Shedding Unhealthy Weight

From New Canaan Society:

After a bit of impressive harmonica playing (which is how he got the nickname “Blues”), Rear Admiral Baker shares insights from his own life, both the victories and the trials, that shed light on how we can allow God to shape our plans.  Blues explores the assumptions and expectations–both those we have and those others have about us–that can weigh us down.  He also presents a Biblical path toward freedom and inspiration by shedding those unhealthy weights and allowing God to shape our expectations, thereby shaping our plans to align more closely with His perfect plan for us.

You can learn more about what Blues is doing now at

If you want to really see how Blues got his nickname, watch this video recorded at Blues Alley in Washington, DC."




I gathered with a group of leaders at a lakefront conference center.  Spectacular in summer, January in northern Michigan meant the event coordinators found an off-season price. Our theme was “gaining value via vulnerability.” As I shivered in the cold, I struggled to find value in vulnerability.  Yet Brené Brown, in her landmark book, Daring Greatly, writes, “Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional.”

We weren’t a vulnerable conference group.  We affirmed our identity from rank and titles.  We couldn’t share a conversation without making ourselves the successful protagonist.  After dinner, our homework was to, “discover and practice a non-threatening way of expressing vulnerability.”  Sensing too much personal risk, my alternative was escape.  I discovered a small bowling alley. Three other attendees were already hiding there.  One pointed to me and simply said, “Here is our fourth bowler.”  Reluctantly I joined their group.  The game proceeded like every other time I’ve bowled.  By the 9th frame, the experienced were in the 200’s and the novices were under 100.  My ego bruised, I felt tension having the lowest score.

After the game, frigid outside air gave us reason to remain huddled in our curved plastic bowling seats.  One colleague said, “Let’s try this again, but with our opposite hand.”  Left-hand bowling?  It seemed absurd.  It also became our connection point.  The four of us became instantaneously and equally vulnerable.  We were terrible.  No one broke two digits in ten frames.  We howled and laughed and stumbled and high-fived one another toward yet another gutter ball.  Suddenly we got the point: “Discover and practice a non-threatening way of expressing vulnerability.”

Consider assigning this homework to your group.  It starts with finding an activity where no one has expertise.  Left hand bowling is a simple equivalent to the ropes course or the “trust fall.”  Discover activities that build credibility and confidence through shared experiences where everyone is equally vulnerable.  As Patrick Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “… in the course of career-advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations.  It is a challenge for them to turn those instances off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required.”

If you seek a high-performance ethically-based leadership team, find something you aren’t good at, and simply do it!

Four Leadership Convictions

I last wrote that there are specific personal core convictions that inspire confidence and trust within organizations. These convictions are requisite for a healthy organization to achieve its full mission. If they are to be of value, they also must be practiced across the broader organization. These four convictions are translated into practice by each decision the leader makes:

Collaborative – This empowers shared ownership of the process, problems, and solutions.  It is within the team that best ideas emerge.  This is nothing new as Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.”  Your collaborative leadership style will build a team that can articulate the uniqueness of your organization to staff, volunteers, other constituants and stakeholders.

Transparent – Transparency is essential toward building and sustaining trust.  Being transparent includes being trustworthy, vulnerable, and accountable.  As a leader, you need a commitment to develop good discernment skills.  Listen before moving toward action.  Believe that vulnerability creates an environment of trust where colleagues can debate and disagree without fear of negative repercussions, because candor is critical to healthy culture.  See yourself as an “architect of agreement” who can articulate to various groups, each with its own idea about the direction of an organization, a shared, actionable plan.  This is especially important when it comes to the allocation and reallocation of resources in ways that are fair, creative and mission-focused.   

Stable – In order to consistently inspire confidence in the organizational vision and mission, there needs to be a compass that always points north no matter the situation.  As the organization shifts from strategy to implementation, stability is critially important in its value of creating confidence and trust.  Stability is key to capacity building, donor confidence, and increasing the retention rate.

Visible – Leaders need to be available, accountable and committed to the process.  Place a high value on “leadership by walking around.”  Your personal leadership style should articulate confidence in your organization and unified others in the way it delivers.   You can never over-communicate the vision. 

Alan Baker is Principal of Strategic Foundations and ministered in the Navy and Marine Corps as a chaplain. He now serves Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as an adjunct faculty member, and Senior Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy.


My goal in leading is to mobilize the energy of many others around a shared mission. In this sense, leadership is exercised by empowering. My primary motivations are first to establish solid values as the foundation for the work, practice, and organization I lead. Then from that foundation, my motivation is to bring the best possible growth to others. I influence growth through team leader positions where I have a close and cohesive relationship with the leadership team. I frequently provide a catalyst influence to groups and organizations, especially when there are new initiatives to be started. I enjoy being a prime mover, pioneer, and innovator. 

As a leader, I believe there are specific personal and organizational core convictions that inspire confidence and trust and are requisite for a healthy organization to achieve its full mission. The value of these convictions is commensurate with their significance and practice across the broader organization. These four convictions will influence my leadership approach of listening, clarifying, discerning, aligning, unifying, innovating, networking, communicating, and sustaining commitment.  I will address these four convictions separately in future blogs. 

Alan Baker is Principal of Strategic Foundations and ministered in the Navy and Marine Corps as a chaplain. He now serves Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as an adjunct faculty member, and Senior Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Leadership Challenge for 2014

This is an opportunity to discuss the challenge of risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure as a leader moves forward in creating organizational change. Vulnerability is essential toward gaining the trust and confidence of your team. When have you been vulnerable as a leader?

Alan Baker is Principal of Strategic Foundations and ministered in the Navy and Marine Corps as a chaplain. He now serves Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as an adjunct faculty member, and Senior Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Leading Recreationally

There is a great anecdote about Alan’s leadership gifts in Mike Bonem’s latest book, In Pursuit of Great and Godly Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012):

When Menlo Park Presbyterian Church made the decision to create the position of "directional pastor," senior pastor John Ortberg was specifically looking for someone who "leads recreationally."

In saying this, he meant a second chair person with strong leadership gifts and experience who would complement Ortberg's own ability to "communicate recreationally." Menlo Park Presbyterian is a diverse congregation that includes people who have been very successful in the marketplace, and Ortberg recognized that these other leaders would respond well to someone who was like them.

So the church called Alan "Blues" Baker to this role, a man who had risen to the rank of rear admiral in the Navy and who received theological degrees from Fuller and Gordon-Conwell seminaries.

Reflections on 2012

As we approach the final day of 2012, it is important to consider how valuable our relationships with others reinforced our experiences throughout this past year.

I began the year in Silicon Valley on the west coast and completed the year on the Chesapeake Bay on the east coast.  The journey to this new home is rich with conversations, readings, musings and a lot of time behind the steering wheel.

As I review this year’s journey, I am reminded of the value of colleagues and organizations dedicated to enriching the quality and value of life.  Academic institutions and their faculty prepare students for lifelong appreciating of learning and critical thinking.  Religious institutions and their clergy focus on our spiritual health and development.  Not-for-profits and their executive teams continually seek to find the greatest needs and address them via fiscal and human capital.  Our cousins in the corporate community continue to train us with their best leadership and management practices as well as offer a steady stream of volunteers and experts.

I am also grateful for great authors and their books.  In particular, I reread Jim Collins’monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, as well as The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins.  These are two foundational books for those seeking new horizons in 2013.

Winston Churchill’s maxim still holds true: “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”

May this coming year be especially fruitful for you, your organization and those entrusted to your leadership.  I look forward to hearing from you in the upcoming year.