Betty Shotton Lift Off In Leadership

By: Beth Browne

Betty Shotton has been pushing boundaries all her life. From her conservative upbringing in Virginia to the founding of six companies (including one which went public on the NYSE and two regional airlines) Shotton has proved herself to be a successful leader in business. But her success has not been solely financial. Shotton strongly believes that becoming be a successful leader requires a bigger-picture view, one that includes contributing to the world in positive ways.


Shotton says, “What we’re experiencing in our economy, in our businesses, and in our financial markets is evidence of the weakness in the belief that it’s all about money. Money, metrics, bottom line, and profit are important structures and indicators for running a business. If a narrow focus on financial success excludes a commitment to meaningful contribution to humanity, a business or endeavor will eventually collapse because money, in and of itself, has no intrinsic value. Money only adds value to the extent that it improves the quality of life.”


Shotton asserts that, “Without a commitment to contributing in positive ways to the lives and careers of others, no amount of money will sustain an endeavor that ignores damaging consequences to people and the environment.” A visionary and a prophet, Shotton clearly has vital messages for leaders on all levels, from the global to the individual simply running her own life.


Shotton grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the 1960s when women were expected to follow a path of marriage and having children and grandchildren. The mothers she knew stayed home; getting out and having a career was for men. There were few, if any, role models of successful businesswomen in the working world. But things were changing and the women’s right’s movement was getting underway.


As the third daughter in her family, Shotton was largely left to her own devices and learned to be independent. She says her parents had strong “can-do” attitudes.


Shotton’s mother has been a strong role model for her. Raised in a very large family during the Depression , scarcity and financial hardship were common for Shotton’s mother’s family. Everyone had to learn to overcome difficulties, because that was the only way to survive. At eighteen years old, in 1942, Shotton’s mother left her home in Florida to train at the University of Virginia to work in the U.S. Nursing Corps during WWII. While working as a nurse she met Shotton’s father, a physician. Shotton says her mother was a great role model in overcoming obstacles and rising above one’s circumstances. Even today, she is full of admiration for her mother, who, at 87, is full of spunk, enjoys traveling the world , and has a never-ending curiosity about life.


In 1970, Shotton joined the first class of women admitted to the University of Virginia. There were about twenty men to every woman in the University and there were plenty of difficulties, but Shotton rose to the challenge and emerged with a B.A. in English and French. Her first job out of college was as an executive with Girl Scouts USA, a forward thinking organization whose leadership encouraged her to get an MBA . She attended the Mason School of Business at The College of William & Mary and completed her degree at Virginia Commonwealth University.


Shotton had just completed her MBA when she went on a family outing to see a Blue Angels airshow. She was captivated and enraptured by the sight of the sleek aircraft and their cool,capable pilots. After the show, she headed into the Navy recruiting tent with to sign up only to be told that women didn’t become pilots, but a position as a navigator was possible. Stunned by their curt dismissal, Shotton reeled outside. She says it was twelve years (1994) before Lt. Kara Hultgreen became the Navy’s first female fighter pilot.


The experience stayed with Shotton, and she never gave up the dream of learning to fly a plane. In the short term, she put that dream aside and used her newly acquired MBA to become one of a small cadre of women hired to stoke the management pipeline at Philip Morris in Richmond, Virgina, when Affirmative Action mandated increased hiring for women and minorities. She was the first professional woman allowed in labor negotiations and says it was one of the hardest things she’s ever done, but her attitude has always been, “You can do whatever you set your mind to.”


Shotton benefited greatly from her years at Philip Morris. As a Fortune 500 company their management development programs were exceptional and the circumstance of “being a first” offered many valuable lessons. One lesson was learning that she was not cut out for corporate life; she’s too independent. She’s a staunch advocate of people seeking their potential and expressing who they are in their jobs, which she personally found challenging in her corporate situation. She also loves innovation and new things and had a hard time with the limitations of bureaucracy. She was born to be an entrepreneur.


In 1985, Shotton moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She left her corporate business suits behind, but moved with a small dose of trepidation about what on earth she would do on a tiny spit of sand in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t take long before she figured it out and began her twenty-year period as a serial entrepreneur, starting four companies in real estate and aviation. Together, she and a partner started two successful resort sales and rental management companies, well known for the quality of services and for corporate cultures that made work rewarding and highly profitable.


During this time, Shotton returned to her dream of learning to fly . In 1986, she took her first flying lessons (ironically, Duck is just five miles from Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers first flew) and eventually earned her IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), Commercial, and ATP (Air Transport Pilot) ratings. She never forgot her dream of learning to fly and says she “embraced possibility” when she took that first flying lesson.


In 1997, Shotton started a new business providing commercial air service to the Outer Banks in an area that had none. She says learning to fly as a professional, as opposed to being a recreational pilot, teaches you what to do when everything goes wrong: the engine fails, the weather turns bad, or the electrical system shuts down. “That kind of training teaches you how to save your life and how to save other peoples’ lives, no matter how scary it is. Learning to fly teaches you how to move beyond fear to focus and to never stop trying to solve even the biggest problems in front of you.”


She says you must put your fear away and focus on solutions: “That’s why fear is such a great teacher. The places where you grow are where your fears reside. Fear is just telling you that there is uncertainty and that you don’t know the answers and there’s nothing wrong with that. It means that you get to learn. The thing about facing fears is that you develop courage, and the more courage you have, the bigger your life gets.”


In 2000, Shotton continued her business journey to became a partner in Berkana Consulting Group, based in Black Mountain, an organization providing leadership development programs, executive coaching, strategic planning, team building and succession planning. Berkana Consulting Group is committed to the growth, and development of leaders. They believe that leaders truly shape our institutions, our community and, ultimately, our world. They continue to provide consulting and executive coaching work throughout Ashville and Western North Carolina.


In 2007, Shotton decided to write a book and begin speaking to address what she believes is a crisis in leadership today. Her book Liftoff Leadership took four years to write and was recently published and nationally released. She says that our paradigm of successful leadership is failing, that a model stressing the bottom line and financial measurement often excludes the effect of business on humanity and the environment. This isn’t just her opinion: she quotes research by the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership which found that 68% of Americans agree or strongly agree that we have a leadership crisis today, defined as a lack of public trust and confidence in leaders in all sectors and at all levels.


Shotton says that in the financial sector, for example, self-serving leaders, more focused on wealth accumulation for a small number of people than in discerning the interests of their larger community and customers, largely drove the financial collapse of 2007/2008.


Her book is designed to motivate and inspire leaders to move beyond the black and white world of success as a number and promote the possibilities and potential in individual and collective best efforts. She says it’s a journey for leaders into their own leadership character. Peppered with fun anecdotes, with checklists and thought-provoking questions at the end of each chapter, the book is a well-organized exploration of your own personal leadership qualities and a delight to read.


Whether you’re running a Fortune 500 company or your own humble life, Betty Shotton’s words can help you make a difference. For people who have suffered setbacks, she offers these words of wisdom:


“If you want to have a powerful life, personally and in your career, you need to understand that the world is filled with failures and successes, and often times, your greatest struggles, your biggest problems, your biggest failures are the opportunities for your greatest growth and insight. You have to have the courage to be able to fall down and get back up, move beyond yourself and keep seeking a better life.”


More information about Betty Shotton can be found at:


Liftoff Leadership:10 Principles for Exceptional Leadership is available at Malaprops, Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.


Beth Browne writes because she just can’t help herself. Her two kids wish she liked cooking as much as writing. In her spare time she enjoys sailing with her salty mate, Eric, and blogging at


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker