A Tower of Change

This week’s featured Tarot card is The Tower– tall and ominous with lighting bolts, fire and falling bodies. It is an unsettling card that matches the mood of the nation in this incredibly tumultuous and divisive US election cycle. It is card number 16 of the major Arcana and reflects a dramatic jolt and shift in direction.

The Tower is a card of Change- the ultimate “ending the status quo” statement.

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Not everyone is a change junkie like me and many people find it disconcerting when a tsunami wave comes and wipes out carefully constructed sand castles (even if they were built on false premises). These sudden change experiences shake the very foundation of our current sense of security and force us to question our strongly-held beliefs, perceptions, attitudes and behaviors.

Some overall meanings and themes of the Tower card include:

  • Experiencing sudden change and upheaval
  • Realizing the truth after a major revelation
  • Breaking down false structures/ beliefs/ institutions
  • Falling down or being humbled

In America today, a tower of change looms ahead of us and change is a good thing, right?

But what if the change is a major disruption or crisis and is likely to bring chaos in its wake?

In the words of Charles Kettering, “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” 

Progress is sorely needed and dramatic change is required, even if it is unsettling.

According to Joan Bunning in her book “Learning the Tarot”, “How you respond to the Tower’s change makes all the difference in how uncomfortable the experience will be. Recognize that the disruption occurred because it was needed. Perhaps embracing the change is too much to ask, but try to find the positive in it. In fact, you may feel tremendous release that you have finally been forced in a new direction”.

Note the symbolism in the Tower card below  (from a traditional Universal-Waite deck).

Two people are falling head first from a tower that has been struck by a bolt of lighting (truth). The man in red has crazy light colored hair and the  woman in blue is wearing a crown.  I can’t help but feel that these two characters represent Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in all their falling-from-grace glory.

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It is clear to me that change is desperately needed in our country but did we really need to go to such destructive extremes?

This quote from President Bill Clinton helps to justify and explain the situation the US is in, namely,

“The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.”

And so the menacing Tower looms, reminding us that a wave of change is coming.

We have a choice in how we response to the inevitable alterations of life.  We can:

  1. Embrace the change.
  2. Resist the change and risk being snapped like a twig in the strong currents of a river.
  3. Accept the change we may not want or like and look for the positive aspects of it.

I leave you with a final quote from Sydney J. Harris.

“Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.”

Objective Evaluations in a Polarized World

A vast amount of ink has been devoted to analyzing and evaluating Hillary Clinton’s speaking style. I will not be adding to the heap of hypothesis and judgment (although I do feel that I have some relevant qualifications and experience to do so) and will instead take a different angle and discuss another important topic of late, namely the ability to provide effective evaluations of speeches or debates when you disagree with or dislike the content or topic. Giving credit where credit is due is a rare occurrence these days.

During my 22 years as an active Toastmaster member, I have given over 200 formal speech evaluations and presented numerous educational sessions on how to provide encouraging yet constructive feedback on another’s presentation. I have created and shared an easy way (I call it the DSI Model) to structure a cogent 2-3 minute Toastmaster Evaluation. For you acronym buffs, DSI stands for Delivery, Structure and Impact.

The Speech Evaluation is a cornerstone of the Toastmasters program and is critical for the growth and development of the members’ communication and leadership skills.  It is also one of the most difficult things to do well.  Providing verbal feedback in front of the entire group is challenging and often a scary proposition for new club members who are asked to evaluate fellow speakers who may be more advanced and experienced.

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The ability to give objective and neutral feedback on another person’s speech is hard enough without all the many external and internal factors influencing us.  Pesky things like human nature, emotions, personal biases, insecurities, political correctness, extreme political views, polarization of opinions and what I call the “siloed, echo chambers” of social media and cyberspace  (for more on this check out “A Matter of Perspective”).

So now to the crux of the matter at hand, are we humans capable of lifting our personal filters and actively listening to the words and opinions of others with whom we disagree or dislike? Can we set aside our own beliefs, thoughts and values on the content/topic and focus on the Delivery, Structure and Impact of the speech? Without some guidelines and a controlled, unemotional approach, this may prove challenging for many people today, especially since large portions of the American public rarely see or listen to opinions which differ dramatically from their own.  Open, honest discussion and debate is too often discouraged and sadly suppressed on college campuses today.

Here are my thoughts and advice on this feedback challenge:

  1. Remember that as a speech evaluator, you are there to observe and provide neutral and constructive feedback, recommendations and suggestions on the basic tenants and techniques of effective communication and public speaking.  There are manuals and speech objectives to guide you.
  2. Focus on the Delivery and Structure of the presentation with specific examples.
  3. When commenting on the Impact of a speech (especially if you disagree with the content), try to set aside your personal emotions and biases and look at and assess the overall audience response to the speech.
  4. Honestly ask yourself if the topic/point of the speech is clouding your ability to provide positive and objective feedback on the Delivery and Impact. If it is, then:
    1. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who supports the topic and reflect on how they would respond to the speech.
    2. Run a “What if” scenario in your mind by replacing the content of the speech with something that you agree with and see how you would view and analyze it.
  5. Open your mind, take off your biased filters and focus on how the speaker is connecting, delivering and making their point.
  6. Was the speaker able to motivate, educate, influence or inspire?
  7. The purpose of your evaluation is to encourage and help club member improve and develop strong communication skills, not to impose your views, values and opinions about the subject matter.

