Are Role Models Becoming Extinct?

Role models, mentoring, what is a good role model, how to mentor, Frank Sonnenberg

When we were growing up, our teachers saluted great individuals who changed the course of history; during dinnertime, our parents lovingly recalled their idols; and of course, we had our own personal heroes who walked on water. They were wonderful role models.

Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Cronkite, Colin Powell, Helen Keller, Ronald Reagan, Bill Gates, John Kennedy, Vince Lombardi, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, Tim Russert, John Glenn, Mother Teresa . . . to name a few.

There was something about these role models that made them special. They led by example, raised the bar for us, and were simply the best of the best. We might have even wanted to be them, someday.

We looked up to them, and to other role models, because of their accomplishments, such as overcoming obstacles to achieve greatness, speaking up when no one else would, living rags-to-riches stories, being poster children for honesty and integrity, putting others’ needs ahead of their own, and fighting tirelessly for causes they believed in. Many of these role models changed our world . . . forever.

I know it’s a generality, but would you be proud if your kids followed in the footsteps of many of today’s politicians, professional athletes, Hollywood celebrities, or pop musicians? There’s no need to mention them by name. You know who I’m talking about. Sure, there are some wonderful role models to celebrate, but too many of today’s public figures are train wrecks –– purveyors of greed, recklessness, or dishonesty. Too often they’re excused for drug and alcohol abuse, marital infidelity, and personal arrogance as we sit mesmerized by their fame. Need I say more?

I’m not suggesting that role models have to be saints, but let’s get real. Many executives can’t tell the difference between right and wrong until they’re caught, many politicians appear to treat integrity as a liability, and celebrities live so close to the edge that many are in danger of falling off. Shame? Disgust? Public outrage? Nope. . . Too many journalists are no longer interested in reporting the facts; they’re more concerned with ratings, shaping the news, or giving cover to those who subscribe to their personal views. Obviously, there’s a void that needs to be filled.

That’s where you come in. How can YOU become an outstanding role model?

Role Models Wanted

Hey, big shot. You don’t have to be a celebrity or a superstar to be a role model. Chances are if you’re a parent, teacher, coach, religious leader, or manager, you’re influencing people every day. Make it positive!

Set the bar high. Have high expectations for others AND yourself. Avoid the tendency to adjust the target downward just to accommodate mediocrity.

Inspire others. When you’re a role model, every message you send is critical. For example, people will notice whether or not you value a good education, the relationship that you have with your spouse, how you work under pressure, how you behave during the Little League game, and whether you’re confident enough to admit fault. Don’t wait for the stars to align to demonstrate good behavior. Deliver your message every day in small ways.

Look in the mirror. Look to see if you’re sending the wrong message. Here are some examples of behavior gone awry: cheating has become a substitute for hard work; you have become ruthless to get ahead; drugs are your rewards for success; life is about stuff, not people; relationships are disposable; the only thing that matters is winning.

Stand for something. Outstanding role models are objective and fair. Furthermore, they have the strength of their convictions. They believe what they say and say what they believe. Mark Twain may have said it best, “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”

Walk the talk. Ensure that your words and actions are consistent.

Integrity matters. Good role models are open, honest, and trustworthy. Make sure to finish what you start and follow through on commitments.

Be respectful. Treat others as you want to be treated.

Believe in yourself. Be confident in who you are and what you represent. But balance that confidence with a dose of humility.

Hold people accountable. Don’t accept bad behavior. Speak up against abuses. If you don’t condemn poor behavior, then you’re a co-conspirator. Life isn’t a spectator sport.

Nobody’s perfect. Accept responsibility for your actions. When you make a mistake, admit fault and show you mean it by taking corrective action. Let others learn from your mistakes.

You’re judged by the company you keep. Surround yourself with people of high character and integrity. They may rub off on you and provide extra encouragement when the stakes are high or the going gets tough.

Your soul is NOT for sale. Listen to your conscience. That’s why you have one.

