Category Archives: Leadership

Digital Jekylls and Hydes: The Two Faces of Humans on the Internet

Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of one man with two personalities was a prophecy that the internet has unfortunately fulfilled.
Single sad teen holding a mobile phone lamenting sitting on the bed in her bedroom with a dark light in the background
Online bullying must be stopped.

The old saying “never judge a book by its cover” was coined long before the internet, yet the phrase is intimately applicable to modern-day keyboard warriors and online trolls. The internet sometimes gives a glimpse behind the curtain of someone’s true nature, and it is not always how they outwardly appear in the real world. Many people are braver behind a keyboard and will say offensive things in an anonymous online setting that they would not likely say in person. Unlike Dr. Jekyll taking his personality-altering serum to become Mr. Hyde, many online commenters do not need a formula to change into their version of a beast, taking their frustrations out on the world with no catalyst required. Where the line blurs, however, is when online comments and harassment violate real-world laws. This tenet has proven repeatedly to be true, yet opponents of policing online speech are not in favor of comment regulation. In a 2017 Pew Research poll, 56% of 4,248 people surveyed declare that people take offensive content online too seriously (Duggan). However, words matter. People must learn to temper their online rhetoric with empathy and kindness or face the consequences. Until then, people who engage in proven online bullying, harassment, and other unwanted demeaning behavior must be held accountable by the social platform they linger on, and possibly again by law enforcement, regardless of the online mask they hide behind.

A masked person using a computer.
Who are you from behind your keyboard?

One way people choose to represent their online persona is by using an avatar instead of a real photo of themselves. Avatars are digital representations that can be nearly anything imaginable. Some are cartoon versions of the real person. Others can be pets, scenery, fictional characters, and the like. Dr. Wendy Patrick states of selecting avatars, “You are choosing a character with traits you either perceive as similar to your own or represent the way you would like to be perceived.” While some might select an avatar due to self-consciousness of their appearance, others use them to hide their true identity and escape reprisal for their online actions.

In the essay “Why Good People Turn Bad Online” by Gaia Vince, she states, “They [social media platforms] offer physical distance, relative anonymity and little reputational or punitive risk for bad behavior: if you’re mean, no one you know is going to see.” This is especially true when using a created avatar versus a personal photo, or nom-de-guerre. In these cases, it is imperative that the social platform manager, be it a video game, a team chat, or social media outlet like Twitter and Facebook, take responsibility for their content and root out their bad actors. That system fails when those bad actors use false names or photos to hide their true identity. By the time the identity of the troll is discovered, they have already moved on into other platforms and personas to continue their path of digital destruction. Platform efforts of policing are usually too little, too late.

To unravel why people choose to represent themselves online differently from their real life personalities, a message board user going by the name Orcos explains why he uses an Orc as his avatar while playing the video game World of Warcraft:

“Morals are more interesting. I hate having to run around being the lawful good person whose motives are ‘be a good person at all times.’ That’s how I try to be IRL, but it’s boring when playing games.”

Orcos, World of Warcraft player – (“Why Did You Choose”)
A World of Warcraft Orc
A World of Warcraft Orc character. For the Horde!

Obviously, Orcos does not look like an orc in real life, yet he has chosen that persona to represent himself to others and backed up his choice with a desire to not feel like he has to be “lawful good” all the time. With lawful morals being described as boring, many might argue that modern society is a lost cause; that people hide their true selves behind a digital mask to act on their real feelings. One of the most difficult components of this puzzle is that many internet trolls and online bullies are usually good people in real life.

However, much like the concept of the film The Purge, good people seize on those moments where they can commit crimes and get away with no repercussions. While the film depicts good people doing horrible things in real life, some could argue that society is in an early form of a digital “Purge” right now. Neda Ulaby, when writing about The Purge, states:

“Numerous polls have found that Americans are feeling more divided than ever — so a story about losing common humanity feels relevant. Regardless of politics, The Purge movies share a sense of a decay of the American dream.”

Nelda Ulaby, NPR
Masked participants in The Purge
You definitely don’t want these two at your door step, and I don’t want them on my social media, either.

That decay easily translates to lashing out online. With such a thin line between the digital world and the real one, those who agree with Ulaby may argue that people such as Orcos are merely a hair’s breadth from bringing their digital transgressions into reality.

Opponents could say that punitive scrutiny of online content in public forums infringes on constitutional rights to free speech, crossing into predictive policing territory portrayed in the 2002 film Minority Report. Social media companies already use trend data in personal profiles to predict targeted advertisements. They also use personal data to categorize likely personality traits based on user’s comments and whom they interact with. These tactics suggest that social media platforms have already profiled users into categories of forecasted behavior. Much like predictive policing in the movie, internet providers could make the case for predicted behavior rooted in biases found in social media comments and predict who will be an internet troll, then potentially punish them for it when they have yet to commit any offense.

Minority Report starring Tom Cruise
Could we be headed toward a method of predictive policing like the portrayal in Minority Report?

CNN Money reporter Matt McFarland states, “If machines are trained on biased data, they too will become biased. Communities with a history of being heavily policed will be disproportionately affected by predictive policing.” While many reprehensible forms of speech are protected, one simply cannot yell fire in a crowded theater. Still, if someone wishing to do harm knew they could do it and get away with it, the anonymity of the internet might embolden them to act in such a way as they might never act in the real world. Proponents of online comment policing would likely applaud a predictive algorithm sniffing out the pre-offender, and platforms or authorities restrict them about it before it happens. There will always be calls to regulate free speech while people cannot self-regulate their rhetoric into civil discourse.

A proposed preemptive method to combat the hidden bad online behaviors in good people is the use of bots. Bots are computer-generated users that analyze comments and predict when a person is about to say something deemed offensive, then counteracts their comment with an empathetic rebuttal or opposite position. For example, Gaia Vince states, “A typical bot response to a racist tweet would be: ‘Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language.’ Simply cultivating a little empathy in such tweeters reduced their racist tweets almost to zero for weeks afterwards.”

Robots typing at a keyboard terminal
Can bots and AI effectively be used to combat negative online behaviors, or does this cross over into psychological manipulation by machines?

While that may seem beneficial on the surface, engineering the social interactions of real people with predictive algorithms is a slippery slope. The effort may temporarily mask the symptom of online bullying, but it does little to root out the human condition that drives a person to be someone they are not online in the endless pursuit of likes and shares. However, Vince agrees with the tactic, stating, “…bots helped the network to function more efficiently. Perhaps a version of this model could involve infiltrating the newsfeeds of partisan people with occasional items offering a different perspective, helping to shift people out of their social media comfort-bubbles and allow society as a whole to cooperate more” (Vince). While that is not a punitive measure, she advocates that using bot-generated subterfuge to alter personality traits is permissible if the ends justify the means. While the initial outcome is favorable, deploying psychological manipulation should never be taken lightly and be closely monitored.

In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself…This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil.” Dr. Jekyll recognized what he had become in the mirror but was not afraid of what he saw. He accepted that he was a man of two halves: a good half, and an evil one. Many who see what they write in online forums or how they choose to represent themselves digitally are not afraid of what they see either, and therein lies the problem. The only difference is, Jekyll had a mirror and saw Hyde’s face. Jekyll also saw firsthand the destructive aftermath of Hyde. Modern humans have a screen and see their words. Unlike Dr. Jekyll though, they rarely see the destruction those words have on the other side of the screen. Only a select few will filter those words for the hurt and pain they will cause and delete them. The best form of online policing now and in the future is by the user themselves, if only humans could be responsible enough to do so instead of hiding their Hyde-like nature behind a keyboard, screen, or their avatar. Stevenson’s famous 1886 fable of humankind’s two faces was a prophecy that the internet has fulfilled, and until society can reconcile the modern right to free speech with the moral obligation to be kind, the world inches closer to enacting The Purge every day.

For the record, I did receive an A on this paper. Take it to heart and be good to each other out there.

Lyle

Works Cited

Duggan, Maeve. “Online Harassment 2017.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, 11 July 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017/. Accessed Sept. 19, 2022.

McFarland, Matt. “‘Minority Report’ Warned About Predicting Crime. 15 Years Later, the Lesson Has Been Ignored.” CNNMoney, 23 June 2017, money.cnn.com/2017/06/23/technology/future/minority-report-15-years/index.html?sr=twcnni062417minority-report-15-years0531AMStoryLink&linkId=39046369.

Patrick, Dr. Wendy L. “Use an Avatar Online? Here is What it Says About You.” Psychology Today, 4 June 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-bad-looks-good/201806/use-avatar-online-here-is-what-it-says-about-you/. Accessed Sep. 19. 2022.

Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” New York, USA: Samoa Edition, 1944.

