20 leadership tips for firearms instructors
Having the rapport and respect of your students will help you deliver effective firearms instruction
By Quinn Cunningham, P1 Contributor
I am a strong proponent of the United States Marine Corps Leadership Principles and Traits. I have multiple copies of this list and read it daily.
Although I strive to apply these to my daily leadership responsibilities, I have adapted these principles to my duties as a firearms instructor. I would like to share these, as well as some other principles and traits I have learned.
1. Know yourself and seek improvement
Before you step into the classroom or range, you must know yourself and seek improvement. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are you doing to fix your weaknesses and build upon your strengths?
One great way to hold yourself accountable is to always provide and promptly review course critiques and evaluations. Of course, you can’t make everyone happy, but if you review class critiques with an open mind, you will learn instructional traits – both positive and negative – about yourself you didn’t know.
2. Prepare for every training program
Leadership also starts well before the training. You must formulate solid lesson plans and courses of fire that are not only challenging and effective teaching techniques but also address case law and agency expectations.
The majority of your time should be spent during the preparation phase. You must clearly articulate the learning goals and objectives of the training with the other instructors, as well as the methodology of instruction and your expectations.
Any and all lesson plans or materials should be disseminated to all involved instructors in advance of the training. This will help you earn credibility and respect from the other instructors by keeping them informed. Ask for feedback on your lesson plans well before training occurs. Make sure your vision of the training outcome has transferred over to the written word of your lesson plan.
3. Maintain tactical and technical proficiency
Whatever you are teaching, you must know the lesson plan and how to perform those techniques upon demand. As an instructor, you must be tactically and technically proficient.
If an instructor is repeatedly asked questions and does not have the answers, the students will go elsewhere to find their information and the uninformed instructor will develop a poor reputation. If you are not clear on the lesson plan, ask.
This not only goes for the facets of the Combat Triad of marksmanship, gun handling and combat mindset, but it holds true to instructor methodology, classroom and range management, as well as administrative functions. As unromantic as the administrative tasks are, you must be proficient.
4. Give up control to gain control
One failing that I have as a lead instructor is giving up control. I am very particular when it comes to my lesson plans and content and I have a specific plan in my head on how things will look. I need to learn that by giving up control, you actually gain control.
To develop responsibility among the assistant instructors, I ask which sections of the lesson plan they would like to be responsible for instructing. I usually ask instructors to teach something they need to develop more expertise. This forces them to know themselves and seek improvement.
5. Decisiveness on the range
From time to time you may need to make sound and timely decisions. These decisions could range from when to take a lunch break to the prioritization of the content, or when to remove an unsafe shooter from the range. Decisiveness on the range must be prompt, so make the decision. Improper judgment in regard to an unsafe shooter or even inclement weather could be devastating. Have the ability to weigh facts and possible solutions on which to base sound, informed decisions.
6. Meet or exceed appearance standards
Setting the example is where we get the most traction. Appearance goes a long way and command presence does exist on the range and in the classroom. An instructor that shows up wearing a uniform that their cat slept on the night before will instantly lack credibility. Whereas the instructor that has a pressed and creased uniform with shined boots will develop a leader/follower relationship much faster. If you are instructing in an academy setting you should meet and exceed the academy uniform and appearance standards that the students must adhere to.
7. Wear the same equipment as students
An instructor should also wear the same equipment as the students. This means duty gear and body armor, anything less is lazy and demonstrates an aura of entitlement. Wearing an off-duty rig when teaching students who are wearing duty gear can drive a wedge in the leader/follower relationship.
The students aren’t stupid and know that you will be faster with off-duty gear, and a student may challenge you on it. Don’t put yourself in the position where you would need to defend yourself. Wearing the same equipment in the same conditions as the students builds credibility.
8. Demonstrate courses of fire
The firearms instructor should also demonstrate the courses of fire. You must ensure that assigned tasks are understood, supervised and accomplished. Conducting demonstrations is better than telling the students. Students must truly understand what you are requesting of them.
Some instructors refuse to demo drills. They feel that if they don’t shoot well they will lose credibility.
As an assistant instructor at a fairly big name shooting school, I did so poorly demonstrating a specific course of fire that it still bothers me to this day. I was trying to go too fast and impress the students but failed miserably. I lost a lot of credibility and respect from the other instructors and students. I lost the credibility because instead of seeking and taking responsibility for my actions, I gathered the pieces of shattered ego and slinked off the line. If I would have explained that I was trying too hard and shot it again, I may have been able to repair my credibility and ego.
9. Lead through example
When setting the example, you are never too important to do the menial tasks. You should be shagging ammo, setting up the range, hanging targets and most importantly, cleaning up brass. I hate it too, especially as I get older, but I don’t care if you didn’t fire a round. Setting an example means brassing with the troops. Getting dirty and then showing up the next day in a pristine uniform will also build respect.
