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Lead with Heart

Published on February 25, 2021


An in-depth conversation with Sydney Barber, Brigade Commander, track & field athlete, and FCA Co-President at the United States Naval Academy


Congratulations on becoming the first black female to command the Naval Academy’s brigade and the 16th woman to take the role! You’ve answered this question many times, but how does it feel to be the first black woman to hold the position? 

It is an extreme honor. I have no other words to say other than that I am humbled every day to hold this position. My role in this position is hardly about me alone. I hold this title for the hundreds of women and minorities who came before me who may have been just as qualified as me, if not more, yet were never even given the opportunity to put their names in the hat. Their wildest dream is the opportunity that I now have the privilege to carry out. It is a great honor but an even greater responsibility to not only uphold the legacy of those alumni, but also  pave the way for future generations who will be coming behind me as well.


What legacy do you hope to leave behind after your time as Brigade Commander is completed?

At the end of the day, after my time as Brigade Commander is over, I want to be remembered as someone who led with heart. I want to be an example of a leader of great faith, passion, love and character above all else. One day, I hope to look back on my legacy and recognize not only the historical significance of being a “first,” but also the impact of my leadership in being a source of light during a very dark time for the Academy and the world at large.


We read that your father is a graduate of the USNA. Did that influence your choice to pursue a military career, specifically through the Naval Academy?

Although my dad graduated from USNA with the Class of 1991, for much of my life I never saw myself pursuing the Naval Academy or even a career in the military for that matter. It was not until late in my high school career when I first visited USNA that I came to realize why my dad loved his alma mater so much. I saw how much his personal character aligned with the core values of the institution, and because I looked up to my dad so much, I began to draw interest in the school. Ever since I was a little girl, I always admired my dad’s unwavering devotion to selfless service to others. He never pursued money or high titles, but always pursued a life of purpose. He chased the Kingdom above all else, and even though things may not have always gone exactly how he intended all of the time, he never lacked faith in any circumstance. In this regard, the admiration I had for my dad eventually motivated me to carry on his same path in pursuing a career of service through USNA.


How did you come to faith in Christ?

I grew up in a Christian home, so going to church was always a vital aspect of the culture of my family. However, it was not until sometime around 8th grade that my faith truly started to become my own. It was around this time that I began going on mission trips with my church’s youth group to locations all across the country and around the world. Throughout my time in high school, I went to an African refugee community in Dayton, OH, the Dominican Republic, India and many other places where I fostered an unparalleled love for doing the Lord’s work and being His hands and feet. It was on these trips that I saw faith in action, and witnessed first-hand the power of the Lord to make beautiful things out of the most difficult of circumstances. These experiences drove me to commit my life to Christ early on in high school, and almost 8 years later, that has still been the best decision of my life.


When and how did you first get involved in FCA?

I first got involved with FCA in my freshman year at the Naval Academy after many of my teammates recommended it to me. I bounced around between several different Christian groups offered at USNA for a while, but after the first FCA Huddle, I never looked back!


Describe your role as co-president of the USNA FCA and what that entails. 

As co-president of FCA, I work closely with my counterpart to lead our weekly meetings with USNA athletes, organize retreats and events and host team Bible studies in small groups. We spend time outside of our weekly meetings praying for our Huddle and planning ways to encourage the athletes we serve in their faith walks.


"I need to be abiding in Christ every moment from start to finish."What inspired you to take on a leadership position within FCA?

After 3 years as a member of FCA, I wanted to take on a role that would push me to reach outside of the circle of my immediate team and make disciples across the Brigade-wide athlete community. Knowing how difficult it was to navigate the pressures of USNA when I was an underclassperson, I wanted to share how my faith journey shaped me into the leader and Christian I am today.


Does FCA help you be a better student, athlete, Brigade Commander, friend, daughter, etc.? 

No matter what I have going on---whether I have hours of homework, a night full of meetings, or if my body is physically exhausted from track practice---I always keep my Tuesday nights from 7pm to 8pm sacred for FCA. I value this time so much because the greatest lesson that I have learned in 21 years of life and 3.5 years at USNA is that the one and only source of my strength comes from the Lord. Without Him, I am nothing. Only because of Him am I the Brigade Commander, only because of Him am I running on the track team and only because of Him am I able to manage the rigors of my daily academic load. He is my daily bread and I need Him working in and through me just to make it through each day. FCA is my “refueling station” each week and I rely on my faith cultivated by this fellowship to sustain me through each day.


You’re an accomplished sprinter, earning second-team all-conference honors and clocking some fantastic times in both indoor and outdoor events. Describe the role athletics plays in your life.

