Along with millions of others, I followed Michael Phelps' golden moments at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. His individual quests and the United States men's team efforts were inspirational. It's just a joy to watch people accomplish something that no one has previously achieved. In fact, the 1982 Winter Olympic games inspired the central methodology for collecting the cases that informed the development of our Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model. Prior to the 1982 games, I was listening to a radio talk show discussion of athletes' "personal bests," and the conversation caused me to wonder what it would be like if we studied Personal Best Leadership Experiences. That insight eventually led to Barry Posner's and my first book, The Leadership Challenge. Needless to say, I have been an Olympics' fan ever since. But I digress. Back to Michael Phelps.
After the 4x100 medley relay, Bob Costas interviewed Phelps, and near the end Costas pointed out to Phelps that he now had more fans on facebook than Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, and Michael Jordan. (I checked. Costas is correct. Right now as I write this Phelps has 1,173,231 fans compared to Cyrus' 217,018. If you check, you will find there will be more.) Phelps replied that he had heard that he had around 33,000 posts on The Wall, and that he wasn't sure how he was going to respond to them all. (There are 54,516 as I write.)
This interview peaked my curiosity, so I went to Phelps' page and read a few of the posts. There was a collection of the usual fan stuff – 'u are freaking awesome,' 'I am a Phelpsaholic!!,' 'You rock to the Max!' – but there were others that reinforced a very important leadership lesson. One high school student wrote, "Michael man, you are the greatest role model. I don't swim, but you inspire me to go harder and do better…" Another mom said that her young son was afraid to go into the water, but after watching Phelps win those gold medals her son was begging her to take him to swimming lessons.
The Phelps' phenomenon illustrates how someone's extraordinary performance is often more than just entertainment for the fans. It can also be a model of excellence that others want to emulate. Exemplary performance very often inspires others to take a shot at greatness. While you and I are not Michael Phelps, and we may never win Olympic gold, the same principle applies to each of us. We, too, can be role models. Our extraordinary achievements can set a positive example for our constituents.
Does setting a good example really makes that much of a difference? You bet it does. Barry Posner, has just finished an analysis of over 950,000 Leadership Practices Inventories —our leadership assessment survey—and he did a separate impact study involving 25% of the total sample. In presenting the data at The Leadership Challenge Forum 2008 in Denver, Barry revealed that of all The Five Practices in The Leadership Challenge framework, the practice of Model the Way accounts for the most variance in a leader's impact on the engagement and performance of constituents. Model the Way—defined as clarifying your values and aligning actions with shared values—contributes more to getting extraordinary things done than anything else a leader does.
Your example matters. You matter. Next time you begin to wonder if it's really worth it to be the best you can be, just remember what that young mom and that high school student said about Michael Phelps. Just remember that you can make a difference by your positive example.