Friday, April 9, 2010

What's a Role Model?

The guy who runs the Masters golf tournament thinks Tiger Woods let us all down. He turned out not to be a role model.

Let's pause right there.

Raise your hand if you ever thought Tiger Woods was a role model. Or Brad Pitt. Or any Hollywood star or starlet. Or any professional athlete. Or any super-rich CEO from the world of big business. It was, after all, Charles Barkley, pro basketballer and notorious gambler at the high-stakes tables in Las Vegas, who famously pronounced that he wasn't a role model and didn't want to be considered one.

Which raises the question: what is a role model?

For me, a role model is someone who acts as a teacher; someone who sets an example through their behavior and values; someone who espouses a philosophy of life that merits following. In my experience it's been someone who didn't call attention to themselves; someone who wasn't out to make a name or a fortune.

And most important, it was someone I actually knew.

My grandfather, the most ethical, up-right man I ever knew. A grandfather can be a role model. A grandfather isn't some distant figure, cooked up by the media, promoted by a flack, subject to tabloid scrutiny. A grandfather is a real person in your life, someone you can look up to and learn from.

Aunts and uncles, moms and dads--they can be role models. My mom used to come to all my games when I was a kid, cheering for me to do my best. I remember one morning when I was little playing basketball in the school gym against another team of 8 or 9 year olds. I was pinned in the corner with the ball; my mom was sitting right in front of me, close enough that we could talk.

"Take a shot," she said.

"It'd have to be a hook shot," I argued back.

"So?" she said.

I took the hook shot and somehow the ball banked cleanly off the backboard in for a bucket.

I looked over at her after the ball went in.

She just shrugged her shoulders. You can't score if you don't shoot, right?

A mom can be a role model.

In the last 40 years or so we've suffered from a plethora of disconnects--we've had a societal disconnect, in fact

When it comes to role models, we've once again confused celebrity with role models. How can you have a role model you don't even know?

We've confused leaders with celebrities. Would you follow someone you'd never even seen or heard or met in the flesh? Even political campaigns give you the chance to interact with the candidates--something few of us have ever done with Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt or any other celebrity.

We may have celebrities who actually do good work. (I was struck recently in reading an architecture magazine how the people who were featured were now identified not only by their work, but also by their social cause! "So-and-so is a famous actor and also devotes time to Save the Children." It's expected that our celebrities have a favorite cause--but that still doesn't make them role models.)

But let's reserve the title "role model" for people who actually deserve it; people we actually know and respect; people who love us and want to nurture and grow us.

Those people aren't celebrities, people. They're your friends and family, your colleagues and collaborators.

Maybe we can have a more reality-based society if we kick the celebrity habit and try to get back to things that matter, things that make sense.

Maybe it's time for the great re-connect.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb