his vision, his strategy, and his leadership abilities. To most people he is an iconic figure worthy of emulation, although some do argue that Jobs is a terrible role model.

What kind of role model is Jobs? Or Richard Branson? Or Indra Nooyi? Who cares. Doesn't matter. You and I, we don't need a role model.

Charles Barkley agrees with me. **
We need role models -- the more the better.

Apparently Jobs paid incredible attention to detail, drove outstanding results, ignored critics when he felt he was right, etc. All admirable qualities. Yet he also may not have been the most, um, sensitive and compassionate leader.

So do you want to be like Steve Jobs? Yes. And no.

That's why looking for one role model doesn't work. No matter how wonderful, people are still people, brilliance and flaws and talents and peccadilloes and all. Some traits are worthy of emulation, others are not.

So forget finding a role model. Instead look to different people for specific qualities or skills you want to emulate. Never start with a person; start with the talent or trait. Break attributes down into specifics, the narrower the better.

For example, I admire how sports writer Wright Thompson quickly establishes a scene and creates a mood. I admire how Daniel Coyle seamlessly blends information with story to foster understanding. I admire Bill Bryson's wit and gift for phrasing. I can't write like any of them -- far from it. And I shouldn't want to; I should be me, not them. But, if establishing a mood is critical, I can think, "How would Wright handle this...?" drawing on his skills for guidance and inspiration.

And in the process hopefully become an even better me.

The same is true with speaking. When I speak I'm pretty casual. But at times, to make a complex point, I need to be more formal. Daniel Pink is exceptional at marshaling facts, research, and examples to craft solid arguments. I can't speak as well as Daniel -- far from it -- but I can draw on one aspect of his considerable skills to be a more effective speaker.

I can list lots more examples. I've been writing them down for years. Whenever I see someone do something well, I write it down. My list ranges all the way from the waitress who dealt with an overbearing customer to the CEO who handled an employee meeting that turned violent to Tim Ferriss's knack for thinking about marketing as an integral part of creating substance. (Whatever you think of Tim's books you can still learn a lot from a guy who purposely "outsourced dating" because he knew the media wouldn't be able to resist the angle.)

You run into people who excel at something all the time, so you start your own list. Just don't focus on the person, because you don't want to be like them. Instead you just want to do something, usually a very specific something, the way they do.

If having a role model can help you be more successful, why not have dozens of role models? Then you can still be you and use your role models to be an even better you.

** Here's proof Charles agrees. Check out his old "role model" commercial for Nike:
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.