3 Key Takeaways for Leaders from this Episode

  1. Meditation and Mindfulness are exceptional tools for remaining present and aligned with intention while facing the various challenges of leadership within the construction and airline industries.
  2. Leadership dedication to partnering and the values of kindness and caring help create a work environment that encourages and rewards creativity, open communication, trust, employee/customer satisfaction, and exceptional outcomes.
  3. Leaders don’t do. Leaders lead.

Thank you for tuning into Episode 7 Construction Nation! The following notes are a transcription from the conversation that took place between Sue Dyer, president of OrgMetrics LLC and John Martin, retired airport director at San Francisco International Airport. Enjoy!

About John L. Martin

John L. Martin was Airport Director at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) from 1995-2016. His leadership leaves a legacy that lives on today. John was present as SFO underwent massive changes including a $3.5 billion dollar capital plan, the iconic International Terminal, and BART Extension.

One of John’s colleagues describes his impact as “truly rare to find a visionary in the public sector.” John led his organization to become exceptional. John Martin and Sue Dyer have been friends working closely together for 20 years.

How did John get into meditation?

John started his meditation practice in 2001 a few months before 9/11 as a way to deal with the stress faced as CEO and as a calling for a more balanced life outside of work.

Meditation practice is one of present awareness. Due to the tragedy of 9/11, SFO lost 40% of their customers and had to lay off 15% of their staff. Meditation helped John focus on facing challenges together with his team during that difficult time.

Incorporating meditation into leadership

A big part of meditation is becoming aware of the intentions guiding one’s actions. John incorporated basic intentions such as letting go of the past and future to focus on the present, the intention of kindness towards oneself and others, and focusing on caring, compassion, and exceptional outcomes to guide his leadership philosophy and approach.

Meditation in practice

John would meditate after breakfast and at the end of each workday which looked to others as merely sitting quietly. Most people probably had no idea but might have noticed the benefits. This involves a sensation of “being in the body”; being present for the emotions and feelings at that moment and staying focused on the intentions of letting go, kindness and caring. There is a careful analysis of one’s reactions as you focus on ensuring actions are rooted in positive intentions as often as possible.

Meditation in action

For the first 10 years as director, John wanted to be in control of everything – kind of like a superhero able to get everything done. The intention of letting go in the workplace involved letting go of excessive control to trust the staff more.

John supported this intention by creating teams of staff members to look at best practices for serving guests, safety/security, environmental leadership, and creating a great place to work. The team began creating a vision with plans and goals. John realized that the greatest wisdom is with the collective; not from one individual leader. Great leaders recognize the greatest wisdom comes from the team overall. This insight helped create an environment of deeper trust where creativity could begin to flourish.

Kindness in the workplace

Taking the time to connect with employees helped foster kindness in the workplace at SFO. John would walk around the airport and make personal connections with the 1800 employees from every field and background. This demonstrated that leadership cared about how they viewed SFO as a place to work. Kindness as a value began to crop up as a talking point in staff meetings. When kindness is present in the workplace, there is a deeper understanding of what people can do to work exceptionally within their jobs while supporting fellow teammates to be exceptional. Kindness goes hand in hand with transparency when sharing information and a willingness to bring forward challenges/problems. The team binds together as they work towards the vision they’ve created. 

How to remain mindful under pressure

Acknowledge any emotions you’re experiencing. This does not mean shying away from direct communication or harsh realities, but understanding where you stand on the issue at hand and acting with appropriate intention. Sometimes work challenges elicit strong reactions. John would occasionally take a break or go on a walk to let the steam out and feel it.

Making difficult decisions with compassion

SFO had to let 150 people (10% of workforce) go after 9/11. John and leadership were clear on the issues at hand and provided services to support those displaced individuals looking for new jobs or transfers wherever possible. For the first few months, John didn’t want to take those actions, but after receiving “wake up!” as advice from a trusted coworker, he found a way to make the difficult decision but in a way that was still kind and caring. This approach helped establish trust so people could tell the truth on issues moving forward. 

