Keith Baker, County Commissioner and retired U.S. Navy Commander, on growing up in a ‘golden era,’ working with Gen. Colin Powell and servant leadership
(Publication Date: 10.31.23)
In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, Adam Williams talks with Keith Baker, Chaffee County (Colo.) Commissioner, retired U.S. Naval Commander, and former owner of The Trailhead (Buena Vista, Colo.), to name just a few chapters in Keith’s story.
Keith talks about his country roots in Georgia and his perception of life as a child in the Sixties, a decade that had its challenges, for sure, but Keith was formed as an optimist from his early years on and overall saw it as as a golden era of possibility and progress, like with space flight and the moon landing in the summer of ’69.
They talk about Keith’s ambitions to be a Naval aviator, though he ultimately would become a career Surface Warfare officer instead, and would serve closely with General Colin Powell, and other top leaders, at the Pentagon.
Keith shares his thoughts on the hallmarks of great leaders, and what it was like to work with a consummate leader like Colin Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. Among other things.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.
Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams (00:16): Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanists, community and wellbeing rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams.
Today, I'm talking with Keith Baker, Chaffee County Commissioner, retired naval commander and former owner of the Trailhead, a local retail shop for outdoor equipment, to name just a few chapters in Keith's story.
With Keith being an elected official, I suspect it's easy for many of us to think that we know the man without really getting to know the man, the human behind the public facing roles that he's known for. So I used this opportunity to learn more about Keith as an individual.
We talk about his country roots in Georgia, and his perception of life as a child in the '60s, a decade that had its challenges for sure. But Keith was formed as an optimist from his early years on, and overall he saw it as a golden era of possibility and progress like with space flight and the moon landing in the summer of '69.
(01:13): We talk about Keith's ambitions to be a naval aviator, though he ultimately would become a career surface warfare officer instead and would serve closely with General Colin Powell and other top leaders at the Pentagon. Leadership is always a topic of interest to me, whether that's in the public or private sector. I've talked about it a few times on this podcast, and with someone sitting in front of me who has such rare credentials in the subject, I asked Keith for his insights.
(01:40): He shares his thoughts on what he's observed are the hallmarks of great leaders, and what it was like to work with a consummate leader like Colin Powell, who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. We talk about plenty of things in this conversation with family, strong work ethic, public service, and that ever present sense of optimism at the heart of it.
But I also found out only after we'd stopped recording and I took out a camera to photograph him, that there was a time in Keith's forties when he did some modeling work too. A man of many talents. Here we go with Keith Baker.
[Transition music, guitar instrumental]
(02:24): Keith, welcome to Looking Upstream. I am honored to have you here and thank you for being here.
Keith Baker (02:28): You're welcome. Thank you for having me. It's a real opportunity.
Adam Williams (02:32): I hardly know where to start with you, Keith, because your background, your experience, all of these things, they run so deep. They're such a rich, rich resume, so to speak, out there for your life experience, your professional experience.
And I suspect that all of these extraordinary things that are in your background, you walk down the street, the average person has no idea, right? They don't know what you're carrying, the experience and wisdom and all these things. I am grateful to you that you're sitting here now and that I get the opportunity to ask about it. I want to get to know who you are behind some of the more public-facing labels or what have you.
Keith Baker (03:10): Well, I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my experiences because you're right, there are... Lots of people have no idea about my life's background. I've only been here maybe approaching 30% of my life and people just know I showed up one day and that's about it. They weren't there through first grade and all the way up through school, the way that some people back where I grew up knew me.
They weren't there during my 23 years in the Navy to get to know me. And truthfully, the way the Navy operates, I was only around an individual person maybe three years, although I did develop a lot of friendships, which have lasted many years and all the way back to first grade, in fact. But it's just an opportunity to share my story, which I don't think many people around here really know.
Adam Williams (04:04): The military experience is an interesting one in that regard, is that you might be around someone for a little bit of time and then you might see them again around the world at some other point...
Keith Baker (04:14): Right.
Adam Williams (04:15): ... in your experience. And so there ends up being this familiarity with a lot of people, but you're never with the same person or people all the time, for sure. But I want to start with the start.
Keith Baker (04:15): Sure.
Adam Williams (04:26): I definitely want to get to your Navy experience. I'm really interested in that. I'm interested as a veteran and just as a curious person, but I want to start at the start, where you grew up, what was going on with your family, the environment around you. If you can just kind of paint that picture for us and let us know first grade, who was first grade Keith, and whatever else.
Keith Baker (04:48): Well, I was born in Rome, Georgia, which at that time was a small town, probably still a small town. The whole world has grown, and Rome has not grown quite as much as the rest of the world has. But at that time, the town was about 30,000, but I grew up out in the country. That was where I was born because that was where the hospital was.
(05:09): And I grew up in a small country community and hardworking people. My family, previous generations had been farmers, and my mother's side of the family had been tenant farmers or sharecroppers or something a couple of times.
And then of course, they were all impacted by the Great Depression. My great-grandfathers had been relatively successful, but one of them just about lost everything. The other one was able to hold onto the farm and everything. But that greatly affected my experience because I was one generation removed from all that.
(05:50): And most of my aunts and uncles, my parents were hourly workers. My dad worked in a cotton mill. Most of my family worked in the same cotton mill. My mom became an LPN. I had a sister who was born with some severe challenges, and she passed away when she was 14, I was 10. And my mom went to a local vocational school and became an LPN and continued to work there.
