How Roles Models Inspire You to Become the Best

Author Oliver Goldsmith said “People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy.” The singular influence in the life of a person is another person who is worthy of emulation. Who is that role model in your life worthy of such emulation?

Have you ever had this role model galvanize you to take the right action in crucial moments? A growing body of evidence in psychology suggests that when people are exposed to the role models at the right time, they will subconsciously motivate them to take the right action. Psychologists Hitrenda Wadhwa, professor at Columbia Business School, talks about his story through which his hero Mahatma Gandhi influenced him to take the right action. Here’s the story:

Some time back, I was out with my wife and daughter for a night at the Metropolitan Opera. We were having such a marvelous evening infused with stirring arias, enveloped by the resplendent red carpets of the Met.  At the intermission, we sat down in the Met restaurant for dinner.  I was feeling so pleased with the idea that our daughter, at this tender age of seven, was getting to experience something as grand as this, imagining how she would grow up into someone with such refined sensibilities.

But then our appetizer arrived, and my daughter grabbed at the plate and attacked the food.  My wife and I looked at each other in utter shock.  She did not say grace! She did not offer the appetizer to her parents!  Here we were, investing every drop of our blood into raising her the right way, to sculpt the perfect angel.  And here she was, right in front of our eyes, turning into a little monster!

I wrinkled my brow and started to scold her.  How could you do this, M?  This isn’t right and you know it!  Stop eating, right now, and offer it to your mom first!  Take only your fair share!  She rolled her eyes and kept eating even as she impatiently gestured to her mother to help herself.

Just as I was about to intensify my admonitions, a story about Mahatma Gandhi flashed in my mind.

It had been recounted by Gandhi’s grandson, Arun, in reflecting on what he and his family had learned about non-violence from his grandfather, during his keynote lecture on the Gandhi tradition of non-violence at the 21st annual conference of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace in 2008.


When Arun was 16 years old, he once accompanied his father to the city and was handed over the family car to run some errands with the commitment to return and pick up his father at 5 p.m.  Arun was excited about having the car all by himself, and in the city.  He finished his errands and then decided to go to the theater to watch a John Wayne double feature. By the time it finished, it was 5.30, and he rushed to get to his father and arrived there to find him pacing up and down, worried.  His father’s first question was, “Why are you late?”

Arun responded with a lie.  He explained that getting the car fixed at the garage took an unusually long time, not realizing that his father had already called the garage.  Arun’s father was quiet for a while, and then asked his son to stop the car so he could get out and walk home. Arun was taken aback, and asked why his father wished to walk. After all, home was still 18 miles away!  His father responded, “There’s something wrong in the way I brought you up that didn’t give you the confidence to tell me the truth, that made you feel you had to lie to me. I’ve got to find out where I went wrong with you, and to do that I’m going to walk home.”  

There was nothing Arun could do to make him change his mind—and nor could Arunleave him and go away.  Arun recalled later, “For five and a half hours, I crawled along in the car behind father, watching him go through all this pain and agony for a stupid lie. I decided there and then that I was never going to lie again.”

Arun’s story flashed in my mind in that instant I was scolding my daughter, and I became quiet.  Later, the waiter at the Met served us our dessert.  This time, unprompted, my daughter nudged the plate in the direction of her mother and then toward me.  I gently refused.  She was surprised, and asked me why I wasn’t eating.  I took a deep breath and said, “I am so pained about how I have failed you as a father, for otherwise you would have been more grateful and gracious when the food arrived on the table.  I want to spend some quiet moments thinking about what we are doing done wrong in how we are raising you.” 

My daughter’s jaw dropped.  She begged for me to eat and started to cry.  “No, no, papa, it isn’t your fault!  I shouldn’t have done that.  I won’t do it again, I promise you! Please, eat now.”

Inwardly, I whispered a “thank you” to Gandhi for the lesson he had taught me.  I have, since then, frequently applied this approach in the way I communicate with her, and even with others.  It’s been a very helpful way to stir the other person’s intrinsic desire to do the right thing, and to remind me that I too should constantly be asking how I can be a better parent, a better teacher, a better leader.

Now, here’s one caveat Wadhwa reminds using this approach: “Once I tried it on an aggressive driver in California who zipped from behind my car to capture a parking space that I had been waiting for.  I got out of my car and went up to the driver as she victoriously alighted from her SUV, and with all the gentility I could muster, I told her how pained I was about what she did when she quite clearly could see that I was waiting for the spot.  She peered at me from under her Prada sunglasses as if I was some weird hippie from the sixties, and just walked away.  Apparently, this technique works much better with people who truly love you!

Here are some examples of how people get exposed to the right role models who inspire them to become the best.

  • People who associate their father with high achievement (and who have a positive relationship with their father), work much harder and perform much better if they were, before a task is given to them, unconsciously exposed to their father’s name. Source: Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Halvorson.
  • College students who are asked to read a few one-page profiles about the effortful and gritty pursuit of goals by great achievers, such as a Nobel-Prize winning scientist, show greater commitment to learning and do better academically. Source: Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Halvorson.
  • A large proportion of students who were shown a film of Mother Theresa at Harvard University in 1988 reported a strong increase in their desire to serve others. Source: The Placebo Responseby Howard Brody.

Over the course of my life, I  have been blessed to learn more deeply about several individuals who have positively influenced me. These include figures like my parents, Ravi Zacharias, William Wilberforce etc. However, as humans are humans, inevitably you will find yourself disheartened and disappointed when you give your complete trust to an individual. As followers of Christ, however, we have Him who is above all reproach, unblemished with sin, and exemplifies perfection – our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. The Christian life  requires a level of spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity cannot be achieved without a deep understanding and persistent application of the virtues of the scripture.

We have said that love embodies all of these virtues and that a life of perfect love would be what we ought to be emulating. Such was the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. During his 33 years on earth, he embodied and exemplified the love of God. He gave us a pattern to model ourselves by footsteps by which if we should only follow them, we would worship him.

Ken Blanchard, author of Lead Like Jesus, provides a simple, effective 12-step process of extinguishing our self-serving needs and transforming ourselves into Christ-centered leader:

Now, how are you living life in light of Christ Jesus? Has the story of Jesus Christ became inextricably embedded in the fabric of your worldview, or are you being drifted into the sea of role model-lessness?