How Role Models Shape Behavior and Learning in the Fire Service

How Role Models Shape Behavior and Learning in the Fire Service

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Who has had the most meaningful effect on your development? Was it someone you tried to emulate? A mentor or role model? Most of us have one, if not more.

In our youth, our role models are often pop culture figures, movie or rock stars, doctors, astronauts, etc. Teenage girls or young women sometimes dream of being like runway models, but they equally look up to self-confident women in positions of power and authority. Young men also do the same, typically with sports figures or war heroes. In each case, our admiration, even idealization, says the same thing: “I want to be like that person.”

The bottom line: Role models can have a profound effect on each of us. However, as we grow and mature professionally, our role models become more realistic, oftentimes someone just ahead of us or the next level up in the organization.

Within the fire service, we must understand the power of role models and how firefighters model their behavior off of others. As senior leaders, we look out and down throughout the workforce to determine who has the skills necessary to lead, succeed and eventually move up in the organization. However, young men and woman look up ever so slightly within the organization, usually at the next level of formal and informal leaders, and think, I want like to be “like them.” We must know who within the organization is serving as a role model. That’s important, because the firefighter or officer the troops look up to isn’t always the one you would like them to.

Role Models Aren’t Always Good
The term role model generally means any “person who serves as an example, whose behavior is emulated by others.” The term first appeared in Robert K. Merton’s socialization research of medical students. Merton hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with “reference groups”–people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires. Within the fire service, that often means that a firefighter looks up to and seeks to learn from a more senior firefighter; an engineer from a captain; a captain from a battalion chief, etc.

It’s important to understand that reference group refers to “a group to which an individual or another group is compared.” It becomes the individual’s frame of reference, perceptions and ideas of self. It’s important in determining a person’s self-identity, attitudes and social ties, including the people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires. This connection and modeling can have a negative or positive outcome.

In the book Darker Shades of Blue, Major Tony Kern provides a riveting story regarding a rogue pilot’s disregard of standards, and a leadership structure that failed to stop him, which eventually led to the crash of a B-52. It’s a tragic case study; however, there was a far more insidious outcome. As Kern describes, the modeling effect “manifested in younger, less skilled crewmembers.” A junior officer attempted to copy the non-compliant maneuver of this senior non-complainant pilot, with near disastrous results, and a new aircraft commander was administratively grounded for accomplishing a maneuver he had seen the older senior pilot perform. His former instructor stated, “I was appalled to hear that somebody I otherwise respected would attempt that.”

Put simply: The bad example set by the senior pilot had begun to be emulated by junior and impressionable officers–a classic example of modeling and its influence on younger crewmembers.

Kern goes on to say, “These rogue aviators are usually popular and respected, possess considerable social skills, and have learned what rules they can break, and the audiences and when, and with whom. They are usually perceived much differently by superiors than by peers or subordinates.” His assessment is that an organization must ensure there is a culture of compliance and constantly nurture it.

Do you have any rogue officers in your organization? Are they serving as role models for your less experienced troops?

Needed Traits
Navy Lieutenant Jill R. Cesari’s thesis paper for the Naval Postgraduate School, “The Perceptions of the Role of the Company Officers at the United States Naval Academy, from the Perspective of Senior Officers, Battalion Officers, Company Officers, and Senior Enlisted Leaders,” reinforces the concept of modeling, comparing it against several other traditional leadership attributes.

Cesari found that the majority of the cadets would model the behaviors of those who were slightly ahead of them by a just year or two. Furthermore, her research found that the company officer role was most often perceived in three broad areas: serving as a role model, establishing cultural standards, and ensuring and maintaining safety. Cesari identified seven key traits company officers need to be effective role models:

  1. Mentor  
  2. Trusting
  3. Honest
  4. Knowledgeable about people
  5. Involved
  6. Consistent
  7. Respected


Overwhelmingly, participants selected “role model” and “mentor” (defined as coach, counselor, advisor, teacher, and “focuses on developing midshipmen into officers and leaders”) as the top traits for company officers to exhibit.

Cesari’s findings corroborated an earlier study by Robert Kennedy in 1998, which examined how midshipmen and junior officers at the U.S. Naval Academy develop their leadership qualities. He discovered midshipmen learn to lead through personal experiences, observing role models and reflecting on their personal experiences.

How We Learn
Behavior modeling is a primary way that humans learn. Schoolchildren, for example, emulate their parents and teachers. As adults, people tend to identify with those who are just a bit more successful than we are. In business, you may look for mentors or coaches to guide your career path. You “model” behaviors from people whom you perceive as possessing the qualities and abilities you want to emulate.

From an academic perspective, there are several theories that support modeling:

  • Social Learning Theory focuses on how people learn from one another, including such concepts as observational learning, imitation and modeling. In this theory, behavior modeling is a demonstration of a desired behavior. We learn not only by doing, but also by watching. Behavior modeling can also be a purposeful way to teach behavior. Nevertheless, modeling can also be negative, such as a parent passing on a prejudice or being abusive. It is quite common for an abused child to become an abusive parent.
  • Cognitive Theory focuses on the effects that others have on our behavior, especially those who are perceived to have a better social status than we do. Remember, you can never underestimate the power of peer pressure and/or culture. We all want to belong, so we tend to change our behaviors to fit in with whatever group we most strongly identify with. Peer pressure is not solely a teen phenomenon; it occurs in most of our organizations.


Modeling has a much more powerful effect on us than we often realize. It can influence our concepts of right or wrong, even our sense of morality. That’s why it’s essential that a fire department reinforce specific values and standards at all ranks. If firefighters and junior officers are consciously and unconsciously modeling their behavior on that of their superiors, those superiors must exemplify good leadership. If they don’t, the result will be the quick adoption and spread of bad behavior throughout the organization.

Researcher and author Albert Bandura identifies four conditions that are necessary before an individual can successfully model the behavior of someone else: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. These conditions occur naturally with the learner, requiring little thought; however, senior leaders need to be constantly aware that behavior modeling is happening. We are always being observed.

Full Circle
Reacting to Cesari’s research, several senior military leaders described the development of a role model as a circular process–or what I like to call “the sum of all traits.” Role models often become mentors, helping to enhance the skills and competencies of the individual, leading to the individual’s heightened professional development–and eventually, the individual becomes a role model for others to follow.