So just a simple rural existence and a life. It was more than an existence. It was a great place to grow up, and a great way to grow up out in the country, and having the woods and the streams and grew up right next to a lake, a freshwater lake, did a lot of fishing, a lot of hunting, bird hunting, small game hunting. There weren't many deer around at that time, so I didn't do a lot of hoof hunting. But it was a lot of fun and it was good.
(06:47): And it was a great time to grow up. I think it was a golden era of public education in the US. Teachers were well-respected and I mean respected by the community in general. It was a position and a job which people held in high regard. And I remember how my teachers were treated, and how the parents treated them, and how the PTA operated and how it worked and everything.
And it was a tremendous era of optimism and opportunity. The space program was beginning. I know some people look back and think about the Cuban Missile Crisis and everything, and I do remember in first grade doing the drills where we would get under our desks and everything, as if they were going to be much protection.
But at the same time, a lot of the African colonies and Asian colonies were gaining their independence from Britain and France and Belgium and Portugal and Spain and the other colonial countries. The United Nations was still young and people held it in high regard and it was very viable. And so it was just a great time to be a kid. It was wonderful. I grew up, I was formed as an optimist, and I still am.
Adam Williams (08:05): I want to ask about your sister, because that's a very significant experience for your family to go through. So she was your older sister. It sounds like you had known of whatever these birth defects were your entire life.
Keith Baker: Right. Yeah.
Adam Williams: So you were aware of something, I imagine, in the house. But then when she dies and she's no longer part of the family, do you remember how that affected you? Like how did you process it? How aware of what all that meant were you, do you think, at 10 years old?
Keith Baker (08:36): Well, it was tough. It was my first close experience with death. I had had my father's father, my grandfather had passed away when I was very young, and then I'd known of other people dying, but I didn't really have to comprehend it as carefully and closely as I did with Karen, my sister.
And my dad, I lost him just over a year ago, and I delivered the eulogy. And he had been interviewed by a guy, wrote a book about 25 years ago, called Wisdom of Our Fathers. And I saw this in Men's Health magazine. It was just a little kind of a byline or a sidebar, and it said, "One of our writers, Jo Keita, is working on this book and he wants to interview people's fathers" and everything. And I thought, well, he's probably wanting to speak with bank presidents and CEOs and people like that, but I thought "My dad has some things worth hearing and has some lived experience that he should share and people should hear."
(09:44): And so I submitted my dad's name and he contacted my father and talked with him on the phone and interviewed him. But in the course of the eulogy, I shared some of the things that my dad said in that book, and one of them was on grief and suffering from my sister's passing.
And see, my dad was in the Army when she was born. He was at Fort Benning and she was born and my mom was in our hometown of Rome. And so it makes me shudder to think the challenges that they went through at that time being a young family. I think dad would've been 22. Mom was 19. And fortunately, my mom's family, my dad's family were all there to support when she was born, but she had to have some fairly major surgery within about a month or six weeks after she was born. And then there were things like the cerebral palsy that she never recovered from. She could never walk and talk.
(10:44): But I think she had a much higher level of awareness than most people would've thought. She could make shadow puppets and would entertain herself. She could find a sunny spot in the house somewhere where the light was coming in and she would laugh, and she was just a real sunny spirit.
Adam Williams: Do you remember how the grief in the house was processed by your parents with you? Did it change anything about the relationships as you understood them with you and your parents? I mean, did that leave you an only sibling, an only child, I mean?
Keith Baker (11:22): Yes. It left me an only sibling. I'd say that perhaps we never really actively processed it. We didn't sit down as a family and say, "Okay, this has happened," or anything like that. And is that unhealthy or is it healthy? I don't know. I'm not a psychologist or I'm not a grief counselor or anything like that. But we dealt with it in our own way. I don't think it didn't cast a cloud over us. Now, on her tombstone, it says "She was the sunshine of our home," and I picked that out. They had some sample things when we went to select her marker.
Adam Williams: So you remember that?
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams: You were part of that process-
Keith Baker: And I saw that. Yeah.
Adam Williams: ... why.
Keith Baker: And so I selected that, because it was true. She was. It didn't mean that there was never any sunshine after that, but it was just that she had a unique spirit, that it did bring something to our home. And while... Well, back to what my dad had said in the book, he said that initially he felt some misgivings because he didn't think he felt sad enough or sorry enough. But after a few months had passed, he came to realize that it was just relief he felt that her suffering was over.
Adam Williams: It sounds like you're an optimistic person, and that your family was a family of optimists that believed in that positive energy.
Keith Baker (13:02): Right. Well, we had to be. And that was kind of the era that it was like, I was reading an article recently about a couple who had faced some... They were an interracial couple in the early 1960s, and eventually, I think they became somewhat disillusioned, but it was talking about their early 1960s experience. And it was that time of optimism.
You thought that with hard work and with rational dialogue and thoughtful decision-making and trusting in science and others and having a reasonably shared system of values, that a better day lay ahead, that we were on a progressive course and we were making progress.
(13:54): I mean, look at all the medical advances that have been made. Just a tremendous world of opportunity was unfolding, and that was kind of the world that they had grown up in. They didn't raise children during the Depression. They were children during the Depression, and they were, I think, too young to really realize they didn't have the mouths to feed and the feet to shot and everything else.
