What does your totem look like?

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Not long ago I had the opportunity to attend an executive leadership course at a prestigious business school on the East Coast. As with any challenging program, academic preparation was required. I had homework to do before I could leave town. 

As many of you can relate, I studiously printed out the assignments and put them on my somewhat crowded to-do list. Though I started many times to accomplish my homework, I soon found myself within a week of leaving and up against a hard deadline. So, in good fashion, I carved some time out of my schedule and completed my required reading. 

With that out of the way I could now focus on what seemed to be a simple project; to put together a "totem" that would describe me to the rest of the course attendees. Just to make sure I was thinking correctly, I Googled totem and verified that I was on target. It read, "A totem was an object used as a symbol representing a person or clan." I was good to go. 

This should be a piece of cake; after all, I'm pretty good with my hands and tend to have a vivid imagination. I figured that with a nail gun, some hot glue and duct tape I'd wrap this thing up within an hour. All I needed to do was get my main points together. That's when my plan started falling apart. 

How would I describe myself? Should I focus on my physical attributes? After much internal debate, I figured that approach just wouldn't do. After all, if I were to build a totem that was tall, dark and handsome, I would never get it on the airplane. Not to mention the fact that looks are so subjective that I could possibly get busted for misrepresentation. 

My second thought was to put together a collection of items that would paint a picture of things that I do, associate with or enjoy. Perhaps I could attach a cowboy boot to a military boot, add a hat or two along with my Bible. But where would I put my gun? I certainly wouldn't get through security with this one and I was running out of time. 

Finally I had a breakthrough. I could compose a list of attributes that best described my character, and then I could put something together that would represent those traits. I came up with devoted, loyal and trustworthy. As I reviewed my work I realized that I had just described Old Yeller. 

Perhaps I would get a better list if I asked others to describe me. After another day had come and gone I received the list: Okie, country, loud, animated, funny, father, serious, and boss. What was wrong with these people anyway? I thought they knew me by now. 

Out of time, I knew that I would just have to wing it. As I packed later that evening, desperate for a totem, I took the easy way out. I started grabbing hats from all over the house. I would have a living totem -- me. Besides, hats were easy to pack and I'm sure that I would come up with something to say. 

The next day I took center stage in front of some 50 people from the all over the United States, with my bag of hats. I introduced myself to the group in my best Oklahoma drawl. I explained that in our fast pace world I wear many different hats, as I reached in for my son's "OU" cap. After talking some football smack, I explained that as a young man we raised and trained horses and I pulled out my "Cowboy" hat. Please note -- cowboy hats don't travel well in a suitcase. 

I moved on to my time at college, then graduation from pharmacy school and on to my family. I am married to a wonderful wife and am the father of five children, so I then put on my "Dad" cap. I explained how I failed as an Air Force father for my older twin boys defected to serve in the Marines and Army, though I am very proud they had learned to serve. 

Speaking of the Air Force, I proudly put on my flight cap as I told my Air Force story. How I joined the Air Force because I thought I needed more challenge in my life. I shared how my wife and I had decided to try it and if we didn't like it, we could always go back to the drugstore. That was some 16 years ago. 

I spoke of the many jobs and opportunities I've enjoyed as an Air Force officer and how the Air Force encourages me do things that are good for me. Things like getting an advanced degree, staying in good health and physical shape, learning to lead and make decisions, caring for my wingmen and preparing for tomorrow. 

After a while I realized I was on the verge of preaching a fire and brimstone message and needed to move on. 

I had one more hat in my sack. I shared that this last hat represented a very special group of folks. A group of people, that despite the challenge, despite all odds, and no matter the circumstance they always do whatever it takes to get the job done. I then pulled out my "Get 'Er Done" cap. I explained that the men and women of the Air Force are the best I've ever known and that it's for them that I proudly wear this hat. They always get 'er done. 

To my surprise and great pleasure, these strangers were on their feet and roaring in approval. Apparently I now had some 50 new friends. As I gathered my hats and exited center stage, I was both humble and proud at the crowd's response. I was reminded of what makes us the greatest Air, Space and Cyberspace Force in the world -- its people. 

Though I completely started this exercise out of desperation, I found that there was great value in trying to describe myself, a time of self reflection, and seeing myself as others see me. It may not always be flattering, but we all need a vector check now and then. 

Though we stay very busy and there is never enough time in our day, I encourage you to find out what your totem looks like. Take time for self reflection; see yourself through the eyes of others and most importantly, share your Air Force story with a stranger. You'll be amazed at the results.