Monday, August 14, 2017

Sticking to What You Know

It's hard for me to write about anything this week except the presentations that I'm going to give at one of my association's major conferences next week. Hard, because creating and rehearsing them has occupied an enormous portion of my mental life this week.

Preparation for two of these presentations has been fairly routine. They are the presentations that I will give at the start of each of the conference's two major days. One is a report on the activities of our association. The other is a report on the activities of our affiliated foundation. As I think I have written before, these are typically focused on reinforcing the same strategic messages, and creating a new presentation amounts to little more than calling up last year's and updating the facts and figures. Our strategy hasn't changed much. We've just got another year of success to talk about it.

But the third presentation is quite a different animal. It is essentially a report from one of my association's technical committees. The committee is question is responsible for maintaining something we call our technology roadmap -- a document that represents a consensus in our industry about the pre-competitive research challenges that must be addressed if our industry's technology is to continue to meet or better meet the evolving needs of our industry's customers. The committee updates this document every couple of years, and the presentation next week is where we will unveil the latest update.

Why I'm giving this presentation -- instead of say, the chair or other member of the committee -- is an interesting story in and of itself. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I think it is a reflection of a larger trend within my association where we are becoming more and more staff-driven. Or, if I want to be brutally honest, not staff- but CEO-driven. More on that, perhaps, in a future post.

For now, I'd rather focus on how I approached the task of composing this presentation. I did what I always do, what I have been taught to do from very early in my career. When you're going to get up and talk to a room full of people on a subject -- any subject -- it's essential for you to stick to what you know.

So what do I know about this technical report, this technology roadmap? Quite a bit actually. Putting the document together was a long and involved process, spanning many conference calls and a few in-person meetings. The committee first defined the high-level elements of the document, and then divided into several working groups to examine each of those elements in greater detail. This is the third time we have updated the document after it was first published in 2009, and each time, the process that we use to accomplish it is improved and made more inclusive.

And it is me, not the chair of the committee or any of its members, that is in charge of that process. I was there in 2009 when the document was first created, and I have guided every refresh of the document since then. The committee chairs and members that have come and gone over the last eight years have been the voices that have defined the essential content of the roadmap -- the evolving needs of our industry's customers, the challenges we must confront is we are to meet those needs, and the mechanisms that we should employ if we are to tackle those challenges. That is a picture that the technical experts in our industry have to paint, but I am the individual who has built for them the frame in which their painting will be displayed.

And that gives me some unique perspective in giving the presentation. I can certainly describe the painting, as I was a witness to its creation. But the focus of the presentation I will give will really be on the frame. That is, the purpose of the document and how it will be used by my association and the industry it represents.

I'm looking forward to it.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, August 7, 2017

Giving Core Values Teeth

I heard a great way for organizations to give their core values "teeth" at a recent conference I attended.

I've written before about some of the steps my association has taken -- using our core values as a screen during our interview process, and making alignment with our core values a part of our performance evaluation process. These are both important steps and they have helped make our core values something more than just "a plaque on the wall." But what the organization I learned about at the conference has done takes their values a step further.

They are also part of their performance evaluation process, but they are something more than just one performance category among many. They are, in fact, a "pass/fail" assessment that comes at the very front end of the performance evaluation.

If the employee in question passes, meaning that they consistently demonstrate behaviors that align with the core values of the organization, they go on to the other performance categories.

But if the employee in question fails, meaning that they consistently demonstrate behaviors that do not align with the core values of the organization, then they go no further with the performance evaluation. The misalignment issue with the core values must be dealt with -- either through the successful completion of an improvement plan or, in the worst cases, dismissal of the employee -- before the employee can be evaluated in the other categories, and receive any of the rewards and compensation incentives that go along with those categories.

It strikes me as an bold stand, putting real teeth into the core values adopted by the organization. It essentially makes alignment with those values the most important factor in determining both the compensation levels and continued employment of the people who work for it. Importantly, it also gives supervisors a tool for enforcing and rewarding that alignment. The system effectively says either you act in a manner that supports our core values or you leave our organization.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Life is funny, you know? Six pages into the very next book I pick up after reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth, and I run across the following diagnosis.

The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times.

Yeah. Tell that to the Swede, and he might have a better understanding of why Merry did the things she did.

But The Denial of Death is only partly about the heroic struggle that each generation must define for itself. In its totality, Becker’s work is really about the existential paradox that plagues man’s conscious mind.

Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways -- the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.

Indeed. So terrifying, in fact, that Becker, in this Pulitzer Prize-winning work, will go on to claim and describe how this existential paradox, and our denial of it, forms quite nearly the whole of human psychology.

To deny the reality of our own deaths, to give ourselves the feeling that we control our lives and our deaths, we construct what Becker calls a vital lie.

We called one’s life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation. This revelation is what the Freudian revolution in thought really ends up in and is the basic reason that we still strain against Freud. We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center. All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. Augustine was a master analyst of this, as were Kierkegaard, Scheler, and Tillich in our day. They saw that man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that he really drew his “courage to be” from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat, and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance.

Powerful stuff here. Becker is stripping everything down to its basic essence, and he’s doing a pretty good job of it. Because this lie, as vital as it is, is also something we rebel against, instinctively if not consciously understanding that it is a lie, and that its artificial trappings are exactly that, incapable of helping us truly come to grips with our existential paradox.