But they had been through that. They had been through World War II, they had been through the New Deal, and they had seen what could happen and that there could be a better day ahead no matter how dark it may seem at the present time.
Adam Williams: And would've learned resilience and that we are capable of not only experiencing those dark things, but we have the capacity to rise and move forward from them.
Keith Baker: Exactly. Absolutely. So that was kind of my imprint, I guess, is that that's the way we look forward. And so back to my sister, there's not a day goes by that I don't think of her many times a day, and I'm sure my mom does. As I mentioned, dad's gone now. But yeah, she was a tremendous influence on us all.
Adam Williams (15:08): Something else about your childhood before we move on and we get into this Navy experience that I'm excited to hear about. You were... Well, you celebrated your 16th birthday by going to the mill to work, but to start your job at the mill.
Keith Baker: That is my birthday. Yeah.
Adam Williams (15:24): Why? Why there? What was it about that... Had you been just waiting for that day, that moment to join people you knew, your family members and whatnot at the mill? Or what was it about working there that either was necessary or appealed to you?
Keith Baker (15:40): Well, I had worked a few odd jobs around before. I had helped cut hay and haul hay, and I had worked on a couple of construction sites, and I'd helped my uncle who had gotten out of the brick laying business. He had been a brick mason, and he got into welding and he opened a machine shop, and I kind of jokingly called it a mobile implement repair service.
He had a truck set up with an ARC welder in the back, and if somebody's tractor broke or a plow broke or something, he could drive out in the middle of the field and fix it right there, which was big, but a lot of people brought things over to him.
(16:18): And this was out in the country, too. It was on our old home place, as we called it. It was on the baker farm, and he had converted one of the barns into his machine shop and everything. So I just always wanted to, I don't know, kind of have my own money, I guess. And it wasn't a lot, but-
Adam Williams: What was the wage?
Keith Baker (16:37): I started out at $2 an hour. And then after about a month, it went to 2.22. And then it never did go up a lot after that, because I was a gopher. I wasn't really a skilled worker, although I did develop some skills and they would occasionally entrust me to a small work group, like three or four of us or something that were doing something.
(16:59): Didn't require a whole lot of skill, like wash down one of the back lots or something, or maybe where we were dismantling some machinery to scrap it or something like that. I'd be in charge of that. But if it was anything that required a lot of precision and a lot of fine-tuning and adjustments or anything, I was never the guy in charge of that.
(17:20): But it was good to have some responsibility. And the mill, it was a convenient, steady job. And what I'd really wanted to do was to take flying lessons with my money. But also, like any kid, I wanted a motorcycle, and I wanted a car, and I wanted some other stuff, so... And clothes have always been semi-important to me. So it was just having my own disposable income and then record albums and everything that a teenager did in the '70s.
Adam Williams (17:53): Yeah, we're talking early '70s, right?
Keith Baker (17:55): That was 1972, June 13th, 1972, my 16th birthday.
Adam Williams: So did you get those flying lessons?
Keith Baker (18:02): I didn't get to take any. I went flying a couple of times like just riding in the airplane and occasionally getting to take the yoke and everything, but I didn't get to solo or anything like that at the time.
Adam Williams: Your dad was a veteran?
Keith Baker: Yep.
Adam Williams (18:16): But Army. What drew you to the Navy? And did his experience, whatever that might've been, influence your decision to want to go into the military in general?
Keith Baker: It wasn't so much my dad's experience because he had been drafted and everything, and that was during the Korean era.
Adam Williams: Okay.
Keith Baker (18:32): He talked about it, and I mean, I got to look at his books and everything, and he had some of his uniform items still around the house, and we had photos of him and everything, of course.
But all of my uncles and my grandfather on my dad's side had been in the Army, and one of my uncles got killed right after World War II, began in a B-17 crash in Natal, Brazil that was on a ferry flight. And there was some fuel contamination or something, and the plane went down pretty soon. But they were headed from Brazil. They would've flown over to near Dakar, Senegal, and then they were headed on to the Middle East after that.
(19:16): But then two of my other uncles, the one I mentioned earlier who was a brick mason, he was severely wounded at Normandy. He didn't go ashore in the first wave or anything like that. I think he went ashore like on the second day, but he was severely wounded, and then he got evacuated in England, healed up, and he's sent back, and he got wounded again. And at that time, they sent him back to the US. But they had all been in the Army.
On my mom's side, all my uncles had been in the Navy. And so somebody said, "Well, why don't you split the difference and join the Marine Corps?" Which I would've been a naval aviator in the Marine Corps if everything had worked out. But there was just something about the Navy that captured the young boy's heart. I think it was when...
(20:02): Well, one of the things that made me want to be a Navy pilot early on was one morning, and I think it had to have been Alan Shepard's suborbital flight, that my mom got me up early and said, "There's something I want you to see." And she took me in and sat me down in front of the TV, and it was one of the early space flights. And I think it was Alan Shepard because I know it wouldn't have been John Glenn because he did the orbital flight, and that was in February of '62, so it had to have been Alan Shepard.
I was mesmerized. That was everything and everything to me like through my adolescence. And most of the Mercury astronauts, the original seven, were naval aviators. There were three Navy and one Marine. John Glenn was a Marine. But then the influence from my uncles and I guess the space program and my grandfather, my mother's father subscribed to National Geographic and National Geographic, for some reason, they seemed to be very much infatuated with the Navy also, so they had frequent Navy articles or articles about the Navy.
