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A General's Leadership

Brigadier General William C. Martin

Category: Business
Published: March 2007

In an exclusive interview, Brigadier General William C. Martin discusses his career in the military and his new corporation, The Initiative Group, whose purpose is to train tomorrow's leaders today.

Success Magazine: Brigadier General William C. Martin, can you tell us about your past and your career in the military?

William C. Martin: I grew up from simple roots: eight siblings, blue collar family. My dad was a machinist who was also a navy boxer and my mother was a beautician. My father was probably the most disciplined man that I have ever known. He was a perfectionist who always made sure that his mind and body were in perfect shape and he put a lot of hours in to make sure his family had enough money to get by. I really respected that discipline, so when I got older I participated in the ROTC program at Siena College, was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and pursued a career in the US Army.

SM: And towards the end of your career you worked under General Schwarzkopf?

WM: Yes, I worked for General Schwarzkopf three times. First as a Company Commander within his division, next as a Strategic Analyst and Speech Writer, and third as a Squad Operations Officer in the 3rd Armor Cavalry Regiment during the first Gulf War. I gained a unique perspective on him as a man because I saw him across the full spectrum, from the political/strategic environment of Washington to a tactical environment as a young company commander to the operational level required for the Gulf War. What made him so unique in each of these scenarios was his ability to influence others. He had a talent for helping you see what it is that you needed to do and help you to believe that you could do it effectively. Something else that the General always did was make sure you knew when you did something well and when you didn't do something well. He always had very clear feedback and channels of communication with his staff.

SM: How did your work with him in Washington lead you to create your own company here?

WM: When I was working at the Pentagon, I worked in a think tank that was called the Army's Initiatives Group. The goal of this group was to enhance the ability of the army and its leadership both on and off the battlefield. When I came to this area I decided to create my own company called The Initiative Group. The goal of my company is similar to what I did at the Pentagon, but beyond a military setting. We train leaders in business and other fields to go beyond their preconceived notions of what a leader is and how one should behave and try to transform them into the optimal CEOs, managers and so on.

SM: How does your company define successful leadership?

WM: Well that isn't a question that I can answer in just a short interview, since we've actually categorized 40 aspects of leadership, but I can say that leadership basically comes down to the ability to influence others. That is directly proportionate with the degree of reciprocal trust you have with those around you.

SM: What would you say to someone looking to start up a new business or take the lead in a growing company?

WM: There are a few things that such a person would need to consider. First, do you have clarity of thought? The first thing that I recommend to any would-be leader is to really spend time thinking about what it is they want to do. During that time you need to come to an understanding of the nature of the problems in your business. No business is perfect, and it is the job of a leader to find flaws and try to remove them. A leader also has to build trust with the people he is working with. Perhaps most importantly, a leader absolutely must have a relationship with his subordinates that allows critical candor. A leader will at some point be wrong. He has to have the necessary trust and relationship with those he is working with to allow healthy debate. Finally, a leader has to believe in him or herself and have confidence in what he is doing.

SM: What are some mistakes that leaders usually make?

WM: Going back to the confidence point, a lot of would-be leaders deliver confused statements of purpose which leave everyone else unsure of what to do. The reason for this is usually either a) the leader does not truly believe in what he or she is saying or, b) they don't care enough. If a leader does not believe in him or herself or what he or she is saying it will be picked up on immediately.

SM: What about these subordinates you mention. What happens when you work for someone and you think that you could do a better job than them?

WM: Well, our society is structured to a certain extent on a hierarchy of command, and every now and then people get put lower than they should on that hierarchy. What a subordinate should do in such a situation is to try to earn the trust of whoever is in charge of him or her and then try to say, You know what, I think we are making a bad decision here. Maybe we should take another look at our approach.' At that point you hopefully have developed the foundation necessary for the leader to listen to your advice.

SM: What do most would-be leaders miss out on?

WM: Leadership is an inside-out game. It starts with knowing yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. Once you learn that you can try to augment your abilities through study and discipline, but eventually you will need to surround yourself with people who have these talents and skills that you do not have in abundance. These people will complement you and your abilities. Gen. Schwarzkopf always talked about the importance of the two Cs'-competence and character. If you can find people that complement you while also having these traits you will invariably succeed. Finally, the true purpose of leadership is not a selfish act of self-aggrandizement. After a certain strategic level your capacity to do others jobs is nonexistent, it is just no longer feasible. A leader that understands this and brings out the best in others will ultimately do better than the one who always puts him or herself or a trust in his or her own abilities over that of his or her subordinates. The pinnacle of leadership is to be completely selfless.

SM: What about competition within your own corporation?

WM: Most leaders fail to realize that by helping others become successful they help themselves become successful. Too many companies have corporate infighting that eventually weakens the firm. You need to instead energize the people around you and get them to believe in what you are doing. I once asked my father what important lesson he could give me, and he said, Look, if you love people everything else will take care of itself.' That's something every leader should keep in mind. Now, I'm not saying that a leader always has to turn the other cheek, but it is always better to build yourself and the people you trust around you up instead of spending your energy trying to tear a competitor down.