Embracing ‘Joyful Accountability’

By Marty Martin as told to dsm editor Christine Riccelli
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Marty Martin joined Drake University as president in July 2015, following a career as a JAG  (the military’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps) officer in the Air Force and as a law professor, dean and administrator at Texas Wesleyan and Gonzaga universities. He and his wife, Laura, have two sons, Cade and Case, who both attend Drake. In a conversation condensed for publication, Martin reflects on a journey that has taught him about the joy of curiosity, the value of integrity and the importance of saying thank you.

Cultivate a Sense of Adventure and Openness 
I grew up in Hartford, Kentucky, a town of about 2,000 people between Owensboro and Bowling Green. My mother agreed to name me Earl Franklin Martin III on the condition that I wouldn’t be called any of those names. So, I’ve always been called Marty. I’m the middle child—I have an older sister, Marcia, and a younger sister, Mindy. My father is Earl Franklin Martin Jr. For a while, our family was my mom, Mary; Marcia; Marty; Mindy; our dogs, Muffet and Missy; and “Frank.”

I am really blessed to have two great parents. My mother is fearless and full of life; I think I have a bit of her spirit of adventure.

My dad is someone of immense integrity who always does the right thing for the right reason in the right way. He’s a great inspiration to me.

I’m a fourth-generation attorney. Everyone knew we were a family of lawyers, so the presumption was that I would be an attorney too. I aspired to that when I was young, but then in my teen years I decided no one was going to tell me what to do. I wanted to set my own course.

But by the end of my sophomore year at the University of Kentucky, I had decided to go to law school with the view that it’s a very versatile degree. I wasn’t committed to practicing law, though; I was interested in politics. My grandfather had been in the Kentucky Senate and my dad was also involved in politics. The law is a great way to move into that space, and so, after graduating in 1984 I went right into law school at UK.

Trust In Your Ability to Figure It Out
After my second year, I got a job clerking for a firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because I wanted to live somewhere other than Kentucky for the summer. One of the associates in the firm was dating an Air Force JAG officer, and his work sounded exciting. I really wanted to see much more of the world, so I decided to pursue a JAG appointment. I was excited about the variety of experience that the JAG Corps could offer and the opportunity I would have to live outside the U.S.

I graduated from law school in May of 1987, got married in September and was admitted into the Air Force on Nov. 7, right after I received the news that I had passed the bar. I got orders to report to Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. As a JAG officer out of law school, you come in as a first lieutenant so everyone on the base presumed that I knew how the military works. I didn’t. But that’s one of the things I loved about the service—being thrown into situations and having to figure it out along the way.

After a year and a half at Pease, we were shipped off to England for three years, then to Germany in 1992. As a circuit defense counsel working out of Rhein Main Air Base in Frankfurt, my circuit was Iceland to Saudi Arabia and I was responsible for defending the major felony cases. I did that job for three years and I traveled constantly—one year I was gone over 250 nights.

This was pre-internet, pre-cellphone days and long-distance phone calls cost more than a dollar a minute. I might be gone three or four weeks and my wife and I would have only a few brief conversations. I’m lucky that I’m married to a very independent person. Laura is one of the great blessings of my life.

The main thing I took away from my overseas experience is the willingness to be some place different with the expectation that you’ll figure it out. You start to become more adaptable as long as you just throw yourself into the experience and embrace it. Once you’re out of the United States for that long—we lived overseas for six years straight—you see your own country differently than you did before. It’s an eye-opening, mind-opening, heart-opening experience.

Follow Your Interests
I was on active duty until August of 1995, and by then I was ready for something new. I got it into my head that I wanted to teach law, so I transferred from active duty to the reserves and went to Yale Law School to get an LL.M. [Master of Laws degree]. I hadn’t taught before and I thought teaching would be an interesting thing to do.

I joined Texas Wesleyan in 1997, where I spent six years as a full-time professor and two as the associate dean for academic affairs. At some point I decided that I wanted to be a dean of a law school, and in my second year of serving as associate dean I started getting calls from law schools that were looking for new leadership. I put my hat in the ring for a couple of openings and got the job as dean of the law school at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

Look Beyond the Task to the Person
When I started as dean, I was very much a task-driven person. We had our plan, and I had a to-do list that never ended because as you check things off, you add more things on. At the end of my first year, we had gotten a lot done but there was some grumbling and dissatisfaction.