Ulaby, Neda. “The Success of Society Run Amok: What Does ‘the Purge’ Say about Us?” NPR, NPR, 4 July 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/07/04/625683415/the-success-of-society-run-amok-what-does-the-purge-say-about-us.

Vince, Gaia. “Why Good People Turn Bad Online.” Humanities LibreTexts, 15 Sept. 2019, https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Literature_and_Literacy/Book%3A_88_Open_Essays_A_Reader_for_Students_of_Composition_and_Rhetoric_(Wangler_and_Ulrich)/Open_Essays/77%3A_Why_Good_People_Turn_Bad_Online_.

“Why Did You Choose Horde/Alliance?” World of Warcraft Forums, 22 Sept. 2020, https://us.forums.blizzard.com/en/wow/t/why-did-you-choose-hordealliance/652110/59?page=3.

How to be S.M.A.R.T. and Lead Your Team

I wrote a letter once to a personal hero of mine named Homer Hickam. He went from a financially challenged coal mining town in West Virginia to be one of the foremost NASA rocket engineers of his time. If you’ve seen the movie October Sky or read his book Rocket Boys, you know his story and you know what he had to do to get where he wanted to go. In the letter he wrote back to me, he had this to say about pushing yourself to succeed:

“The Rocket Boys succeeded with their rockets and with their lives because the followed what I call the three P’s for a happy and successful life: Passion, Planning, and Perseverance.”

-Homer Hickam

The tenets I will explain here are tried, tested, and true methods for achieving the three P’s you may be after in your life, and it all starts with setting objectives that lead you to your goals. Think for a moment about something you have always wanted to do. That item you just thought of is your goal. Goals describe the purpose or result toward which some effort is directed. Goals usually do a good job of describing the desired results but provide few specific tactics.

Now think about what you must do to get there. Some goals are easy, low-hanging fruit that can be obtained instantly or over a short term. Others will take years of preparation and planning to realize and are reached through specific steps. These specific steps are your objectives. Objectives are often more detailed and easier to measure than goals. Objectives are the basic tools that underlie all the planning and strategic activities you have to undertake. They define tactics and action plans that get you to your goals.

Be S.M.A.R.T. About It

All that sounds much more complicated than it really is, especially if you know how to map those objectives. If you don’t map a map, that’s what will make all your goals hard to reach. Many know where they want to be at the end, but few can plot the course to get there. To be sure that your goals and objectives are clear, try putting them up against the S.M.A.R.T. test:

S—Specific: What are you trying to accomplish, and is your objective precise in targeting your goal?

M—Measurable: What metric will you use to measure your progress or success?

A—Attainable: Is this goal something you can actually do, or is it an unachievable carrot on a stick?

R— Relevant: What is this goal or objective mean to you? What is it going to do for your success in your bigger picture?

T—Timely: Can it be achieved within your resources and within the time you’ve allowed yourself to reach this goal?

The S.M.A.R.T. test was developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham in their 1981 article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives”, and while trying to fit a goal to every letter of the acronym, the authors left you some wiggle room in their formula. When applying this method, remember that not every goal worth achieving is measurable, and each objective does not require the agreement of others. However, sticking close to this method will increase your chances of success in reaching your goals, or perhaps expose the reasons why you should alter a goal that could be unmeasurable or unattainable. In a team setting, this method is powerful and can save your department valuable time and money.

Stages of Team Development

Let’s apply the above method to a workplace team setting. You have now set objectives and goals for your team using the S.M.A.R.T. method. What happens next? Another tenet Mr. Hickam touched on in his letter to me is the teamwork, and sometimes the lack thereof, among The Rocket Boys while trying to build and launch their test rockets. In October Sky, they go through different phases of team cohesiveness much like a group of co-workers can find themselves in when things aren’t going well, or when the team is firing on all cylinders.

Educational psychologist Bruce W. Tuckman suggested that all teams go through four distinctive stages in their development. They were originally referred to as Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, and this simple model has been in use since he unveiled it in 1965. The model offers important insight for organizing, building, and leading a team that can help you recognize which phase your team is in and ways to move forward. Let’s take a look at each phase and see if you can spot where your team is in right now.

Forming (High Enthusiasm, Low Skills)

When in the Forming stage, team members exhibit high enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new, though their skills and productivity concerning this new activity are low. Team members will come with high, unrealistic expectations accompanied by some anxiety about what their new role is, how much they can trust others on the team, and what demands will be placed on them. Team members are also unclear about norms, roles, goals, or timelines of others while everyone finds their place. Behavior is usually tentative and polite, with many not wanting to step on toes just yet. In this stage, there is high dependence on the leadership figure for purpose and direction. If the leader neglects their duty to the team, secondary leaders will assume the reins and confusion quickly follows concerning who is in charge. An effective leader of a team that is forming will do lots of careful explaining to help the team understand exactly what the leader expects them to do.

Storming (Low Enthusiasm, Low Skills)

As the team gets some experience under its belt, there is a decline in morale as team members experience a rude awakening between their initial Forming-Stage expectations and reality. The difficulties in working together to accomplish objectives can lead to confusion and frustration. In some cases, there can also be a growing dissatisfaction with dependence upon the leadership figure. Negative reactions to each other develop, and subgroups can form which polarize the team. Even the leader can fall victim to this bump in the road. The breakdown of communication and the inability to problem-solve result in overall lowered trust. At times, the frustration builds to where team members might choose to leave rather than commit to resolving the conflict, adding more stress to an already overtaxed team.

A team that is in the Storming stage will have less enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new or working together. Conflict in the phase can be rampant while skills and productivity are still low. Leaders in the Storming stage can weather the storm by continuing to make objectives and expectations clear by demonstrating to the team how they can succeed and know when and when not to get involved. A key to managing this phase is remembering to publicly recognize your successes. The world is full of insecure people who have been told their whole lives they were never good enough, and I’m willing to bet you have more than one of them on your team right now. This is your chance to start them on a new path toward self-confidence and the willingness to grow by taking a chance and buying in to your system of leadership. Improvement is always necessary, but if you act as if you think their efforts are half empty, that’s how they’ll feel and that’s how they’ll perform. Focus on what’s right versus what you perceive to be wrong.

Norming (Rising Enthusiasm, Growing Skills)

Teams in this stage will likely exhibit higher enthusiasm and motivation to achieve their goals. As the issues encountered in the Storming Phase are addressed and resolved, there is a noticeable uptick in morale and task accomplishment. The team starts thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and mountains become mole hills. Team members are more positive toward each other and the goal. Trust and cohesion grow as communication becomes more open and task oriented. To-do checklists grow smaller. There is a willingness to share responsibility and control. This phase can be the most rewarding for leaders and teams due to increased commitment to purpose, roles, and goals. However, beware the pitfalls.

Even the best of teams can find themselves in trouble during this phase because the euphoric feelings of trust and cohesion are still fragile. Team members sometimes avoid conflict for fear of upsetting the positive atmosphere, and that reluctance deal with conflict can bog down progress and cause fewer effective decisions. Leaders of teams in the Norming stage can gain success by offering team members copious amounts of freedom to act on their own but standing ready with guidance and coaching when the team needs it.

Performing (High Enthusiasm, High Skills)

This is the phase all teams strive for. In the Performing stage, teams have higher enthusiasm and motivation to reach their goals, and their skills are up to the task. All cylinders are firing, and life is good!

At this stage there is a sense of pride and excitement in being part of a high-functioning team. All members focus on performance and readily assist others. Purpose, roles, and goals are clear. Standards are high, and there is a commitment to not only meeting those standards, but to exceeding them. Team members are confident in their ability to perform and overcome obstacles. They are proud of their work and enjoy working together. Communication is open and leadership is shared among the team. Mutual respect and trust are not the exception, they are the rule.

The pitfall of a high performing team is complacency. A Performing stage leader continues to enable team members to take ownership and to keep moving toward their goals, both for the team and for them personally. Leaders in this stage also must be mindful to identify and develop new leadership potential. Every leader should be looking to train their replacement, and high performing teams is where you will find them. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: EVERY LEADER SHOULD BE LOOKING TO TRAIN THEIR REPLACEMENT!

Good leaders can anticipate what a team is likely to go through and navigate their team to a better position to reach the goal on their own. Recognition of the stage your team is in is a critical skill. Once you learn to identify the signs, you can draw your map to move to your next objective and migrate toward the ultimate Performing stage. Spotting the signs can prevent team members from being staggered or depressed by the negative elements during the Storming stage. Strategies can be developed to smooth the progress of an evolving team by establishing ground rules for the Norming stage. Leaders of Performing teams can positively influence others by example and sharing their methods for success.

