Who do you most admire? This question seems so straightforward that Gallup each year, for more than 70 years, has asked Americans this question. More specifically, Gallup asks which man and woman “that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most? And who is your second choice?”
OK, but what does it mean to “admire” someone? Is it simply a deep respect and high regard for someone, or is it more akin to awe and wonder? Do you need to know someone personally to admire them? Gallup doesn’t seem to think so, as “heard or read about” seems to imply that you shouldn’t know them. Despite that, roughly 10% of respondents overall reply by listing a friend or family member, year after year. Is that an “incorrect” answer?
Interestingly, more than 20% of respondents in recent years won’t answer the question or say there’s no one who qualifies. What does that say?
So who do Americans admire? A lot has changed since the 1940s when Gallup started asking this question, but on this question there’s almost no shift: It’s almost always the president and first lady who are most admired, or a former president or a former first lady. (This year, it was President Donald Trump and Michelle Obama, respectively).
Other national and international figures pop in and out, such as Queen Elizabeth II, whose 50-plus top 10 finishes are boggling to me — I suppose she’s easy to remember if you don’t know many famous women. Respondents for men and women consistently default to heads of state and transcendent national figures (such as Oprah Winfrey, Billy Graham or the Dalai Lama). Further down the list, you’ll see 1% or more for flavor-of-the-month celebrities each year (Dr. Anthony Fauci in 2020, Robert Mueller in 2019, Scarlett Johansson in 2014, Clint Eastwood in 2013, etc.)
Look, there is nothing wrong with admiring a president, a first lady or some other politician, celebrity or international figure. These people have certainly inspired many of us in our life choices, our careers and our beliefs and principles. But are we thinking about the question “who do you most admire?” in the wrong way?
Are too many of us confusing titles, rank and wealth with deeds and integrity? We have the Forbes billionaires list if we simply want to admire wealth and power accumulation, after all.
Look around you for admiration
All I ask in 2021 is that we reconsider this question of admiration on a more personal level. Yes, the Trumps or Obamas, Pope Francis or Oprah, might be people you admire for their achievements, their leadership, the offices they hold and so forth. But are these people truly the ones you most admire on a day-to-day basis? Is there no one in your personal lives, no one you’ve ever worked with, no one in your field who is inspiring you more?
Consider this question: Who in your life do you admire because of what you’ve witnessed? To witness might mean what you have seen of their deeds, their words, their philosophies, the kindness and love they display, the confidence they instill, how they handle adversity.
Or ask this: Who do you know who lives a good life at work, in their communities and at home? Who do you look at and say, “If I could live as they do, I’d be doing pretty well?” Who do you turn to for inspiration, counsel or reassurance?
Let’s expand beyond Gallup’s question, too, and consider people not living. Ideally, we’ll all continue to seek out new people and new opportunities (and to welcome new people into our lives). That said, there’s nothing wrong if the people you most admire have passed on, such as a parent, teacher, coach or early boss. Ask yourself: How can you live that person’s example in your own life?
2020 imposed countless barriers between us, and we saw how many people and entities weren’t up to the task of leadership. In 2021, let’s consider the people who can affect and inspire us across distance and time. Let’s name and admire them, not just in thought, but in action.
James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.
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