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How to Pick a Role Model

It's understandable you'd want to emulate an exceptionally successful person. But according to research, that's not the best idea.
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A recent New York Times headline declares "Sometimes Second-Best Makes a Better Role Model." The story's writer, Alina Tugend, draws this conclusion from a 2012 paper by Warwick Business School professors Jerker Denrell and Chengwei Liu. In its abstract, they explain that "the highest performers may not have the highest expected ability and should not be imitated or praised." Tugend underscores their findings by noting that baseball star Alex Rodriguez--who faces suspension from the game for steroid use--isn't someone we should strive to emulate.

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul summarizes the professors' findings in a blog post:

"Those who succeeded spectacularly--who took their places in the first tier--were often not the most skilled, but rather were those who got some lucky breaks early on or took big risks that happened to pay off.

"Emulating these top performers would probably lead to disappointment, since imitators would be unlikely to replicate their good fortune. Because luck and risk play a dominant role in extraordinary outcomes, Denrell and Liu write, 'extreme success or failure are, at best, only weak signals of skill,' and top performers 'should not be imitated or praised.' Better, they advise, to learn from individuals 'with high, but not exceptional, performance'--those whose success can be attributed to solid skill and not to a rare lightning strike."

Speaking to Tugend (@atugend) for the Times story, Paul adds: "As a society, we fetishize the guy who is No. 1, with the idea that if we do what he does, we'll be successful. However, research suggests that can be very misleading. No. 1 might be the outlier and No. 2 might have gotten to where he is through hard work and prudent decision-making."

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Last updated: Nov 11, 2013

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The Build Network staff curates provocative, actionable leadership advice for executive teams running sustained-growth companies.




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