Learning from leaders – Danny Martin – General Manager, Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway – Nick’s observations on Danny’s story.

In business as in other walks of life, there is a long standing discussion on the nature of leadership. Can it be taught or are some born to it? Like the sociological arguments for nature v nurture in determining personality or intelligence, the duality of the argument will probably never be settled.

What is becoming increasingly clear, from extensive study, is that there are distinct and definable attributes to leadership, and that no one or two attributes are likely to make successful leaders.  The act of leadership is specific to the situation and events that require leaders to emerge. Central to effective leadership is the ability to engage and influence others. To co-opt others to work in common purpose. Learning how to do that is sometimes a lifetimes’ journey, but the essence comes from understanding how our brains work and minds meet.

Leadership is everywhere. I offer the following personal story from Danny Martin – General Manager Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway. It is annotated with my comments on Danny’s experiences and what I identify as effective use of brain friendly influences and leadership in action.

Look around and look outside your own business or industry identify those that are being followed, influencing views and behaviours in others, shaping events, making change happen. The more you study and observe leadership in reality the better equipped you are to reflecting on your own strengths and areas for development.

Good leaders need to instill purpose and meaning to those followers. They require belief and vision that is communicable. You will see from Danny’s story a sense of purpose and passion he had for railways that shaped his vision and personal behaviour.

To set the stage you may want to reflect on David Rock’s model for putting people in a forward rather than an away state when communicating. Ask yourself – when I speak and act am I aware and respectful of their need for:

Status – Will what I’m hearing, seeing affect my social status, positively or negatively?

Certainty – Do I know how this will affect, impact me, what are the outcomes, what is the level of probability about what will happen? Do I know what is expected of me?

Autonomy – Do I have some control over this, some influence to effect change

Relatedness – Do I trust the leader; and relate to the social context of change?

Fairness – Is this fair? Even if I don’t like it?

And finally, before you get started on Danny’s story, here are my thoughts on the top attributes of great leaders.

They are: –

  • real people that others can believe in
  • comfortable in their own skin
  • authentic in any situation
  • respecting and treating everyone fairly
  • demonstrating a personal touch
  • making people feel good about themselves
  • driven by their core beliefs and values
  • able to relate their vision in a compelling personal story
  • full of optimism and hope
  • compassionate with self and others
  • open and transparent
  • emotionally connected
  • concerned for others
  • putting everyone at ease
  • providing a clear purpose and goals
  • unwavering in adversity
  • mindful to do the right thing
  • reflective
  • courageous
  • strong yet vulnerable
  • listening and responding to their followers
  • open to personal challenge and feedback
  • humble and modest
  • taking the blame but not the credit
  • great coaches helping people to grow
  • empowering others to make their own decisions
  • clearing the path for progress
  • are the change they seek
  • ready to experiment and take risks
  • getting things done to make the difference they want to make



Danny Martin General Manager Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway

My Leadership Journey

Reflections on Leading with the Brain in Mind – Nick Marson

Leaving the station

My lifelong love affair with the RHDR started at the age of 9 years old.

As I stood with my dad on the bridge at New Romney station and witnessed the power of steam approach and disappear under me I was hooked. The magnificent engine, the smell of smoke, the sound of the whistle. This over powering cocktail assaulted my senses. Two years later I signed up as a volunteer. It allowed me to escape my social isolation and overcome my shyness. Belonging felt good. Doing something for nothing also felt good. The railway was to become and define my life.

Social isolation restricts people’s development and contribution. We learn best in informal social groups where there is a shared interest, passion or best of all purpose. The brain is social.

Last train leaves the station

Then just when I was finding my social feet disaster struck. The railway was going to close in 1972. The money had run out. The last packed train had left the station. And with it my new world.

The station reopens

The local community was missing its railway. How could it be saved? Shares were offered to a consortium of enthusiasts. The railway reopened the following April. My father bought me 100 shares. I was now the part owner of my beloved railway. I continued as a volunteer. Life was good again.

People need to feel they belong. To fit in with their A group. People thrive in social groups. Shared passion drives innovation. With ownership comes commitment. Owners see things through different eyes than employees. Owners should remember this when they attempt to motivate employees.

Train to Loughborough

My train from Folkestone was taking me on a new journey beyond my cossetted world in Kent.

I was embarking on my university education to study transport management and planning.

In the holidays I returned to the RHDR to my first paid job on the railway at the age of 19.

Next stop Ramsgate Station

Having used the power of focus to get a first class degree I joined the British Rail graduate training programme in 1980.

The power of focus to achieve excellence allows the brain to make more connections and manage the energy needed by the thinking brain.

My first job was in charge of Ramsgate Station at the age of 22. And my first challenge was how to motivate 70 lady cleaners who worked through the night to ensure the station was ready for the morning commuters.

I soon realised that the most important factor for the ladies was social interaction. So I let them go home early to their families once they had finished their duties. I also empowered them to organise a cooking rota for a communal meal to keep them going through the night and have a good chat.

As mentioned before the brain is social. The brain also likes autonomy. To be in control. If you give people both elements, it is a powerful recipe for highly motivated teams with high levels of energy driving new thinking. Innovative organisations like Google recognize this and empower their people to socialise and spark off each other. If you give people responsibility, they tend to take it.

I made sure that I knew all their names and used to get quite cross with myself if I occasionally forgot a name. This personal touch engendered a lot of loyalty. To this day I have always attached the most importance to making staff feel valued and appreciated. Part of a family of workers rather than employee numbers on a payroll.

