Leaders whose overwhelming desire is to serve their people reside, I believe, where humility meets generosity. They create constructive cultures where brilliant ideas, creativity and innovation are bountiful, and mistakes tolerated. These ‘Leaders in Service’, exceptionally comfortable in their own skin, personify the words of the great Robert Greenleaf, who pioneered Servant Leadership in the 70s. He said that “Leadership must, first and foremost, meet the needs of others”.

My Father, officially Rear Admiral Sir David Martin, KCMG, AO, RAN (Retd) who died 30 years ago yesterday after stepping down as Governor of NSW, was a remarkable leader in all facets of his life. But it was his innate want during 41 years in the Navy and 18 months in public life, to serve downwards, rather than look upwards, that made him standout. He was a man born with natural talents for people leadership but it was his learned behaviours, honed over time and displayed with exquisite timing that made him a much-loved leader.

During my years in the Navy, 30 years astern of Dad, I was regaled with countless stories of his actions and words. Stories about how he would just show up, in service of his people at exactly the right time. This isn’t a talent one is born with but is a skill one learns and perfects.

Never once was I told a story about how he introduced some new piece of policy or procedure that changed the direction of the Navy. No, it was always the human stuff. A sailor preparing to throw a rugby ball into a line out in pouring rain during a ship v ship rugby match, with no one but the ref watching, amazed to be handed the ball by (your dad) the skipper, with a wink and a word of encouragement “give it to ‘em Wacca – no backward step”. A sailor recovering in hospital, feeling very deflated and missing his shipmates when “bugger me, (your dad) the Skipper walks in with a hip flask and sat down for a chat!” A female who only recently recounted a story from the 70s about how ‘the Commodore’ made dozens of (male) sailors on ceremonial duty pause for three minutes so he could stop and congratulate her on a recent promotion. She told me she was bullet proof for weeks. These tiny moments with a large and disproportionate impact reflect the way that David Martin led his people.

On Dad’s final day in the Office of Governor, an appointment he and Mum enthusiastically took on for barely 18 months, he insisted on being driven along Macquarie St in an open top car, so people could farewell him. This might sound like ego, arrogance and self-importance but it was quite the opposite. In his mind to not do so would have been selfish. To quietly slip away in an ambulance, which is what his dire condition required and what his doctor was demanding, would have been selfish. He was giving of himself, his precious time, energy and essence, right to the very end so people could say goodbye and thank you. Gasping for oxygen from a canister he’d been carrying for many weeks, he was doing it out of loyalty to the Office and service to the people. As I say, Leaders in Service hang out where humility meets generosity.

Sir David Martin Funeral main procession

Dad’s Service Leadership didn’t stop with his death. In Office he’d occasionally done the night rounds with Mission Beat and had been hugely disturbed by the sight of homeless children on Sydney’s streets, living in culverts and dark alleyways. In his final days he agreed to have his name used as the banner for a new charity, sitting within the then Sydney City Mission. The Sir David Martin Foundation (SDMF) was born and this week we celebrate all that it’s achieved in 30 years. $65M raised, 3000 young lives (16-24yo) saved from addiction, destitution and death. Strangely we can’t give Dad too much credit as he’s been absent on duty the entire time! Mum is the heroine of this story, bringing SDMF to life through hard work, duty and loyalty. And of course, she’s also a Leader in Service.     

While pausing to look back on 30 years this week, SDMF is now firmly focused on the future, aiming to save more young lives while honouring Dad’s vision of “safety, hope and opportunity for all young Australians”.

If you would like to read more about constructive leadership behaviours like those displayed by David Martin, please download our 'Leader in Service' Whitepaper via the link below. 

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Will Martin

Written by Will Martin