Learning Through Role Models

How many times in your life have you caught yourself re-using phrases or mannerisms from you parents or other big influencers in your life? One of the main ways we learn, both consciously and unconsciously, in every context from family through to work is through role models.  It is a powerful learning channel but can be a negative influence if not done with thought and intent.

Role Models in the Workplace

In a workplace, a role model may be anyone who serves as an example to their colleagues. It may be a person in a leadership role. It is true that you are most likely to be a role model to those you manage, coach or mentor. Your daily contact with those people gives them a clear picture of every behaviour you exhibit, the ones you are proud of and those which reveal your inner thoughts, often quite by accident. A key factor in being a successful role model is a congruence between company values, espoused actions and behaviour. So, for example, if you talk about a company policy of good time keeping and are continually late you will become a role model for poor time management more quickly than for anything positive you may model. It is perverse but true.
Research has suggested that there is little evidence to suggest a correlation between using role models and improved performance.  Apparently, this is because of the way in which people are generally exposed to and choose them. Filstad, looked at how we use role models and stated that we often “fall into” multiple relationships with role models when we begin our organisational journey and that without a clear intent, they can undermine organisational culture as well as promote it.
Role models are particularly powerful in a learning context in many of the professions such as the law and medicine, where those being trained are assigned a formal pupil role. As Cruess suggests, this arrangement needs to follow a process: 

There is no template for role modelling, but you can, as a leader promote an organisational culture which is a learning one in which many people of all walks in the organisation can become role models. Role models can have many different functions in an organisation:

  • As part of the induction of new members of staff
  • As a teacher or coach to improve performance
  • As an ambassador or promoter of company values
  • As a model for promoting diversity

These are very different types of role models. Some role models motivate others to work better or develop ambition – a female leader or a person with a disability might motivate others with similar traits to strive to be their best. Others may encourage imitation modelling.  This may be particularly true of a person in the early days of their career with an organisation.

How Can You Be A Good Role Model In Your Leadership Role?

Firstly, as a leader you should show a love of learning and being prepared to change the well-worn path of habit for something new, push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Be resilient, pick yourself up when you have a shock.  Demonstrate that whilst bad stuff happens to everyone at some point, it is the reaction to it which is different.  Be humane but be the reaction you want from others. So, get used to forgiving people and building bridges. Energy spent on negative feelings drags you down. Show how you can get on with people but you don’t have to like them or agree with them. Tell stories which crystallise the essence of leadership for you – Shakespeare’s Henry Vth is a good one, though take care not to be too high brow, or low brow and never choose tragic a hero or heroine.  Lastly, be prepared to learn from your team!

Dos And Don’ts Of Being A Good Leadership Role Model

  • DO Give praise often
  • Don’t criticise a team member in front of others
  • DO Take responsibility for mistakes
  • Avoid labelling a person, focus on the behaviour
  • DO Make your feedback to staff useful and actionable


Cruess,S; Cruess, R & Sternert, Y (2008) Role modelling, making the most of a powerful teaching strategy. BMJ 2008
Filstad, C, (2004) “How newcomers use role models in organizational socialization”, Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 16 Issue: 7, pp.396-409, 8; 336:718
Macaulay, S. (2010). Are you a good role model? www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/p14216/Think-Cranfield/2010/February-2010/Are-you-a-good-role-model


Further Resources