Choose Your Role Models Carefully

Chose Your Role Models Carefully Heroes and role models are very useful—they embody a higher plateau of cognitive and emotional truth, knowledge, and accomplishment that you can aspire to.

But the modern world has a dangerous problem with hero-worship: pop artists, rappers, film stars, sportspersons, capitalists, and so on command attention and affection as never before. This 2013 Financial Times article noted, “Way back in 2008, the three most admired personalities in sport were probably Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius. They were portrayed not just as great athletes but as great men, role models….” And all these three popular heroes fell from grace.

While admiring and drawing wisdom, meaning, and inspiration from heroes can be constructive, you must take “hero narratives” with a grain of salt. The Buddha warned us not to trust anybody or anything just because it seems logical or it resonates with our feelings. He advised that we test our hypotheses by the results they yield when put into practice and shield our minds against the risk of biases or other limitations of our ability to discern from our experiences wisely. According to the Kalama Sutta, an aphorism of the historical Buddha that has been preserved orally by his followers (translated from the Pali by the eminent American Buddhist monk and prolific author Thanissaro Bhikkhu,)

Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’—then you should enter & remain in them.

Idea for Impact: Don’t blindly place much faith in today’s experts and celebrities. Realize the truth yourself.

Surround Yourself with Smarter People

The American economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller (b.1946) once said, “Your own thoughts are not really your own thoughts. Everything you think is a product of the people you meet and the experiences you’ve had.”

Associate with men and women who are smarter than you are—they should not only possess both superior intellectual and emotional intelligence, but also share your drive to succeed.

Remember, the most effective teams are those that have people with complementary skills, and similar work ethic.

Five Signs of Excessive Confidence

Five Signs of Excessive Confidence Confidence is generally a respectable and necessary workplace trait.

However, there is a darker side to confidence.

People who display overconfidence, hubris, and narcissism engage in self-destructive behaviors at work because their self-aggrandizement blinds them from their personal judgment and their managerial and leadership performance.

If you believe you may be displaying any of the following signs of excessive confidence, you need some coaching and feedback. Ask a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor for some honest feedback. Work to change your attitude—promptly.

  1. You tend to believe that your ideas are the only ones worth acting on. When others contribute ideas and suggestions, you tend to turn them off while promoting only the ideas that you come up with. You tend to get angry with others for their unwise and impractical suggestions. You are resistant to learning from others or from previous experiences.
  2. You tend to act on solutions without input from others. You believe that it is up to only you to supply new ideas and solve problems. You are convinced that you are the only one who knows as much as necessary to do the right thing. When others summon up ideas and suggest watch-outs, you tend to brush them off with “I know that” statements.
  3. 'What Got You Here Wont Get You There' by Marshall Goldsmith (ISBN 1401301304) You tend to express an opinion on everything—even when the topic of interest is outside your area of expertise. You act as if you’ve accepted the reality that you have to work with less-qualified people who just can’t get the right things the right way (i.e. your way.) If only your opinions were considered and if you had your way, your team and company would do “so much better.”
  4. You tend to defend your mistakes and your failures. You don’t recognize your limitations and the mistakes of your ways. You can’t take help. You are closed off to others’ feedback and suggestions for change.
  5. You tend to externalize blame. You’re often a victim of everyone else’s failures or a victim of external circumstances. You gripe that others just don’t understand you or they aren’t qualified enough to see the wisdom of your ways.

If you can’t recognize and accept the problems related to how your behavior comes across to other people, you may be derailing your managerial and leadership potential.

Idea for Impact: Greatness lies in balancing self-assurance with self-effacement. I recommend leadership coach extraordinaire Marshall Goldsmith‘s outstanding What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Addressing already-successful people, Goldsmith describes how personality traits that bring you initial career success could hold you back from going further!

The Cost of Leadership Incivility


Steve Jobs’ Misguided Advice for Being a Good CEO: “Throw Tantrums!”

Indra Nooyi got Advice from Steve Jobs: Throw Tantrums

When Indra Nooyi became CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she met with Steve Jobs, the famously driven but short-tempered and ruthless leader of Apple. One advice Jobs had for Nooyi on being a good leader: “throw tantrums.”

During this 2016 interview at the Stanford Business School (YouTube video), Nooyi acknowledged Job’s advice as “a valuable lesson.” She elaborated that Jobs advised, “don’t be too nice … when you really don’t get what you want and you really believe that’s the right thing for the company, it’s OK to throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around. People will talk about it, and they’ll know it’s important for you.”