The defenses that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity. But he is also drawn precisely toward those things that make him anxious, as a way of skirting them masterfully, testing himself against them, controlling them by defying them. As Kierkegaard taught us, anxiety lures us on, becomes the spur to much of our energetic activity: we flirt with our own growth, but also dishonestly. This explains much of the friction in our lives. We enter symbiotic relationships in order to get the security we need, in order to get relief from our anxieties, our aloneness and helplessness; but these relationships also bind us, they enslave us even further because they support the lie we have fashioned. So we strain against them to be more free. The irony is that we do this straining uncritically, in a struggle within our own armor, as it were; and so we increase our drivenness, the second-hand quality of our struggle for freedom. Even in our flirtations with anxiety we are unconscious of our motives. We seek stress, we push our own limits, but we do it with our screen against despair and not with despair itself. We do it with the stock market, with sports cars, with atomic missiles, with the success ladder in the corporation or the competition in the university. We do it in the prison of a dialogue with our own little family, by marrying against their wishes or choosing a way of life because they frown on it, and so on. Hence the complicated and second-hand quality of our entire drivenness. Even in our passions we are nursery children playing with toys that represent the real world. Even when these toys crash and cost us our lives or our sanity, we are cheated of the consolation that we were in the real world instead of the playpen of our fantasies. We still did not meet our doom on our own manly terms, in contest with objective reality. It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.

This, then, is Becker’s basic thesis. We fear death. We construct a lie that keeps us from facing it. Then we rebel against the lie because it is a lie. And in doing so, we believe we are wrestling with our fear, but we are not. We have lived a life of struggle, not against the death we fear, but against the thing we have put in its place. Becker will go on to use this thesis to explain a variety of psychological phenomena. More interestingly to me, he also uses it to generate several fairly profound ideas.

Freud Shot the Right Gun at the Wrong Target

It is clear to us today, too, that Freud was wrong about the dogma, just as Jung and Adler knew right at the beginning. Man has no innate instincts of sexuality and aggression. Now we are seeing something more, the new Freud emerging in our time, that he was right in his dogged dedication to revealing man’s creatureliness. His emotional involvement was correct. It reflected the true intuitions of genius, even though the particular intellectual counterpart of that emotion -- the sexual theory -- proved to be wrong. Man’s body was “a curse of fate,” and culture was built upon repression -- not because man was a seeker only of sexuality, of pleasure, of life and expansiveness, as Freud thought, but because man was also primarily an avoider of death. Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality. As Rank unfolded in book after book, and as Brown has recently again argued, the new perspective on psychoanalysis is that its critical concept is the repression of death. This is what is creaturely about man, this is the repression on which culture is built, a repression unique to the self-conscious animal. Freud saw the curse and dedicated his life to revealing it with all the power at his command. But he ironically missed the precise scientific reason for the curse.

Two deep things going on here. First, the thought at the very end of this passage. What delicious irony that a thinker and trailblazer such as Sigmund Freud could come so close to true understanding of human psychology (assuming one agrees with Becker’s thesis), only to be foiled by the same kind of vital lie that must have kept all his patients on his couch. He saw that man’s world is built on a scaffolding of repression, but even he missed the thing that was ultimately being repressed.

And second, go back on read that sentence about this repression of death being unique to man as a self-conscious animal. If true, and if it is true that culture is built on the same repression, it certainly explains the abundance of human culture compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Becker’s work is like this. He’s offering a concept that keeps turning in on itself, and only expanding its application in the process.

Culture as a Handy Frame for Self-Actualization

As we saw in the previous chapter, people need a “beyond,” but they reach for the nearest one; this gives them the fulfillment they need but at the same time limits and enslaves them. You can look at the whole problem of a human life in this way. You can ask the question: What kind of beyond does this person try to expand in; and how much individuation does he achieve in it? Most people play it safe: they choose the beyond of standard transference objects like parents, the boss, or the leader; they accept the cultural definition of heroism and try to be a “good provider” or a “solid” citizen. In this way they earn their species immortality as an agent of procreation, or a collective or cultural immortality as part of a social group of some kind. Most people live this way, and I am hardly implying that there is anything false or unheroic about the standard cultural solution to the problems of men. It represents both the truth and the tragedy of man’s condition: the problem of the consecration of one’s life, the meaning of it, the natural surrender to something larger -- these driving needs that inevitably are resolved by what is nearest at hand.

There’s a lot of jargon in that one, but hopefully the point is clear. Culture, built on the scaffolding of man’s own repression, provides him with handy frames to imbue his short and brutish life with meaning and a kind of immortality -- species, collective, or cultural.

Society: The Double-Edged Sword That Keeps Madness At Bay

Sometimes, those cultural frames don’t just provide man with the narrative he needs to be his own hero. In many cases, they, and the societal imperatives that are built around them, are the things that keeps him from going stark, raving mad.

… the proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going crazy. I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent’s office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are “right” for us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality. All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?

I found this utterly fascinating to contemplate. The job of a well-functioning society is to provide its citizens with the “obsessive denials of reality” that keep them from going mad, from turning in on themselves and fatalistically revealing the repressed idea that they are going to die. Becker’s last question, about the challenges that any utopian society -- that is, any society without a multitude of activities that mimic the absurdities of the human condition -- is telling. It certainly explains the failure of most of the utopian attempts that we have witnessed in our history. And it also encapsulates a warning about the kind of absurdities that well-functioning societies should strive for.

… we have to ask who this average man is. He may avoid the psychiatric clinic, but somebody around him has to pay for it. We are reminded of those Roman portrait-busts that stuff our museums: to live in this tight-lipped style as an average good citizen must have created some daily hell. Of course we are not talking only about daily pettinesses and the small sadisms that are practised on family and friends. Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death. His anality may protect him, but all through history it is the “normal, average men” who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.

This is the challenge of our time, and perhaps of all time. Can our culture and society provide us with the obsessive denials of reality that we need, but do it in a way that causes no harm to others? In this simple narrative frame, it may be worthwhile to thank the often crass consumerism and consumption that seems all-encompassing. The heroes of those stories clearly make better global citizens than those whose stories are built on outgroup aggression and war.

But some people, of course, rebel against these cultural narratives.

