Will Martin joined the Navy in 1982 as a third generation Australian Navy Officer and completed his service 34 years later. When you ask him what he does now he answers “I coach people and teams to help them create sustained excellence. By working one-on-one with leaders I can enhance self-awareness and authenticity, helping them create a highly cohesive team culture that everybody aspires to be a part of.” Will firmly believes that if everyone in an organisation is inspired and motivated to perform for each other, which he knows is a biproduct of excellent leadership and culture, the productivity is extraordinary.

Kevin Hardy had the opportunity to pick Will’s brains on all things leadership.

1. What is your philosophy about leadership and why?

During my Navy years I approached leadership with the personal mantra Command the Ship – Lead the People – Manage the Process. This helped remind me that command, leadership and management are very different things requiring differing approaches at different times. Since leaving the Navy I’ve refined the mantra to Lead the People – Manage the Process and I use it in most of my leadership coaching engagements. To lead your people, you need to thoroughly know and understand them, what makes them tick and what inspires them. Management on the other hand needn’t involve people at all. It’s the mechanical and technical elements of our working life.

To make the point about the human element of leadership I often describe to an audience that unique event, the military parade. When, as the Captain of the Navy training base HMAS Watson, leading my entire organisation down George Street on Anzac Day, I’d anxiously glance around to see what or who was following me. Invariably I’d be inspired to see four hundred people with hearts, hopes and aspirations and an expectation of being led with dignity and respect. It was a stark reminder that leadership is 100 percent about the people.

2. Do you think that circumstances dictate successful leadership?

Difficult circumstances will often be the making of a leader but having said that I believe it’s more the opportunity than the circumstance. Some great leaders, like potentially great athletes or musicians, will go undiscovered because their natural ability never met opportunity. In the early 80s my Father, a naturally gifted people-leader, was the Captain of our only aircraft carrier and on a particularly bad day at sea, lost two aircraft over the side without loss of life. His ability to somehow make something positive out of it, whilst taking all blame endeared him enormously to his crew. I recall him on TV saying “we were lucky not to lose more aircraft” and while there’s a hint of spin in that, I could imagine his crew watching and being galvanised by his willingness to front up and lead with gusto. His ability met opportunity, even in horrible circumstances.

3. How important is it for leaders to be able to adapt/be nimble in different situations?

I believe the ability to adapt is vital and a great leader achieves it effortlessly. Leaders must, while remaining authentic, slightly adapt their style to best meet their followers, stakeholders and clients where they are; physically, emotionally and intellectually.

4. What was your greatest learning about leadership and why? (feel free to use a less than ideal outcome as an opportunity to learn).

As a young and inexperienced Navy officer I had the good fortune to serve in a ship with a Captain whose demeanour and behaviour inspired me. (Sadly, during this period of my service, too many Captains had the opposite effect and while I learned a great deal from them I remain slightly scarred!) In recent times I’ve developed The Generous Leadership model based largely around this wonderful officer’s example and it has three components: Open-minded; Humble; Empathic. Having felt first-hand the powerful impact of the combination of these leadership traits, I know that at the intersections they generate Trust, Empowerment and Inspiration.

When explaining this model I make the distinction between being kind and being generous. To be generous means unconditionally giving up something for the benefit of others rather than kind, which is more about being considerate. I recently coached a senior leader in the health sector. In preparing for the coaching I gained feedback from his key stakeholders who all indicated they craved more one-on-one time with the leader. When I then challenged him to identify one area of his working life in which he could display more generosity, he quickly realised he could/should be ‘giving’ his people more of his time.

5. If you had to identify key leadership requirements in times of major change or high stress what would they be?

Humans are most fearful of uncertainty, so these are the times when highly humanistic leadership is required most. If a leader takes her/his eyes off the people during stressful times, they will be consumed by all the normal fears and anxieties around change, resulting in the change not sticking or people burning out. When things get stressful, people are seeking stability and certainty, so it is essential for the leader/s to be present, calm and reassuring. Subsequent to the Royal Navy very nearly losing a warship after it ran aground near Lord Howe Island in 2002, an inquiry quoted sailors as saying that while the crew worked tirelessly to stop the flooding, the “presence, leadership and good humour of the senior officers gave reassurance and confidence that the ship would be saved”. A high level of morale in a situation like that is essential if the goal is to be achieved.

6. How might a leader turn around a dysfunctional culture? Where would you start? How would you assess that people were fit for purpose for the future?

Like leadership, culture is also 100 percent about people – created by the people for the people. To initiate a shift from one culture to another a leader needs to subtly help the workforce convince themselves that change is required. If the leader achieves this the result is extraordinarily powerful as the workforce will excitedly and willingly help develop the sort of positive, creative and inspiring environment that people innately want to be a part of. If on the other hand the leader has to tell her/his workforce “we need a new culture and this is my vision for it” they will either reject it completely or take a long time to come aboard for the voyage.

If culture change is the aspiration, I usually recommend the use of a diagnostic to measure the state of the current culture and a second measurement, the most constructive culture people could imagine. Then the leader has a snap-shot of the gap between the current and aspirational cultures.

Anyone who commits and says “I’m in” is, in my opinion, fit for purpose for the future. It’s the people who say “I like the old way we did things” or “I’m not sure I’ve got the energy for this culture change” that are troublesome. These people need to be weeded out…fast. Culture blockers are not welcome!