During another 2016 interview, at the New York Times’ DealBook Conference (YouTube video), Nooyi recalled Jobs advise again. “If you really feel strongly about something—if you don’t like something people are doing—throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around, because people have got to know that you feel strongly about it.” Though Nooyi hasn’t gone as far as to throw things around, she disclosed, “I’m beginning to use certain words a little bit more freely and I am screaming a bit more, pounding the table … which is really not the way I was … it is effective. It shows the passion that I have for what I’m doing.”

No Need to Ape the Style of the Icon-of-The-Moment

Leadership Throw TantrumsPeople will go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in. Nonetheless, this advice of throwing tantrums and using “certain words a little bit more freely” to express passion is abhorrently misguided, even if it worked for Steve Jobs and Indra Nooyi!

The ultimate impact of a leader hinges on his/her enthusiasm to make the organization’s endeavors personal, to engage others openly, and to draw attention to successes as they emerge. For that reason, Nooyi’s anecdote is demonstrative of Jobs’ passion for building great products.

My primary protestation relates to the reality that leaders model the behavior they want in their organizations. Admissibly, there may be a time and a place to throw temper tantrums at Apple, PepsiCo, or at your organization. However, unchecked and unhindered outbursts of passion, and cursing and incivility are certainly counterproductive.

Steve Jobs could throw temper tantrums because he could! As I have written in previous articles, brilliant men and women can get away with fanatical pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Aggressive—and successful—managers and leaders can pressurize, scream, intimidate, and even terrorize their employees. They vindicate that their offensive behavior works because they “deliver the numbers.” Others rationalize their behavior by exclaiming, “Yeah, he’s tough on his people, but judge his abrasiveness in the context of everything he’s achieved.”

The Leader Sets the Tone for Workplace Culture

Workplace incivility can take many subtle forms and it is often provoked by thoughtlessness more willingly than by actual malice. A leader’s behavior tells employees what counts—and what’s rewarded and what’s punished. Leaders are role models. Therefore, others pay attention to everything they say and every move they make.

The tone at the top is the foundation upon which the culture of an organization is built. A leader is the face of an organization and the figurehead to whom employees ultimately look for vision, guidance, and leadership. When leaders throw temper tantrums, swear, or engage in appalling behavior, the message they convey within their organizations is that such behavior is acceptable.

The human brain is wired to learn by imitation. For instance, a child is wired to mimic the behaviors of higher status individuals like parents and teachers. Similarly, adults emulate the behaviors of those they deem of higher status—employees look at their boss to determine how to behave in the organization and what it takes to be promoted. In competitive work environments of the modern day, when employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they’re likely to follow suit.

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Postscript: Don’t blatantly imitate a hero. Those of you who worship Steve Jobs had better perceive his operative style as an anomaly rather than as a model of leadership worth imitating. Simply lifting his methods from anecdotes such as Indra Nooyi’s and the Walter Isaacson biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. As I’ve written previously, the career advice that works for the superstars is not necessarily what will work for most ordinary folks. So, don’t be misled by their “it worked for me” advice.

Beware of Advice from the Superstars


Steve Jobs’s Eschewal of Market Research

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Apple’s Steve Jobs said in a 1985 interview, “We built [the Mac] for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research.”

Twelve years later, he famously told BusinessWeek: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Throughout his illustrious career, Jobs eschewed market research and relied on his intuition. The aforementioned two quotes have become as legendary as the highly opinionated man himself. Reiterating Steve Jobs’ talent to see the needs of consumers before they themselves could, Apple’s Chief Design Officer and co-creator of Apple’s iconic products Jonathan Ive stated, “We don’t do focus groups—that is the job of the [product] designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.”

Take Away: Alas, many people who venerate Jobs have taken his message as a pretext to downplay the need for consumer research. Jobs may be correct, but his assertion is perhaps confined to the kind of pioneering products and services he introduced at Apple and Pixar. Most people who claim to be inspired by this lesson from Jobs’s career neither work in the narrow consumer electronics domain nor have their hero’s brilliant intuition and an extraordinarily gifted creative team to sidestep market research and customer input.

Stephen King’s Disdain for Outlines in Writing

'On Writing A Memoir of the Craft' by Stephen King (ISBN 1439156816) In the bestseller On Writing, celebrated American author Stephen King famously states that he never uses an outline to organize his thoughts. He describes the routine of outlining as “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. … I don’t take notes; I don’t outline, I don’t do anything like that. I just flail away at the goddamn thing.” King advised other writers to keep from using outlines.