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Hopefully this advice will prove useful to my fellow Toastmasters around the world and may even help open up the dialogue among Americans who are embroiled in the highly contentious and negatively charged Presidential election season of 2016.

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I will be presenting the contents of this article in the form of an eight minute Toastmasters speech on the morning of November 8, 2016.  As part of the presentation, I will be giving a sample Evaluation of Hillary Clinton’s most recent debate performance.

This speech will be the last one I give at the Denver Techmasters club in Lone Tree, CO prior to our move to Austin, TX.

 

Walking with Service Legs

I have always been fascinated with leg tattoos. When I saw the word Selfless” on the calf of a fellow veteran, I had to inquire. What did it mean? Ronie, a contract employee at Project Sanctuary, then proudly showed me his other leg which read Service”.   Wow, this takes “walking the walk” to a whole new level!

Selfless Service– that’s what volunteering is all about and my brief exchange with Ronie hit this home for me when he explained that his service to veterans and their families at retreats with Project Sanctuary is just a natural extension of his duty when he served in the US Army. ProjectSanct_Sign2 This past weekend I was happy to serve others as a volunteer at a powerful retreat which helps military families reconnect. Project Sanctuary is a special organization with a spirited and dedicated staff and hundreds of volunteers.

I put on my Platoon Leader/Project Manager hat for this event and coordinated the attendance of nine coworkers who assisted over the six day retreat at the YMCA Snow Mountain in Granby, CO.   Most of us are part of a Denver Military Veterans Network group at work and are focusing our efforts on increasing awareness of veteran issues and being of service to others.  Selfless service without the leg tattoos.

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My coworkers who volunteered at the retreat

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The volunteer experience was positive and uplifting and provided us with greater insight and appreciate for the “invisible” wounds that many returning veterans suffer with PTS ( Post Traumatic Stress) and TBI ( Traumatic Brain Injury).

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Witnessing the power of peer mentoring, counseling and plain old fun and games in the healing of strained relationships and broken family connections was most impressive.   A large majority of the staff and volunteers at Project Sanctuary are prior service/military members which reinforces Ronie’s idea of continued Selfless Service.  He and many others like him are Walking the Walk with Service Legs.

The need is great for the programs and benefits that Project Sanctuary provides and there are more than 1,800 families on the waiting list to attend a Retreat. In 2014, 19 retreats were held and 164 new families were served.  This year 21 retreats are scheduled at no cost to the veterans and their families.

So let’s step up and help support more military members and their families heal and reconnect with this innovative and powerful program.

To make a donation to Project Sanctuary click here.   LegTatoo_Freedom

Confessions of a Scrum Master

Every thing I needed to know about being a good Scrum Master I learned from my high school soccer coach, Miss Lonegan.

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Here’s what was instilled in me on a muddy soccer field in the early 1980s.

Great coaches and leaders:

  1. Motivate and help the team to be successful.
  2.  Walk with the team, on the field, everyday.
  3.  Teach others the process by sharing fundamental tasks and techniques.
  4.  Guide the team without being overly controlling.
  5.  Communicate positively.

These successful actions and traits recently dawned on me when I realized how important Personality and Temperament are to being an effective Scrum Master.

Over the past 5 years, I have been observing team dynamics as a Scrum Master (SM) on multiple teams in 3 different companies and have witnessed a number of SMs crash and burn due to not leading like good coaches. Lack of communication and soft skills were also a common theme with the ineffective Scrum Masters.

The most successful SMs are true team players and are comfortable surrendering control to the Product Owner and team. Adept Scrum Masters truly view their role as being in service to the team, removing obstacles for the team and helping them to be successful.

Facilitation is another important role of the Scrum Master and requires a high level collaboration and strong, tactful communication skills.   The authoritative, directive, ” my way or the highway ” approach does not work well with Scrum teams.

Project Managers can sometimes get away with a lack of soft skills but Scrum Masters, who are facilitators and coaches, cannot.

In the Retrospectives with our team, I ask them to think about the Results, the Experience and the Process of Agile and the sprint. I view my Scrum Master role as critical to helping the team to not only achieve great results (velocity) but to enjoy the experience and the process- just like my high school soccer coach did all those years ago!

