Redefining a Shotgun Leader: An Adaptable Approach

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Chris Fernengel
  • 21st Space Wing
Adaptability and versatility are key competencies of modern leadership. The unpredictable, dynamic nature of our business demands that we prepare our Airmen – both personally and professionally – to face challenges that require these skills to be successful. While there is no one path to developing these traits -- each individual will have their own approach as they mature and collect experience -- a critical component towards making adaptability and versatility more than mere ‘buzzwords,’ is how we apply these principles in our daily lives. One method I suggest is to consider your overall goal, and focus on selecting the appropriate tool(s) to meet your objective. This applies to any task: a project, an assignment or attempting to select the perfect gift.

Within academic circles, there’s been considerable debate regarding a ‘shotgun approach’ versus ‘rifle approach’ to leadership. While both the rifle and shotgun are weapons (or tools), their intents are very different. The oft-derided shotgun approach is generally considered indiscriminate, haphazard or experimental; while the rifle approach is considered to be precise, targeted and strategic. Rather than discuss the interpersonal leadership ‘shotgun approach’ theory, my intent is to compare the characteristics of an effective leader to that of a shotgun. Specifically, modern leaders – like a shotgun – are effective because of their versatility and ability to meet threats and challenges head-on.

Several years ago, I decided to gift my younger brother a firearm for Christmas. He’d just started his family and moved to a new home in a rural area with surprisingly high crime rates. I knew that whatever firearm I selected it needed to be a perfect fit, as neither my brother nor his wife had much experience. I started the process of narrowing down options by identifying requirements; the gun must be able to perform several functions: recreational, self-defense and hunting. I also wanted the gift to be able to grow with him throughout various stages of his life, so it needed to be operable at both close range and at relatively long distances (75+ yards) with the correct ammo, be durable while requiring little maintenance, and accurately fire with different types of ammunition. Only one firearm would do: a shotgun.

Based on the requirements, a shotgun was the ideal gift. Due to its versatility and adaptability, it can be used for a myriad of tasks, has the ability to shoot a variety of ammunition and hold its own against diverse threats. These are the reasons why I compare the shotgun to the traits of leaders I most admire. ‘Shotgun Leaders’ are effective in that they can serve multiple purposes.

A Shotgun leader has an arsenal of traits they can call upon in order to modify their approach for any situation in which they find themselves. Since our leadership challenges are rarely clear-cut, requiring us to often operate in the ‘gray,’ this necessitates Airmen who, like shotguns, can adapt and perform effectively in many different roles.
Much like Shotgun Leaders, a shotgun can clearly convey its intent: both in physical appearance and audible communication. No matter the environment, it is easily recognizable and its presence is acknowledged; virtually anyone can identify it as a shotgun.

Additionally, when a pump-action shotgun chambers a round, it makes a very distinct noise --instantly communicating its intent to engage with lethal force. A Shotgun Leader uses a similar approach by clearly communicating an organization’s values, priorities and goals to its team. As former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin state, “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.” Shotgun Leaders lead by example, hold others accountable, effectively redlining unsafe practices and unacceptable behaviors, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, hazing and domestic violence.

You may be asking yourself, how do I become a Shotgun Leader? The bottom line is that experience and humility will help you refine your leadership style and allow you to use your ‘ammo’ effectively. One way the Air Force helps its Airmen develop their leadership acumen is through professional military education opportunities, such as Airman Leadership School, Noncommissioned Officer Academy, Senior NCOA, Basic, Intermediate and Senior Developmental Education. Other opportunities to learn and grow can come from mentors, the Airmen Comprehensive Assessment or other forms of feedback, by joining local groups like the Top-3 or Company Grade Officer Council. In order to be a Shotgun Leader, you must be a student of their craft, and it is up to you to seek out opportunities to develop your “ammo.”

While we cannot predict with certainty the challenges ahead, I contend that Shotgun Leaders exhibit the modern leadership traits clearly required of our Airmen; just as the pump-action shotgun was a clear winner when selecting my brother’s gift. What holds true for a shotgun also holds true for a leader: neither change shape in evolving environments, but rather adapt to meet any demand they engage. It’s imperative our Airmen and those who lead them possess the ability to adapt with the evolving challenges of today and tomorrow. Because as Al Capone once said, “A smile will get you pretty far…But a smile and a [shotgun] will get you farther.”