Take Away: Legions of King’s fans assumed that since this technique works so well for him, it must work for them too. Alas, they were mistaken: they aren’t as talented as him and cannot work without generating a detailed outline for a road map of creative writing. What works for writers—amateurs and professionals—is the advice of Terry Brooks, another famous American author, who wrote in his Sometimes the Magic Works, “Perhaps the best reason of all for outlining is that it frees you up immeasurably during the writing process to concentrate on matters other than plot.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Privileged Work-Life Balance

'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg (ISBN 0385349947) Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wrote a prominent career advice book and feminist manifesto called Lean In. Sandberg urges women to fight for gender equality and be assertive to achieve career success.

Sandberg’s writing has been criticized for being out of touch with the reality that most women face. She establishes much of her “you-can-do-it-too” counsel on her own experience as a successful woman who’s balanced her career and family through high profile jobs at Google and Facebook.

Take Away: Few people come from as privileged a socio-economic background as Sandberg to obtain two Harvard degrees, get an illustrious mentor at college, work on prestigious research projects at the World Bank, and acquire hundreds of millions of personal wealth by their mid-careers. Few women can aspire to be as fairy-tale affluent, talented, and privileged as Sandberg. Few can afford to hire assistants and domestic help to help balance the demands of personal and professional life. Few people have the benefit of working in the upper echelons of progressive corporate environments such as those at Google and Facebook that make it as conducive to “lean in” like her.

What Worked for Them Won’t Work for You

If you read about how successful people get successful, remember that the career advice that works for the superstars is not necessarily what will work for most ordinary folks. So, don’t be misled by their “it worked for me” advice.

If a specific technique worked for Steve Jobs, Stephen King, Sheryl Sandberg, or anybody else who gives you advice, don’t assume it will work for you too. Alas, you are likely not as naturally brilliant, gifted, endowed, or disposed as they are. Neither are you as privileged to have access to the resources they can tap into.

Beware of Advice from the Superstars In addition, in giving advice, superstars tend to understate—perhaps intentionally—the role that circumstances played in their success. On balance, much of success in life is a product of luck—being at the right time, at the right place, with the right people. Alas, what worked in their circumstances may not work in yours.

The Buddha taught prudence in such matters. He asked disciples to do what he taught only if it worked in the context of their own lives. He encouraged disciples to listen to his ideas, mull them over, try out what made sense, subsequently adapting what worked, and discarding what did not work.

The best way to educate yourself is by exposing yourself to a variety of success principles. Observe the top performers in your field. Then, identify, emulate, and adapt their effectiveness techniques to your circumstances. (See my previous article.)

Idea for Impact: Expose yourself to many success principles and consider what qualities, attributes, mental models, or approaches to life you may want to assimilate into who you are, even in part. Don’t expect to blatantly imitate a hero and expect the same outcomes: BE YOURSELF.

Don’t Blatantly Imitate a Hero: Be Yourself

Heroes are very useful—they embody a higher plateau of truth, knowledge, and accomplishment that you can aspire to.

While admiring and drawing inspiration from heroes can be productive, blatantly imitating them is simply foolish.

Lei Jun, the Steve Jobs-mimicking chief of Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi

The black turtleneck syndrome

Consider Lei Jun, the Steve Jobs-mimicking chief of Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi. Jun has not only made Xiaomi the world’s fourth-largest smartphone maker by copying Apple’s products but also cultivated a blatant Jobsian likeness—right down to wearing dark shirts and jeans in the vein of Steve Jobs and mimicking his presentation style.

Lei Jun is not alone in taking this admiration of Steve Jobs beyond inspiration to blatant imitation. After reading Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs, many people started to actually think and act like Steve Jobs. Some have even embraced catchphrases like “one more thing,” the expression Jobs used in his presentations prior to introducing new Apple products.

You aren’t Steve Jobs, your company isn’t Apple, so why try to be Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs-mimicking Lei Jun of Xiaomi Undoubtedly, Steve Jobs was a determined and ambitious leader who created renowned products that transformed many industries. He intuitively understood what makes a compelling product, in both concept and design. He was a visionary and brilliant innovator who integrated insights from diverse disciplines and paid great attention to the design-details of Apple’s products and services. He was intensely focused, committed, confident enough to take risky leaps, and charismatic enough to enlist legions of employees and customers in the inexorable pursuit of his aspirations.

Those are all fine traits in the right context, but simply lifting them from Steve Jobs’s biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. You could sink your business if you blindly use Jobs’s or any other celebrity manager’s leadership style and behaviors in the wrong context, product, strategy, or market.

