One of USAF’s Best Leaders Slated for Third Star, Key Post

Official Photo -     Maj Gen Jerry Martinez  (U.S. Air Force Photo by Michael Pausic)
Official Photo – Maj Gen Jerry Martinez (U.S. Air Force Photo by Michael Pausic)

I generally avoid cursing truly superior leaders by praising them on these pages. In today’s Air Force, having the wrong associations is enough to run someone afoul of the crony system that most often determines winners and losers, mainly without regard to results or performance.

I’m choosing to alter that rule of thumb in this case for two reasons. First, to highlight a leader whose continued advancement I believe is critical to the necessary renewal and return to first principles that must occur if there is to be a viable future Air Force. And second, because I’m quite sure the Senate doesn’t care what I write here … and that body’s confirmation is now the only thing standing between Maj. Gen. Jerry Martinez and a third star.

In an internal Air Force memo dated July 12th, Martinez was nominated for promotion to Lt. Gen. and for appointment as Commander, US Force Japan and Commander, Fifth Air Force. The general currently serves as the Director of Operations at Air Mobility Command (AMC), and spent his early career piloting C-141 and C-17 aircraft. He’ll be the first officer from the mobility community to command Fifth Air Force.

Once confirmed, he’ll inherit responsibility for all airmen in Japan and become our nation’s senior US military representative in that country. It’s a tough charge. He’ll wrestle with hyper-sensitive politics and the need to maintain US access to key strategic locations … all without alienating the tens of thousands of airmen who make the Air Force mission in Japan happen. The task will surely involve bucking cultural headwinds and reining in some silly ideas … with the current senior enlisted advisor of Fifth Air Force having taken the position that airmen are children to be parented.

Martinez is equal to the task, and the Air Force is getting this one dead right. 

Admittedly, this assessment comes from a place of total and unapologetic bias. I’ve worked for Martinez directly. I’ve seen how he does things and how his approach impacts people and organizations. I’ve benefitted in the past from his direct interest in my development, and I continue to benefit perpetually from his example and the mentorship he provided.

Notwithstanding that bias, there’s a reason why Martinez has succeeded in the past and will continue to prevail in any leadership role he’s given in the future. His approach to leadership is a winning formula, as sublimely simple as it is dependably effective: establish high expectations, take care of people so they can meet or exceed those expectations, and then unfailingly hold people to those standards, pushing and stretching them to develop them along the way.

It’s an approach that works, and Martinez applies it with a maestro’s expertise. Dozens of current, former, and future Air Force leaders owe their leadership orientation to watching and learning as he applied this formula at multiple levels of command … and given an ever-expanding opportunity to influence more future leaders, Martinez will continue to be a critically important figure in the service’s eventual recovery. When his philosophy and approach prevail broadly, we’ll know we’re breaking the tailspin.

But simple as it may be, his leadership approach is difficult to execute effectively, which is what makes him so valuable. Many leaders fail on the first step. They micromanage, which is a way of signaling low expectations. Alternatively, they set goals too easily attained, which allows everyone to declare victory and feel good without achieving much of anything.

Most leaders in today’s Air Force fail on the second step. They don’t take care of people. They spend time oriented on metrics, machines, and money … and don’t get involved enough to know when and where the system is failing to give people the resources, time (including downtime and family time), support, manning, and leadership to enable them to strive for and meet high expectations. Too many general officers have presided over systems — particularly in the last eight years — that expect too much while providing insufficient support to make it happen. Everyone has tacitly known this. Over time, the emotional weight of everyone seeing excellence increasingly beyond reach has conspired with disappointment about a widening say-do gap to largely fracture trust and confidence across the force. Airmen have stopped seeing generals as leaders and started viewing them as part of the problem … politicians creating unreasonable expectations while refusing to resource to them.

This is where Martinez truly shines. He’s humane and sees the best in people without being a sucker. He’s fair without being a pushover. He’s tough as nails on subordinate commanders when it comes to giving airmen resources, support, and respect. He’ll indulge minor performance hiccups, but he won’t abide for a second a failure to look after people. When I worked for the man, he spent most of his time mentoring commanders and working people issues, leaving most of the hands-on business of operating and administering to the professionals responsible for handling those things. He knew if he ensured people were taken care of … if they felt valued and appreciated and had what they needed to focus and get the job done … they would take care of the mission. This is, however timeless and classical a view, a contrast with most of his colleagues … who tend to fixate on operational metrics, tactical inputs, and the constant invention of new administrative processes. They tend to add weight to the load carried by people instead of lightening it.

The reason it’s so important to get this second step right is because unless you do, you can’t proceed to the third step … holding people strictly accountable to high standards. This is a critical point. If you listen to most E-9s and O-10s, they’ll tell you the Air Force has disciplinary problems because of millennials, social media, or because people just aren’t professional enough. This is total garbage. The Air Force didn’t hire the wrong people, and the performance of its people is a reflection of the service’s culture, ethos, and resource investment rather than some kind of indicator of what’s happening in society at large. When you hear that kind of idiotic generalizing, do two things: raise your watch to keep it clear of the mounting BS, and then challenge the person who said it.

Military organizations degrade because of structural and systemic maladies, and the decisions that led to them … not because the people who do the work are somehow less disciplined or intelligent or capable than their predecessors. In fact, roughly the opposite is true. Airmen today are smarter, less rowdy, and more capable than ever before. If this wasn’t the case, the service would have collapsed long ago. People are holding it together in spite of itself rather than the other way around.

When you see an organization developing a broadly sensed lapse in standards and discipline, look immediately at whether its level of resource investment allows leaders to hold people to account. That’s where the answer lies in nearly all cases. Today’s Air Force isn’t giving airmen the support they need to be held to a high standard. Consequently, they’re not being held to it. When they fall short of the expectations, a dozen valid rationalizations are rolled out to explain the failure, and these explanations are usually entertained if not adopted. Over time, falling short becomes the norm … because no one wants to be seen lowering the bar and no one wants to get impaled on a professional sword fighting for the resources needed to keep the bar high. All that’s left is serial failure, which leads to tacit acceptance that the stated standard is an illusion. This leads to acceptance of obvious falsehoods, injuring integrity. It becomes acceptable to lie or fudge or omit or elide … because the entire service is operating in that kind of paradigm. This describes the entire support system … and will soon describe the operational community unless there’s a change in direction.

In Martinez, you get someone who understands all this. He grasps the critical importance of never asking too much, never accepting too little, and always focusing on unleashing greatness in those who do the work. He’s also unfailingly honest, authentic, and connects with people of all ranks on a human level. 

There’s much more I could say. I could reel off a ream of examples of tough decisions made, important careers bolstered, and toxicities healed. Hell, I could fill ten more posts with the small, everyday examples of interrupting a meeting or delaying an appointment or re-scheduling a phone call so he could get personally involved in solving a problem impacting the morale of those in his command. But the point of this piece isn’t to tell Gen. Martinez’s whole story … it’s just to alert you to keep an eye on someone you might never have heard of before, but who — if we’re all fortunate — you’ll hear much more from in the future. His story will tell itself, because the best chapters are yet to be written.

Air Force, you got this one right. A few more like this, and I might start believing the clue light is illuminated.

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