Role Models

I had coffee last week with my dear friends M— and S— (they can identify themselves in the comments if they wish) and we talked about the importance of role models early in our careers. The three of us enjoy some success in our working lives and it’s interesting to consider what contributed to our journeys.

For me, when I got out of the Air Force, I landed a job at a small avionics company and it was owned by a strong-willed man named Lee Pratt. Lee was a nice person, wicked-smart and very warm-hearted, but he was unbending when it came to doing the right thing. There was simply no question about it, whatever the cost, things were going to be done his way with impeccable honor and high ethics.

When your working personality is formed and set, a mentor or leader like this is irreplaceable. What could possibly substitute for this type of role model? What would happen in troubling situations without examples to look back on, examples that provide practical, real-world guidance? It would be very difficult to invent a code of ethics and the will to stubbornly cling to an immovable sense of right and wrong.

With the bustle of our daily work, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. The work we do is important. If you test something, it should be done thoroughly. If you are designing a circuit, it should be done rigorously. If you are writing code, it should be done responsibly—elegantly and efficiently.

In many ways, we worship the wrong people. Sports stars? Phooey. Rappers? Blah. Politicians? OMG. Look around. What is integral to the fabric of our modern world? It’s technology, of course, and we’re at the very beginning of biotech and robotics revolutions. Our gadgets, widgets, toys, communication equipment, computers, conveyances, appliances and lighting are all the fruits of engineering and design intellect and labor. The way we implement and execute will be more important, not less.

How do you know what to fight for and what to let go? Are these decisions influenced by honorable people who helped you in your formative years?

What are your thoughts? Set me straight in the comment section.

This blog is dedicated to Lee M. Pratt, 1918-2014, founder of Pacific Electro Dynamics, RIP.

5 comments on “Role Models

  1. antedeluvian
    February 5, 2015

    When do you go from needing a role model to being a role model? And what if you don't want to BE a role model?

  2. sanjaya_m
    February 5, 2015

    Yes indeed, Ken and I were having a chat over coffee, and I think most of all, we reminisced about straight-talking and unerringly ethical-minded people who inspired us over the years. I always mention that having served under exactly such a person, Doctor GT Murthy, for 5 years in Crompton Greaves Ltd India, set a high bar for all under him, to emulate. I don't think we stop any single day. We all unconsciously still try to be a bit like him. However, it also sets within us, a much lower tolerance for the opposite type of “leaders”, who unfortunately abound too. Basically, having tasted caviar we no longer accept burgers. Well, something like that. So having a role model is important, but it also causes pain. I saw such a guy close quarters just like that. No role model for sure. I saw him as a complete opportunist, with a very personal political agenda written on his sleeve, which included throwing everyone who he thought didn't serve his immediate desire to conquer and divide and rule, under the bus, including people reporting into him. He competed desperately with his own people, actually asking  key persons to stop filing IP disclosures (since I heard his presumption was all people are doing it just to milk the system and gain fame and glory (not all us need that anymore, thanks to Doc Murthy). At some stage a certain key engineer  was planning a series of articles on a magazine on wireless power and he mysteriously jumped in and sent an Email to stop it — for no other declared reason except perhaps to prove he exists, and obviously seeks the limelight for himself. I guess he also didn't want anyone to inadvertently expose how little he knew technically himself.  The mediocre person's famous strategy. No wonder his LinkedIn profile amusingly declares himself as “a visionary”, something that I think even Steve Jobs would balk at declaring. I remember Doctor Murthy never competed with his men, always helped them to grow, often at his own expense, gave them full credit for successes, and took blame for any failures on himself. As I said, he spolit us. Watch out for these opposite guys too.  Remember, the world is filled with electrons and positrons.     

  3. kencoffman
    February 12, 2015

    To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.

    –Albert Einstein

    I'm not paid to be a role model, parents should be role models.
    — Charles Barkley

    I don't think you get a choice about being a role model, though you can certainly be a bad one. Anyway, there are valuable lessons in observing certain dysfunctional people and making a conscious decision NOT to be like them. 


  4. Ken.Coffman
    February 14, 2015

    A response to this article defended the YBD [Young British D-bag] as “a neutered generation lacking in role models, limping from the shadows of predecessors, who defined themselves by the wars they fought, the things they made and the fields they tilled”.


  5. jimfordbroadcom
    July 22, 2015

    My thoughts exactly, Ken and Sanjaya!  In addition to the positive role models, we need to pay attention to the negative anti-role models.  I've often said that even the biggest idiot can teach you what not to do.  Sort of like the t-shirt that says “Official Bad Example”  And of course it's even more complicated than just “good person” vs. “bad person”.  Different people do better in some roles than in others.  Hence the brilliant engineer who makes a lousy manager (boy, have I seen a lot of those in my career!)  I suppose the opposite could be true as well.

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