The term “role model” is attributed to Sociologist Robert Merton, who coined the phrase. Merton’s theory was based on the fact that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of individuals who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires.
When you were young, you probably had many opportunities to learn from the behavior of those who you admired. Typically, this could include your parents, grandparents, or even close relatives and friends. It could include sports figures and media stars. It was not uncommon for youngsters to imitate the behavior of those they admired and respected.
Hopefully, that admiration translates into an inspiration for how to be a positive influence on others during their lives. Sometimes that admiration is misplaced and individuals can become disappointed. In the best of comparisons, you can adopt that person who is being admired as a role model for life. In other cases, role models can be short lived.
As we continue to develop our own perspective on the way to spend our lives after we start our fire service careers, the potential role of role models increases. Moreover, we have an opportunity to become a role model ourselves. What is not often considered is the phenomena that role models can be positive or negative. Admiring someone is a valueless consideration. This means that being a role model would not necessarily mean you always have a positive influence. Some role models are bad influences.
It is important that we remember that someone who wants to be admired can have a positive or negative influence on the organization. A classic example of this might occur with youth being enamored with “champions” or “heroes” in the field of athletics. For example, it is not uncommon for people to be very critical of athletes for failing to remember that they are role models when, in effect, they are influencing behavior in a negative fashion.
In the fire service, role models emerge at different stages of individual development. We might see the beginnings of role modeling behavior when individuals are going through the recruit academy experience. The training officer or key instructor might emerge as a role model in the early stage of career development. What is not often discussed is the difference between positive and negative role models during this experience. This is where individuals have a decision to make. The first step is to adopt a positive role model. The second decision is to decide whether you wish to become a role model yourself.
To understand the difference between admiring another person and becoming a role model yourself, you should explore the concept of a reputation. Reputation is defined as an agreed on collective perception by others and involves behaviors derived from social comparisons with others. In short, you can have a good reputation or a bad one, and the choice is pretty much up to you.
Having a role model is not the same as being one. If you have made the decision that you are going to follow a role model, there needs to be a considerable amount of effort put into evaluating your role model’s reputation. It is what he stands for that really counts. At some point in time, if you are going to have a role model, you will need to determine what effect that role model has on positive influence in the creation of the department’s leadership environment.
We should remember that individuals have reputations, but so do organizations. The reputation is often very much the part of the identity of the group and the individuals contained within that group. Furthermore, internal reputation can be stratified in that there may be different levels of positive and negative influences that result in external considerations. An organizations reputation can sometimes be a collective reputation of its many individuals.
An interesting point about role models is that you do not have to have a direct working relationship with them to emulate their behavior. Instead, role models can be admired from afar. That makes them a different type of influence than a mentor. As you proceed through your career, you should constantly be on the alert for individuals who exhibit positive influence and pattern some of your behavior on the role model’s performance.
Seeking out and adopting the behavior of positive role models is an excellent way of developing your own skill set. By the time a person reaches maturity, he should have been able to identify several role models. One should be very careful in accepting role models to make sure they have a positive influence on the organization.
You should be seeking role models as your guiding light regarding the development of your own reputation. In the best of worlds, others will note your behavior and acknowledge your potential as being a role model yourself. This provides a positive impact on your career and improves the environment for others to succeed also.