An interesting aspect of this concept is that teams may progress through different stages at different speeds and can find themselves in more than one stage at a time. Be careful not to set time limits for your team to break through a stage. Teams should avoid making self-fulfilling prophecies about how long each stage will last, because they will almost always be wrong.

It is also possible to regress to an earlier stage as changes within the team occur, a process that can be affected by the individuality of team members and their personal progress. Not everyone on the team will always be on the same page. One of the biggest reasons for regression is a change in mission or leadership vision. When that occurs, the usual fallback is the Forming stage, as the anxiety of learning and meeting expectations starts over again until everyone learns their role.

A team responds best to leadership tailored to the stage the team is experiencing now, and good leaders should develop more than one leadership style to navigate it. When unveiling a new set of objectives or taking on a new team, the leader must assess the level of enthusiasm and skill exhibited with respect to the set goals, then match their style of leadership to the people and the situation.

There are two final items Mr. Hickam shared with me in his letter that I would like to share with you, and these can apply to any professional or personal situation in your life. For the first one, he said, “Nothing will happen if no one takes the initiative to make it so. To be passive and wait for something good to happen in your life is probably to experience vast disappointment.” Take a look at your list of goals. Are you actively pursuing them or are you waiting for them to happen to you? The second thing he said was, “It is my belief that there are no boundaries to excellence and success except for those we place on ourselves.” Take a look at your list of goals again. Read them out loud and ask yourself what is holding you back from checking each of them off? Now apply those same quotes and questions to your team. What is holding your team back from accomplishing their objectives and reaching their goals? You’ll likely find the only thing holding you back both personally and professionally is the boundaries you’ve placed on yourself.

Communication Barriers and How to Overcome Them

January 2022 This is my first article in a series I’m calling Be a Better Leader. Each month in 2022, I will share with you some useful tips and tricks on leadership that I’ve learned through the years.

There is no shortage of resources on leadership in the world. Books, magazines, Ted Talks, blogs, vlogs, websites, flyers, Prezis, Power Points and the list goes on. So, what makes this article any different than all those others?

Nothing.

Other than occasional witty banter, nothing you are about to read is something that hasn’t been said a thousand times before in a thousand other places. But do you know what will make this particular article different? You. You’re here reading it because you want to learn something. What makes this article different is what you will do with this information after you read it. No difference will be made by these words. The difference will be made by your implementation of these practices to make you a better communicator and leader.

The Blueprint of Communication

Aristotle is remembered by history as a pretty smart guy, and he summed up the blueprint of communication over two-thousand years ago. His summation applies almost the same today as it did in his time. Are you ready? This is a hard concept. You’re going to want to write this down. According to Aristotle, communication has three components: the sender, the receiver, and the message. Now that’s an earth-shattering revelation, right?

Aristotle and his blueprint of communication
Aristotle and his blueprint of communication: Sender, Receiver, and Message.

There is no fluff in his analysis, but here’s where the modern era pokes holes in his simplicity. He’s right about the physical parts of a message—if I write instructions on a card and hand it to you, we’ve technically met Aristotle’s definition. The card says, “Go do X-Y-Z.” I’m the sender, you’re the receiver, and the card is the message. Now, is that all you need to go do X, Y and Z? Maybe, but maybe not. We don’t live in Aristotle’s world anymore, and what may have worked back then has become an extremely nuanced skill that few possess in the modern era. One key unlocks this skill. To be a good communicator, you have to learn to listen.

Good communication begins with intentional active listening by both the receiver and the sender. When your staff is speaking to you, don’t get in their way. Don’t let your thoughts, opinions or agendas interrupt active listening. Hear them. Whether working with one person or a thousand, a good communicator will listen to their receivers by paying attention to both the spoken and unspoken signals that indicate whether the message is getting through. Communication then becomes a two-way process, not just instructions on a card. Both the sender and the receiver have responsibilities to make the message happen, and never overlook constructive feedback from the receiver to help guide you as the sender.

Aristotle leaves out the details, particularly three critical caveats that are needed for good communication. Those are intent of the sender, clarity of the message, and perception of the receiver. If you want people to trust you and value your presence, you’d better trust them and value their presence. When a sender is not actively listening to their receiver, that’s when communication barriers pop up.

Common Barriers of Communication

I am inundated with weekly calls from someone out there who is worried to death about my car’s extended warranty. You probably receive these calls, too. Do you hang up instantly once you hear that pre-recorded voice, or are you an empath that politely waits to tell the person that finally picks up no thank you? If you wait for the spiel to finish and let them down easy, you’re a better person than me because I either prank them or hang up pretty quickly.

"We've been trying to reach you concerning your car's extended warranty..."
“We’ve been trying to reach you concerning your car’s extended warranty…”

Why do we hang up?

It’s because the caller on the other end has not and does not make any attempt to break through the barriers to effective communication and deliver their message. Here are some of those barriers they commonly ignore, and tips on how to work around them.

Lack of Common Ground

The person calling knows nothing about me except that I probably have a credit card and I obviously have a phone since I answered it.

How to overcome it: The more you know about a person, the greater is the common experience that you share, and the easier communication becomes. Before you can lead others towards a goal, you must first seek to understand how they see themselves in the world you are trying to create. Getting to know your staff and letting them get to know you allows for an opportunity to meet on a common ground. Make efforts to learn the entire employee professionally, not just the part that gets the work done. When staff feels cared for, camaraderie, teamwork, and commitment are the result. Your communications will be much stronger when bound by mutual respect rather than authoritative fear. Leaders must be careful here to understand where the boundary lies between getting to know your employees and becoming buddies with them. Beware of the pitfalls!

Pro Tip

Pro tip: People tend to express who they are as well as their likes by what they display in their work areas. Pay attention to what they display and recognize common inroads.

Lack of Sincerity

The caller is only interested in making a sale. They are not concerned with any long-term satisfaction with a product or service, or that I even need their service.

Fitting a puzzle piece that says "trust" into a wooden puzzle.
Without trust, there can be no sincerity.

How to overcome it: It is difficult to lead without earning trust, and without trust, nothing you ever say will be sincere. A lot of ingredients go into building trust, but it starts with being present. Being present isn’t a skill. It’s a commitment and it takes sincerity. Make other people a priority, set aside distractions, listen to understand their point of view and, most of all, demonstrate that you care. The sender must care about the message and care about the receiver of that message. Otherwise, there is no point in passing it along.

Pro tip: Your staff may not need you all the time. But when they do need you, they need all of you. Be present and learn to recognize when you need to step in and when you need to step back.

Lack of Authority

The caller is hired simply to make the calls and read a script. They know nothing about what I drive or it’s current condition. There is a good chance the caller is unqualified to answer questions of substance about the product or anything about my car.

How to overcome it: Ideally, a leader should know what they are talking about. However, there will be times when the leader is not an expert in a subject or simply doesn’t know the answer. What becomes important then is the willingness to learn along with the staff and be coachable. If I tell you, “I know nothing about astronomy, but I’m leading a star party this Friday night and I need you to be there.” I essentially just told you this is my program, I don’t know what I’m doing, and you’re going to be there to help make me look good or we’re going to look bad together. You’re probably thinking, ‘this is going to be a disaster’. But if I say, “I can’t tell the difference between the Big Dipper and the moon, but I’d like to have this event and I need your help. Let’s research how to host a star party, find an expert to help, and put on a good show.” While the leader’s technical skill in this area may not be high, their ability as a good communicator maintains their authority while engaging you in a potentially interesting and worthwhile learning experience.

Pro tip: Don’t be a know-it-all and know when to seek help. If you don’t know an answer, don’t make one up. Find out. Nothing erodes authority and trust faster than a leader who is consistently wrong.

Lack of Clarity

The caller may exaggerate, blur the truth, or fail to mention weaknesses of a product to land the sale. They have made no attempt to earn our trust or prove they are being honest about the benefits of their product.

Glasses focusing on a blurred landscape
How clear are your instructions?

How to overcome it: Your words create your world. Trying to hide part of a message or twist the truth leads to fuzziness and confusion on the receiving end. Leaders who are good communicators can reshape the perceived reality of any situation by choosing the right words, so reduce the fluff, get to the point and be clear with your intent. It’s vitally important to think through your thoughts before putting them into words because the next thing out of your mouth could have a lasting effect on the relationship with your staff, be it good or bad. Leaping before we look gets us into trouble all the time.  Think it through and listen first before speaking. Leaders who care about their messages and care about their receivers and communicate with clarity.

Pro tip: When communicating electronically, use every tool at your disposal to ensure your spelling and grammar are correct. Message clarity is easily lost when the receiver has to wade through a mire of mistakes. If grammar isn’t your strong suit, don’t feel embarrassed to recruit a proofreader.

