6 Leadership Traits I Learned from Cal Baker

6 Leadership Traits I Learned from Cal Baker 1
I brought my baby to work w/ me!

At age 20, I graduated with my B.A. in English. At age 22, I graduated with my M.A. in Educational Counseling. Within a few months of graduating, I landed a position as a high school guidance counselor in a 2600-student school in inner-city Phoenix.

When we moved to Tucson, I was hired on as the lead and sole counselor at a brand new high school in a suburban district. Along with the administration and faculty, I helped to shape the program there.

After having my first baby, I resigned...but the principal invited me to stay on and bring my baby to work! I did so until my baby was eight months old and resigned again. This time, the Superintendent invited me to work from home in communications/PR. I agreed without hesitation.

Little did I know that I had just walked into a position working with one of the strongest leaders I have ever encountered. Superintendent Cal Baker's humility, integrity, and innovation set him apart. He is courageous without being cocky, persuasive without being pushy, and straightforward while also being sincere.

Although there are many other lessons I have learned from observing and interacting with Cal, these 6 traits stick out to me as ones he excels at...and ones that I am aspiring to.

6 Leadership Traits I Learned from Cal Baker 2

1. Ask questions. Cal is always asking questions. In fact, I would venture to say that he asks more questions than he says statements. He's always dreaming above-and-beyond - thinking of new possibilities and solutions, pondering them aloud, wondering.

2. Be comfortable with uncomfortable silence. In leadership meetings, Cal doesn't fill the air with chatter. He lingers in the quiet, thoughtful...coaxing others to do the same by example. If there isn't anything to say, he doesn't say anything. [Isn't that a novel concept?]

3. Listen to learn. It is cliche to say that leaders should listen. In fact, most leaders probably say that they do it quite well. Unfortunately, most leaders listen to talk, meaning they take in the conversation...all the while, waiting for a chance to say the message that they are intending to say no matter what the speaker has to say. Calvin Baker is the opposite of that kind of leader. He wants to hear what people say. He waits for people to collect their thoughts. He is not too proud to change his mind.

4. Be less formal. Although highly intelligent and equipped with a killer vocabulary, Cal is casual in e-mail. He goes without fancy signatures and ostentatious titles. He sends concise messages that are to-the-point, signing with a simple dash and his initials. This unpretentiousness leads to approachability.

5. Be more formal. In dress. Cal's signature style is slacks and a button-down shirt (plus a tie). His professional clothing sends a clear message of competence (all clothing sends messages, after all). I'm still figuring out what my wardrobe should be like in this freelance world of blogging.

6. Read frequently & Run frequently. Maybe both at the same time? Cal runs often, daily even. As he pounds the pavement, he listens to audio books - keeping tabs on the latest business, education, and sociological trends. His commitment to keep his mind and body active is nothing short of inspiring to all those in his company. In fact, I think almost his entire leadership time has followed suit - making mental & physical fitness a priority.

Have you worked for or with any particularly outstanding leaders? What set them apart?

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17 comments on “6 Leadership Traits I Learned from Cal Baker”

  1. I would have to say that #3 is really important! I know the feeling of saying something and feeling like the other person's response was already planned before you said it and what you said didn't even matter. I really try hard not to do that! But then again, I can never hold a thought very long if someone else is talking so I either have to make a side comment or just forget it. :)

  2. When I think of professional leaders and mentors in my life I often go back to the Editor/Owner of the twice weekly newspaper I spent 5 years working for. He was rough around the edges - but he pushed me to have confidence in my abilities and to try new things and to work hard, I still miss him, 9 years after his death.

  3. I could not agree more.
    As always, this is said so perfectly. I have been so lucky in my career to work for some seriously great people. Great as leaders and great as people. Cal tops the chart in this area. He, and others who have learned from him and follow in his footsteps, are one of the many reasons I don't plan on leaving Vail. Ever.
    Awesome post!

  4. Oh, I love this! And I feel so challenged by it! I have had/met some awesome leaders who have changed my life. Your post has inspired me to write down, either personally or via blog post, what they have taught me.

    By the way, how did you finish your BA at 20? At what age did you start?

    1. I started undergrad at 18 with no college credits. I finished early by taking 18-25 credits PER SEMESTER. It was a crazy time of life, but...worth it.

  5. What a wonderful post Stephanie! You do this simultaneous tribute and self-examination thing oh-so-well.

    We admire the leadership of Mr. Baker as well. His passion for excellence and ability to nurture talent are nothing short of remarkable. He was a wise man to keep you on in whatever respect he could :).

    As a family living and working within "the district," we recognize how Calvin Baker works for not just the schools, but also the entire community- a community uniquely defined by its educational system.

    My previous manager at work was a great leader and (sadly) subsequently took a different higher position- as they often do... She was exceptional in her ability to connect with all of her employees (even night shift), and helped people really find their niche/passion on the unit.

    There is also no denying my husband's leadership leanings- now if I could just stay out of his way a bit more;)

  6. Wow! I hope Cal reads your post; what an honor for him! I really like #2 - be comfortable in uncomfortable silence. I find myself trying to fill these silences and usually say something that doesn't really add to the conversation.

    One of the traits I have admired is when leaders are not afraid to interact with the "little people." These leaders are not arrogant, and they treat the lowest level employees with the same amount of respect as the higher level employees.

    I also like when leaders allow employees to get to know them on a personal level. My dad was an elementary school principal and at the beginning and end of each school year, he had his entire staff plus their spouses and children over to our house for a picnic. It was a lot of fun for everyone and really gave a positive start to the year.

    Are you still working for the school district from your RV?

    1. I would have liked to continue working for the school district, but I didn't think it was fair to the district to continue on this year - when my mind & my body are so far away from the inner workings of the school community.

      Perhaps again in the future?

  7. Indeed I have worked with outstanding leaders, but I'm with you that Cal is the most inspirational and outstanding of them all. I, too, have learned many of the same lessons, errr, I am aspiring to learn the same lessons that you have from him, but I have a few more to add.
    1 - PASSION - Cal is one of the most passionate people I know. His passion for his family, his work, his physical fitness, his... is A-MAZING!!! It drives him and is terribly contagious. In general, those who really love what they do, do it well. I've learned that if I don't absolutely love what I am doing or have extreme passion for the cause, my success rate is not where it could be. Cal is also a master at helping others find their passion and then he places people in situations where that passion can be utilized. So, I've worked to find ways to love all that I do and all that is important to me in hopes of finding the level of success that Cal does.
    2 -REFLECTION - Cal is a mirror/window leader. When problems arise, he looks in the mirror for reasons (he is anything but a blamer), but when success soars across the district, he looks out the window to give praise where he honestly believes real credit is due. Does this mean he beats himself up for every problem? Absolutely not - see Melinda's post to explain that one, but he never takes the credit he so well deserves either! His humble nature is again A-MAZING!
    Cal was named Tucson's 40 Under 40 mentor of the year 2010 for a his incredible ability to mentor leaders. Andy Chlup's quote about him in that nomination sums him up nicely. "Cal is like having an extra dad, grandfather, and wise sage all in one." So true!

  8. These are great points! The trait I often admire about Cal is his focus on solutions rather than problems. He doesn't wallow in any problem; he just states it and then looks for ways to address it. I don't think of him as a problem solver, I think of him as a solution finder. And he's incredibly good at it!

  9. Never worked for Cal, but he seems to have a powerful persona that sets him apart from a lot of leaders. Glad you had a chance to work with an amazing leader. I have worked with various leaders in my college years and now my career and one of the most important thing I have learnt is to be fearless. Whatever I dream of doing, I just go ahead and start, if I fail, then i'll learn from it, and if I succeed, then it'll be a success story. Thats why I love how you and Tim followed your guts and got on an RV despite the odds....thats what I mean by fearless and you guys do demonstrate that leadership trait well.

  10. I have also worked with Cal Baker and would agree. He is an amazing leader not only in the school district, but also in the community!

  11. Wow - well said!

    I have been working for Cal for three years now, and can't think of a better role model. His talks at our yearly all-staff meeting always end up with me trying to relay his key points at the dinner table. Notice I said "trying" - he has a way with words, and reminds me so much of my father-in-law.

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