The Artist and the Madman

Becker borrows heavily, with proper attribution, from a work by Otto Rank called Art and Artist, which seems to be some kind of psychological treatise on my favorite subject in fiction: the existential struggle of the artist. I immediately put in on my “to-read” list. Let’s dig in.

The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take in the world as a problem; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it. This holds true for all creative people to a greater or lesser extent, but it is especially obvious with the artist. Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, the you must fashion your own. The work of art is, then, the ideal answer of the creative type to the problem of existence as he takes it in -- not only the existence of the external world, but especially his own: who he is as a painfully separate person with nothing shared to lean on. He has to answer the burden of his extreme individuation, his so painful isolation. He wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his “private religion” -- as Rank put it. Its uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his own “beyond” and not that of others.

But the challenge facing the artist is more subtle and complex than simply fashioning a heroic gift outside the bounds of the collective ones determined by the society in which he is enmeshed.

No sooner have we said this than we can see the immense problem that it poses. How can one justify his own heroism? He would have to be as God. Now we see even further how guilt is inevitable for man: even as a creator he is a creature overwhelmed by the creative process itself. If you stick out of nature so much that you yourself have to create your own heroic justification, it is too much. This is how we understand something that seems illogical: that the more you develop as a distinctive free and critical human being, the more guilt you have. Your very work accuses you; it makes you feel inferior. What right do you have to play God? Especially if your work is great, absolutely new and different. You wonder where to get authority for introducing new meanings into the world, the strength to bear it. It all boils down to this: the work of art is the artist’s attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation. It is the testimonial to his absolute uniqueness and heroic transcendence. But the artist is still a creature and he can feel it more intensely than anyone else. In other words, he knows that the work is he, therefore “bad,” ephemeral, potentially meaningless -- unless justified from outside himself and outside itself.

It is this dilemma -- this starkly existential one -- that is unique to the artist, and which so often leads to madness. It is not just their inability to come to grips with the cultural soup in which they were born. It is their inability to create anything that truly transcends it.

In Jung’s terms -- that we noted previously -- the work is the artist’s own transference projection, and he knows that consciously and critically. Whatever he does he is stuck with himself, can’t get securely outside and beyond himself. He is also stuck with the work of art itself. Like any material achievement it is visible, earthly, impermanent. No matter how great it is, it still pales in some ways next to the transcending majesty of nature; and so it is ambiguous, hardly a solid immortality symbol. In his greatest genius man is still mocked. No wonder that historically art and psychosis have had such an intimate relationship, that the road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there. The artist and the madman are trapped by their own fabrications; they wallow in their own anality, in their protest that they really are something special in creation.

To me, this all seems to beg the ultimate question -- fraught with existential terror on both sides. Which are you? The average man or the artist? And what will be the heroic gift that gives meaning to your dualistic existence?

The whole thing boils down to this paradox: if you are going to be a hero then you must give a gift. If you are the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance. If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men. After all, they can’t grant the immortality of your personal soul. As Rank argued in the breathtaking closing chapters of Art and Artist, there is no way for the artist to be at peace with his work or with the society that accepts it. The artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God. We should not be surprised that Rank was brought to exactly the same conclusion as Kierkegaard: that the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers. Absolution has to come from the absolute beyond. As Kierkegaard, Rank showed that this rule applied to the strongest, most heroic types -- not to trembling and empty weaklings. To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve -- and so it is fitting that this task should fall to the strongest personality type, the one with the largest ego. The great scientific world-shaker Newton was the same man who always carried the Bible under his arm.

The price of being an average man is ultimate anonymity. The price of being an artist is ultimate failure. Either way, one should make the choice with great care.

So What?

But how much of this choice is conscious? What happens when the artist -- or the average man, for that matter -- becomes self-aware of this psychology? Of his need to find a heroic gift in either the cultural patterns of his society or the cross-cultural currents of his own creativity? Does that remove any of the existential terror, or only serve to heighten it? Are we better off oblivious to the psychologies that we use to assuage our fear of our own deaths, or is there any solace to be found in understanding them?

After reading this illuminating study, I’d have to say I’m still unsure of how to answer that question. Becker, however, seems to say that it is an error to even ask it. Near the end of the book, he questions the very utility of this understanding, this “liberation through therapy,” certainly for the world, but even for the individual.

Even with numerous groups of really liberated people, at their best, we can’t imagine that the world will be any pleasanter or less tragic a place. It may even be worse in still unknown ways. As Tillich warned us, New Being, under the conditions and limitations of existence, will only bring into play new and sharper paradoxes, new tensions, and more painful disharmonies -- a “more intense demonism.” Reality is remorseless because gods do not walk upon the earth; and if men could become noble repositories of great gulfs of nonbeing, they would have even less peace than we oblivious and driven madmen have today.

Pessimistic enough for you? Wait. It gets worse.

Besides, can any ideal of therapeutic revolution touch the vast masses of this globe, the modern mechanical men in Russia, the near-billion sheeplike followers in China, the brutalized and ignorant populations of almost every continent? When one lives in the liberation atmosphere of Berkeley, California, or in the intoxications of small doses of unconstriction in a therapeutic group in one’s home town, one is living in a hothouse atmosphere that shuts out the reality of the rest of the planet, the way things really are in this world. It is this therapeutic megalomania that must quickly be seen through if we are not to be perfect fools. The empirical facts of the world will not fade away because one has analyzed his Oedipus complex, as Freud so well knew, or because one can make love with tenderness, as so many now believe. Forget it. In this sense again it is Freud’s somber pessimism, especially of his later writings such as Civilization and Its Discontents, that keeps him so contemporary. Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world.