Throughout my life, sports have always been my greatest teacher. Most every lesson that I’ve learned about myself, my faith and my leadership has stemmed from a hard lesson learned on the track or on the field. Through my soccer career up until my senior year of high school and my track career beginning at USNA, I learned how to be a teammate, how to be a leader and how to never give up on my goals no matter how lofty they may seem. Coming out of high school, my goal of walking onto the Navy track team was one that was well beyond my reach, but also well within the realm of my ambition. Like many times in my life, I was the underdog--underqualified, less-experienced, and under-trained--but I had the heart, the faith and the determination to make my goal a reality. It is truly this “underdog mentality” that I have been so familiar with from sports, that has translated to my work ethic in my daily life.

At practice, I always train like I have something to prove---with perspective on the fragility of the opportunity that God has given me to compete. Nothing is guaranteed, and every practice, meet and chance to pursue my goal is a delicate gift. I embody the same mindset in life outside of sports.

"The gift of every blessing that God has given me is only meant to be used to glorify Him all the more." 
On a platform with as high of a visibility as Brigade Commander, I am keenly aware that I have all eyes on me at all times and there is never a moment when I do not have something to prove. Whether that is because I have people who admire me who I want to prove right, or critics who condemn me who I want to prove wrong, my underdog mentality is what keeps me hungry for God in navigating it all. His guidance is what gives me the strength to carry out the ordained ambition He sets before me, all while keeping me humbly reliant on Him as He bestows higher orders of responsibility on me.


What is your favorite event and why?

Our weekly Tuesday meetings are my favorite experiences with FCA because it is the best opportunity to build Christ-centered relationships within the athlete community at USNA. The relationships I have built there will be the relationships I will have for the rest of my life, so I am endlessly grateful that God has given me such a great community of followers to grow with.


FCA’s theme for 2021 is “Pursue,” which is based on the verse 1 Timothy 6:11 - “But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.” Why is it important to you to pursue Christ and the things Paul lists (righteousness, godly life, faith, love, etc.)? 

It is vitally important for me to pursue a godly life as Paul describes because like Paul and all of the other apostles, I can only be the best leader that I can be if the spirit of the Lord is working in and through me in all that I do. I am only a vessel for His name to be glorified. God only expands my platform of outreach in order to expand my capacity to glorify His Kingdom. I reflect on this constantly and make sure that I keep Him on the throne of my heart as He continues to grant me with more responsibilities within His Kingdom.

The way that I see it, the gift of every blessing that God has given me is only meant to be used to glorify Him all the more. However, in order to ensure that my actions are truly God-honoring, I need to be acutely in tune with Him, understanding where He is guiding me and what He is using me to do.


With so many roles and responsibilities, is it hard to pursue Christ above all else? How do you refocus on Him when things get challenging? 

I begin and end every day in thoughtful meditation with the Lord, and pray about anything and everything, all of the time. Especially as I have assumed more responsibilities within USNA, there have been many days when the tasks on my plate have exceeded my time or energy to complete them. It is in those moments that I reflect on what needs to be done, write every task out in my journal, spend some time in prayer over the day ahead, then I let my anxiety go and give it all to the Lord.

I have come to realize now that the Lord makes all things work out for the good of those who love Him, who trust Him and who are obedient to His calling for them. I know that God would not have given me this responsibility if He did not think that I could handle it, but He gives me tasks that are above and beyond what I can accomplish on my own so that in those moments when I feel weak, I will turn to Him for strength.


What are some practical ways in which you pursue Christ? 

On my bulletin board, I have written The Four Pillars of My Life Sustainment: Food, Sleep, Exercise and Faith. To me, pursuing Christ in my daily life is not a matter of feeling good from one day to the next, but a matter of survival. He is my daily bread. Every morning, I begin my day in prayer and devotion with Him, and every night, I end my day reflecting on the moments when He made His presence known to me in that day. Throughout the day, I am in constant dialogue with the Lord, praying in my head as I step through each moment. I have come to recognize that I simply will not be able to sustain any fruitful life as a surface-level Christian. I need to be abiding in Christ every moment from start to finish.


What is a particular Scripture verse that you are enjoying right now and why?

“She is clothed with strength and dignity. She laughs without fear of the future.”  (Proverbs 31:25)

This verse carries me through the crucibles of every day. There have been many low moments that I have faced in my life since I’ve been at the Academy, and even since I’ve assumed the position of Brigade Commander. There have been moments when I wanted to quit, moments when I felt trapped by the burdens of life and moments when I felt like God must have made a mistake in giving me all of the responsibilities that He did. There were times when I prayed Jesus’s prayer to the Lord before His crucifixion: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).

Nonetheless, in those moments, the promises of the Lord that carried me through were those described in Proverbs 31:25. Because the Lord clothes me with strength and with dignity, I can joyfully embrace suffering without fear of the future ahead of me. No matter what lies ahead of me, I am invincible with the cloak of His armor.






Photos courtesy of Navy Athletics