So I walked the hallways and popped into people’s offices to find out what was going on. What I heard was “Yeah, I like the new mission statement, and the strategic plan looks really good. But it’s just too much, too fast.”

That showed me that you can’t keep the pedal to the metal all the time. You’ve got to take the pulse of the community you’re serving and make sure that you keep moving forward, but not at a pace that you lose support and engagement—or people will start checking out on you.

I also realized that people wanted to hear me say “great job” and “thank you.” It became clear to me I wasn’t saying those things nearly enough. I actually put a little sticky note on my computer that said, “Say thank you.” I tried to be more effusive about acknowledging contributions and I looked for more opportunities to celebrate accomplishments.

Leadership is always a work in progress. I think for me, it’s moving from the task to the person and striking the right balance. That’s how you form relationships and build the trust that gives you room to lead an institution.

Accept That Tension Is a Natural State of Life
Another “aha moment” that occurred in those early years as a dean came from a Jesuit priest at Gonzaga. During my first year there, Father Pat Lee took me out to lunch and said, “Marty, one of the principles of Jesuit life is recognizing that tension is a natural state of life. If you’re pursuing an interesting and engaged life, you’re going to live in tension.”

Honestly, I didn’t know what that meant, but I said, “All right”—and then I went back to my to-do list.

About a year and a half later, I came to understand what Father Lee was saying and I started trying to apply it to my role as dean. That is, if you’re going to occupy a leadership position you never get to a point where you say, “We’re done. Now we can relax.” There’s always more to be done, more to attend to, more to engage around.

That inevitably creates a certain level of tension, and you should just accept it. Don’t imagine that it might be different.

When you do this it becomes a heck of a lot easier because you’re not expecting that you’re going to push your way through the tension—it is a natural part of the work. That realization was pretty liberating for me.

Stay Curious
I was the dean of the law school for five years; the last year I also was the acting academic vice president. Then in the summer of 2010, I became executive vice president for Gonzaga, a new position that still supported academics but brought together a lot of operational functions that previously had been distributed around the organization. So, again, the job was a way to learn new stuff and ask myself, how does this work? How can I make it better? At that point, I was thinking I wanted to be a president of a university someday, and to have that experience on the operations side could be an advantage.

When I saw that Drake was looking for a new president and then got a call from the firm that was leading the search for the university, I wasn’t sure about leaving Spokane at that time. Our sons were in high school and the goal was to move with the graduation of our youngest boy. However, I knew about Drake, as it has a national reputation for excellence and for being student-centered like Gonzaga, so I was excited to think that it might be possible to make the move to Des Moines, even though I didn’t know anything about the city.

In December of 2014, I was fortunate to get invited for an interview. I checked into the downtown Marriott and Jim Hubbell picked me up for a windshield tour of the city. What a great guy to take you on a tour of Greater Des Moines. Even though I was here for only 26 hours, when I got home I told my wife I thought it could be a great fit. She said, “Let’s do it!”

The day after I got back to Spokane, I had just finished getting my hair cut when I looked down and saw my phone was ringing. I picked it up and it was Larry Zimpleman and David Miles [members of Drake’s board of trustees]. They said, “We want to talk to you about the job.” I said, “Fantastic!” It was really easy to say yes to Drake. I also could tell my wife with great enthusiasm that I thought Des Moines was a pretty cool city, and that’s proven to be true. Des Moines has exceeded my expectations.

Deal With What’s In Front of You
(Last September, a swastika was carved into a campus elevator and a racist message was left outside an African-American student’s dorm room.)

Those incidents are completely at odds with what this institution values and the kind of community we seek to create and sustain. I often talk with my leadership team about the fact that we deal with what’s put in front of us.

We can’t say, “I wish it didn’t happen.” Instead, we do the best we can with what confronts us, guided by the values of this institution.

We recognize there are no walls around this campus, and we don’t want there to be. We are of this world, and the troubles of the world—but also the beauty of the world—come here. We celebrate the latter and deal with the former. We try to do so in a collegial and collaborative way.

The other thing I talk about with my team and our community is joyful accountability. I chose to be here, and with that, I accept the responsibility to be accountable for my behavior—to inspire not just as the president but as a member of this community. There’s a sense of joy in being here and I seek to model that, as everyone can no matter their position. That’s not to say every day will be a bucket of sunshine, but that doesn’t in any way undermine the fact it’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of this community.

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