You can find a few key personalities at every company. There’s Debbie Downer, who’s never met an idea she couldn’t hate. There’s the schmoozer, who speaks a mile a minute but rarely lets anyone else get a word in edgewise. And, of course, we can’t forget Pollyanna, who thinks business is puppies, rainbows, and cupcake sprinkles. But very few companies have a gunslinger.
Just as in the old West, a gunslinger is ready, bold (though not entirely reckless) and willing to stand in range of a clear shot. He knows his shot is dead on and that he’s faster on the draw.
Gunslingers are challengers who push companies—and product lines, marketing campaigns, and corporate culture—beyond their limits. Companies need the right kind of gunslingers, but few understand why.
The Gunslinger’s Crucial Traits
Gunslingers are mavericks willing to take chances. One defining characteristic of a successful businessperson is the courage to make a decision. Many employees shy away from making decisions because they sense the risk inherent in them—if they make a choice and it fails, they’re responsible. Gunslingers aren’t concerned about what others think of them, allowing them to aggressively go after the win. They don’t second-guess themselves… or their decisions.
Those traits can play out in negative ways, too. Because gunslingers are so focused on the end goal, they can go into situations unprepared. They may have little regard for collateral damage—whether that means a project or a co-worker. The gunslinger’s tunnel vision can overlook the ripple effect, leading them to steamroll colleagues and impact their jobs as well.
The Wise Risk Taker vs. the Reckless One
The biggest difference between wise gunslingers and their reckless brethren comes down to one key trait: strategy. A good gunslinger understands he needs to get along to get by, and he sees the long-term repercussions of his decisions. He’s comfortable creating a vision and getting others excited about it.
While both positive and negative gunslingers are aggressive, full of conviction, and passionate, good gunslingers realize they have to bring people along with them. The bad ones come out, guns blazing, to hell with anyone who gets in their way. The good risk taker is holding a sniper rifle; the bad one is clutching a shotgun. It’s not hard to see who’s more calculated and strategic in his methods.
A great example of a wise gunslinger can be found in Southwest Airlines’ former CEO, Herb Kelleher. He joined an industry that offered differently named versions of the same services. He opted to market to consumers in a different way. From giving away free bottles of liquor, to changing the boarding system, he went against the grain. Kelleher installed his airline in secondary markets rather than major hubs; while this seemed counter-intuitive, it worked. He saw how these changes could play out, and he decided not to play it safe.
Why Marketing Needs Gunslingers
I once saw an interview with Kelleher and 150 of his employees. The interviewer asked the crowd, “If Herb asked you to work for free for two weeks because the company was in trouble and needed your help, how many of you would?” Not only did those people agree, they gave him a standing ovation.
Anyone who can garner this kind of reaction from his team has stumbled upon something powerful. This influence doesn’t simply extend to co-workers; good gunslingers are able to impact entire industries. This is needed nowhere more than in marketing.
There are many pretenders in the marketing space; it’s easy to bluff your way through the discipline, giving marketers a bad reputation. The gunslinger is incredibly valuable because he offers separation. Because he doesn’t adhere to traditional ways of solving problems, he is capable of producing creative solutions to the market’s complex issues and circumstances.
One frustration I have with the business marketing space revolves around the pure lack of creativity many companies exhibit. Many big names feel entitled to a decision or a win; some then release subpar work, still expecting a win, and fail to understand why they lost instead. Good gunslingers bring energy to a company and challenge every single thing done— and every single decision made. Gunslingers don’t allow lazy work. If this feeling makes you uneasy, good. If you don’t have a guy pushing those things in a healthy way, your company probably isn’t as stellar as it could be.
The Right Fit
Not every gunslinger is the right fit for every company. A gunslinger doesn’t help a company’s bottom line unless he’s getting results. A challenger is not a disruptor. There is a striking distinction between someone with good ideas and someone who unleashes unfocused distractions on a business.
Can the gunslinger in your midst get the deal? Can he not only get the deal but also contribute to sustainable, consistent growth? Is a gunslinger going to draw the best out of the other personalities in the room? If he doesn’t seem capable of long-term momentum, he’s not the right fit for your company.
While gunslingers’ personality traits are intuitive, companies can create cultures that allow people to adopt gunslinger behaviors. Encourage people to fail along the road as much as you encourage their success. You must celebrate failure and compensate your team in a way that lines up with the gunslinger’s outlook on life. Let them make decisions and support them. Now and then, they’re going to screw up, and you need to applaud that. If they aren’t failing, they’re not challenging themselves—or your business—as much as they should be.
Look around you. Do you see a Debbie Downer? A schmoozer? A Pollyanna? A gunslinger? While every office needs a balance of personalities, who has the potential to have the biggest impact on your company’s future campaigns—and bottom line? Gunslingers can be dangerous, but it’s just as dangerous to not have one around.