Leaders as Role Models

The tie between being a leader and being a role model is tight. The idea that leaders are, or at least they ought to be, role models, has a long history and steady trajectory.

Plutarch, born around 50 A.D., has often been called the first modern biographer. What was his purpose in penning his classic, Lives, his brief biographical sketches of some of the most famous and powerful figures of ancient Greece and Rome? It was to depict them as role models or, in some cases, as anti-role models.

By his own testimony, Plutarch’s primary purpose was to “arouse the spirit of emulation,” to paint pictures largely (though not entirely) of men who were heroes, exemplars of moral good who, he hoped, would inspire other men to follow. Of Coriolanus, who was young when his father died, Plutarch wrote, “His example shows us that the loss of a father, even though it may impose other disadvantages on a boy, does not prevent him from living a virtuous or distinguished life, and that it is only worthless men who seek to excuse the deterioration of their character by pleading neglect in their early years.”

Nor has the presumption of leaders as role models receded over the ages. Even now role models are part of the pedagogy. Leaders are taught to be exemplary figures who their followers would do well to emulate.      

Go to any search engine, type in “leader as a role model,” and you will see what I mean. More than half a billion entries, nearly all in keeping with the idea that, ideally, leaders should be in some way so estimable – so admirable or attractive; so honorable or successful – that they are worthy of being mirrored. As an article in Psychology Today concluded, having role models “directly impacts not only how you perceive yourself but, just as importantly, how others perceive you.” For leaders to be a good role models, then, has an impact not only on them but on others, specifically their followers.

In their widely read book, The Leadership Challenge (originally published in 2007), James Kouzes and Barry Posner made the same point, though they used the phrase, “setting an example.” Leaders should, they wrote, “take every opportunity to show others by their own example that they’re deeply committed to the values and aspirations they espouse. No one will believe you are serious until they see you doing what you are asking of others. Leading by example is how leaders make visions and values tangible. It’s how they provide the evidence that they’re personally committed.”   

This literature has come regularly to mind during Donald Trump’s time in the White House. In the old days, boys freely and frequently aspired to become just like the American president – if not president themselves. Now numberless American parents have come reluctantly if ineluctably to conclude that they would never want their sons, or for that matter their daughters, to grow up to be just like the sitting president. Trump a role model? For most Americans, not hardly.   

I will not here delve into the president’s character or his behavior. There is, however, one decision he recently made that I cannot help but point to – it is that bluntly and blatantly anti-role model. It is his decision not to wear, so far never to wear, a mask – the pandemic notwithstanding.

  • Notwithstanding that wearing a mask if not at least six feet distanced – especially in an enclosed space – is now recommended by virtually every medical expert.
  • Notwithstanding that wearing a mask if not at least six feet distanced – especially in an enclosed space – is now recommended by virtually every inexpert, including most political, business, and military leaders.
  • Notwithstanding that wearing a mask if not at least six feet distanced – especially in an enclosed space – is now recommended by the Center for Disease Control.
  • Notwithstanding that wearing a mask is now mandated for all West Wing employees unless they are sitting directly at their desks – with two exceptions, the president and the vice president. .
  • Notwithstanding that wearing a mask if not at least six feet distanced – especially in an enclosed space – has become a divisive issue. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to report wearing a mask when they leave home. And there have been repeated reports of screaming and yelling, and even physical altercations, between those who wear masks and those who do not.    

In recent weeks masks have become not just a way of protecting the self and the public against COVID 19, they have become symbols – symbols of the culture wars. Symbols of the culture wars stoked instead of snuffed by the American president.

So much for leaders as role models. Plutarch would turn in his grave.

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