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How to Cultivate Leadership Role Models

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leadership role models help define organizational culture

The topic of leadership role models cannot be more timely as the news is filled with eroding business ethics, value confusion, and reward misalignment. Who your leaders choose to emulate not only has a profound effect on leader behavior but it defines the culture of your organization.

The most important role models for your constituents are local: the leaders and managers they interact with the most. Sometimes referred to as a “side by side” phenomenon, employees are most affected by the daily interactions, conduct, and decisions of those closest to them. They watch how they behave and how they treat others.

Starting from a very young age, we begin a process called vicarious reinforcement, watching for approval or disapproval of how others act. If their behavior is rewarded, we tend to act the same way. This reinforcement process continues throughout our life, including our work life. Those who we emulate are considered “role models,” but this term does not always imply positivity, integrity, and high ethical standards.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, co-authors of The Leadership Challenge, stress the importance of who leaders view as their most significant role models. When given categories to choose from, leaders over age 30 report more often that a family member has had the most influence on them (46 percent). Business leaders and direct supervisors account for 23 percent, followed by teachers or coaches at 14 percent. The people who inspire us and provide life lessons are often our families, coworkers, supervisors, teachers, and coaches.

Studies on ethical leadership reveal more detail about opportunities for modeling the behavior of others. In their 2013 study on ethical leadership, Brown and Trevino looked at whether role models matter and found three types of role models for leadership behavior: early childhood role models, career mentors, and top managers.

Their conclusions reinforce the fact that role models in closest proximity have a greater impact over time and mentors have a powerful role in how leaders behave. Leaders who were perceived as most ethical demonstrated a collection of behaviors: communicating values clearly, showing respect, demonstrating honesty and trustworthiness, rewarding other employees, giving feedback fairly, walking the talk, and expecting the best. These behaviors mirror those correlated with leadership effectiveness and greater engagement.

The good news: leaders who are ethical, positive role models are desired. Role models from youth continue to influence the values and behaviors of leaders while those leaders integrate and select role models in their professional world.

How can your organization assess, encourage, and support positive and ethical role models? It starts with understanding the value and impact of leader behavior in all parts of the organization. The following suggestions may prompt discovery and action in leaders:

  • Expect the best, communicate expectations, and discuss how the behavior of all leaders reflects the organization’s values
  • Assess the ethical behaviors of leaders with discussions and surveys
  • Start at the top by observing what messages are dispersed throughout the organization
  • Address any misalignment between stated values and what values appear to be rewarded
  • Encourage mentoring relationships as a part of the leadership development process
  • Provide development opportunities for leaders to explore how they communicate ethical business practices and behavior in real business decisions

Aristotle declared that every citizen has a moral obligation to take seriously the responsibility of being a good role model. Organizations have an opportunity to ensure their values, culture, and standards are maintained by the behavior of their leaders by encouraging positive role model relationships.


Download an Overview of The Leadership Challenge 

Holly Seaton, Ph.D.

Holly Seaton, Ph.D. is a consultant for FlashPoint. Holly is an executive coach who appreciates the privilege of helping organizations and individuals build their leadership capacity by moving from intent to action.

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