Imitation will not conjure success

'Winning' by Jack Welch, Suzy Welch (ISBN 0060753943) Long before Steve Jobs was Jack Welch, whom Fortune magazine dubbed “Manager of the Century” in 1999. Between 1981 and 2001, as General Electric’s CEO, Welch became a cult figure among American managers and leaders. By means of intellect, energy, and straight talk, Welch transformed the sleepy giant of General Electric (GE) into an international business powerhouse.

Jack Welch was widely regarded as the transformative manager’s archetype. Managers read his leadership playbook religiously and tried to imitate everything he did at GE—from his 20-70-10 “rank and yank” process to adopting six-sigma methods. These imitators often failed to realize that a number of factors contributed to the success of Welch’s techniques, not the least of which was the strong organizational culture and leadership philosophy he had established at GE. Managers simply will not successfully imitate Welch’s techniques without first establishing the organizational context that allowed for his initiatives’ success.

Idea for Impact: You can learn a lot from your heroes, but don’t emulate it all

Most intellectual, cognitive, and people skills are situational. That is to say that there is a time for Jack Welch’s techniques, another time for Steve Jobs’s techniques, and still other times for others’ techniques. The real skill lies in accumulating many ideas in your “brain attic” and then diagnosing your situations to apply the appropriate technique at the appropriate time.

You can learn a lot from your heroes, but don’t pattern your lives after them. See if some of the things they did will work for you. Develop your own style by focusing on what matters to you in your context. Don’t become second-rate versions of people you admire; instead be first-rate version of yourself.

Learn from the Top Performers in Every Field [Skills for Success]

Learn from the Top Performers in Every Field

During Q & A at a career-planning workshop that I led recently, a member of the audience asked me, “Where could I get the best education in life?” This article elaborates my response.

You learn best from imitating the techniques of the successful

“What the outstanding person does, others will try to do. The standards such people create will be followed by the whole world.”
* The Bhagavad Gita

The best way to educate yourself is by observing the top performers in every field and by identifying and applying their effectiveness techniques to your circumstances. Your inspiration may be somebody you interact with, somebody you can hear about in the media or a fictional character from a novel or movie.

Try to imitate the best performers in a discipline to be successful in that discipline. Study their educational and professional backgrounds, their work style, successes, and failures. Identify how they go about conducting their everyday affairs. Try to copy the stock picking and capital allocation skills of Warren Buffett to become a successful investor. Piggyback on the thinking of the best mutual fund managers; replicate their portfolios to benefit from their stock selection process.

Read about the techniques of Sherlock Holmes to improve your reasoning and problem-solving skills. Impersonate your favorite stand-up comedian ahead of a presentation or public speech to improve your delivery. Study the footprints of the leaders in your organization if you want to follow their lead.

Imitate different attributes of people you encounter every day: the cheerfulness of an administrative assistant, the persuasion skills of a seasoned negotiator, the resourcefulness of a car mechanic, and the dexterity of a customer service agent.

Role models are inspirational

Role models are inspirational

Looking up to others is rather instinctive. As kids, you looked up to your siblings, parents, or family members. At work, you learn from observing your colleagues and bosses.

When we learn of role models, read their stories or watch of them on TV or in the movies, we identify in them a part of ourselves; we associate with their struggles and victories, their hopes and despairs.

When we identify with a role model who has accomplished what we seek yourselves, we not only learn from them but also become more confident in our abilities.

This technique has its limitations

Naturally, the influence of role models is neither always practical nor necessarily productive. Your perception of popular role models (sportsmen, artists, businesspeople and other celebrities) is often incomplete and based on cursory assessments of them. Media accounts of their trappings of wealth, fame, and success or their unseemly lifestyles can just as easily turn them into negative role models. Excesses and faults are as common in everyday life as they are in the news. Exercise judgment in what you identify and implement. Hence the corollary: Learn from the shortcomings of the unsuccessful.

Call for action

  • When people make a positive impression on you, reflect on what they did and how they did to impress you. Explore what you can learn from them.
  • Identify the top performers in your field. Seek to understand and adopt their techniques. Improve or tailor them to your personal circumstances and improve yourselves.
  • Study the biographies and memoirs of your favorite historical leaders. Read news stories and case studies of people you admire. Learn their techniques.
  • Think of personal and professional skills that you would like to improve upon. Identify one or two people in your organization who are especially skilled in these areas. Observe them or ask them for advice.

Learn everything you can from others, implement what appeals to you, and discard the rest.