Outstanding Role Models Step Up to the Challenge

Here’s my bottom line. I don’t care how famous you are or how much money or power you have. I don’t care how many games you’ve won, how many records you’ve broken, or how many awards hang on your wall. The fact is, if you’re a lousy role model, then you’re a drag on society. Period. Your friends may excuse your behavior; your colleagues may laugh at your antics; and some people may conveniently look the other way to provide you with cover. None of that will change the reality.

But now it’s time for all responsible people to take action. Yes, you! You don’t have to be a powerful politician, famous actor, award-winning musician or an athlete in the big leagues to have fans. The truth is, you are influencing people every day. Be a positive force in their lives.

Every time you point someone in the right direction, you’re not only making a distinctive contribution to his or her life . . . you’re passing the torch to someone who’ll likely pay it forward. Although it’s very difficult to change the whole world, we can at least change the world around us. Your actions today represent the future for our kids. Remember, little footsteps in the sand usually follow larger ones, so watch where you step.

Additional Reading:
Ethics as Usual
Dream No Small Dreams

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  1. Rossana says

    A wonderful article from one of my favorite role models. “Listen to your conscience – that’s why you have one.” Simply brilliant.
    Thanks Frank.

  2. Lolly Daskal says


    You are my role model.

    You are my inspiration.

    You are my HERO.

    Your heart is pure and your soul is laced with integrity.

    This by far is the most valuable post and a must read for everyone! young and old, child and parent, student and teacher, leader and follower…..

    Thanks for being so wonderful. You continue to amaze me.


  3. Cali Yost says


    Count me in! Wonderful, important post. Thank YOU for all of your role modeling.


  4. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Rossana, Leyane, Lolly, Cali

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate your kind words more than you’ll ever know.

    It’s clear that you understand the importance of good role models. Please continue to help me spread the word.



  5. Nancy O'Neill says

    Absolutely right on in all respects. I couldn’t have said it better myself. On one hand, it makes me tear up because of how our society has become. On the other hand, I still have faith and believe that there are those who will do the right thing, be an inspiration to others, help without expecting something in return. The list could go on and on.

    Great article, Frank!

  6. George says

    A very insightful view of how American society is beginning to lose its way, and what we can do to improve the situation.

    I especially like Frank’s comments about leading by example, speaking up, being concerned about others’ needs, and leading one’s life with honesty and integrity.

    Contrary to what one might have expected from an affluent society, we see greed, greater dishonesty, and an almost aggressive lack of concern for one’s fellow man, the community and the common good.

    Common courtesy and respect also has suffered. Our governor, who deserves credit for tackling some significant problems, is hardly a role model when he routinely calls his critics jerks and idiots.

    More important to our society, however, is the lack of integrity and honesty of our politicians. Rather than devote their efforts to solving the problems that confront us, they prefer to blame their opponents. They lie constantly, and are more like robots than principled leaders. Their souls are for sale.

    To counter this discouraging situation, each of us needs to inspire the people with whom we work, and with whom we interact – with our actions, our work ethic and accountability, our confidence, our optimism, our honesty, trustworthiness and integrity, and our character.

    As Frank says, every time you point someone in the right direction, you are making a distinctive contribution to his or her life, as well as improving the world around us.

  7. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Nancy / George

    Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate it.

    Nancy, I’m so glad that you continue to have faith. The key is for us to be good role models for others AND to hold people accountable for their actions.

    George, your comments are right on the mark. You sum it up well when you said, “To counter this discouraging situation, each of us needs to inspire the people with whom we work, and with whom we interact – with our actions, our work ethic and accountability, our confidence, our optimism, our honesty, trustworthiness and integrity, and our character.”

    Have a wonderful day,


  8. Alain Levi says

    Unfortunately ETHICS , RESPECT and LOYALTY became OUT of FASHION .

    People fight for their 5 seconds ( not minutes anymore ) of FAME and when they have it they don’t know what to deal with it.