(21:20): I remember when Enterprise, Long Beach and Bainbridge, I almost called it Brain Damage, because that was the sailor's nickname for the Bainbridge. All ships have a nickname, just like all-
Adam Williams: Planes.
Keith Baker (21:34): Yeah, all planes have nicknames and everybody has a call sign and everything. So that was what they called Bainbridge. But when they did the around-the-world nuclear task force cruise, were the famous picture of Enterprise and Long Beach and Bainbridge, and they've got the E equals MC squared on the flight deck of Enterprise and everything. That was a big article in National Geographic, and of course they covered the space program.
So there was just that co-mingling of the space program and the Navy and naval aviation that... And I do remember as I was going through the recruiting process, we were sitting in the den. I was home from school or something. I asked dad, I said, "Will it bother you, me going in the Navy?" And he looked at me and he said, "Gosh, no." He goes, "I won't feel offended or anything about you going into the Navy."
Adam Williams (22:23): Maybe he didn't have a particular affinity for the Army necessarily. It's where he was drafted, right?
Keith Baker: Right. Yeah. And he wasn't a career guy or anything, and I don't think it was one of those things that he had grown up his entire life wanting to be in...
Adam Williams: In his blood and passing on to you?
Keith Baker: Right.
Adam Williams (22:41): Well, while we're talking about space flight, it's not really occurred to me before to ask anyone about the moon landing. Well, you were old enough that I assume you recall that happening. Did you see it on TV?
Keith Baker: Almost every minute of that day.
Adam Williams: Tell me about it.
Keith Baker (22:55): We were going to Florida. The mill closed down around July the 4th every year. But my dad had been there long enough that, I don't remember why we didn't go to Florida around July the 4th that year, but we went. See, one of my uncles who had been in World War II, one of the Navy guys, worked for Eastern Air Lines, and they had moved to Miami in the late '50s, and we had been to visit them one time, not long after they had moved down there. And this was the summer of '69.
And we left, gosh, I think it would've been on Friday the 18th of July because Apollo 11 launched on Wednesday, July 16th. I drove to Florida. We got there on Sunday, which was the day they landed, and we were listening to the news or listening to the radio. And I remember one of the hourly news broadcasts that they used to have on AM radio all the time, they said, "Apollo 11 has landed on the moon."
And so we got to my aunt and uncle's and cousin's house late that afternoon or early evening. At about 9:00 PM Eastern Time, they came on, they were preparing to walk and everything. And then, I don't know, it may have been, seems like it was about 10:30 Eastern Time that Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder and stepped off, and that's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. He and Buzz Aldrin did a short walk about.
Adam Williams (24:29): I don't know an equivalent in my lifetime, an experience. I haven't sat and thought about this, and so I don't know if one comes to mind for you, but this idea of reaching this kind of milestone experience as a nation, as a world. To see men go out there and bounce around and walk on the moon must have been just amazing.
Keith Baker (24:54): Right. And it was socially, it was tremendous because President Kennedy was the one who had established that goal, and then of course he was assassinated, which was a tremendous blow. And Vietnam was going on. But it was one of those things that, in essence, kind of unified the world. I think it was John Stewart wrote a song, not Jon Stewart from...
Adam Williams: Yeah, The Daily Show and all the things.
Keith Baker: Daily Show.
Adam Williams: Yeah.
Keith Baker (25:25): But John Stewart was a member of one of the folk groups, and he wrote a song called Armstrong. And part of the lyrics of that song is about how people in New Delhi and Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro and everywhere, people worldwide were watching that at the time, and we all felt a kinship as humans, not just Americans.
But I do say, there was a great deal of national pride there because it was as if... Well, it was like the little plaque on the leg there that they uncovered and left there. "Here, men from the planet Earth first set foot on the Earth's moon, 20th July 1969," something like that. That may not be verbatim accurate, but this part is, "We came in peace for all mankind."
Adam Williams (26:23): Yeah, yeah. It was a big, big experience.
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams: Big moment in time.
Keith Baker: And that was us carrying the flag for everybody.
Adam Williams (26:33): When we talk about... You're talking about National Geographic, you're talking about all these influences both for flight, for Navy, what comes to my mind, and it factored into my deciding to enlist in the Army, there is a level of romanticism that was in my mind an appreciation for history, an appreciation and curiosity for things like articles that are showing you what's around the world, military and otherwise.
I considered going into the Navy as well, and for whatever reason didn't walk down the hall and go through the door and talk to a Navy recruiter after having talked with an Army recruiter. My dad had been drafted and he was in the Army. I was just curious about this, and it's our longest standing force, so history. I wonder what I missed by not going into the Navy, and you had 23 years there. Do you have a way to describe that experience being at sea, being part of what is, I think what the second-oldest force in our country, right?
Keith Baker (27:35): Well, it's actually, I think the Marine Corps is older than the Army if you trace it back, but I know Army and Marine Corps nip and tuck there, so the Navy's the third.
Adam Williams: But the Marines come under the Naval department. That's interesting.
Keith Baker: You're right. They're in the Department of the Navy, but see, the Navy wasn't... The Navy's origins are a little bit, the Continental Congress passed a bill to procure three frigates or something like that, and that's where we trace our origins back to that, October 13th, 1775. So the Army predates that.