Poor Presentation Skills

Callers may badger people or argue with them, be bored because this is their hundredth call of the day, distracted, unprepared to answer the simplest of questions, or barely there at all. The listener tunes them out with ease.

People sleeping in a meeting
Are your presentations putting your audience to sleep?

How to overcome it: There is no magic formula for this one. Presentation skill is simply practice, practice, and more practice. Even if you’re terrified of public speaking, accept any and all offers to address groups. Recruit your family to be a practice audience. Present your topic to your pets (sounds silly, I know, but it works), or use a mirror and speak to yourself. Also, anticipate the weak points of your discussion and develop responses to potential tough questions. Master the art of research and becoming an instant expert when needed. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’re halfway to a good presentation.

Pro tip: If you have a script, presentation, or speech to give, read it out loud to yourself. Your ears will pick up problems with clarity and errors in grammar more than your eyes.

Lack of Receptiveness

The caller is not receptive to any of your needs outside of making the sale and getting your credit card number. Any discussion that isn’t leading toward a sale for the caller is wasted time.

How to overcome it: Much like in real estate, where you’ll hear location repeated three times as the most important tenet, communication has a mantra, too: timing, timing, and timing. If you’ve gotten to know your staff, you know when they are the most productive and when they struggle. You’ve learned most of their strengths and weaknesses. Using these clues, you also can surmise the best time to tell them important information and dole out important tasks. Time is especially valuable in the workplace, so work with the times you know your staff to be the most receptive.

Pro tip: Learn to be succinct. Articulate your points in the most uncomplicated manner possible for best results.

Call Environment

Callers disrupt our personal or family time, often calling during the dinner hour. This intrusion into the home environment generally makes people less receptive to their message than if they were to receive that same message in an e-mail or mailed flyer, for example.

Woman yelling at her phone
“I think I caught you at a bad time…”

How to overcome it: As stated above, timing is everything. If you drop a massive change bomb on your staff at the end of a workday or right before a weekend, chances are you just ruined their off time, and there’s a greater chance the important details will be lost in the noise of life outside of work. Unless it’s dire to pass the message along, it’s likely better to wait until you have the receiver’s full attention. A good communicator recognizes opportunities to get the most bang for their buck to get a message across with the least amount of disruption. Sometimes you have information that just can’t wait, and everyone needs to be brought in quickly. Be aware of possible diminishing returns in message reception if your timing is off.

Pro tip: Choose the right delivery method for the type of message you’re sending. Face-to-face meetings are expensive in both time and dollars, and not always necessary when a call or e-mail would suffice. Be efficient and considerate of your audience with your communication methods.

The Take-Away

Even with all these barriers to good communication, companies still invest millions of dollars into this business model of cold-call selling for an extended warranty you may or may not need. That tells you that even with these barriers, this method still works. Now, step back and think how successful these calls could be if they made any effort to overcome these communication barriers. They may convince you to buy an extended warranty after all!

Think about how successful you could be if you found ways to get over communications barriers with your staff. Here’s a challenge for you: Next time one of your staff makes a mistake, before you deliver your reprimand I want you to really scrub how you communicated your expectations to them. Were your instructions clear? Did you send a mixed message? Did you give partial information? Did you expect them to just “know” what you wanted?

Sometimes the mistake they made is actually yours from poor communication. If it was your fault, own it, then let the employee know you own it and help them fix it. You’ll see an instant improvement.

In February, I’ll share with you one of my favorite leadership topics: Coaching and Mentoring! Until then…

The Day I Became a “Rocket Boy”

I received a message out of the blue today from a dear old friend. It said:

“Just getting ready for Wood Badge this morning, preparing my presentation and my thoughts turned to you. Wondered how you were doing and hope all is well!”

Wood Badge Beads: Two is a participant, Three is a staffer, and four is a Course Director (Scoutmaster)

For those who don’t know what that means, Wood Badge is the penultimate (in my opinion) adult leader training in the Boy Scout organization. Over the span of seven days, sixty-four participants and twenty-eight staffers become a whole new family to you that you will never forget. I went through as a participant in course #MT-61 back in 2014. Then, for MT-63 in 2016, I was a first-year staffer when I met Liz and her husband Ren, and during my second stint on the Wood Badge staff for MT-64 in 2017, Liz and I were both staffers and Ren was a participant. I could write another entire article about this amazing training and the wonderful friends you make along the way, but that’s not why I write this today. I’ll sum Wood Badge up for you with this description: As a participant, you are in for the time of your life during the most effective servant leadership training course you have ever experienced. When you are invited to be a staffer, you are given the enormous honor to deliver the most effective servant leadership training course you have ever experienced. But again, that’s for another article. Let’s get back to that text message.

As a Wood Badge staffer, you get assigned presentations to do throughout the week that make the program so exemplary. My first year on staff, my assigned presentation was “Coaching and Mentoring.” I worked hard on perfecting it, and to this day, some five years later, I still receive the occasional message about it from random MT-63 participants. The text I received above from Liz, a MT-63 participant from five years ago, still remembered my presentation and my chaplain’s message from MT-64 about the “Lower Lights”. It goes to show you that you don’t realize how much of an impact your words can have on someone, and how long those words will stay with them.

Her kind message today found me in a strange mood. There is some tumult going on with me these days that I’m wrestling with. Of course, I responded with warm regards and that I’m great and all that good stuff. But the truth is, I’m not. The reasons why don’t matter. What matters here is that the universe knew I needed a kick in the pants, and delivered it wrapped in twenty-seven typed words from a good friend. The universe is smart. It knows things and has an uncanny sense of timing.

What that text message did was remind me of those days back in Wood Badge that inspired me so much. When you’re a staffer, your whole job is to inspire the participants in any way you can within your assigned role. I was a Troop Guide, and then Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, and also had the Chaplain duty during my second year to boot. I like to think that within those three titles, I did my best to deliver whatever inspiration I could. These occasional messages from my Wood Badge family are evidence that I must have done alright back then. Even with that legacy behind me, sometimes the inspiration well still runs dry. That message this morning found me lacking, but it also reminded me of the day I became a “Rocket Boy.”

October Sky poster

One of the presentations in Wood Badge centers around the movie October Sky. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean when I say “inspirational.” It’s a heart-warming tale about a group of boys from a small coal-mining town that do extraordinary things in the arena of aerospace and rockets during the time of Sputnik and the start of the space race. That’s a terribly poor description on my part, however, the unmistakable message of the film is the three P’s of success:

Passion.

Planning.

Perseverance.

You may know this already, but October Sky is based on the true story Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam. (Trivia moment: October Sky is an anagram for Rocket Boys.) If you haven’t read the book, I cannot recommend it enough. I devoured it shortly after it came out, but the subtle messages in the story didn’t resonate with me as much until I went through Wood Badge. Going back through it again as a staffer put a whole new spin on those three P’s and what they really mean. So, after my first turn on staff at MT-63, I reached out to Homer Hickam to ask a favor. I decided to go to the source of all that inspiration and see what he had to say. Lo and behold, he replied.

Book cover for Rocket Boys

When I was invited back for my second staff gig, I wanted to bring with me something that conveyed how much the message of this program and his story can change your life. I wanted to give the participants of MT-64 something they would never forget. I asked Mr. Hickam if he would write them an inspirational letter that I would deliver on his behalf, and he did. Here’s what the letter said:

Homer Hickam's Letter to MT-64

I got to read this aloud to the ninety-one other people of MT-64 at the end of our third day together—right after watching October Sky—and there was barely a dry eye in the house. It’s not sad, not at all. I struggled through those elegant words, breaking up a couple times in joy. Those words—they hit you right in the feels, don’t they? It doesn’t matter what condition you happen to be in at any given moment. Pick up a letter written like this, and, well, like it says—

“A rocket won’t fly unless somebody lights the fuse.”

O’Dell, Rocket Boys

I framed the original as a gift for our MT-64 Scoutmaster, Michelle, and made copies for everyone else in the course. I hadn’t forgotten about that letter, but it was also not at the forefront of my mind. However, when I received that text message this morning, it reminded me how kind words can make such a difference to someone. It reminded me of the lessons I learned from Rocket Boys/October Sky.

My fuse was lit.