And so, it seems, we have come full circle. Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world. Meaning, if any is to be found, comes in our heroic, but ultimately futile struggle against this painful fact. And awareness of the psychology behind the struggle only seems to heighten our sense of its futility.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, July 31, 2017

Leaving Your Family at Disneyland

I think I've mentioned Corner Office before -- an on-going series of interviews with CEOs of different companies and organizations that appears in The New York Times. I'm not a subscriber, but for some reason the RSS feed to the series just keeps working, plopping a new interview in my inbox every Monday morning.

I like them. They tend to reinforce things I already know about leadership, and sometimes they contain real nuggets of new-found wisdom. But every once in a while, I read something that makes my jaw drop practically to the floor.

So what are your best [interview] questions?

To understand their work ethic, I do ask this question: Would you be willing to leave your family at Disneyland to do something that was really important for the company?

Some people have said no, and I haven’t hired them.

This from an interview with Don Mal, the chief executive of Vena Solutions, a software firm, and my first reaction was one of horror. You refused to hire someone because they told you in an interview that they wouldn't leave their family at Disneyland to do something important for the company?

But then I read on...

It’s interesting because I did leave my wife and kids at Disneyland once. It was to close the biggest deal of our company’s history. I left for two days. It wasn’t like I was leaving them there for the whole vacation.

To me, it’s not so much a loyalty question. It’s more of just trying to understand their work ethic.

But I can imagine someone saying: “That’s outrageous. Vacations should be vacations.”

To which I would say: “Well, here’s the deal. I did it. I felt it was important, and I’ll tell you why. It advanced my career. It helped the company, and my wife was actually O.K. with it because I got a pretty big check to pay for our entire vacation because we closed the deal.”

And as I read on I realized, much to my own chagrin, that I had once done exactly the same kind of thing -- leaving a family vacation (not at Disneyland, but in Gatlinburg, Tennessee) for a few days to see to a work commitment in another city. And, unlike Don Mal, my reason for leaving was much less critical than the biggest deal in my company's history.

How do I explain such cognitive dissonance? Horrified at the prospect of actions I myself had taken?

I remember my wife driving me through the Tennessee countryside to the Knoxville airport, the kids back at the rental house with their aunts, uncles and cousins. Neither one of us were exactly happy about the circumstances, but neither of us were angry about it either. This, after all, is what I did for a living. Getting on airplanes and working for a few days in another city is what the job frequently required of me, and we both had come to understand and expect it. It was a little unusual to be leaving in the middle of a family vacation, but we had even rolled with that punch, simply packing a separate suitcase with business clothes and a second set of toiletries for the side trip.

Is it because I expect more of myself than I expect of the people who work for me? Or, if not more, than at least something different?

I'm the CEO. That's a different position with a different set of responsibilities. If I look at the state of play around something, and I decide that my presence is required, then I'd better figure out a way to get myself there, even if there is a long-planned family vacation that overlaps the same set of dates. That's the weird set of privileges/responsibilities that come with being the CEO. You can decide which meetings you do and do not attend -- no one is going to tell you otherwise, or compel you to attend something against your will -- but failing to show up at certain meetings can jeopardize the strategic objectives of your organization.

Does this same dynamic not apply to other positions in my organization? Not with regard to the same set of stakes, but within the context of each person's responsibility there are undoubtedly places they need to be and meetings they need to attend to see their responsibilities to their successful fulfillment. Should they not be just as committed to those objectives as I am to those of my organization? If there is a conflict between a family vacation and one of those responsibilities, is not the right answer the difficult reality of laving your family behind at Disneyland?

Yes. I think it is.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, July 24, 2017

Getting New Voices Heard at the Board Table

The Board of my association uses a structure we call Strategic Task Forces. I think I've written about them before on this blog. They are task forces of the Board, but we invite a number of non-Board members to serve on them as well.

Their role is to help the Board examine our key areas of strategy, work to define what success “looks like,” codify that description into a set of metrics, and track our progress over time. We have found it especially helpful to have important stakeholders from outside the demographics of the Board serve on these task forces, as those voices help us shape and define strategy in ways that serve a constituency broader than the Board itself.

The other nice trick about our Strategic Task Forces is that they meet at the Board meetings themselves. Our Board meets three times a year, roughly for a day and half at each meeting, and the segment that is the Strategic Task Force meetings is a couple of hours at most. We err on the side inclusion by inviting the non-Board task force members to not just attend their task force meeting, but instead to attend the length of the Board meeting itself, essentially participating as non-voting Board members in all the other sessions and social functions. Since many of the folks that we ask to serve on the task forces are candidates that we are considering for future Board service, this tactic gives the existing Board an opportunity to meet and interact with the candidates, and gives the candidates a great orientation to the Board and its operations.

This past week I reached out to one of these candidates and asked him to serve on one of these task forces during our upcoming fiscal year. His company represents one of those stakeholder groups whose voice we want to hear more from. When I spoke to him on the phone I could tell that he was surprised by the invitation. His company just joined our association in the past year, and he has been in his position at the company for about the same amount of time. He didn't ask this question directly, but his tone of voice seemed to question why we would want to bring such a newbie into our Board discussions.

And that made me realize that inviting fresh voices into Board discussions like we do with our Strategic Task Forces is still something relatively rare in the association community. Lots of associations still view Board access as something to be earned, not to be given away so cavalierly. Yes. You just joined the association and are still relatively new to our industry. Not only would we like to hear what you think of the strategy we have built -- the ends we want to achieve on your behalf and the methods by which we are pursuing them -- but we'd like to give you a hand in shaping them for the future. That, for many associations, is still a fairly scary proposition.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Saturday, July 22, 2017

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This is the first Philip Roth that I have read, and I suppose that I’ll read more, although I’ve been hearing lately about how dark and nihilistic he can be. American Pastoral certainly has its darkness and its nihilism, but I think it also attempting to do something profound.