(28:12): But now here's something that's kind of interesting, is that the Constitution says, "Maintain a Navy." It says, "Raise an army." So the Navy, we always pat ourselves on the back and say, "We are permanently authorized. The Army is temporarily authorized." But the Army's been around forever and it's probably not going anywhere soon.
(28:40): But back to your original question in there, some people like being at sea and some people can't stand it. I enjoyed it. It was on a bright sunny day like this being out there and the signal flags flapping in the breeze and the bosun's pipe and just the daily routine of being at sea, it appealed to me. I'll admit it. Some people say, you'd have to be crazy, but haze gray and underway. That was our job. That was our mission.
And I didn't think that... I remember one of the first farewell thing that we had, and I said to my junior counterparts, "At times, if you're sitting down and you're doing some of your paperwork or you're doing something, it might seem like a drudge, but you have to remember you're doing something far greater than that. That's like laying one brick."
(29:42): It's the old story about somebody walked up on a work site and asked three guys, "Well, what are you doing?" One said, "I'm mixing mortar," and the other one said, "I'm laying brick," and the third one said, "I'm building a cathedral." That was the way I always looked at things. I was, when I was standing at the center line, Polaris, on the bridge at midnight, I didn't think like, "I'm standing here at the center line, Polaris, at midnight, and boy, this is a drag." I thought, "I'm doing my little part to build a better world," to when the Berlin Wall came down, when all that happened in '91 when Mandela got his freedom, those were things that I had worked for.
That was what was in my mind that I was doing. I'm working to defend freedom, to spread democracy, to make the world safe for democracy, and to do all those higher things. That was the vision, and that was what motivated me.
Adam Williams: While I did not make a career of it, I was in for four years, I did like to look at what I felt like was the specialness of some of those experiences, even in the little things.
(30:47): So for example, I was in Korea for a year and our barracks were right across a road from the edge of an airfield, and we had Chinook helicopters and some others out there, but they're the ones that stand out in my mind because they would fly over to that edge of the airfield. I could have hit a golf ball, maybe thrown a baseball and hit one of these things.
And when they would practice their elevator raises and different skills over there, and it would be rattling the windows of our barracks, and of course that is going to annoy some people, but I preferred to look at it as this is the only time in my life most likely I'm ever going to have this experience with that helicopter feet away and I can just watch them do their thing.
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams: And it was for a limited amount of time.
Keith Baker (31:31): Right. Well, there's so many experiences like that that I can think of that are meaningless to most people and be meaningless to a lot of people that had served in the Navy there.
Adam Williams: Yup.
Keith Baker (31:42): But I can remember and remember fondly some of my favorite stories are still from my days in the Navy, things that... I remember, Eisenhower published a book, think in 1964, and it was called At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. And the stories that I share with people, there's still a large number of them that come from my Navy experience, because it was a unique experience.
People were very team-oriented and team-motivated. And occasionally, you had somebody that didn't adapt very well, but they sort themselves out one way or another, and there are people that I'm in touch with on a daily basis. Not every one, every day.
Adam Williams: I get you.
Keith Baker (32:36): But there's not a day goes by that I don't have some correspondence or phone conversation or something with someone that I served with.
Adam Williams: It's an extraordinary thing that I think the majority of our population is not aware of, and I think it's one of those experiences that if you have not done it, you don't understand it.
Keith Baker: Right. Yeah.
Adam Williams: It's a special thing to have experienced all the ins and outs of a military life, for whatever length of time.
Keith Baker (33:01): Yeah. Yes. It's a unique existence. And I think it's something that most people would benefit from having some level of experience that way. If it's a military, I don't know if it's a Coast Guard. Coast Guard's a good service too, and other things like that. But I think that there are people that never get the benefit of learning how to work in a team.
Now, of course, it generates a lot of frustrations, too. I don't think the military is a better world than a civilian world, but there are things that I miss about it. But the number one thing that I miss about, it's the people.
It's just like owning the Trailhead. I got into the business because I like the outdoors, I love outdoors activities. I like the gear. I was very much a gearhead and still am, but what I really miss about the store is that contact with customers and helping customers meet their needs, solve a problem, answer their questions. That's what I really miss, is the people.
Adam Williams (34:14): I think there's something to be said for learning, maybe in a deeper way than we have in our just typical civilian experience in our society, to learn how to care together and invest ourselves together towards something that is for the greater good. I don't know that we have an equal understanding of that across the board, and to be able to pull together.
(34:35): Like you've described some of the things in history when... I mean, if we think of World War II, there was a unity around that. Landing on the moon, there was a global unity around what was just accomplished. And I think some of that goes missing across society, certainly maybe now more than the optimistic times you described when you were a child. And being in the military is one way to learn how to at least participate in that, maybe in a more direct way, in a bigger way, and have that just be part of the ongoing, I don't know, training. It's just inherent in it. We're pulling for something bigger, better.
Keith Baker (35:09): Right.
Adam Williams: Mandela's freedom, whatever it is.
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams: Even if you aren't the one there to open the door for him.
Keith Baker: Right.
Adam Williams: You know?
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams (35:16): I want to ask you about a particular time in your career when you were in Washington DC. You were at the Pentagon, correct?
Keith Baker: Yes.
