Be Your Own Role Model

by | Nov 29, 2018 | Leadership & Personal Development

This blog is part V of a five-part series on the theme of ‘Valuing Your Difference: Your “Shortcomings” Are Your Superpowers’. It is based on the presentation of that title delivered at Nottingham UK’s #WomenInTech event in October 2018.

Read Part I: Diverse Thought Prevents Dangerous Echo Chambers

Read Part II: Discomfort Is A Learning Space

Read Part III: When We’re All Different, There Is No Imposter Syndrome

Read Part IV: Don’t Rise Alone


“You cannot be what you cannot see” is a statement attributed to Marian Wright Edelman, the American activist for the rights of children.

It’s a powerful phrase that highlights the media’s role in shaping future generations and resolving gender and race inequality. It is referenced frequently in discussions on equality and certainly inspires positive change.

In a business context, the statement evokes the desire we have to seek role models. We want to find women who demonstrate that success is possible, who have achieved in our chosen fields and who we can aspire to be like.

However, there is a danger if we internalise the narrative “you cannot be what you cannot see” without first examining it.

Semantics Matter

Marian’s phrase taken literally removes the power of action. It is definite and closing. It fails to recognise that progressives, inventors, entrepreneurs, leaders and change makers have consistently created technology, policies and services that didn’t exist before. If “you cannot be what you cannot see” were true, there would be no firsts – no first woman pilot, no first man on the moon, no first black president of the United States.

There is, nonetheless, a seeing which exists in our minds beyond what is physical and tangible. A vision of the unmanifested is how we advance. Vision is possibility, if you can think it then you can create it.

So whilst seeing is essential for being (or becoming), you only need to see it in your imagination. It doesn’t need to exist. It is easier to follow in the footsteps of those who have already carved a path, but it is not the only way.

It is only true that you cannot be what you cannot see, if you cannot imagine it.

The Role Model Assumption

The term role model was coined in the mid-1990s and has been accepted into our business lexicon as an indirect response to the idea that “you cannot be what you cannot see”. Since then, it has become an effective way for young women and non-dominant groups to gain confidence and pursue ambitious careers in competitive fields.

Some of us are blessed with incredible mentors and role models in our lives who inspire us, and who we aspire to be like. But what happens when you outgrow your role model? What happens if, in the first place, you fail to find a role model who encapsulates your ambition?

Role models are certainly not essential. Accepting we must have a role model, or someone we can see, in order to succeed, or be, is a get-out-of-jail-free card. It places the onus away from ourselves and our abilities and onto a third party. It dissolves responsibility.

And arguably, role models can limit our imaginations. By focusing on someone else’s achievements and approach, we can do ourselves and our potential a disservice. Rather than following a path, it is within our power to carve a path. We can pioneer the future for women in business.

Not everyone will be a pioneer and that is ok. But if you can’t find someone to follow, if there is no role model for you to emulate, you can be your own role model. You can exercise clear values and use these as your guide as you progress in your career.

Value your difference

There is just one of you. There is the fullest, truest version of yourself and she should be your role model. Emulate her, don’t emulate anyone else.

Do you agree that you should be your own role model? Tweet us your views or share your comments below.

This article is the final instalment in the five-part series ‘Valuing Your Difference: Your “Shortcomings” Are You Superpowers’. You can read the earlier articles here:

Read Part I: Diverse Thought Prevents Dangerous Echo Chambers

Read Part II: Discomfort Is A Learning Space

Read Part III: When We’re All Different, There Is No Imposter Syndrome

Read Part IV: Don’t Rise Alone

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