Biggest challenges and how intentions helped

Letting go means recognizing and accepting the present circumstance as it is. It is not useful to get caught up being angry or pointing fingers and blame. After 9/11, SFO was in a difficult position. United Airlines filed for bankruptcy and SouthWest closed operations. The airport needed to cut costs and increase international travel. It was leaderships’ responsibility to communicate this vision to employees. As this vision became standard practice, it demonstrated that it was possible to cut costs and grow revenue which attracted new business such as Virgin Airline’s San Francisco headquarters. It also proved that it was possible to work towards a vision without knowing exactly how to get there.

People started enjoying coming to work. Individual organizations melded into a universal team which created a sense of collaboration. Problem-solving became fun and creative solutions began to emerge. SFO became the first airport to provide innovate seating arrangements, high-end restroom finishes, was the most successful airport in the country for sales in restaurants and shops, featured extraordinary artwork, and even built a yoga and meditation room. When people feel supported, heard, and working for a place they take pride in, they perform better. People want to be part of something exceptional.

Why John is a believer in Partnering

John viewed attendance in partnering sessions as a key role of being a leader. Leaders don’t do, leaders lead. By attending sessions as a leader, listening, supporting teamwork and open communication; these are key aspects of leadership. It sets the right tone, supports open communication and trust, shows a willingness to step in when there are problems, recognizes who is on board with the project, and by showing commitment and trust to the partnering process, others feel more supported.

Contractor organizations also began to have their top executives present at partnering sessions resulting in improved project outcomes. It is important to have every level of the organization involved in partnering. 

Crash of the Asiana

The crash of the Asiana was one of the most challenging times in John’s career as airport director. He recounts being home weeding his front yard when he received a text message about the crash. John changed clothes and drove down to the airport, seeing ambulances on the freeway. He felt great concern for what had happened. At the time, John knew little about what was going on. He expected to jump in immediately on an operational level but saw that the team was seamlessly working together to save lives and deal with the immediate crisis of that crash (not just operations staff but SF police and fire departments, Federal Aviation Administration, TSA, FBI, customs, border patrol, airline representatives, IT, finance, engineering, etc).

John felt deep gratitude and recognition of the great workplace that had been created to facilitate this trust and communication. His focus shifted to making sure pieces were in place to get the airport reopened as quickly as possible. John and airport officials had a press conference 4-5 hours after the wreck with 100+ reporters at the event. He didn’t know all the details, but knew being present and clear about what was going on would help all the viewers, concerned citizens, and passenger family members.

Afterward, SFO entered into a lessons learned phase. The airline became safer and commercial crashes are now very rare in the U.S.

Listener Resources

Meditation: John suggests classes with hands-on learning from a teacher with supplemental reading is the best way to learn how to practice meditation. Just picking up a book and reading about meditation is not enough, a teacher is important.


Partner Your Project (affiliate link) by Sue Dyer

Good To Great (affiliate link) by Jim Collins (every member of management staff was required to read it at SFO) Kindle Audible Hardback

Award PDF

Magazine Cover PDF

Parting Advice

Watch and pay attention to insights and aha moments! Let those in deeply and follow them. Leaders don’t’ do, leaders lead. The less John did, he realized, the better things ran. John’s biggest mistakes came from acting on things not consistent with his own instinct.

Workplace environment really matters. Supporting a healthy workplace environment, open communication, and that employees are cared for are massively important.

Actions matter. Actions rooted in caring, kindness, and wisdom that support creativity, exceptional service/delivery, an exceptional airport for guests, passengers, environmental leadership, and workplace environment.

Beneath every action is an intention. Staying in touch with intentions, by checking and rechecking, builds a framework of understanding.

Partnering provides a model for understanding, behavior, bringing people together on construction projects, and as a leader leading the larger organization and airport community.

Be exceptional. Everyone wants to work for an organization that is exceptional.

Get in Contact with John Martin

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/john-l-martin-0bb47b107/

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