Adam Williams: And so your role at this point as an officer was to, I'll use the word advise. I don't know if that's a word you would use, but it was to assist in some way top brass. Colin Powell is a name that stands out to me. That is someone that you worked with?
Keith Baker: Yes.
Adam Williams: Closely?
Keith Baker: Right.
Adam Williams: There were many reasons that I went into the Army, but I read his autobiography, My American Journey, and I know that that was a positive influence in that list of reasons too, because I appreciated his experience. I appreciated a lot of things about him, in my perception from afar. I never met him. I heard him speak once and then I read his biography. Can you tell me something about your experience in working with General Powell?
Keith Baker (36:06): The thing that I share with most people that I think says the most about him, is that you could be in a room alone with your back to the door and the door open so you wouldn't hear the door open, and he could step into the room and you'd know he was there. You just feel him. And then you'd turn and there he was.
That only happened once with me, but that's the kind of power he had. And he wasn't a small guy. He was probably six two. By that time, by the time he was a four star general, he had grown, he had filled out. He was a big guy. He could have played linebacker somewhere and made a difference. But it was more than just his physical presence. He had a tremendous moral stature that a few people I've ever been around have. And it wasn't just because he was the chairman, it wasn't... I mean, he was the chairman because of that.
Adam Williams: Sure. Yeah.
Keith Baker: It wasn't just his rank. It wasn't just those four stars on each shoulder and all his ribbons and badges and everything else. He just had a tremendous, tremendous moral stature.
Adam Williams: I think there's something I learned in my experience, which was that there was a distinction between showing respect for the collar or showing respect for the human that was wearing it.
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams (37:36): Those come with different feels. And the system requires that you salute someone of higher rank, an officer of higher rank, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they have that moral stature you're talking about, that you feel the leadership, you feel what you need to feel to truly respect them human to human.
Keith Baker (37:59): Yeah. Some people, you wonder how they ever got to where they are, and then there are others that you say, you know like in 1996 and 2000 people were wishing that General Powell would run for president. And you knew how he got where he was. You never questioned like, "Gosh, how did this guy get here?"
Adam Williams: And he didn't want to, right?
Keith Baker (38:25): No, no, he did not run for president.
Adam Williams: Right. Which is who you want for president, as far as I'm concerned. Somebody who has that moral character, has the leadership that he had, had all these positive qualities and was willing to say, "I don't want that role," rather than somebody who's power-hungry and is ego-driven and greed-driven and all the things, right, that can end up in that seat. I would want to vote for somebody like Colin Powell along with a lot of other reasons, because he wasn't hungry for that power.
Keith Baker (38:58): Yeah. He wasn't trying to compensate or fill a void or something. And if you look back the early days of the nation, that was kind of the way it was.
Adam Williams: Service.
Keith Baker: Yeah. You didn't want somebody who was actively seeking the job. Actively seeking the job was the first disqualification, like Aaron Burr or somebody like that who had that and probably Hamilton, they had that obvious-
Adam Williams: Ambition.
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams: Yeah.
Keith Baker: Uncloaked ambition. Whereas somebody like Washington and even Jefferson and Adams, yeah, I'm sure they were ambitious, but they had to restrain it. They didn't make a big to-do of things.
Adam Williams: I want to talk about leadership. It's something that I've brought up a few times on this podcast with people, and I can't think of anybody who I've had sitting across from me on this podcast who is better equipped to talk about this, whether it's the 23 years in the Navy.
You retired as a commander, which is O-5 equivalent to lieutenant colonels across the other main branches, the Air Force, Army, Marines. Let alone then in all the years since then, since you retired from the Navy, eight years on the town trustees, which for people who aren't from here, the equivalent of city council, and you will be by the time you're done with your second term as County Commissioner, eight years of that service, too. Is that correct?
Keith Baker: Yes.
Adam Williams: This is a lot and I haven't even accounted for all of it. You mentioned the Trailhead. That was a retail shop for outdoor gear that you owned for nearly a decade. I mean, there's all kinds of facets of leadership that you have experience with, public service, all of these things. So again, I can't think of anybody else sitting across from me to be more qualified to talk about leadership. What is your concept of leadership and what makes good leadership?
Keith Baker: Well, I subscribe to the concept that leaders are made, not born. People are born with certain attributes and talents and everything. It's how are those developed and how do they develop over time?
(41:05): Among the things that I was blessed with was, early on, I had experience where leadership was fostered and nurtured and trained. If there's one thing that I wish I had had in my life throughout, it's a strong mentor. I've never really had what you would think of as a true mentor. I have people that I can pick up the phone and call and ask for advice, but I've never really had anybody that calls me and checks in with me and asks me how it's going.
Adam Williams: From the mentor position?
Keith Baker: Exactly.
Adam Williams: To offer counsel or anything?
Keith Baker: Right. And I know people that do, and it's always something that, I'll use a word, I've envied. I've said, "Gosh, I wish I had somebody like that."
Adam Williams: Yeah.
Keith Baker (41:53): But I've had the benefit of those experiences and the Navy and my fraternity when I was in college, Sigma Nu, even at that time, they took a very strong approach to nurturing leaders and developing leaders and now even more so. And Sigma Nu was a unique fraternity. Its whole founding principle was anti-hazing. And I mean, that was just verboten and we were founded at VMI by Confederate veterans at the time. And the reason they started it was anti-hazing because there was a very bad hazing culture, VMI at that time.