I was ten and I had never read anything like it. The cruelty of life. The injustice of it. I could not believe it. The reprehensible member of the Dodgers is Razzle Nugent, a great pitcher but a drunk and a hothead, a violent bully fiercely jealous of the Kid. And yet it is not Razzle carried off “inert” on a stretcher but the best of them all, the farm orphan called the Kid, modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hard-working, soft-spoken, courageous, a brilliant athlete, a beautiful, austere boy.

This is on page 9, and our first-person narrator (who seems to disappear as the novel wears on) is reflecting on a baseball morality play that made a big impact on his young mind. As he continues, he speculates on what the lessons of the book might mean for our actual protagonist, a boyhood hero of the narrator nicknamed the Swede.

Needless to say, I thought of the Swede and the Kid as one and wondered how the Swede could bear to read this book that had left me near tears and unable to sleep. Had I the courage to address him, I would have asked if he thought the ending meant the Kid was finished or whether it meant the possibility of yet another comeback. The word “inert” terrified me. Was the Kid killed by the last catch of the year? Did the Swede know? Did he care? Did it occur to him that if disaster could strike down the Kid from Tomkinsville, it could come and strike the great Swede down too? Or was a book about a sweet star savagely and unjustly punished -- a book about a greatly gifted innocent whose worst fault is a tendency to keep his right shoulder down and swing up but whom the thundering heavens destroy nonetheless -- simply a book between those “Thinker” bookends up on his shelf?

The book our narrator is referring to is called The Kid from Tomkinsville (although even he contemplates that it could have better been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville or even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter), but, of course, behind him it is Roth referring to American Pastoral. The Swede -- Seymour Irving Levov -- is the Kid, in the sense that the Swede is also a “sweet star savagely and unjustly punished,” but that juxtaposition is not the profound thing that Roth is trying to do. For that, we have to understand that the Swede is not just a man, but an entire generation of Americans, and that the thing that brings him down, is not cruel fate, but the beloved generation that follows them.

But before going there, Roth offers the reader a caution. He doesn’t know if he can actually succeed in doing what he’s attempting to do.

An Astonishing Farce of Misperception

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.

Roth can’t truly know the subject of his own book, just, as we will come to see, the two characters within it who come to represent the older and younger generations of America -- Swede Levov and his daughter Merry -- can’t truly know each other. It is the desire to know, and the inability to doing so, that creates the bitter tragedy.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior working and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.

And don’t try to take sides, Roth seems to caution us. One is not right and the other wrong -- or at least there is no way for us to tell, given our basic ignorance of another’s interior working and invisible aims. Better to just go along for the ride.

The American Pastoral and the American Berserk

Here’s the passage that gives you the clue you need to decipher Roth’s profundity.

The disruption of the anticipated American future that was simply to have unrolled out of the solid American past, out of each generation’s getting smarter -- smarter for knowing the inadequacies and limitations of the generations before -- out of each new generation’s breaking away from the parochialism a little further, out of desire to go the limit in America with your rights, forming yourself as an ideal person who gets rid of the traditional Jewish habits and attitudes, who frees himself of the pre-America insecurities and the old, constraining obsessions so as to live unapologetically as an equal among equals.

This is Swede Levov, the child of Jewish immigrants, a generation of people embracing the American dream and all of its totems and rituals.

And then the loss of the daughter, the fourth American generation, a daughter on the run who was to have been the perfected image of himself as he had been the perfected image of his father, and his father the perfected image of his father’s father … the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive -- initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral -- into the indigenous American berserk.

And this is Merry, the radical, a generation of people disillusioned with the very totems and rituals that define the generation that came before.

In the course of the novel we will discover that Merry took her radicalization seriously, bombing a drugstore in her hometown, killing the proprietor, and spending years on the run and out of touch with her father -- all as a protest against his politics, his country, his generation, him.

And we will also discover that, for these things, the Swede can only blame himself.

I am thinking of the Swede and of what happened to his country in a mere twenty-five years, between the triumphant days at wartime Weequahic High and the explosion of his daughter’s bomb in 1968, of that mysterious, troubling, extraordinary historical transition. I am thinking of the sixties and of the disorder occasioned by the Vietnam War, of how certain families lost their kids and certain families didn’t and how the Seymour Levovs were one of those that did -- families full of tolerance and kindly, well-intentioned liberal goodwill, and theirs were the kids who went on a rampage, or went to jail, or disappeared underground, or fled to Sweden or Canada. I am thinking of the Swede’s great fall and of how he must have imagined that it was founded on some failure of his own responsibility. There is where it must begin. It doesn’t matter if he was the cause of anything. He makes himself responsible anyway. He has been doing that all his life, making himself unnaturally responsible, keeping under control not just himself but whatever else threatens to be uncontrollable, giving his all to keep his world together. Yes, the cause of the disaster has for him to be a transgression. How else would the Swede explain it to himself? It has to be a transgression, a single transgression, even if it is only he who identifies it as a transgression. The disaster that befalls him begins in a failure of his responsibility, as he imagines it.

But, perhaps as you can begin to see even in that excerpt, it is always important in this novel not to view Seymour and Merry Levov as individuals -- as people that Roth has told us we are incapable of truly knowing anyway -- but as generations, wrestling with each other for the soul of America. The Swede, in blaming himself, embodies the mindset of an aspirational generation, while Merry, in rejecting all that her father has arranged and decoded for her, embodies the mindset of a nihilistic one -- the American pastoral versus the American berserk.

Because what is it, exactly, that Merry finds so objectionable about her father, that the young generation finds so objectionable about the older? The narrator alludes to it when he meets the Swede for dinner as adults in the opening pages.

I was impressed, as the meal wore on, by how assured he seemed of everything commonplace he said, and how everything he said was suffused by his good nature. I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he has instead of a being, I thought, is blandness -- the guy’s radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him. Several times during the meal I didn’t think I was going to make it, didn’t think I’d get to dessert if he was going to keep praising his family and praising his family … until I began to wonder if it wasn’t that he was incognito but that he was mad.