When I came home this evening, I went to the book shelf and pulled down my hardback copy of Rocket Boys for a quick browse. Ironically, a folded copy of that letter was neatly tucked in the dust jacket. I read it and re-read it, then I read it again. I’m not ashamed to admit my eyes leaked a little bit. I was transported back in front of those ninety-one people again; reading it aloud and sending my feels on a tempest-tossed ride one more time. I folded it back the way I found it, nestled into the cover until the next time I forget it’s in there. Then, I flipped a little further to the bookplate page and my eyes leaked—again—when I read this:

Homer Hickam's inscription to me in my copy of Rocket Boys

I was honored that my words so many years ago still inspired one of my participants, who turned out to become a dear friend, and how her preparations to be a staffer this year hearkened back to something I said all those years ago. I’m proud that she’s going back now for what I believe is her third or fourth time as a staffer, and that now, in twenty-seven typed words, our roles have reversed. She is delivering inspiration to another generation of adult leaders this time, and knocking it out of the park. Then to top it off, THE Rocket Boy himself, Homer Hickam, counts me among his pantheon with this inscription. Boy, I needed that.

The universe sure is smart, ain’t it?

MT-61 Bear.

MT-63 Owl Troop Guide. (The Bear with Owl tendencies…)

MT-64 Assistant Senior Patrol Leader and Chaplain.

Servant Leader for Life.

What Happens When You Run Up Against a “Box-Checker”?

I’m going to brag on myself for a moment and say that I am pretty damn good at my day job. Could I be better? Sure, all of us can benefit from improvement. But where I’m at, I do pretty well. Properly managing staff is one of the greatest responsibilities a manager could ever have in the working world. I care about my employees and the people who utilize my services like they are family. I care about my employer’s money like it was my own, and I am very conscientious about image and public perception of those I represent. My attitude, skills and experience have put me in some sort of management position since I was 22-years-old.

But now, let me tell you how that all came crashing down.

Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘Renaissance Man’ sketch

I had a boss tell me one time that she thought I was the textbook definition of a modern renaissance man. She told me because of the wide array of hobbies, skills, interests, knowledge and experience I have from my 36 years on this planet (at that time), she felt like anything I was asked to do would be done well and on-time. That may have been the highest praise I have ever received from anyone, bar none. While I try to be humble, that puffed me up a bit. It made me glad that I was recognized as a go-to employee. I am proud of what I can do and what I bring to the table. So this one time when I worked for the Federal Government, I was put into a civilian mentorship program and I was paired with our highest-ranking civilian leader. I was excited because this guy had it all going on and was a businessman’s businessman. He was smart, educated, friendly and had all the qualities of a good leader. When we finally got to sit down for our first discussion on my future career goals, he dropped a mega-ton atomic question on me that I still feel the fallout of to this day. He looked me right in the eyes and asked:

“What is your degree in?”

On the surface, that’s a benign question for most people and fairly easy to answer. It was not easy for me. Do you know why? Yep, you guessed it: I did not go to college.

I had a relatively poor upbringing. I started working at 15 and rode my beach comber bike all the way through my senior year of high school. We weren’t destitute by any stretch, and many others had it worse than me. But we were poor enough that when high school graduation came, I had already been working part-time for three years to save for a car. College wasn’t something I ever thought I could afford. In that part of my life, the thought of a college degree was hardly even on the radar. No one else in my family had gone to college either. It just wasn’t something I set as a serious goal. Of course I knew how important education was, but I also knew that if I was ever going to get out on my own and be my own person, I was going to have to work and work hard for it. No one I knew was handing out money so if I wanted it, I had to earn it.

To this day, I do not regret my decision to enter the workforce instead of going to school. In reality, the decision was truly made for me. I would not trade the knowledge and experience I have for anything. It would have been cool to go to school, but that wasn’t in my cards.

So, back to the mentoring session— my reply to him was short. I said, “I did not go to college. I don’t have a degree.”

The only part of that answer that made me feel good was the shock on his face. He told me he couldn’t believe someone with my skills and knowledge did not have a college degree. He also said that he applauded how well I had done for myself in the government system with that limitation. Then, he looked me in the eye again and dropped a second atomic knowledge bomb on me. He said:

“Lyle, you have to go get your degree. Make it a priority, because one day, no matter how qualified or talented you may be, you’re going to want a job from a box-checker. And when they can’t check the box that says ‘Has a Degree’, you’re not going to get the job, even if you’re the number one candidate.”

I walked out of his office after that a little bewildered. We had a fantastic discussion on career goals and steps to move around and up within the department we worked for. But there was a nagging, grinding feeling pulling at my soul. At 36, did I really need a degree? I got every job I ever applied for. I had already done so much and come so far without a scrolled piece of parchment hanging on the wall. I was not in a job that required specialized training, so why should I spend four years of my life trying to work, take care of my family and enjoy life while adding the crushing debt and time-consumption of college homework? After all, the School of Hard Knocks had served me well so far. I made it a long way on my experience, so nah. I’ll keep going as I am. Everything will be alright.

And now, at 47 and one career move later, his advice that I ignored came home to roost.

You see, I like to fix businesses. That’s one of my working joys is to walk into a dump and start turning the ship around. I know how to do it, I have done it multiple times, and I am damn good at it. I relish walking into a place that everyone says will never amount to anything and proving them wrong. I suppose it’s somewhat of a mimic of how I see myself. I may not look like much, but I know how to make something from nothing. It’s a skill I had to learn at an early age and continue using to this day.

About a month ago, opportunity came knocking. In my current recreation career field, a Department Director position in a neighboring town started accepting applications. I am not unhappy where I am, but I always look for opportunities to better myself. This particular Director position was a troubled and much-maligned post that was plagued with other’s good intentions but also with their bad execution. I visited the department incognito to see what I would be up against, and boy, did they need serious help. But the idea of taking over a struggling department and making it into something to be proud of again was chicken soup for my weary soul. I salivated at the chance to once again take a pig, scrub off the lipstick someone else tried to put on it, and turn it into gourmet ham sandwiches for all involved. It would have been a serious challenge that I would welcome with open arms. I updated my resume, spoke to my current boss about a recommendation and I applied.

And… crickets. No call for an interview ever came.

I didn’t understand what the problem was here. Had they decided to scrap the position? Were they waiting for more applicants? Because I thought for sure that others would see this pile of mess and run the other way. Did they lose my contact information? Surely there was some nefarious game afoot.

And still, my phone never rang.

I emailed their HR department and their Administrator with more information to make sure they received what I sent. I ensured I had crossed every “I” and dotted every “T” they required. I did get an email back that said, “Yes, Mr. Russell, we have received your application. We’ll be in touch.” Two more weeks went by.

And still, no call.

Two days ago as of this writing, I received a letterhead in the mail that said, “Mr. Russell, thank you for your interest in the position of Department Director. At this time, we have chosen a more qualified applicant and wish you the best success in the future. Sincerely, HR.” They couldn’t write down that check mark. My old mentor was right. It was my Thanks-But-No-Thanks reply. I had finally met my box-checker.

I got some inside information that they found an applicant that, even though they had been out of the industry for a few years, has a Master’s Degree where I don’t even have an Associates. They chose him over me because of that. For the first time in my life, my high school diploma and endless enthusiasm was not enough.

I’m not bitter. I’m sure he was a very qualified candidate. I wish him the best and hope for his and their success. We all succeed by lifting each other up and one day, because we work in the same field, we could be working together on some project or program. I look forward to that. But what sticks in my craw over the whole thing and that they missed out on me, who would have been an awesome director, because of one, little blue check mark that didn’t show up on a piece of paper.

I do not lament any decision I have ever made about my career or experiences. I am rich in many other things besides money, and things happen for a reason. You don’t always know what that reason is. I still do not feel I would be overly successful in a college environment and honestly, I’ve met new college graduates that can’t find their way out of a wet paper bag with a hatchet and a weed eater. I am definitely not that guy, and I have a hard time working with people like that, but it doesn’t mean I won’t. And don’t misunderstand me as slighting the college graduate. If you have your degree and are living life, by all means, live life and know that I am happy for you. All I know is the universe still has plans for me and it does not always care about little blue check marks.

But for the record, I am now registered to start my A.A. in Recreation Management this fall at our local community college. That sage advice finally hit me. In two more years, that box will get checked.

Until next time!

What Rush’s Song, Cygnus X-1, Can Teach Us About The Current Political Climate in America

While driving home from a baseball game a few nights ago, I had my iPod (yes, I still use an iPod) in my car set to play Rush. I wasn’t even out of the parking lot before Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres cranked up. I love that song and I know the lyrics well. However, for some reason, this time they painted a picture I had not considered much before. But before we get into that, let me bring any unfamiliar readers up to speed.

The Black Hole known as Cygnus X-1 - Artist's depiction and photograph
The Black Hole known as Cygnus X-1 – Artist’s depiction and photograph

What is Cygnus X-1?

The real Cygnus X-1 is a black hole in the constellation of Cygnus, The Swan. The constellation is also called the Northern Cross and is visible all across the northern hemisphere. In 1971, the black hole was discovered as the first source of X-rays within Cygnus (hence the name X-1). Neil Peart read a newspaper article about it and, using his brilliant imagination, penned a nearly 29-minute progressive rock epic about it.

Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage is from the 1977 Rush album A Farewell to Kings. It’s about an explorer that sets his space ship, The Rocinante, for the heart of a newly discovered black hole. Our hero knows this is probably a one way trip, but undaunted, plunges on. Book 1 of this prog-rock epic goes on for about 10-minutes, and ends with The Rocinante spiraling into oblivion. Our hero expects his demise and the song ends. It’s in Book 2 from 1979’s Hemispheres that got me thinking about the parallels between the song and politics.

Political commentary is a dangerous minefield these days, but art does imitate life. This song is no different and was a prophecy before its time. I’m going to make some broad-brush generalizations in here about followers of the political left and right, so before you send me responses like I am a so-and-so and that’s not what I believe or My party believes in this platform, not that, just calm down and digest the core basics of what I’ve interpreted here. I’m going to ask you in advance for grace, and ask that you consider what I say with introspect. However, I always invite thoughtful discourse if you want to voice your opinion on it.

Disclaimers in place? Check. Now, let’s launch into it.

So what does a song about Cygnus X-1 have to do with American Politics?

Let’s examine the lyrics of Book 2:

“When our weary world was young, the struggle of the ancients first began. The gods of Love and Reason, sought alone to rule the fate of Man. They battled through the ages, but still neither force would yield. The people were divided, every soul a battlefield…”

This first part just sets the stage, reminding the listener that since the beginning of time, humankind has struggled with how best to govern their affairs between the boundaries of love and reason. The Rocinante emerges through the black hole to find it was a gateway to Mount Olympus, where Apollo and Dionysus are engaged in epic battle over the fate of mankind. Will they be ruled by Apollo’s wisdom and reason, or Dionysus’s love and emotion? Each god makes a plea for their case while our hero observes.

Apollo’s Plea for Reason

Apollo gets to go first:

Apollo, God of Light with Urania, Muse of Astronomy is a painting by Charles Meynier
Apollo, God of Light, with Urania, Muse of Astronomy is a painting by Charles Meynier

I bring truth and understanding, I bring wit and wisdom fair,
precious gifts beyond compare. We can build a world of wonder,
I can make you all aware. I will find you food and shelter, show you fire to keep you warm through the endless winter storm. You can live in grace and comfort in the world that you transform.

I would contend Apollo’s vision falls more to the right side of political ideology. Typically, Republicans see through the lens of numbers and logic, placing a lower value on feelings and emotion. Apollo offers to share knowledge, the basics of food and shelter, and to show you how to make fire, but it is up the individual to take those tools transform their world for their own grace and comfort. Again, it’s a broad brush approach, but one of the party platforms of the right is deeply rooted in the idea of each person being the captain of their own destiny. Apollo’s offer was accepted, and here’s what happened:

The people were delighted, coming forth to claim their prize. They ran to build their cities and converse among the wise. But one day the streets fell silent, yet they knew not what was wrong. The urge to build these fine things seemed not to be so strong. The wise men were consulted
and the Bridge of Death was crossed, in quest of Dionysus to find out what they had lost…

My interpretation of this is knowledge, numbers, and logic is only going to get you so far before you run out of creativity. In a simpler term, this world feels like a minimalist black and white painting; probably beautiful in it simplicity, but devoid of color and personality. It’s cold and hard there. In my observations, Republicans can get caught within their own versions of reason and take a narrow-minded world view; very much like a horse with blinders. The mind needs expansion or it will die.

I think the key statement in here is crossing the Bridge of Death. Curious wording, don’t you think? I would liken this to the idea that you sometimes hear out of right-wingers warning you don’t go over there by those lefties… it’s dangerous! You’ll be in peril unless you walk this fine line! Don’t cross that bridge of death! It’s a group-think idea that once you try a forbidden fruit, you are a lost cause.

Dionysus’s Plea for Love

When humankind crossed their Bridge of Death seeking out Dionysus to see what he could offer, here’s what he said:

Dionysus, God of Wine by Caravaggio
Dionysus, God of Wine by Caravaggio

I bring love to give you solace, in the darkness of the night; in the heart’s eternal light. You need only trust your feelings, only Love can steer you right. I bring laughter, I bring music, I bring joy and I bring tears, I will soothe your primal fears. Throw off those chains of reason and your prison disappears

It’s not a stretch to see Dionysus is taking the political left approach. He’s playing on your heart strings and telling you that only love can make things right with the world. He’s ready to give humankind everything they need to fuel a creative fire – joy, laughter, music, solace. He promises a spiritual freedom of they will abandon reason and pursue their heart’s desire. Where the kicker comes is the line that he will soothe their primal fears. That line begs a question: What are your primal fears?

The answer will be different for everyone. For some, it’s eliminating loneliness and finding their soul mate. For others, it’s financial stability. Others might argue for spiritual or physical well-being. The bounds are endless on what people fear. Dionysus is telling them he’ll take all that away for them. The Democratic platform sometimes claims to have government provide everything people would fear to lose. I contend, however, that no god or government can possibly provide for everything a person needs. No one. The people, in this song’s case, decide to take him up on the offer. Here’s how it went:

The cities were abandoned and the forests echoed song. They danced and lived as brothers. They knew love could not be wrong. Food and wine they had aplenty and they slept beneath the stars. The people were contented and the Gods watched from afar. But the winter fell upon them and it caught them unprepared, bringing wolves and cold starvation, and the hearts of men despaired…

The romantic notion of throwing all logical caution to the wind and living your best Bohemian life—Y.O.L.O., if you will—is popular among younger generations today. But there are consequences to an ideology that only lives and loves in the moment without logical planning for the future. There’s even greater consequence for depending on someone else to provide everything for you. A day will come where the well dries up. In our song, the winter falls upon the people who lived only for the summery moment with Dionysus, thinking all they needed was love to sustain them. The wolves and weather had a different idea.

The Great Battle for the Heart and Mind of Humankind

The heart and mind, the greatest assets of a human being.
The heart and mind, the greatest assets of a human being.

In modern politics, this same metaphoric battle rages today as I type this and as you read it. There is a deadly competition for your vote without your voice, and each side knows exactly what string to pluck to get it. One side preys on fear of losing all reason, while the other preys on your fear of losing all hope. Many good people are entrenched in one side or the other and will not accept any olive branches offered by the opposition. In the song, their battle goes like this:

The universe divided as the heart and mind collided, with the people left unguided for so many troubled years; in a cloud of doubts and fears. Their world was torn asunder into hollow hemispheres. Some fought themselves, some fought each other. Most just followed one another, lost and aimless like their brothers. For their hearts were so unclear and the truth could not appear. Their spirits were divided into blinded hemispheres.

There has never been a more poignant description of today’s Left vs. Right political ideology than that stanza right there. The whole of the United States lives in a cloud of doubt and fear because many have buried themselves so far into their beliefs that no one will budge. People fear each other. They don’t trust each other. They prey on each other. And many who are not clear on their own thoughts blindly follow others to fit in to one of these camps just for the sense of belonging. More importantly, no one wants to admit their side is wrong. Not on one single thing. The faithful are so blinded without sound judgement that they can’t see a bitter truth in front of their face: That the opposition is truly not their enemy. In the song, a select few were blessed with discernment:

Some who did not fight brought tales of old to light. My Rocinante sailed by night on her final flight. To the heart of Cygnus’ fearsome force, we set our course. Spiraled through that timeless space to this immortal place.

Our hero is not yet sullied with the ideological dilemmas of Apollo and Dionysus, and encounters people I would call the Neutrals. These are people who haven’t fully decided their fate yet and observe the battle before them between the heart and mind. They tell the sordid tales from both sides, taking on traits of each. Some may call that not choosing a side. Sometimes it’s necessary to choose, but in this case, I think the Neutrals have created a third option to consider.

Cygnus, the Bringer of Balance

A depiction of Balance
A depiction of Balance

Enter the hero of our story, which in my mind is you. Yes, you, who sit here and have read to this point. Here’s your grand entrance:

I have memory and awareness, but I have no shape or form. As a disembodied spirit, I am dead and yet unborn. I have passed into Olympus, as was told in tales of old, to the City of Immortals; marble white and purest gold. I see the gods in battle rage on high, thunderbolts across the sky. I cannot move, I cannot hide, I feel a silent scream begin inside.

This stanza is chock full of metaphor. The U.S. Capitol is loaded to the gills with white marble buildings and monuments gilded in gold leaf. For an every-day citizen or political outsider, the halls of government might feel like an Olympus. A place where the gods of elected government rule from on high. You could even stretch to think of it as a City of Immortals.

