A New Dimension in Leader Development

About five years ago, Colonel Art Athens ’78, USMCR (Ret.), had three encounters in the span of just a few months that opened his eyes about a growing need at the Naval Academy. A coach, a faculty member and a company officer each approached Athens, director of the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, to discuss developing their skills in areas including leadership, team building, and working with difficult people. 

“We did a lot for midshipmen in these areas,” said Athens. “We offered seminars, classes, trip experiences and more—but what were we doing for those who have the greatest influence ON those midshipmen?” 

Athens and his Stockdale Center colleagues began offering what they called “Influence the Influencer” programming, including a luncheon and seminars designed to help Academy staff, faculty and coaches bolster their leadership skills. In conversation with Tim Sullivan ’80, a Naval Academy Foundation board member and longtime philanthropic supporter of the Stockdale Center, Athens came to realize that as the program grew, it ran the risk of being crushed by its own weight without the strategic direction of someone able to focus entirely on leading this new initiative. 

A director’s position began to take shape, and in time, Sullivan and his wife, Sue, agreed to fund it.  

“The Naval Academy gets great raw material in the door in terms of the talents and character of midshipmen,” said Sullivan. “Sue and I are interested in doing anything we can to help the midshipmen become great leaders. This position has the potential to touch many lives, including those who may not have had the opportunity to have this kind of training before. We know from our own experience, our sons are all Division I athletes—some of their coaches went to schools with great leadership programs, some didn’t.  At the end of the day, leadership development is the core of what the Academy does.  Strengthening “Influencer Development” helps us find more people to carry the gospel to midshipmen, in and out of class.” 

Athens and his team conducted a national search for the inaugural Timothy and Susanne Sullivan Director of Influencer Development, ultimately selecting Rear Admiral Alan T. “Blues” Baker ’78, CHC, USN (Ret.). Baker’s 31-year naval career culminated with his service as Chaplain of the United States Marine Corps. Earlier in his career, he also served as Senior Chaplain at the Naval Academy. Following his retirement from the Navy, he established the consulting firm Strategic Foundations, where he taught, coached and catalyzed organizations valuing the intersection of learning, leadership and faith. 

He returned to the Academy at the start of the 2016-17 academic year and quickly embarked on what Athens calls a “listening tour,” engaging with influencers, delving into institutional research, working to determine staff, faculty and coach needs and interests before initiating major developments to the program itself. Some of his first steps included connecting personnel with professional leadership opportunities at the Center for Creative Leadership, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the American Council on Education.  

“When I first read the position description, I thought it sounded like the capstone of everything I’ve done in my life,” said Baker. “I was immediately drawn to it for that reason, and because, as far as I know, this has never been done on an enterprise-wide scale at a college or university. Our mission at the Naval Academy is to graduate leaders who are confident in making consistently courageous ethical decisions. Midshipmen gain leadership competencies from those spending more time with them than anyone else: our faculty, coaches and staff.  So we’re now taking a step up, focusing on these key influencers of midshipmen. We are reaching up to them and demonstrating we want to invest in them.  We are confident that they deserve the best the Stockdale Center offers to strengthen their leadership confidence and competencies.” 

Baker sees the Stockdale Center’s approach to influencer development as something distinct from traditional professional development. “It’s invitational, not compulsory. It’s not just another program. It’s focused on the whole person, the integral leader.” 

He conducted an enterprise-wide survey in conjunction with the Academy’s institutional research office in February. More than 300 key influencers enthusiastically responded to the survey and offered valuable programmatic recommendations. Thus far, initiatives include continued distribution of respected leadership books by nationally known authors, including featured presentations by Ken Blanchard, the continuation of the Honor, Courage and Commitment Luncheon series with an anticipated leadership presentation by pro golfer Billy Hurley III ’04 this fall, a very successful National Outdoor Leadership School expedition designed for USNA’s key influencers, and Baker’s recent certification as a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach.  

“We’ve realized there is a lot of interest and need for this work across the Academy,” said Athens. “People are very excited to have this new asset to develop their leadership.”