Listen, then lead

General Gregory Martin Landon School blog

In this blog post, Gen. Gregory Martin '66 shares how the lessons he learned at Landon prepared him to lead as a four-star general in the United States Air Force. Gen. Martin flew the F-4 for six years, including two in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and the F-15 for 17 years. He was commander of the U.S. air forces in Europe and commander of the Allied air forces in Northern Europe for NATO. He retired in 2005 after 35 years of service as the commander of the 80,000-person Air Force Materiel Command and is currently a consultant and mentor to military contractors who advise the combatant commands responsible for U.S. relations with other countries around the globe.

My father was in the Air Force. He was the most honorable man I've known and he taught me early about the things he learned in World War II. Mainly, he taught me that the most unacceptable thing in life was to not have a sense of honesty and integrity. I grew up with that. I was raised that way, but until I got to Landon, a lot of my friends did not have those same values.

I only came to Landon for my senior year in high school... Everyone in the class embraced me and made me a part of them. There were groups of friends that were closer than others, but none were exclusive. When I got to Landon and saw the warmth, friendship and integrity of these people, I was just in awe — and still am to this day. Landon's Honor Code really meant something important... and it further validated what my father had taught me.

School founder Paul Landon Banfield used to have a forum with the Form VI (senior) class every few weeks where he talked about ethics, honor, and treating people with a sense of decency and dignity. He was way ahead of his time on integration. We had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading the Civil Rights Movement then, and Banfield (who was an intelligence officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II) had gone through and seen the military integration and knew that the military was a prouder, stronger, more capable force by virtue of the fact they were integrated. That was a lesson not lost on Banfield, and he taught us that. He taught us to treat everyone equally regardless of our races or backgrounds.

Those seminars set me up for success in the military because we learned that it doesn't matter how good you are; it's about being part of a team and treating others with a sense of respect so that they can be successful. That gave me, as an average guy, a leg up in most of the organizations I was a part of because I was interested in the well-being of the whole and not just worried about me. That was the most significant lesson I took from Landon.

I also learned that the first and most important thing a leader has to do is to listen rather than direct. I found that the higher I got in the Air Force, the more important it was for me to build teams among my subordinates than it was for me to tell them what to do. A lot of people would rather be told what to do because that's easier, but you don't become a leader that way. When you're in charge of a very broad array of specialties, tools and techniques that you're not an expert on, you need to listen to the people who are experts. Once you talk as a senior leader, people think that's what they need to go do. If you don't talk right away, you'll learn more.

Judgement skills are also important. Leaders need to know when someone is giving them accurate facts or just trying to please them. If a subordinate doesn't know the answer to a question I ask, I don't want them to make it up so they have something to say; I want them to tell me they don't know because I trust that they will go and get the information. Leaders need to train and mentor their people to have the same sense of truth and integrity that I learned at Landon.