United States Capitol Building east facade - Washington DC United States
United States Capitol Building east facade – Washington DC United States

You enter the halls of Congress to see and hear the “thunderbolts” being hurled from the right and left sides of the aisle; the nonstop bickering over how you will live your life. It’s messy, complicated, drowned in a legalese few laymen can understand. Who would enter that fray, and upon seeing the ridiculousness of it, would not want to scream? What if you actually did it? Here’s what the song says happened:

Then all at once the chaos ceased. A stillness fell, a sudden peace. The warriors felt my silent cry and stayed their struggle, mystified. Apollo was astonished. Dionysus thought me mad. But they heard my story further and they wondered, and were sad. Looking down from Olympus on a world of doubt and fear; its surface splintered into sorry hemispheres.

In reality, if you walked into a Senate or House session, or the Oval Office, or the Supreme Court chambers and screamed in bloody frustration at them, they are going to have you escorted out. Probably with prejudice. But imagine what would happen if you did and they actually stopped and listened to you? I know what you’re thinking: Lyle, seriously, government stopped listening to the people a long time ago. You’re right. But that’s not my point in all this. Now this next part, this is the true science fiction of the tale:

They sat a while in silence, then they turned at last to me. ‘We will call you Cygnus, the God of Balance you shall be.’

Just think, for one moment, if you had the chance to be the arbiter between the left and right ideology, and they had to abide by your final judgement on their argument. Who would you side with? Always the Left? Always the Right? Some might, but the majority of us would not. We would invoke the third option of the Neutrals, and that brings me to the conclusion of this extremely long political rant.

The Hemispheres United

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I have to think you’ve got at least a foot in the camp of the Neutrals. In my mind, we the Neutrals are the centrists. I would argue the centrists live with the mantra that if you can’t do what is right, then you do what is fair. We are the ones in the middle that see merit and fault on both political fronts… the ones who political parties have abandoned for the warm and fuzzy fringes of their followers. We in the middle are left in the political cold and both sides are making a fire to warm us. We are the ones those governing gods fight over. We are the ones they hope are afraid of being alone so we can get pulled in to their fold.

It is us who pilot the Rocinante into the black hole of politics and scream in frustration at Apollo and Dionysus for their limited vision and schoolyard pettiness. It is us who seek the peace in an arena that only knows war. But not war in the traditional sense. Oh no. They don’t want to kill you. It’s the war for your heart and mind. They are the most precious bastions you can ever protect. The day we once again realize we are not enemies is the first day of our freedom. There is a way to reconcile our trespasses against each other, and Rush sums it up nicely in the final stanza:

We can walk our road together, if our goals are all the same. We can run alone and free, if we pursue a different aim. Let the truth of love be lighted. Let the love of truth shine clear. Sensibility, armed with sense and liberty, with the heart and mind united in a single, perfect sphere.

While I am not naive enough to think those who govern will stop and hear us when we scream, I am hopeful that, outside of their influence, we will hear each other when we scream. Maybe then we can once again come together—those with love and those with logic—and make our country a better example for the world.

Chewbacca: The Best Friend We All Wish We Had

Chewbacca from Solo: A Star Wars Story
Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Ask any Star Wars fans, or even those Moofmilkers who have maybe just “seen the movie once”, what they think of Chewbacca. I’m willing to bet every single one will say they love him. In fact, I’m willing to bet the Millennium Falcon that not one of them will have a negative thing to say about him. Even in this hyper-critical moment Star Wars fans find themselves in over the franchise, the one constant we can all agree on is a universal love for the Wookiee, Chewbacca.

Why do you think that is? Why has this character touched so many hearts without ever saying a word we can understand? I have a theory, and it comes with a deep personal meaning.

Chewie: The Ultimate Wingman

Han didn’t know how lucky he was to have a best friend like Chewie. Let’s be honest… he would never have survived even half of the junk he pulled, and the trouble he got into throughout his adult life, without Chewbacca.

Han Solo and Chewbacca, from Solo: A Star Wars Story - photo: Lucasfilm/Disney
Han Solo and Chewbacca, from Solo: A Star Wars Story

Need something fixed on the Falcon? Chewie’s got it.

Need to borrow a Bowcaster when your DL-44 Blaster isn’t up to snuff? Chewie’s got you covered.

Trapped at a blast door on Endor by the Empire and an Imperial Walker? Chewie has your back, with a little Ewok help.

Pulling a heist? Chewbacca calls shotgun. Any time Han needs him, he is there.

One thing I wish they had delved into with The Rise of Skywalker is the connection that had to exist between Ben Solo and Chewbacca. Imagine as a child growing up with “Uncle Chewie”. There could be no better babysitter. Even when Ben became Kylo Ren, there had to be a twinge in his black heart somewhere of how his turn to the dark side would affect Chewie. He could hate mom and dad all he wanted to, but I’d bet the farm there were some strong attachments to the big furry oaf. And imagine how much it did affect Chewie? After all, he is a sensitive Wookiee. Just look at what he did with the Porgs in Episode VII!

Chewie: The Great Protector

Something that always stood out to me in Star Wars is C-3PO being the butt of a lot of jokes. Sure, he could be annoying, but he always meant well. Goldenrod, the professor, mindless philosopher, and whatever else R2 called him in his squawks and squeaks—C-3PO took it all in stride. He could dish it out, too. In fact, he could be quite a jerk about it. But on Cloud City, when he ran afoul of some Storm Troopers and was blasted apart, it was the kind-hearted Chewbacca that fought off the Ugnaughts for his parts and put him back together.

Chewie pieces Threepio back together again - Photo: Lucasfilm/Disney
Chewie pieces Threepio back together again – Photo: Lucasfilm/Disney

And who did Han trust to look after his love before going into carbon freeze? It sure wasn’t Lando. When Chewie was ready to rumble over it, Han calmed him down by charging him to take care of the princess.

Chewie takes his fair share of zingers, too, and he never complains because that’s just who he is. He’s been called a walking carpet, flea-bitten furball, overgrown mop head, a big hairy thing, big furry oaf, and probably the worst one… “he’s only a Wookiee.” All things you could only say to your best friend and get away with it. Even with the knocks, our ever-faithful sidekick always plunges on. Plus, you know he could remove all your limbs if he wanted to.

What Chewbacca means to Star Wars fans

“It’s a privilege unlike any other. With relative anonymity, you can bring joy to so many, and at the same time you’re giving people the opportunity to reminisce about their childhoods — and giving people big, hairy hugs. So it’s a wonderful job.”

Joonas Suotamo, on what it means to him portraying Chewbacca
Speaking of big, hairy hugs... - Photo: Lucasfilm/Disney
Speaking of big, hairy hugs…

The now-Legends book, The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime is a difficult book to read, because in it, Chewbacca dies. It struck me hard knowing he died in the Extended Universe. Chewbacca dead? I am not sure I can handle that! Even more profound is that Han starts a dark spiral after losing his long-time best friend. Something we could probably all relate to if it happened to us. His death was taken so hard by some fans that the author even received death threats over it.

The death of Chewbacca in R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime
The death of Chewbacca in R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime

In doing a little more research, I found out this book is rumored to be one of the primary reasons the EU/Legends was cut from Star Wars canon. To quote the Hollywood Reporter article, it says:

“A new Star Wars films without Chewbacca just wouldn’t feel like Star Wars, because the character is so much of the series’ heart. It’s impossible to take for granted that there’s an emotive quality to Chewbacca, an undeniable sense of personality that transcends the costume. As much as we’d like to imagine that if we lived in the Star Wars Universe we’d be a Jedi like Luke or Rey, a diplomat like Leia or a cocky pilot like Han, the truth is that we’d most likely be like Chewbacca; dependable, empathetic and just along for the ride. That’s an honorable position to be in.”

…and that is truth. A Star Wars movie without Chewbacca is like one without R2-D2. They may be the most influential supporting characters in film history. Being a supporting character brings around the point of all this. Why is Chewbacca the best friend we all wish we had?

Be Someone’s Chewbacca

August 2020 will be the two-year anniversary of the death of someone I knew who took his own life. His name is Miguel. We were co-workers at the rec center in my town. His mom works there with me, too. Miguel and I weren’t best friends. We saw each other when he would come in to work the pool cleaning crew, or when his mom would bring him after school to play basketball. We talked sometimes about little stuff, always nice to each other. He was 15-years-old.

In hindsight, nothing anyone could have said or done was going to stop him once he made this decision. Stars help me, I’ve thought about it constantly. Was there something I could have done differently that would have given him pause? Is there more I could have done? Could I have been nicer to him? Would he still be here if I had? Did he have a Chewbacca? I see his mom every day at work and it breaks my heart for her.