And the Swede’s brother throws it in his face much deeper in the novel.

“No, you’re not the renegade. You’re the one who does everything right.”

“I don’t follow this. You say that like an insult.” Angrily [the Swede] says, “What the hell is wrong with doing things right?”

“Nothing. Nothing. Except that’s what your daughter has been blasting away at all her life. You don’t reveal yourself to people, Seymour. You keep yourself a secret. Nobody knows what you are. You certainly never let her know who you are. That’s what she’s been blasting away at -- that facade. All your fucking norms. Take a good look at what he did to your norms.”

“I don’t know what you want from me. You’ve always been too smart for me. Is this your response? Is this it?”

“You win the trophy. You always make the right move. You’re loved by everybody. You marry Miss New Jersey, for God’s sake. There’s thinking for you. Why did you marry her? For the appearance. Why do you do everything? For the appearance!”

The Swede is a man so swamped in the cultural ideal of his generation that nothing individual, nothing messy, nothing radical, ever swims to the surface.

There is a powerful scene early in the novel that illustrates the Swede’s need for this control, for this all-consuming normality, and the hidden frailty that secretly lives within him, the shattered self he can show no one but which is a direct result of Merry’s betrayal. He is giving a young woman named Rita a tour of his family’s glove manufacturing business, and Roth dives deep into Melvillian detail as the Swede discusses, demonstrates, and diagrams both the art and science that is glove making. It goes on for so long, and in so much obsessive detail, that I began to wonder what it all meant. It’s clearly not just an interlude. And then this.

This is the silking, that’s a story in itself, but this is what she’s going to do first. … This is called a piqué machine, it sews the finest stitch, called piqué, requires far more skill than the other stitches. … This is called a polishing machine and that is called a stretcher and you are called honey and I am called Daddy and this is called living and the other is called dying and this is called madness and this is called mourning and this is called hell, pure hell, and you have to have strong ties to be able to stick it out, this is called trying-to-go-on-as-though-nothing-has-happened and this is called wanting-to-be-dead-and-wanting-to-find-her-and-to-kill-her-and-to-save-her-from-whatever-she-is-going-through-wherever-on-earth-she-may-be-at-this-moment, this unbridled outpouring is called blotting-out-everything and is does not work, I am half insane, the shattering force of that bomb is too great. … And then they were back at his office again, waiting for Rita’s gloves to come from the finishing department, and he was repeating to her a favorite observation of his father’s, one that his father has read somewhere and always used to impress visitors, and he heard himself repeating it, word for word, as his own.

There’s a kind a sad beauty in both this device and Roth’s writing. It’s one of those rare moments in literature where something is set-up and the unexpected pay-off delivers seven-fold. It really captures of emotion of the Swede’s impossible situation.

The Awfulness of Her Terrible Autonomy

That’s a phrase I circled when I encountered it on the page. Much of the novel will be consumed by the Swede’s consuming obsession, and his inability to understand his daughter’s actions.

Nor could he say he hated his daughter for what she had done -- if he could! If only, instead of living chaotically in the world where she wasn’t and in the world where she once was and in the world where she might now be, he could come to hate her enough not to care anything about her world, then or now. If only he could be back thinking like everybody else, once again the totally natural man instead of this riven charlatan of sincerity, an artless outer Swede and a tormented inner Swede, a visible stable Swede and a concealed beleaguered Swede, an easygoing, smiling sham Swede enshrouding the Swede buried alive. If only he could even faintly reconstitute the undivided oneness of existence that had made for his straightforward physical confidence and freedom before he became the father of an alleged murderer. If only he could be as unknowing as some people perceived him to be -- if only he could be as perfectly simple as the legend of Swede Levov concocted by the hero-worshipping kids of his day. If only he could say, “I hate this house!” and be Weequahic’s Swede Levov again. If he could say, “I hate that child! I never want to see her again!” and then go ahead, disown her, forevermore despise and reject her and the vision for which she was willing, if not to kill, then to cruelly abandon her own family, a vision having nothing whatsoever to do with “ideals” but with dishonesty, criminality, megalomania, and insanity. Blind antagonism and an infantile desire to menace -- those were her ideals. In search always of something to hate. Yes, it went way, way beyond her stuttering. That violent hatred of America was a disease unto itself. And he loved America. Loved being an American. But back then he hadn’t dared begin to explain to her why he did, for fear of unleashing the demon, insult. They lived in dread of Merry’s stuttering tongue. And by then he had no influence anyway. [His wife] Dawn had no influence. His parents had no influence. In what way was she “his” any longer if she hadn’t even been his then, certainly not his if to drive her into her frightening blitzkrieg mentality it required no more than for her own father to begin to explain why his affections happened to be for the country where he’d been born and raised. Stuttering, sputtering little bitch! Who the fuck did she think she was?

Pages and pages of this: self abuse, shame, and torment. He loves her. He hates her. He can’t understand her.

Hate America? Why, he lived in America the way he lived inside his own skin. All the pleasures of his younger years were American pleasures, all that success and happiness had been American, and he need no longer keep his mouth shut about it just to defuse her ignorant hatred. The loneliness he would feel as a man without all his American feelings. The longing he would feel if he had to live in another country. Yes, everything that gave meaning to his accomplishments had been American. Everything he loved was here.

The voice of one generation. Struggling to understand the mind of another.

For her, being an American was loathing America, but loving America was something he could not let go of any more than he could have let go of loving his father and his mother, any more than he could have let go of his decency. How could she “hate” this country when she had no conception of this country? How could a child of his be so blind as to revile the “rotten system” that had given her own family every opportunity to succeed? To revile her “capitalist” parents as though their wealth were the product of anything other than the unstinting industry of three generations. The men of three generation, including even himself, slogging through the slime and stink of a tannery. The family that started out in a tannery, at one with, side by side with, the lowest of the low -- now to her “capitalist dogs.” There wasn’t much difference, and she knew it, between hating America and hating them. He loved the America she hated and blamed for everything that was imperfect in life and wanted violently to overturn, he loved the “bourgeois values” she hated and ridiculed and wanted to subvert, he loved the mother she hated and had all but murdered by doing what she did. Ignorant little fucking bitch! The price they had paid!