Leadership Challenges in Volunteer Organizations

Strong leaders are critical to the success of any organization- be it a non profit,  a corporation, a military unit,  a church or a bicycle club.   I believe that successful leaders can be developed and nurtured through mentoring, coaching and training but I have recently witnessed how unchecked power and bloated egos can corrupt leaders of volunteer groups.   Over the last 20 years, I’ve been a member and/or  officer in numerous nonprofit and corporate organizations and have seen a negative trend in leadership ethics.

Since college I have had the honor and privilege of serving under many inspirational officers, managers and executives who truly embodied the values of respect, humility and service.   These altruistic and motivational men and women were my role models and taught me the importance of recognition, encouragement, honesty and integrity.   They taught me to stay focused on the team member’s needs above my own.

In the past few years, I have become concerned by the increase in the frequency and negative impact that “corrupted” leaders are having on their organizations (this is across the board in society-  from the local nonprofit and school board to the state and federal governments).   There are more power-influenced leaders today and fewer selfless ones. There is more Me and less We and that’s not the way it should be!  Another disappointing theme I’ve observed recently is a misplaced focus where the officers of organizations are more concerned about their own power, titles and agendas with little priority or attention given to the actual members.

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I recently wrote a speech and created a presentation entitled “Leadership Challenges in Volunteer Organizations”  where I outlined issues, impediments and possible solutions to address membership growth and retention concerns in non profit groups like Toastmasters and the VFW.   I sadly will cite the destructive and non-collaborative behaviors of power trips, politics and petty personal attacks as key factors negatively impacting the morale and growth of many well meaning, non profit groups.

Solutions to these issues are often difficult to implement in a broad sense since they need to come from within the individual leaders however,  a positive organizational culture coupled with strong team agreements can go a long way toward improving a group’s leadership challenges.   An unwavering commitment to the organization’s  core Mission, without compromise, is also a critical to ensuring that ethical leaders are rewarded, encouraged and attracted.

Here are the Mission Statements of two organizations I am a member of:

“Provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills.”

 “ To serve our veterans, the military and our communities.  To advocate on behalf of all veterans.”

 

Notice that nowhere in the statements above does it mention the role, power or importance of the leaders or officers of the group.  They are solely focused on the members of the organization.  Losing sight of this simple fact is what I believe is causing many of the leadership issues we see in our volunteer organizations today.

Perhaps this message and blog can reach others and be shared in order to make a positive impact in our communities and non profit groups.  I hope so!

A Story to Tell: Changes, Connections and Mirror Neurons

What inspires you to take action?  A Poet and a Colonel motivated my first blog of 2014. It all started when I attended a stimulating interactive  workshop last Saturday called STORY UP.  Sharon and Norm Frickey, who I share adventures with in Toastmasters and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), facilitated the session.  During the workshop, they delved into the intricacies of mirror neurons and expressed the importance of “Finding your story in the experience” and sharing it with others in order to bridge awareness gaps.   They explained how story telling increases connectedness with our fellow humans.

Sharon passionately moved me when she said, “A story told with purpose and an authentic voice can change the world”.   This writer’s workshop was a strong Call to Action and has prompted me to share my stories.  Could I possibly change the world?

Sharon reflects on mirror neurons

Sharon reflects on mirror neurons.
Photo by Steve Smull.

Last night I gave a speech entitled “Traditions and Changes- the Last Quarter of a Century “ at my newly joined Titan Toastmaster club.  During the speech I realized the power and importance of telling a story.  I connected with my audience on many levels when I shared my 25 year journey from college, to the Army, to War deployment, to the VFW and to Toastmasters.   I explained that there is an interesting dichotomy in mind because I am a traditionalist who embraces change and new technology and I am an agile technophile who often longs for many old fashioned traditions.

In my speech I had fun with props as I detailed the numerous technological changes over the last 10 years and how it has altered the way that we communicate with one another.   I displayed my cell phone, iPod, Kindle, and iPad and contrasted them with the tossed-aside printed newspaper, vinyl LP record, a cassette tape and paperback novel.  I shared that although I have adopted and use all the most recent technological devices to communicate, I still value and yearn for live, verbal communications with my friends, family and colleagues.  One of the reasons I love Toastmasters so much is because it provides a warm, friendly environment to speak with others in a supportive setting.  Live, real-time dialogue and interactions with honest to goodness humans who actually smile, nod and react to my words and actions.  Wow- what a concept. 

It was heart warming and refreshing for me to tell a story about traditions, changes and the value and importance of how we communicate with each other.    Could the connectedness I felt during this small speech begin to help bridge the recent polarization in our public discourse?   I hope so.

Storytelling is a uniquely human experience

Storytelling is a uniquely human experience

The ability to verbalize your thoughts and feelings into a 10 minute face to face presentation is so much more fulfilling and better understood by others than a 3 sentence Facebook post or a 140 character tweet certainly is!

So here’s to STORY UP and sharing our experiences live with our fellow humans.

Thanks to Norm and Sharon for inspiring me to reach new heights of authentic expression!  My story telling has just begun.

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The Poet and the Colonel