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OWNER'S MANUAL

Why You Need to Choose New Heroes

It's great to have role models you admire--unless they're holding you back from reaching your true potential.

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Think about a person you truly admire in business, sports, politics, whatever.

Whom you choose as your hero--and it is a choice--says more about you than about that person. We tend to admire certain people because we see something of ourselves in them. We like to think that what they do and how they do it reflects what we would do if given the chance.

Say you're a tech entrepreneur. You might admire Mark Zuckerberg for staying the course and reportedly turning down a $1 billion offer from Yahoo. Or you might admire Mark Cuban because he cashed out when he sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo for more than $5 billion just a few years after co-founding the company.

Maybe your hero is Richard Branson; if you were a billionaire who owned his own island, you would be a publicity-generating machine, too. Or maybe your hero is Brad Kelley; if you were a billionaire who owned more land than the state of Rhode Island, you would make sure no one has heard of you, either.

Take me. I do a fair amount of speaking, and my style is somewhat (OK, very) casual. So my heroes are speakers like Bryan Stevenson. I admire more formal yet still humorous and engaging speakers like Daniel Pink, but I don't try to emulate them. I don't see myself in them.

And that's a problem.

In the examples above, I would choose Cuban over Zuckerberg. Not because one is "better," but because I would have sold instead of staying the course. I'm kind of a chicken. I would choose Kelley over Branson--again, not because one is better--because I'm shy. I choose Stevenson over Pink because I prefer to tell stories instead of marshaling facts, research, and examples to craft solid arguments.

The problem is the people I choose as heroes hold me back. The ones you choose can hold you back, too.

Years ago--see, I do like to tell stories--I was on a racetrack during an open session. Freddie Spencer, one of the all-time great motorcycle racers, was also on the track testing. I followed him as best I could to see what lines he used, but I quickly got frustrated. Instead of working the same lines, every one of his laps was different: different apex, different braking points, different body positions.

It drove me crazy. I couldn't figure him out. My approach was to find what I thought was the best line in each corner and then really work to refine it. He was all over the place. To me, there was zero method to his madness.

I happened to walk by him afterward. He nodded a hello and said, "Learn anything?"

I was a little embarrassed. Had I been that obvious? Duh: Once or twice I had slowed to let him lap me so I could follow him again. I smiled sheepishly. "Not really," I said, "other than you are really, really fast."

"Thanks," he said. "But why didn't you learn anything?"

"I couldn't tell what you were doing," I said. "Whenever I thought I had a line figured out, you did something different."

He said he already knew what he thought were the best lines. Yet he also knew he could be wrong. So he tried lots of different things. Most didn't work. But occasionally something did, and he wouldn't have known without experimenting.

"You're picking a good line and working to refine it," he said. "When you do that, you can get faster but only by a little. I'm looking for great--and then I can refine that."

His approach didn't feel right to me. I preferred to pick one line and work on it. It gave me a sense of security, however false. It felt good.

But it also kept me from getting faster.

When I walked away, I decided Freddie needed to be my new hero, and not for the usual reasons. He shouldn't be my hero because I saw something of myself in him but because I saw something in him that I was not and definitely needed to be--no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it would be at first.

Try it. Set your current list of heroes aside. Think way outside your hero box. Think of someone who is extremely successful but you would never dream of emulating.

If you're shy and reserved, pick a relentless self-promoter. If you love shooting from the hip, pick someone known for thorough analysis. If you always seek to build consensus through compromise, pick someone who often takes a bold stand.

Then pick a specific skill, quality, or attribute and do something the way he or she would do it.

It won't be comfortable. It won't feel natural. But it will stretch you and take you to places you never would have gone otherwise.

Choose lots of heroes. You can still be you, but when you use their success to spur you to try things you normally wouldn't, you can be an even better you.

And maybe you will be a hero to someone else someday.

IMAGE: Hugh Kretschmer/Getty
Last updated: Nov 16, 2012

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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