(42:37): Anyway, even my fraternity helped develop leadership. But the Navy did take a very methodical approach to developing leadership. And we had a program at that time called Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness, and it was kind of an internal program and going through your earliest training division officer courses and so forth, there was a two-week course in Leadership Management Education and Training, and there was a lot of scenario-driven things and role plays and stuff. And I think that helped develop it a great deal as well.
(43:15): But leadership to me, I guess if people are trying to hang it on a hook, my inner thinking is servant leadership. If you read a lot of histories and biographies and things that the thing that really is kind of the hallmark of great leaders are they take care of their people, whatever that means. If it means making sure that they're adequately equipped, if they get adequate rest time, if they get good food, if they have the tools necessary to do their job, if they have a good working environment, if their direct supervisors treat them well, all those sorts of things that sad to say many times, it's just eliminating the dissatisfiers.
(44:06): To try to make sure that you're taking care of your people and that they know that they're valued not just as a tool, not as just somebody to do work, but as a human being. And that's not becoming their best friend because there are times that trying to be their best friend is inconvenient. It doesn't work. You have to have a professional relationship, but it can still be cordial and you truly care about them because those factors are going to affect their performance.
Adam Williams (44:40): I think service is the word that comes to my mind with it. So you said servant leadership.
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams (44:45): If I picture a pyramid of here's the one person on top of whatever the organization is, and then there's all these layers of people reporting up the chain and doing the various jobs, they're not there to serve the person on top so much as the person on top is there to clear the way, I feel like, and empower the best to come out of all of those people.
Keith Baker (45:08): Sure. Yeah. It's remove those impediments, remove those things. I think it's back to that optimistic personality. I think most people, the vast majority of people get up every day and they want to do the best possible job they can, wherever, whatever it is.
I hear that all the time tossed around about these mindless, brainless bureaucrats in Washington. Well, when I went to the Pentagon, everybody there, everybody that I worked with wanted to do the best job they could. Well, I'm sure there are people, I could probably think of maybe a handful that were just kind of skating along, but that's probably, I could count them on one hand.
(45:54): Among a leader's key functions is to remove obstacles and remove barriers and lower the hurdles for their people to do a good job. Because I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people want to do a good job. That when they get up every day, they want to do the best possible job they can. If it's assembling an airplane, thank God they want to do the best job they can. If it's performing surgery, if it's mounting a new set of tires on a car, if it's processing the payroll for somebody, if it's preparing food, whatever it is, I genuinely believe most people want to do the best possible job they can. And my role as a leader, as an elected official is to create the conditions to help them do that.
Adam Williams (46:51): I think people want to contribute and they want to feel supported and maybe permitted to do that, rather than having to look at a boss as being an obstacle who is in their way. Because so often, you're talking about removing obstacles, so often it's the person in charge who becomes an obstacle, and that can happen for various reasons. But if there's ego or there's insecurities or there's their own ambitions that supersede whatever the actual leadership is, I think is when we get into trouble, whether that's politics or business or anything.
Keith Baker (47:19): Right. Yeah. If you look at what the attributes of a good leader are, and unfortunately... And I say good leader as opposed to strong leader, because a lot of times they'll say, "What makes a strong leader?" And people focus on that strong, they got to be strong, strong, strong. And I think that leads to micromanagement, which some of us-
Adam Williams (47:19): Control.
Keith Baker (47:39): ... used to joke around. Yeah, it's that control motive. And I was listening to something a few days ago where somebody mentioned it's the flavor of the month in these leadership and management processes. And you had total quality management about 30 years ago.
You had Dr. Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and some of those are still valid and they're still great and they're good touchstones, just like people still read the Bible, but I think generating trust and instilling confidence in people are key. And this kind of gets back to a term that you used to hear called empowerment. And I think people misunderstand what empowerment was and is.
(48:26): I think too many people understood empowerment to be totally hands-off, no guidance given, and that morphed on into no nurturing, no training, and that doesn't work because you're just letting people run hog wild.
(48:42): That's not what empowerment was, not what empowerment is. This is something we're working with in county government now because we're updating our Land Use Code, which the old one was largely silent on so many things that the staff wasn't empowered to make decisions. This time, we're going to try to be somewhat descriptive and prescriptive so that a staff member, when somebody comes in and asks if they can do something or wants to fill out an application or submit a project, that staff has the guidelines, has the policy there that they're empowered to start making some decisions and speed up the process.
So it isn't that everything, almost everything, had to rise up to the Planning Commission and fence onward to the county commissioners, and it took months and months to get a decision. Let's be pretty clear about what the standards are, so that not only does the citizen understand them, that staff can understand them, and in many cases approve things that are right now taking far longer than they should to be approved. That's what empowerment is, and I believe in empowering people to the extent possible.
Adam Williams (50:04): It leads me to this line that I use and think of often with leadership, and that is that people lead from where they are. I think it shouldn't just be the person who has the title of boss, whatever form that might take. I feel like we all have the capacity that when we are permitted and empowered to make decisions, to take actions, to move the ball forward, you can lead from wherever you are in the hierarchy in a sense. Leadership is not just people leadership, is what I'm saying.
Keith Baker (50:30): Sure. Yeah.
Adam Williams (50:30): It's stepping up as a confident, empowered, skilled, thoughtful leader who's contributing to the overall improvement of whatever we're talking about.