Miguel was born the same year as my youngest son. We both share a love of Star Wars. We play Star Wars games together, like Battlefront II and Galaxy of Heroes. We tag-teamed Jedi: Fallen Order on the PS4 to face Vader. I could not imagine being a Star Wars fan, or a life, without him. I’ll always be his Chewbacca, as I would to any of my kids and grand-kids.

My now-16-year-old at Machine Falls, Short Springs State Natural Area

My challenge to you: Be a Chewbacca to someone. It just might be the tiny Force push they need. Alternately, If you need a Chewbacca, we’re out there. Look hard and find us. We might be in the bottom of a muddy pit, labeled a beast and trapped in chains of our own. Help us out of there and I can promise you, we’ll be friends for life.

The World According to Me: To “Ma’am” Or Not To “Ma’am”. That, Sir, is the Question

C'mon, you think I'd write anything and not reference Star Wars? Anyway, where do you fall in the argument to use or not use honorifics?
C’mon now, you think this geek would write anything and not reference Star Wars? Anyway, where do you fall in the argument to use or not use honorifics?

I have reduced myself to a mere spectator on social media any more because of the ugly and divisive forum it has become. However, when I get the chance to peruse the feed, a nugget will pop up that’s too juicy to ignore. Recently on my feed, an acquaintance posted a meme that states the following:

“Biggest pet peeve: ‘Don’t call me sir or ma’am, I’m not that old’ – Listen, I got too many whoopings growing up to not call you sir/ma’am. Just let me respect you, ok?”

Facebook meme

My acquaintance proceeded to talk about how they do not condone the criticizing of children that don’t say sir or ma’am, and they do not teach their children this because in their upbringing, it was not done out of respect but from a place of control and dominance. It is their opinion that returning a yes or no to a question is acceptable and doesn’t need to be followed by sir or ma’am. It caused me to ponder a question: Do these honorifics need to become a thing of the past?

The No’s vs. the No Sirs

Any time you share a strong opinion on the internet, Newton’s third law of motion becomes a gob-smacking reality. It says for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This situation was no different. Acquaintances of my acquaintance began choosing sides. The great Facebook debate had begun. I read the responses with great interest, which ranged from a simple “I agree”, to “that’s bull____”, and everything between. Some spoke of their own upbringings and how they did or didn’t suffer the same punishments as my acquaintance for omitting or using the familiar form of address.

A rare photo of a real-life Facebook argument - (woman yelling at brick wall)
A rare photo of a real-life Facebook argument

I consumed them all with gusto. It was an extraordinary glimpse into human behavior over something I considered a non-starter. I know which camp I fall into, or at least, I did, but the great debate had me questioning my feelings on the subject. One particular exchange of ideas stood out, and forced me to ponder my own stance on an issue that I never realized was an issue. My best paraphrase of the exchange is that saying these formal terms are a sign of respect, to which the reply was respect is earned, not given. That phrase became the lightning rod for me.

My Own Upbringing and Experience

I was raised in the south, but I would not call my childhood a proper southern rearing. Florida is a mighty collection of transplants, so it’s hard to say Florida is truly southern. However, aspects of being raised by my dad and two grandmothers from Iowa allow adjustments for anything. While I was never forced to say ma’am or sir as a child, I always found it a better way to communicate with people older than me because using the words elevated me above the old saying children should be seen and not heard. By using these terms to address my elders, I was given the same amount of respect I was giving conversationally by people much older than me. And the interesting part is I learned that on my own without parental coercion.

Me and my dad, circa 1985
Me and my dad, circa 1985

The phrase respect is earned, not given is a conundrum. While it’s a true statement, respect is a red herring people chase endlessly and sometimes never catch. In hearing that phrase, my mind goes instantly to a newly-minted MMA fighter that feels like they have to trash talk and beat the baddest fighter in their ranks to get respect; that they have to go in and force it from their peers. Perhaps in that world, that is how respect is quantified, but in the everyday, non-MMA world, respect should never be forced from anyone. At the same time however, it shouldn’t have to be forced. Respect should be given freely until some reason arises where it can no longer be given.

I would go so far as to contend a lack of freely given respect is a major source of societal woe. In my day job, I often work with staff much younger than me. I respond to every one of them with sir or ma’am at the end of a greeting or statement. It is not always returned, and I don’t require it. But what I aim to do is show them I will give them all of my respect until they give me a reason not to. In the end, my staff usually hums like a well-oiled machine because they know where I stand with them. I may be the supervisor, but I respect the job I have trained them to do and their ability to do it, and treat them accordingly. By giving my respect freely to them, they, in turn, give it right back. For some, it takes a while for them to figure out how this mutual respect dynamic works, but in the end, they all get it.

If you have to earn respect, how do you do that?

"What you do has far greater impact than what you say." - Stephen Covey

I can only use my personal method on this, as I’m certain methods will differ based on the personalities you are working with. If I feel I have to earn someone’s respect, there’s two ways I attempt do it:

1 – Leading by Example

My staff knows there is not a single job in my purview that is beneath me. If it happens to be cleaning toilets, washing dishes, or any other job no one really wants to do, I’ll be right there shoulder to shoulder with them doing it. That does not mean I’ll do it for them (if that’s their job), but I am willing to help them if needed. No task can be beneath you. That is the price of being a good leader.

2 – Servant Leadership

My goal as a leader is to train my replacement. I’ll say that again: My goal as a leader is to train my replacement. I am not here to show my employees how to do everything and then watch them do it. I am here to teach them to be better versions of themselves. It is my responsibility as their leader to develop my staff into my business equals. It is my responsibility to ensure they are properly trained and to push them farther. It is my job to learn their goal and help them achieve it. It’s a job I take seriously.

Commanding respect with an iron-fist approach of do as I say and not as I do is a certain guarantee of disrespectful anarchy. Put these two principles into practice and I promise you will have no issues with respect, and you won’t ever have to ask… they’ll call you sir or ma’am of their own accord regardless of any upbringing.

Using Sir/Ma’am as a Sign of Dominance?

I can’t say taking these formalities as a sign of dominance is untrue because everyone’s experience is different. From the description, it would seem my acquaintance had a difficult time of it. It’s not for me to judge how someone was raised or the trials they faced. I spent eight years working as a civilian for the military. While no one ever told me (as a civilian) to address officers or enlisted soldiers in a specific way other than by rank, I still used the formal address when speaking to them. It wasn’t the product of any southern rearing or demand from anyone. It was just the right thing to do. Again, everyone’s experience is different, but I wouldn’t go up to my commander at the time and say “Hey Bobby, how’s it going?”. While I did become friendly with many of my military co-workers, I never felt dominated in any conversations with them. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

One of my old business mentors told me a saying I’ll never forget. Familiarity breeds contempt. The basis is, the more you know about someone, the less you respect them. Business superiors are not your friends. They are in those positions for a reason: to run the business. You can be professionally friendly with them, but the more you know of them personally, the less of a supervisor they are and the more of a buddy they become. Does this mean you can’t have friends at work? Of course not. Does this mean your boss doesn’t care about you? Of course not. I care a great deal for my staff and their personal well-being. You spend more waking time with your co-workers in a week than you do with your own family. It is a word of caution, however. Keep business relationships professional and above board. Freely give your respect while it is deserved.

Societal use of sir and ma’am has another consideration among gender identity politics. Folks who identify themselves as different genders other than their outwardly appearance are requesting not to be categorized by these terms. What some would see as a sign of respect is viewed by others as a sign of disrespect if you get it wrong. Whether you believe in a person’s choice to choose gender or not, at least in this argument, is irrelevant. If you’re going to use honorifics and you can’t be sure of who you’re addressing, it may be incumbent on you to find another way.

What’s my point in all this?

In the end, I can only govern myself and be responsible for my actions. I don’t think the mandatory use of ma’am or sir should be required by anyone except within your own parenting structure or within a military environment. While I can see both sides of the “dominance” argument, I do not require it from my children or staff. I’ll let their own respect-o-meters determine what honorific they use.

Where the world could use some improvement is when someone gets it wrong. Attacking a person for an attempt at respectful dialogue is wrong in any arena. Even minor corrections, like “I’m not that old, don’t call me ma’am”, or “My father was sir, I am not” are unnecessary. Even if those are said in jest, it creates an awkward situation that can have lingering effects. Allow the person to use their own judgement of you and practice their own culture. If you must make a correction, do it politely and quietly and move on.

While my theory on this is far from scientific, I will make you one guarantee. If you ever meet me, I can promise you I will grant you the utmost respect right out of the gate, and will likely call you sir or ma’am. Please don’t take it as a sign of dominance or a remark on your age. I say it out of my well-full of freely given respect.