10. Know and care for your students
A good instructor knows the nuances of every group of students. Every group has a specific “temperature.” Are you instructing an understaffed graveyard team that was working a late high-priority call or academy cadets who have a certain expectation of how they should be treated?
Conduct a little recon before class to help you adjust your teaching style. The lesson plans must stay the same, but the delivery should be altered to fully benefit the students.
Make sure you give the students sufficient breaks to warm up or cool down. I understand we should be training in poor environments, but sometimes you will figuratively lose the students or the conditions can become unsafe.
11. Be dependable
Do what you say you will do, both for students and other members of the instructor cadre. This means getting to the venue early and leaving late. Have the training venue fully prepared and ready to begin training at the scheduled start time. Range or classroom set up should never occur on student training time.
12. Be professional, but don’t be a jerk
You must be unselfish and professional. As you know, there is a lot of arrogance and negative ego in this industry. There are instructors who think they are better than the students and the rest of the instructor cadre.
Being a firearms instructor is not about you. It is about the students. If at any time you think you are better than anyone else or hold yourself above the training mission and the students, you need to pack your stuff and get off my range.
Smart-aleck remarks and speaking in movie quotes can create a positive learning environment as long as it stays professional. It is very easy to take a joke too far on the range. Keep it fun, but never degrading or demeaning, because you can lose a lot of students very quickly.
13. Stay loyal and faithful
Be faithful to your agency philosophies and mission. Have faith in the lesson plans and the methodologies you are teaching. If you put down anyone or anything in your agency, it is unprofessional; you may lose the student’s respect.
Be loyal to the cause publically, even if you don’t agree with everything. If you don’t agree with your agency’s decision or direction, don’t complain about it. Be part of the solution and make positive changes that benefit everyone.
14. Act with courage
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to disqualify a member of the command staff or even a friend. If you don’t appropriately address those issues and others see or hear about it, you will lose integrity.
Courage can also mean staying late with a problem shooter so they don’t leave the range with a negative performance issue gnawing at them. It can also mean helping someone that you may have personal unfavorable feelings toward.
15. Monitor your own needs
Working the range can be physically and mentally taxing. Have the mental and physical endurance to withstand the pain, stress and hardships of the range. After you check your students and other instructor’s welfare, make sure you check your own. Be sure you are snacking and drinking water. By satisfying your needs after your students, you help your endurance.
16. Debrief every training
I also conduct an instructor debriefing after a training session and cover what the instructor cadre could improve upon, including me. If you are the lead instructor, surround yourself with assistant instructors that will call you out and hold you responsible.
17. Love what you do
I love to teach and I am very passionate about it. I believe my enthusiasm spreads to the students and other instructors. Physically exuding your excitement about the lesson plan and courses of fire has a contagious effect. So have fun out there, the majority of your students will follow your lead.
18. Take initiative
The biggest violation of initiative I see as a lead instructor is the assistants doing nothing. Standing behind your four shooters and not interacting with them is not teaching. Interact with them. There is usually something that can be done.
19. Recognize success and mistakes
You should have a common practice for rewards and punishments. Justice is administering those rewards and punishments in a tactful manner. I like to stop everything to acknowledge successes.
Punishments are different depending on your audience. At in-service, I speak to the individual alone, using tact. I am firm, fair and, most importantly, consistent. Things change at an academy level. I am still firm, fair and consistent, but the cadets pay the penance as a team. I will join them for minor infractions that are deserving of push-ups on the range.
I do not participate in disciplinary tasks at the academy level for major infractions. For the major infractions, we send them on runs. This is the opportunity for the cadet formal and informal leadership to take charge, and own their mistakes and develop a sense of responsibility. If the cadets do not own it, their peers will usually help them understand.
20. Always learn
All of these traits and principles are inconvenient because leadership is inconvenient. All of these principles and traits come from lessons learned. Some are from positive experiences, but more often they are from negative experiences. I did not say failure because as a leader you are either successful or you learn. Learn from your mistakes. See everything as an opportunity to learn.
If you habituate these 20 traits and principles, you should earn credibility and respect. Having the rapport and respect of your students will help you deliver the content much more effectively. In doing so, you allow your students to accomplish great things and that is the truest form of servant leadership.
About the author
Quinn Cunningham is a deputy with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado. He has been in law enforcement for 21 years and a member of the SWAT Team since 2000 and currently assigned as the assistant academy director. He is a member of the Colorado P.O.S.T. Firearms Subject Matter Expert Committee as well the owner of Fortitude Training Concepts LLC, a firearms training company geared towards law enforcement, military and responsible American citizens.
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