From the Chief’s Desk
B y R o n n y J . C o l e m a n T he term “role model” is attributed to Sociologist Robert Merton, who coined the phrase. Merton’s theory was based on the fact that individuals com- pare themselves with reference groups of individuals who ccupy 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 deter-
mine 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 repu-
tation 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 individu-
als 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.
Ronny J. Coleman is a retired state fire marshal for the State of California. He has achieved chief officer designation at both the state and
national levels. Coleman has a master of arts degree in vocational
education, a bachelor of science degree in political science, and an
associate of arts degree in fire science. He is president of Fireforce-one, a consulting firm in California.
When I Grow Up, I Wanna Be Like…
Choosing and becoming a role model