    Our words need to be our main ASSETS !

    Let’s Inspire others .

    Great Article

  9. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Hi Alain

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I agree. “Our words [and actions] need to be our main assets.”

    The only way to encourage good behavior is to hold people accountable. Lets begin today :-)



  10. Kent Julian says

    Great role models are powerful forces for helping us realize people’s potential. To have people to look up to and mimic their positive traits helps us succeed too. This means role models are not only important for our careers, but for achieving fulfillment in every area of life. Thanks for sharing, Frank.

  11. Diane Thompson says

    Great article! Living a life that stands for something jumped out at me, as this very sentiment was one that Lady Margaret Thatcher expressed early in her life and career. I find this sentiment and commitment to be very inspiring, not just because she accomplished so much but, also, because we hear so few leaders drawing a line in the sand about their values and intentions.

  12. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Thanks for your thoughts Diane.

    Margaret Thatcher was quite a lady. I agree that we could use more leaders who have the courage of their convictions and have the backbone to draw a line in the sand.

    Have a wonderful day.



  13. TJ Fruichantie says


    I agree. The question isn’t what’s happened to all the role models, but rather what am I doing to be a role model. All this goes back to what John Miller writes in QBQ. We have to accept personal responsibility and the impact our actions have toward others. The truth is we all are role models to those around us. And like I tell people, you can either be a positive example or a negative example, but never a neutral example. The choice is ours.

    Thanks again and I’ll be sure to share this too.


    • Frank Sonnenberg says

      BRAVO TJ Well said.

      You’re absolutely right. It’s our choice to accept personal responsibility to be a good role model.

      And, while it may be tough to change the world, we can change the world around us.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.



  14. Erik Michielsen says

    Frank, thank you for bringing the role model conversation back front and center. In the research we have done in our career documentary series of repeating annual interviews with 60 up and coming leaders, we have learned much about role modeling.

    Firstly, we have learned quite a bit from the most basic form or role model – the mother and the father. As we continue to ask questions like “Where Did You Learn Your Work Ethic?” we get story after story of how a parent’s (or a grandparent’s) actions or outlook shaped their child’s views.

    Secondly, as I wrote about last week in a blog post, I think there is a need to be more inclusive of different types of role models and have a more practical conversation around what, exactly, are the pros and cons of having “expert” role models. The research we are doing with the interview series is about understanding, creating and curating a Near Peer Role Model culture that we hope everyone can embrace and activate the near peer role models in their respective lives or be a near peer role model to someone one or two steps or stages below them in career track or life journey.

    Here is the link to the blog post. Welcome discussing further. erik [at] capture your flag [dot] com.

    • Frank Sonnenberg says

      Hi Erik

      I visited your site a few moments ago. Your work on role models is fascinating! It’s one thing to talk about something and quite another to do something about it. YOU are making a difference.

      Have an awesome day.



    • Frank Sonnenberg says

      Hi Shaun

      Thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing the post with your colleagues. I appreciate it!



  15. Maria Garcia says

    Frank, This is such a beautiful piece of jewel, specially because you bring up the essense of the human being, versus the animal instinct. As rational human beings there are values we must apply as we navigate our journey of life. I love the part that we need to lead by example, because we don’t know who is looking up to us and trying to follow our steps, we surely don’t want to be a stumble stone for anyone. knowing our values help us in the way we make decisions and live our lives. Accepting responsibility for our actions is part of growing as human beings and learning from our mistakes.
    Thank you for bringing us back to our human fundaments very appreciative, YOU Frank are making a difference! Thank you from the bottom of my heart

    • Frank Sonnenberg says

      Hi Maria

      Thanks for your kind words. Sometimes we don’t recognize the positive or negative impact that we, as role models, have on others. If we did, maybe we’d be more conscious of what we say AND do. The goal of this blog is to shine a spotlight on personal values and personal responsibility. I hope you visit again soon.

      Have a wonderful day!



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