Final British Rail stop Reading station

My final role was in charge of Reading Station. With 1,200 staff it was a bit more challenging to remember all their names. But I tried. The people that I had regular contact with were certainly easier to remember than the ones I bumped into occasionally on the platform. My people focus was still strong but I was becoming a safety management specialist. After 20 years with B R I was looking to return to Kent and work more closely with people again.

Identity is important to people. Calling me by my name reinforces my identity. You see me therefore I exist. And it sends a signal that you care about me. You took the trouble to remember my name so I will take the trouble to listen to you. The power of reciprocity.

Leading the world’s smallest public railway

When John Snell, heritage railway pioneer, retired as managing director of RHDR in 1999 after 27 years I was asked to follow in his footsteps. A great honour and a daunting challenge.

I spent the first five years learning how things were done.

A small group of staff were the stalwarts and the nucleus of the management power house.

But they were old school used to giving orders, as their previous boss had done, and not expecting or wanting their authority to be challenged.

An autonomous style of leadership relies on fear to get results. This style limits the development of personal potential and stifles innovation. People tend to do their job without thinking and leave quickly at the end of their shift.

Gradually I changed the management culture, helped by retirements, to a more engaging, empowering and personal style.

I practiced and encouraged a coaching style of leading sitting with employees and observing / coaching them on the job.

Even when they did a perfect job it was good for them to get a well done from the boss.

Some reinforcement of good practice and confirmation that they were doing a good job.

Praise makes people grow.

People matter. And when only 35 of the 135 RHDR railway staff are being paid it is vital that the volunteers feel listened to and their contributions are recognised. Their efforts are discretionary.

All motivation is intrinsic and self-directed.

If you make people feel good about themselves, you get more co-operation.

Staff should also be accountable for their contribution, paid or not. Quality was the goal in everything on the railway and cost was also a critical factor. We needed a viable railway that was going to be our legacy. Our purpose in life was to preserve the unique and special steam experience for generations of 9 year olds and their parents.

The power of purpose and meaning in people’s work fuels their passion and this enthusiasm is infectious. It gets caught by the customers as evidenced by the feedback on Trip Advisor.

Understanding money was an important part of an ongoing education programme.

The triangle of focus was people, money and the railway. If you look after the first two, the last one looks after itself.

I introduced an informal performance review system focusing on strengths and aspirations.

Personal ownership of learning and development with mentoring and coaching support was the precursor to improving every aspect of the business. 135 sets of eyes and ears all with the same goal of improving the RHDR customer experience.

Engaging people is important. And empowering and encouraging people to take iniatives to improve safety and service was critically important in developing the product and making the business more robust.

Fatality on the railway

The First of the two fatalities on the RHDR was a train driver at a level crossing.

There followed a lot of emotional outpouring and overwhelming public support.

The accident changed the style of management to make it more democratic.

Fairness is important to the brain. Social standing in our group is important to our survival. People want to be consulted. They want to feel their voice is heard. Their vote really counts. Their social status is enhanced.

The power of emotions to bring about change should never be underestimated. The brain’s emotional centre has a strong memory and a huge impact on our unconscious feelings. This surfaces into our thinking brains and becomes a compelling change story that drives our actions.

The shared grief binds people together and emotional contagion becomes a powerful force for change.

Second fatality

The second fatality was also on a crossing but this one was different. This one was personal. The train driver who was killed was my wife Suzanne.

This was the most difficult time of my life and I nearly left the railway. Suzanne was also my RHDR second in command.

After much painful deliberation I chose to stay and make the RHDR even more safer and successful.

This demonstrates determination in the face of the worst adversity imaginable.

Whatever our circumstances we always have choices.

“Never, never, never give up”. Winston Churchill

We brought in more outside specialist volunteers to widen our vision and challenge our thinking.

Over the last few years the railway has gone from strength to strength. We carry over 100,000 passengers a year. We are financially independent and able to run our railway from the ticket receipts and commercial activities without any reliance on grants or gifts.

We have a 30-year plan with cash in the bank for major station refurbishments.

Stepping down

I will always work on the RHDM but one day when I and others feel the time is right I will step down from my paid general manager role.

Every business needs new ideas and fresh energy.

I believe my successor will need to have the following qualities:

  • Care deeply about the railway
  • Care about the people that run the railway
  • Be strong, determined and resilient to make sure the railway continues to run for future generations.

My RHDR leadership legacy

I would like to be remembered as a leader “who cared about this railway and gave of their all”.

The same words are on the gravestone of my wife Suzanne who gave her life for the railway.


Reflections on Danny’s Leadership style

Danny is a passionate man driven by a strong purpose and vision.

He is an authentic person who engenders respect and support from most of his staff.

Danny cares about his people. Really cares. He is the epitome of a servant leader.

He is also an inspirational leader. He is the change he seeks.

Danny leads with moral authority. His followers choose to follow him. They believe he is a good person with a shared passion for the railway.

He leads by example. He becomes what he repeatedly does. Excellence is a habit. Habit rewires the brain. What fires rewires.

Danny also knows how to run a small business.

He understands how money works and the importance of cash.

He is financially savvy.

His focus on people and money will ensure Danny leaves a strong RHDR legacy.

 The next Managing Director has a hard act to follow.


© Nick Marson and The Parallel Mind Ltd 2016RHDRDanny