One of the ways leaders coach others is by example – by demonstrating skills and attitudes. Often, you can show expertise in technical skills to people coming up behind you. But even if you don’t have your team’s full skill set, you can role model many other important skills – being a lifelong learner, acting with integrity, communicating with customers, being a team player, living your organization’s values and culture, and more.

“As a leader, it’s a major responsibility on your shoulders to practice the behavior you want others to follow.”
~ Himanshu Bhatia

You must be aware that when you’re responsible for the development of others, you are – in their eyes – a role model for learning and development. The question is, are you a good role model or a cautionary tale?

How role modeling works

Learning from role models is an innate human skill. From the time we are babies, we learn from watching others. But it isn’t always a clear process. We sometimes misunderstand what’s happening or imitate wrong behaviors.

If, as one of your coaching moves, you want to serve as a role model yourself or point out appropriate role models, it’s useful to know a bit about how that works.

Social psychologist Albert Bandura gave us a process description for role modeling in his work on social learning theory. When you break it down, learners go through a process of noticing, remembering, imitating, and experiencing consequences in order to match their own actions to behaviors they want to emulate. (Bandura called these processes attention, retention, production, and motivation.) The process has potential to break down at any point, so it can be useful to overtly support the process rather than just hope for the best.

To ensure role-modeling effectiveness, then, scaffold the steps:

  • Noticing. Point out what it is that you want people to emulate and from whom.
  • Remembering. Help people to articulate what they notice and how they hope to model themselves after it.
  • Imitating. Give people an opportunity to try the new behavior in a safe environment and ensure they get appropriate feedback.
  • Experiencing consequences. Provide motivational consequences that encourage continuous development – the desire to keep trying, to keep honing their skills.

Allan Collins, John Seely Brown, and Ann Holum took it a step further and described cognitive apprenticeship* – the process of learning something not observable like decision-making, troubleshooting, creating, etc. How do you teach someone to do these things when the action is occurring inside your head? Like role-modeling, providing cognitive apprenticeship has a number of steps as well, although not quite as linear.

Here’s how to support learning how to think:

  • Modeling. Think out loud to demonstrate internal cognitive processes (while showing physical process if that’s needed as well).
  • Coaching. Encourage the learner to try, and give feedback and advice on the attempts.
  • Scaffolding and fading. Provide supports for correct thinking and gradually remove supports as the learner gains competence and confidence.
  • Articulating. Ask the learner to think out loud to demonstrate their internal cognitive processes.
  • Reflecting. Prompt the learner to make comparisons of their work to that of the expert, other learners, or their own developing internal model.
  • Exploring. Set general goals and encourage learners to expand their thinking and practice fields.

Simply identifying yourself or someone else as a role model for a particular skill is a good start, but using the scaffolds described above can ensure that employees benefit from observing you or others. This can be especially true when the skill being learning is hard in some way.

Always on

When I did my dissertation research on developmental relationships, one of the interesting findings was how often my interviewees learned from watching others without those others even knowing they were serving as role models. And with some frequency, others were seen as object lessons for what NOT to do rather than as people to emulate.

Leaders bear the burden of knowing their actions are always being watched and often picked apart by those who want to develop skills they may demonstrate. You can be more consciously part of that process if you invite your direct reports to learn from your example (or from someone else’s), and if you reinforce the steps that people cycle through in order to learn from role models.

“Being a role model is equal parts being who you actually are and what people hope you will be.” 
~ Meryl Streep

* If you open the link to the Collins, Brown & Holum (1991) article, scroll down past the K-12 “Teaching reading, writing, and mathematics” example to the section titled: A Framework for Designing Learning Environments


This post is part of a series exploring the moves leaders can make to promote development of their teams and employees. Check out the entire developing people series. And please get in touch if I can help you to aquaint your leadership team with these moves and the details of practices that ensure they are effective. I can offer a workshop and other learning materials on the subject.