Role Models

By Paul Stein and Ettore Berardinelli

In previous articles, we have been discussing the fact that everyone is really a teacher in some way, shape, or form and the fact that our actions will always speak louder than our words.    Our actions tell people a lot about our integrity, our commitment, and our enthusiasm towards our careers.  When we are new in the fire service, we look to others for guidance, whether it is formal instruction or simply observing what appears to be positive and successful performance.  We look for a “model of behavior” to follow in order to insure our own success.  This is pretty normal in any walk of life, from athletics to politics.  And occasionally we may realize at some point that we need to make a change, especially when our role model’s actions do not match up with their words.

So, what does the term “role model” mean to you?  Webster’s defines a role model as, “A person so effective or inspiring … as to be a model for others.”  The Oxford Dictionary states, “A person looked to by others as an example…”  Do these definitions fit your description of a role model?   Who are your role models and what traits do they display that inspire you to try to be like them?  There are many traits that are worthy of emulation; integrity, leadership, commitment, work ethic, talent and many other commendable qualities that we all seek to further develop in ourselves.

As firefighters, officers, or even as parents, we are role models in one way or another.  All parents serve as their children’s first and most important role model, as they observe how we act and react and view how we cope with stress, anger and good fortune.  They notice whether we are accountable for our actions or make up excuses, whether we deal with problems or avoid them.  Role modeling is not about what we say–it is about what we do.  Everything we do sends a message.  Good firefighters perform whether anyone is watching or not.  Good fire officers act in the best interest of their team members.  Good parents act as if their children are always watching, because they are!  People who set the example have credibility.  One of the most critical leadership issues today in the fire service is the establishment and maintenance of respect and credibility.  It is extremely important that those in positions of authority strive to maintain credibility with those that they lead.  There is no better way to acquire and maintain credibility than role modeling.

SO WHO ARE OUR ROLE MODELS?

We often select celebrities or famous persons as our role models.  There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we understand the behavior we are seeking to emulate.  What do they display that has impressed you enough to emulate them?

For many people, Martin Luther King Jr. is their ultimate choice for a role model.  He dedicated the major portion of his life to improving civil rights for others.  He dealt with many setbacks, hostility and disappointment.  His commitment never wavered.  Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and he never lost sight of his ultimate goal.  By remembering how his words matched his actions, his level of commitment and the obstacles he had to overcome, gives a model of how we too can strive to be committed to our careers.

For others, physical talent and commitment to a task may be what they are looking to emulate. Many believe that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player to ever play the game.  Beyond his physical skills, he displayed humility and kindness.  Although he was arguably one of the greatest basketball players of all time, he had the courage to pursue a second career in baseball.  Many of you are aware that Michael Jordan’s pursuit to be a major league baseball player did not turn out like his basketball career.  In spite of the whole world watching, he was not afraid of disappointment.  His message of persistence and commitment is best described by his own words, “I can accept failure, but I can’t accept not trying.”  Once again, we see a man’s words matching his actions.  This is a great lesson for many firefighters who participate in the promotional process and aren’t successful.  A person may rationalize that the system has somehow been unfair to them and use that failure as a reason for never trying again.  A much better approach is to use your disappointment as a springboard for the next exam, develop a better study plan, make any necessary changes and try harder next time.  Michael Jordan’s advice to you after a failure would be to think positive and create determination from the failed promotional attempt.  Each failure provides some information that will get you closer to success.  There are often roadblocks on the promotional trail, but obstacles don’t have to stop you. Overcome barriers using Michael Jordan’s philosophy as an inspiration.  His greatest triumph is his belief that the greatest failure is the decision to not even try.

J.P. Hayes, a 43-year old professional golfer who hasn’t won a PGA Tour event in six years, is our newest candidate for the “Most Honest Athlete In America”. He is one whose deeds have seldom generated a headline.  You see, Mr. Hayes disqualified himself from a PGA Tour qualifier when he found out he had accidentally used an unapproved golf ball for two shots.  Not for two rounds, not for two holes, but only for two shots!  He realized his error after the round had been played, and his score for the day was safely recorded. His career was at the summit of a long journey and he was the only one who knew of the error.  Because of his personal sense of right and wrong and his commitment to the integrity of his sport, he did the right thing and “blew the whistle” on himself, with the clear understanding that disqualification would follow.  This public display of personal courage did not make newspaper headlines, but the lesson is more valid than winning.  Integrity is really about doing the right thing when no one is watching.  While Mr. Hayes did not win his tournament, he wins our praise for integrity and for being an outstanding role model.

Most role models are not the rich and famous.  They quite often are your Mom or Dad, one of your instructors from school, a good friend or a co-worker.  In a previous article, we discussed a firefighter named Don Thulin, who served as a tremendous role model for new firefighters.  While he never promoted, he provided guidance to all the young firefighters he came in contact with and had a positive impact on shaping the personnel that made up our organization, as well as the organization itself.   He never wrote a mission statement or created an Operations Manual, he simply set a positive example every single day he came to work.  He did this through his work ethic, his love for the Fire Service, and by unselfishly making time for anyone that needed help or guidance.  He performed his job at the highest levels with enthusiasm and a positive attitude.  Although he retired over twenty years ago, members of the department continue to speak of him in glowing terms.  Think about it.  Isn’t this the way you would want to be remembered by your organization?

Examples of role models are everywhere.  We just need to take the time to recognize them.  Remember the FDNY firefighters that faced terrible odds on September 11, 2001, put aside any thoughts for their own safety as they carried out what has been called “the most successful urban emergency evacuation in modern history”, evacuating 25,000 people from the World Trade Center.  Recognize the courage and commitment of the brave men and women currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the police officers whose daily patrols in your own city may entail any risk you can imagine; think of the teachers who often spend their own money for classroom supplies, who work long after school is dismissed, that dedicate their professional careers to educating our children.

Determine what kind of person and firefighter you want to be, what kind of reputation you want, and what kind of legacy you want to leave behind.  Find those persons in your life whose actions exemplify the traits you admire, whose actions speak volumes everyday.  Use those role models as the motivation to be that better person, to seek that higher level, to truly have pride in that reflection in the mirror.  And don’t be surprised if at some point you find out that you have become a role model for someone else.


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