And all of it -- the Swede and Merry, the two generations they represent, the American Pastoral and the American Berserk -- Roth ruthlessly allows all of it to circle high above the reader like a desert scavenger, only and always to eventually come down to feed on that one powerful phrase. The awfulness of her terrible autonomy. We do what we want. And there is nothing, not even generations of toil and fealty to a dream, that can stop us.

The Kiss

At first, I was not going to include this, both because I didn’t think it was crucial to one’s understanding of the novel, and because I wasn’t sure I could adequately convey its subtle subversion. But as I reflect back on the novel, re-reading all the pages I’ve dog-eared and passages I’ve underlined, I’ve come to realize I do have to address it.

I found him in Deal, New Jersey, at the seaside cottage, the summer his daughter was eleven, back when she couldn’t stay out of his lap or stop calling him by cute pet names, couldn’t “resist,” as she put it, examining with the tip of her finger the close way his ears were fitted to his skull.

This is the narrator again, looking into the life of the Swede as a grown man, not “as a god or a demigod whose triumphs one could exult as a boy but his life as another assailable man.”

Wrapped in a towel, she would run through the house and out to the clothesline to fetch a dry bathing suit, shouting as she went, “Nobody look!” and several evenings she had barged into the bathroom where he was bathing and, when she saw him, cried out, “Oh, pardonnez-moi -- j’ai pensé que--” “Scram,” he told her, “get-outahere-moi.”

She, of course, is Merry, and the time is one of innocent and adoring love.

Driving along with him back from the beach one day that summer, dopily sun-drunk, lolling against his bare shoulder, she had turned up her face and, half innocently, half audaciously, precociously playing the grown-up girl, said, “Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother.”

Merry is eleven and, as described earlier, suffering with an awkward stutter.

Sun-drunk himself, voluptuously fatigued from rolling all morning with her in the heavy surf, he had looked down to see that one of the shoulder straps of her swimsuit had dropped over her arm, and there was her nipple, the hard red bee bite that was her nipple. “N-n-no,” he said -- and stunned them both. “And fix your suit,” he added feebly. Soundlessly she obeyed.

It was stunning because the Swede had made fun of her stammer, something he had never done before, something he had previously seemed incapable of doing. He immediately regrets it.

“I’m sorry, cookie--” “Oh, I deserve it,” she said, trying with all her might to hold back her tears and be his chirpingly charming pal again. “It’s the same at school. It’s the same with my friends. I get started with something and I can’t stop. I just get c-c-carried awuh-awuh-awuh-awuh--”

To deepen the sense of betrayal, Roth next gives us the following long paragraph.

It was a while since he’d seen her turn white like that or seen her face contorted like that. She fought for the word longer than, on that particular day, he could possibly bear. “Awuh-awuh--” And yet he knew better than anyone what not to do when, as Merry put it, she “started phumphing to beat the band.” He was the parent she could always rely on not to jump all over her every time she opened her mouth. “Cool it,” he would tell Dawn, “relax, lay off her,” but Dawn could not help herself. Merry began to stutter badly and Dawn’s hands were clasped at her waist and her eyes fixed on the child’s lips, eyes that said, “I know you can do it!” while saying, “I know that you can’t!” Merry’s stuttering just killed her mother, and that killed Merry. “I’m not the problem -- Mother is!” And so was the teacher the problem when she tried to spare Merry by not calling on her. So was everybody the problem when they started feeling sorry for her. And when she was fluent suddenly and free of stuttering, the problem were the compliments. She resented terribly being praised for fluency, and as soon as she was praised she lost it completely -- sometimes, Merry would say, to the point that she was afraid “I’m going to short out my whole system.” Amazing how this child could summon up the strength to joke about it -- his precious lighthearted jokester! If only it were within Dawn’s power to become a little lighthearted about it herself. But it was the Swede alone who could always manage to be close to perfect with her, though even he had all he could do not to cry out in exasperation, “If you dare the gods and are fluent, what terrible thing do you think will happen?” The exasperation never surfaced: he did not wring his hands like her mother, when she was in trouble he did not watch her lips or mouth her words with her like her mother, he did not turn her, every time she spoke, into the most important person not merely in the room bu in the entire world -- he did everything he could not to make her stigma into Merry’s way of being Einstein. Instead his eyes assured her that he would do all he could to help but that when she was with him she must stutter freely if she needed to. And yet he had said to her, “N-n-no.” He had done what Dawn would rather die than do -- he had made fun of her.


There’s so much here. The competition between a mother and a daughter; the love between a daughter and a father; the struggle of a child to understand what growing up means; the struggle of a parent to keep from shaping children in an idealized image. Universals, all; and all expertly bundled together in this little vignette about a beach cottage and an adolescent stammer. There’s so much here, but there’s so much more to come.

“Oh, cookie,” he said, and at just the moment when he had understood that the summer’s mutual, seemingly harmless playacting -- the two of them nibbling at an intimacy too enjoyable to swear off and yet not in any way to be taken seriously, to be much concerned with, to be given an excessive significance, something utterly uncarnal that would fade away once the vacation was over and she was in school all day and he had returned to work, nothing that they couldn’t easily find their way back from -- just when he had come to understand that the summer romance required some readjusting all around, he lost his vaunted sense of proportion, drew her to him with one arm, and kissed her stammering mouth with the passion that she had been asking him for all month long while knowing only obscurely what she was asking for.

