Real Models, not Role Models and Why I Needed Sally Field


At the 2015 Simmons Leadership Conference, we were listening to the incredible accomplishments of the next speaker during her introduction. As they wrapped the intro, a co-worker leaned over to me and said "I feel so inadequate. What have I been doing with my time?"

It's not an uncommon feeling. We compare ourselves and our achievements against the bar set by others. This is true in our personal and our professional lives. We look to the public persona others put forward and judge ourselves less worthy or deficient. What we fail to remember in that moment is that is only a portion of the true person.

One of the most powerful takeaways from the conference was the repeated theme of choices made and, in some cases, regretted in the pursuit of professional achievement. Some of the speakers shared with us poignant stories of continuing to fight for opportunities. That willingness to share candidly made them not only women to be admired, but women to whom we could relate and therefore see ourselves becoming.

A personal hero of mine for many years has been Sally Field. I was thrilled to hear her speak at the conference and have the opportunity to meet her. Ms. Field shared that early on she had an agent who said she wasn't pretty enough for movies. She fired him. After what by all measures has been a distinguished career, she had to fight for the part of Mary Todd Lincoln both with the voice in her head discouraging her and Steven Spielberg's perception that she was no longer right for the role. She went on to share a personal story about her relationship with one of her sons and reaching out to him when they had drifted apart.

It struck a chord with what I had been thinking about in recent weeks about role models. I was in the midst of forming a mentoring group of women at 2U. As I reached out to different women with whom I had informal mentoring relationships, we discussed why we thought the relationship worked for us. We talked about what it means to be and find a good mentor.

A few shared that when they first met me, they were nervous to approach me and ask for my advice. They only saw one part of who I am. While they viewed me as a strong and capable leader, they didn't know I shared the same fears and challenges they saw in their path. As we got to know each other, I became more real to them the more I shared my own struggles and story. That allowed them to share with me more honestly. That is when the learning began on both sides.

Hearing Sally Field's story and reflecting on the conversations I had with the women I work with solidified for me the idea of a valuing a real model over a role model. The mentors we seek and the role models we chose, if they are truly to inspire and challenge us, must be real. Seeing their feet of clay alongside their achievements and perseverance will be the center for leveraging what we learn from them for our own growth and achievement.

As leaders, we must share those stories and expose our mistakes and recovery from them as well as our triumphs. Overcoming the fear of appearing somehow less or "too soft" is critical if we are to connect with and mentor future leaders. Showing someone the path ahead but not pointing out the pitfalls sets them up to be discouraged when they inevitably encounter a setback.

There is so much emphasis on your personal brand and how carefully crafted it must be. One of my goals it to share my experiences and what I've learned just as my mentors and role models have done for me. I cannot do that and include only part of my story. Perhaps my personal brand will suffer for it but what I receive in return from the women I mentor will more than compensate for showing my own feet of clay.