How to Destroy Your Credibility

“I learned a ton…that will make me a better instructor.”

-SGM (Ret.) Kyle E. Lamb, Author of Green Eyes & Black Rifles

Anyone who teaches understands the importance of establishing credibility with the students or audience. It is critically important. And it really sucks when you lose it—sure makes for a really long day.

In our industry, instructors go about establishing credibility in many different ways.

Some of these are more effective than others.

With an eye towards avoiding these ultimately self-defeating, credibility-crushing behaviors, let’s briefly look at three of the author’s personal favorites:

1. Directly attacking the students

The worst example of this I have ever seen was in a professional training and selection program when one of the instructors answered a tactics-related question by saying, “The reason you’re asking that question is because you have a shooting range mentality, not a combat mentality.”

Let’s add a little context.

Every single student in this course had an extensive operational background. With one exception (a multi-decade SWAT officer from a major city PD who also had a pre-9/11 special operations military background), everyone had already done multiple overseas operational deployments.  At least half (including the person who asked the question) had serious (sustained periods of direct involvement in multiple, major engagements) combat experience.

It wasn’t a dumb question. Everyone in the class had the same one. It’s just that one guy (who also happened to be one of the most experienced guys in the class) raised his hand and voiced it first.

Anyone care to guess how well “you just have a range mentality, not a combat mentality” was received or how much credibility the instructor staff retained with the students afterwards?

Tip: If you can’t explain what you’re teaching and why, you probably shouldn’t teach it. That doesn’t mean every student will understand everything or agree with what you’re saying, and that’s OK.

Some students are hard headed and believe they know everything (like some instructors). Also, if you’re unaware, here’s a newsflash: your way probably isn’t the only way that works well, much less the “best” way.

If you’re threatened by a student’s question and are getting defensive enough to want to insult a student, there’s a really solid chance you should start your problem-solving approach on that particular issue with a long, hard look in the mirror.

2. Inflating the instructor’s resume, background, or experience

Speaking as someone with no special forces, SWAT, or high-level competitive shooting credentials, I have always found it sort of hilarious to watch this play out, both with students and instructors.  

I recall attending a civilian class with one (actually quite skilled) instructor who started strongly hinting at some type of super cool guy background. He then began throwing around a bunch of military / SOF acronyms in his conversations and teaching.

The problem was, he clearly didn’t know what they actually meant, so he kept using them wrong. Eventually, even people in the class who didn’t know what he was saying started packing up and leaving.

I recall another instructor trying to bone up with stories of surviving hellacious firefights and attacks overseas. He apparently didn’t know (although he should have) that several people in the class worked extensively with many people he’d deployed with—and therefore we all quickly found out it was largely fabricated.

Tip: Nobody cares. Just be who you are. Seriously. As long as you’re not posing, NOBODY CARES.

Anyone who pretends to is almost certainly a poser themselves, so why is what they say or think important? If you have something valuable to teach someone who ends up in your class, teach it to them. If you don’t have anything valuable to share, why are you teaching?

People who are truly good at what they do are good because they want to improve at it and will pull knowledge from any available source to do so. Just be yourself and be confident and competent at what you do.

If a student knows what they are doing and has a ton more skill and experience than you (or a set of differing, relevant experiences), consider asking them to share an alternative view point if it’s class appropriate. Ask them for feedback; if you’re lucky you’ll get it. (If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the brutal, unfiltered kind that stings a little but really makes you better in the long run.)

Try learning from them. All good instructors will tell you that they typically learn as much, if not more more, than the students do.

3. Not understanding human learning and establishing unrealistic expectations of student performance

This links directly to our bread and butter here at Building Shooters, which is training design and method. What we teach is really important. HOW we teach is, in our view, even more so.

I recall one particularly awful pre-deployment training event where a very experienced, highly skilled SOF combat veteran was learning, for the first time, a new tactical skill. Literally, the instructor staff had provided a power point class on the topic about 10 minutes prior.

In the middle of his first ever iteration, during what was supposed to be a walkthrough, this student stopped, obviously confused, and said something to the effect of, “I’m totally lost in the sauce here. What am I supposed to do?”

You’d have thought the world ended. The instruction period stopped. A screaming tirade period, rich with personal insults and ridicule, began. (For five bonus points, anyone care to guess what the relative operational experience level of the instructors was to the student in this case?  There’s a pattern here…)

To avoid any confusion, we aren’t opposed to inducing stress in training, nor necessarily to using those types of techniques. Like most things, they have a time and a place. However, it’s critically important to understand what you are actually doing to the student.

Are you simply trying to see who quits or cracks?  Fine.  But—if you’re mixing this with operational skills—make absolutely sure you fully understand the implications with respect to the impact on student skillsets and operational performance. (Here’s a tip—just don’t do it unless the students already have long-term mastery of the skillsets involved.)

If you’re actually trying to teach—to achieve a measurable improvement in student performance and long-term capability—then this type of approach simply doesn’t work very well. You shouldn’t avoid it because it’s too harsh on the students and we live in a namby-pamby world where people get offended at the drop of a hat. You should avoid it because it’s bad for learning and because it makes you look like a jackass—ultimately undermining your credibility as an instructor.

When you expect people to learn things and perform in situations where YOU—the instructor—have made learning impossible either through poor training design or poor training method, it doesn’t reflect well on you. Remember, you’re the instructor, which is about more than simply putting out information. Instruction implies learning—as in the student’s performance is YOUR responsibility.

Don’t care if the students learn? That’s fine, just don’t call yourself an instructor. Maybe “presenter” is a better descriptor.

Tip: Invest some time and actually learn about learning. (Shameless plug – either of our books Building Shooters (if you want the science and theory), or Mentoring Shooters (if you want the application for new shooters) is a great place to start here.)

It’s not terribly complex. If you deliver information and skills in a way that matches how the human brain receives and stores information, your students will learn better.

While creating a fear response to your mere presence certainly has an impact on students—don’t make the mistake of thinking either that this response is a sign of respect or that it’s a boon to learning. 

On the other hand, there’s not much that will establish your credibility like making people who are unskilled become highly-skilled and competent. Really, for instructors (aside from safety) is there anything that’s more relevant to the credibility question?

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Executive Director, Force Science Institute
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