Yes. That. A single but singularly horrific lapse of parental judgment and betrayal.

Was he supposed to feel that way? It happened before he could think. She was only eleven. Momentarily it was frightening. This was not anything he had ever worried about for a second, this was a taboo that you didn’t even think of as a taboo, something you are prohibited from doing that felt absolutely natural not to do, you just proceeded effortlessly -- and then, however momentarily, this.

When I first read this, I really struggled with it. Despite Roth’s elaborate context and the self-tortured inner dialogue he provides the Swede, the kiss still feels out of place. It goes too far. As my college creative writing teacher would have said, he hasn’t earned it.

Never in his entire life, not as a son, a husband, a father, even as an employer, had he given way to anything so alien to the emotional rules by which he was governed, and later he wondered if this strange parental misstep was not the lapse from responsibility for which he paid for the rest of his life. The kiss bore no resemblance to anything serious, was not an imitation of anything, had never been repeated, had itself lasted five seconds … ten at most … but after the disaster, when he went obsessively searching for the origins of their suffering, it was that anomalous moment -- when she was eleven and he was thirty-six and the two of them, all stirred up by the strong sea and the hot sun, were heading happily home alone from the beach -- that he remembered.

And it does fill that niche in the story. The Swede, as we have seen, desperate both to blame himself and to find the reason for “the disaster,” for Merry’s radicalization and her bombing of the local drugstore, will obsess and obsess and obsess some more over this transgression.

Did it have to do with him? That foolish kiss? That was ten years behind them, and besides, it had been nothing, had come to nothing, did not appear to have meant anything much to her even at the time. Could something as meaningless, as commonplace, as ephemeral, as understandable, as forgivable, as innocent … No! How could he be asked again and again to take seriously things that were not serious? Yet that was the predicament that Merry had forced on him all the way back when she was blasting away at the dinner table about the immorality of their bourgeois life. How could anybody take that childish ranting seriously? He had done as well as any parent could have -- he had listened and listened when it was all he could do not to get up from dinner and walk away until she’d spewed herself out; he had nodded and agreed to as much as he could even marginally agree to, and when he opposed her -- say, about the moral efficacy of the profit motive -- always it was with restraint, with all the patient reasonableness he could muster. And this was not easy for him, given that it was the profit motive to which a child requiring tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of orthodontia, psychiatry, and speech therapy -- not to mention ballet lessons and riding lessons and tennis lessons, all of which, growing up, she at one time or another was convinced she could not survive without -- might be thought to owe if not a certain allegiance then at least a minuscule portion of gratitude. Perhaps the mistake was to have tried so hard to take seriously what was in no way serious; perhaps what he should have done, instead of listening so intently, so respectfully, to her ignorant raving was to reach over the table and whack her across the mouth.

But what would that have taught her about the profit motive -- what would it have taught her about him? Yet if he had, if, then the veiled mouth could be taken seriously. He could now berate himself, “Yes, I did it to her, I did it with my outbursts, my temper.” But it seemed as though he had done whatever had been done to her because he could not abide a temper, had not wanted on or dared to have one. He had done it by kissing her. But that couldn’t be. None of this could possibly be.

But then I began to think about the novel’s larger canvas, about how the Swede and Merry represented two generations in the American story, the Swede’s humble with its self-importance and Merry’s angry at how easy everything seems to be. And through this lens, the kiss takes on a more metaphoric meaning. The Swede’s generation loves its children, will do anything to keep it from pain and danger, but, in removing the struggle from their lives removes the very thing that builds the kind of character they esteem most. They love. But they don’t parent.

The Swede’s father gets it.

“I remember when Jewish kids were home doing their homework. What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run away from no-oppression. Once they ran away from being poor; now they run away from being rich. It’s crazy. They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are so good to them, so they hate America instead.”

The tragedy of American Pastoral is that the Swede, and his generation, never does.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, July 17, 2017

Clarifying the What Not the How

I'm doing performance evaluations with my direct reports this week and, on the advice of one of those direct reports, I'm asking everyone for their feedback on my performance as well. What, essentially, should I be doing that I'm not to help make everyone's job easier, to remove some of the roadblocks and barriers that are holding people back?

So far, two people have zeroed in on the same thing, taken from the list of behaviors that we created to describe alignment with our core values: "Bring purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments."

I get it. We work in a complex environment. Some of that complexity is inherent to our organization, and to many associations. I sometimes call it the diffused nature of leadership, in which the authority for determining courses of actions rests not with an individual but with a group -- the Board, a committee, a staff team. But some of that complexity is my own doing. If you've spent any time reading this blog, then you know I'm always tinkering with the process and mechanisms that our association uses to come up with its strategy agenda and operational plans. Sometimes, I know, I can overwhelm people with new terminology and experimental ways of doing things.

So, I'm doing the best thing I can with this constructive criticism. I'm accepting it, taking it to heart, and considering how to adjust my behavior to address it.

But as I am thinking those things through, at least one essential point has occurred to me. As I figure out ways to bring more purpose and understanding to our complex strategic and operational environment, my focus must remain entirely on what we are here to do, not on how we're going to do it.

Of all the experimental iterations that I've introduced in the organization, the one that I remain most committed to is finding ways to better empower (and hold accountable) the people closest to the challenges we face to determine the methods by which we will surmount and surpass them. Our Board embraced this mindset a few years ago, and now has a culture sharply focused on determining the intended outcomes of our organization. The Board is self-policing is this regard, scrupulously keeping itself out of the weeds, and reminding itself whenever necessary that it has formally delegated the determination of the means to achieve our ends to its chief staff executive and his staff.

I'm embracing the same mindset and trying to build the same culture within our staff organization. Yes, I need to be more clear about what it is we are trying to achieve, but in my attempt to be more clear, I have to avoid directives about how we should be achieving those things.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source