How heroes inspire you to be your best

When you study the lives of great leaders--their actions, thoughts, choices, struggles, failures, and triumphs--it unconsciously motivates you to be your best self every day. The second article in a four-part series.

Some time back, I was out with my wife and daughter for a night at the Metropolitan Opera. We were having such a marvelous evening infused with stirring arias, enveloped by the resplendent red carpets of the Met. At the intermission, we sat down in the Met restaurant for dinner. I was feeling so pleased with the idea that our daughter, at this tender age of seven, was getting to experience something as grand as this, imagining how she would grow up into someone with such refined sensibilities.

But then our appetizer arrived, and my daughter grabbed at the plate and attacked the food. My wife and I looked at each other in utter shock. She did not say grace! She did not offer the appetizer to her parents! Here we were, investing every drop of our blood into raising her the right way, to sculpt the perfect angel. And here she was, right in front of our eyes, turning into a little monster!

I wrinkled my brow and started to scold her. How could you do this, M? This isn't right and you know it! Stop eating, right now, and offer it to your mom first! Take only your fair share! She rolled her eyes and kept eating even as she impatiently gestured to her mother to help herself.

Just as I was about to intensify my admonitions, a story about Mahatma Gandhi flashed in my mind.

It had been recounted by Gandhi's grandson, Arun, in reflecting on what he and his family had learned about non-violence from his grandfather, during his keynote lecture on the Gandhi tradition of non-violence at the 21st annual conference of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace in 2008.

When Arun was 16 years old, he once accompanied his father to the city and was handed over the family car to run some errands with the commitment to return and pick up his father at 5 p.m. Arun was excited about having the car all by himself, and in the city. He finished his errands and then decided to go to the theater to watch a John Wayne double feature. By the time it finished, it was 5.30, and he rushed to get to his father and arrived there to find him pacing up and down, worried. His father's first question was, "Why are you late?"

Arun responded with a lie. He explained that getting the car fixed at the garage took an unusually long time, not realizing that his father had already called the garage. Arun's father was quiet for a while, and then asked his son to stop the car so he could get out and walk home. Arun was taken aback, and asked why his father wished to walk. After all, home was still 18 miles away! His father responded, "There's something wrong in the way I brought you up that didn't give you the confidence to tell me the truth, that made you feel you had to lie to me. I've got to find out where I went wrong with you, and to do that I'm going to walk home."

There was nothing Arun could do to make him change his mind—and nor could Arun leave him and go away. Arun recalled later, "For five and a half hours, I crawled along in the car behind father, watching him go through all this pain and agony for a stupid lie. I decided there and then that I was never going to lie again."

Arun's story flashed in my mind in that instant I was scolding my daughter, and I became quiet. Later, the waiter at the Met served us our dessert. This time, unprompted, my daughter nudged the plate in the direction of her mother and then toward me. I gently refused. She was surprised, and asked me why I wasn't eating. I took a deep breath and said, "I am so pained about how I have failed you as a father, for otherwise you would have been more grateful and gracious when the food arrived on the table. I want to spend some quiet moments thinking about what we are doing done wrong in how we are raising you."

My daughter's jaw dropped. She begged for me to eat and started to cry. "No, no, papa, it isn't your fault! I shouldn't have done that. I won't do it again, I promise you! Please, eat now."

Inwardly, I whispered a "thank you" to Gandhi for the lesson he had taught me. I have, since then, frequently applied this approach in the way I communicate with her, and even with others. It's been a very helpful way to stir the other person's intrinsic desire to do the right thing, and to remind me that I too should constantly be asking how I can be a better parent, a better teacher, a better leader.

One word of caution. This same approach won't work with all people. Once I tried it on an aggressive driver in California who zipped from behind my car to capture a parking space that I had been waiting for. I got out of my car and went up to the driver as she victoriously alighted from her SUV, and with all the gentility I could muster, I told her how pained I was about what she did when she quite clearly could see that I was waiting for the spot. She peered at me from under her Prada sunglasses as if I was some weird hippie from the sixties, and just walked away. Apparently, this technique works much better with people who truly love you!

As I have deepened my own study of the lives of great leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, and Steve Jobs, I notice them popping up in my head occasionally. It may be a story that comes into focus, or just a sense I have of how that leader might act in a given situation if he was in my shoes.

So it didn't surprise me to discover that there is a growing body of evidence in psychology about how we subconsciously get motivated to do the right thing when we are exposed to the right role models. For instance:

  • People who associate their father with high achievement (and who have a positive relationship with their father), work much harder and perform much better if they were, before a task is given to them, unconsciously exposed to their father's name. Source: Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Halvorson.
  • College students who are asked to read a few one-page profiles about the effortful and gritty pursuit of goals by great achievers, such as a Nobel-Prize winning scientist, show greater commitment to learning and do better academically. Source: Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Halvorson.
  • A large proportion of students who were shown a film of Mother Theresa at Harvard University in 1988 reported a strong increase in their desire to serve others. Source: The Placebo Response by Howard Brody.

Are there times in your life when your instincts are pulling you down, when you are struggling to fight your inner demons, when you lack motivation, hope, or wisdom equal to what that occasion demands from you? What if we cultivated a strong inner kinship with our heroes so they can silently, even without our knowing, nudge us to choose the right path when we encounter such forks in our road? And if we were more consistent in making the right choices, what kind of leaders could we become?

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