On your rise to the top, your heroes will serve as more than just inspiration—they will actively help get you there.

Heroes are not just what they seem. They are all around us, in books, on television, and in the flesh. They often serve as motivation, as an example of “perfection,” or as a representation of an ideal we would like to reach in our own lives. And while it’s their footsteps we often try to replicate, heroes serve a much more subtle, more powerful purpose.

In my recent essay mini-series, The Three I’s of Leadership, I wrote about the importance of imitation, and building on the shoulders of giants. Imitation is a well-known idea that many refrain from giving thought to, at the risk of seeming “inauthentic.” But I love to break rules that don’t make sense. And I not only imitate my heroes, but I like to take it much further. I make my heroes work for me. I let them precede me.

Understand that people, especially those you want as followers, crave simplicity. They don’t have time, patience, or interest to dig deep to figure you out, unless they have a compelling reason. It’s why titles, logos, and colors are so important in marketing. It’s why personal brands are becoming more and more necessary in the digital age—the marketplace is simply too crowded.

Think in terms of single-glances: curb appeal, front doors, and book covers. Think of the sound of the McDonald’s jingle. Think of the smell of Christmas. Think of the feeling you get from a glance of Amazon’s “smile” logo. These are all senses that, if experienced in isolation, would conjure up thoughts of these specific brands. If subordinates, superiors, gatekeepers, and fans enjoy what they felt from a single-glance of you, that will be their entryway for exploring more of you, understanding you, and building loyalty to you. This is precisely why, in the absence of a personal “brand,” you must flaunt your heroes.

By flaunting your heroes, they soon begin to precede you. By letting your heroes precede you, people will begin to think of you every time they see a reference to them. Put them on your desktop background, buy their books, place their busts on your desk and around the house, talk about them often. Soon, they and everything they represent will become placeholders for you in your absence. They will become representations of your principles and philosophy. Through your heroes, your subordinates will always know exactly where you stand, your superiors won’t have to second-guess you as often, and your fans and followers will have a better sense of why they follow you at all. If people want to know the type of leader you will be, they need not look further than the larger-than-life heroes you flaunt. And through third-order effects, your followers and subordinates will also begin to emulate your heroes, making it much easier for you to form cohesive bonds with them—around the very characteristics that drew you to your heroes in the first place.

Emulate your heroes, yes. But flaunt your heroes also, and they will soon precede you. Let them do the heavy lifting for you on your rise to the top.

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