Keith Baker (50:41): Yeah. And this gets back to your question from a few minutes ago or your observation from a few minutes ago about there are a few people who have served in the military these days, and I think that helps foster this, what I regard as a pervasive misconception about the military and how we operated.
(51:03): People say, "Well, you just want to bark orders and give orders and stuff like that," and it's like, "Well, if you'd have been there, you know that's not the way it is." Now, it isn't asking or requesting things. I mean, you are clear, but that eliminates ambiguity. You say, "This is what I want you to do." You don't say, "I don't need you to do it," because people don't care if that's an inner need that you have really.
I mean, let's just be clear about it. Let's say, "This is what I want you to do, or this is your task and these are the standards and everything," and that way there's not a lot of misunderstanding. And when the sergeant or the petty officer walks away, people are going like, "Well, what am I supposed to be doing and how am I supposed to be?"
(51:50): You don't tell people how they're supposed to be doing it so much, but you tell them what to do and give them some guidelines, give them some guardrails. So that's something that I think people have a total lack of understanding about how things really work in the military. Because you're going to be living with those people. You don't want to invite yourself to a blanket party. You have to be personable and you have to be respectful. You don't "Drop down and give me 20," that's bootcamp.
Adam Williams (52:22): Yeah. There's a cliche around how all of that works, I think, and it goes back to the fact that 98% of the population has never had the experience.
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams: So it is carried out in myth of movies and books and misunderstandings about what the experience is.
Keith Baker (52:37): But I think people assume that when they hear that someone's been in the service... I've always wanted to have it two ways. Being a Gemini, I've always wanted... and I enjoy it. I enjoy it when people say, "I would've never suspected you were in the service," but I like it when people can say, "You know, I kind of thought you may have been in the military sometime."
What I don't like is if I do something, I don't know what, like I put pepper on my eggs or something and somebody goes, "Ah, I knew it. That's your military shining through or that's your..." It's like, "Okay, don't blame everything I do on having been in the military.
Adam Williams: Try to look through that lens.
Keith Baker: Yeah.
Adam Williams: Yeah.
Keith Baker: So don't attribute everything I do to my military service.
Adam Williams: Trying to fit it into that box.
Keith Baker: Right.
Adam Williams: I got you.
Keith Baker: And that's one of those things that people say, "Does the military attract people who are a certain way? Does military make people a certain way?" I think it's like anything else. It reinforces preexisting tendencies that you have, but it's just like the people I think that many folks think of when they think of classical military people, they quickly get purged or they modify their behavior one way or another. They don't last long.
Adam Williams (54:00): I think there's a perception of rigidity. That command and control idea, it's almost robotic and instead it's actually all humans. We're all humans and still functioning in a very similar way, but maybe with a little more structure and discipline that gets brought into it that is beneficial a lot of times.
Keith Baker: And this reminds me of that lost thought from a few minutes ago. General Powell, the most able person I've ever personally worked with... And then don't get me wrong, there were probably half a dozen other people that none of us ever really heard of who could have done the job of chairman, at least as effectively as he did. And I mean that's the beauty of our system.
(54:43): That was back about D-Day, Stephen Ambrose's book. Really the whole point of that book, the one of the big themes of his book was about how soldiers who've grown up in a democracy are superior soldiers to those who've grown up under an autocracy. Because you have a degree of freedom, you have a degree of decision making, and when one person falls, somebody else steps up. There isn't an omnipotent power that everything is vested in and everybody else is too ill-informed to do anything, and that was one of the things about that.
But with General Powell, the most able person that I ever personally worked for, the joint staff at that time, I don't know, it was roughly 1300 people, commissioned officers, enlisted and civilians, and they were all highly talented. You did not get there... And all wildly motivated. You didn't get there being a no load. You didn't get there being a substandard performer, and that's across the board, civilians, military, enlisted officers, everybody.
(55:55): 1300 people, you boil it down, had one job, support the Chairman. And if the Chairman, if Colin Powell could rely on 1300 people and trust 1300 people to help him, I've always thought, "Who am I to try to be the head boss, the big boss? The I've said it, therefore it is so kind of person?" That's not in my makeup, so it might be me seeing what I want to see. But I do think that's a valuable lesson for people.
(56:30): And Nimitz was one of the things that I took from reading the best biography of him was he never really did anything unless he was the only person who could do it, because he wasn't developing his subordinates, he wasn't allowing his time to do what he was supposed to do. He could have been down on the deck somewhere, chipping paint if he wanted to, but that's not what a fleet admiral's job was.
Adam Williams (56:58): Right. Keith, I appreciate what you've had to share here today. I know that we could have talked about so much more and you have just... Like I started off with saying what an extraordinary and fascinating and rich and layered history of personal experience, and you're using that to serve our community and serve our county. Thank you.
Keith Baker (57:17): You're welcome. I'd love to come back. It's a great conversation.
Adam Williams: Oh, we could have kept going. Yeah, that would be great. Thank you very much for sharing what you did.
Keith Baker (57:25): You're welcome. Thank you.
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Adam Williams (57:35): Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(57:55): We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.
Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN, 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado. To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and to Lisa Martin, Community Advocacy Coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative.
(58:34): The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechafee.org, and on Instagram and Facebook @WeAreChaffee.
Lastly, until the next episode, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, share stories, make change.
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