Monday, October 14, 2019

Top Takes: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the fifth most pageviews on this entire blog:

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

It's one of the many "mini term papers" I tend to offer up, free of charge, to desperate freshman English majors the world over.

My overall theses: This is a play about the balance between order and freedom, and specifically order’s ultimate triumph over its weaker counterbalance.

The historical setting is, of course, the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. The order is that of the theocratic state, its functionaries able to convict, jail and hang those they determine to be in league with the Devil. The freedom is that of John Proctor, his wife Elizabeth, and their fellow villagers, who are held hostage by the accusations of a group of vengeful teenage girls.

It may seem silly to our modern sensibilities, but these people very much believed in God and the Devil, and the way the two of them battled for people’s souls right here on earth. And Miller paints no one in his drama as a fool, just as people with clashing motivations interpreting the world as they understand it.

It's a great play.

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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

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Martian by Andy Weir

So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.

This is perhaps the most famous line in Andy Weir’s 369-page novel about an astronaut getting stranded alone on Mars and having to figure out how he was going to survive and get rescued. And when he says science, he is very much talking about hard sciences like botany, chemistry and physics, and not any of those silly soft sciences like psychology.

Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. “What must it be like?” he pondered. “He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”

He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”


How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

Oh, and pop culture references. He’s going to “science the shit” out of those, too.

This is one of those cases where I saw the movie before reading the book. And I remember while watching Matt Damon’s performance, who the hell is this guy? This guy who is stranded on Mars and whose name I can never remember? And consistently, again and again, the movie refused to tell me. He’s an astronaut. He’s stranded on Mars. He’s going to science the shit out it. What else do you need to know? After the movie was over, I decided that the inner life of Mark Watney was something that the film producers had to leave on the cutting room floor in order to bring their project in on budget and at under three hours.

And then I read the book.

Anyway, at this rate it’ll take four more sols of (boring-ass) work to finish the drilling.

I’ve actually exhausted Lewis’s supply of shitty seventies TV. And I’ve read all of Johanssen’s mystery books.

I’ve already rifled through other crewmates’ stuff to find entertainment. But all of Vogel’s stuff is in German, Beck brought nothing but medical journals, and Martinez didn’t bring anything.

I got really bored, so I decided to pick a theme song!

Something appropriate. And naturally, it should be something from Lewis’s godawful seventies collection. It wouldn’t be right any other way.

There are plenty of great candidates: “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie, “Rocket Man” by Elton John, “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan.

But I settled on “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.

I’ve got a better suggestion. Mark Watney is the ultimate “Nowhere Man.” This is about the fiftieth reference to the media entertainment that the other astronauts -- the ones who inadvertently left him behind on Mars when the mission went wrong -- brought along with them. And never, not once, do we hear what Watney himself brought. We know he hates Lewis’s shitty seventies TV and music, but what does he like? What did he bring with him?

Nothing. Because he is not a real person in any sense of the word. In more ways than one, he is “the Martian.”


Being your backup has backfired.

I guess NASA figured botany and chemistry are similar because they both end in “Y.” One way or another, I ended up being your backup chemist.

Remember when they made you spend a day explaining your experiment to me? I was in the middle of intense mission prep. You may have forgotten.

You started my training by buying me a beer. For breakfast. Germans are awesome.

Anyway, now that I have time to kill, NASA gave me a pile of work. And all your chemistry crap is on the list. So now I have to do boring-ass experiments with test tubes and soil and pH levels and Zzzzzzzzzz….

My life is now a desperate struggle for survival … with occasional titration.

Frankly, I suspect you’re a super-villain. You’re a chemist, you have a German accent, you had a base on Mars … what more can there be?

This is one of the personal messages that Watney writes to his other crew members -- something the flight psychologist asked him to do, once he and they figured out how to pass communications between Mars, Earth, and the spaceship accelerating in-between. And it was about this time in the novel when I started wondering if Watney was simply an asshole, or if he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.

But more than that, I think it is symptomatic of the novel’s neglect of the psychological in favor of the hard scientific. There is only one time when the enormity of his situation seems to intrude on Watney’s knee-jerk bravado.

I’m no stranger to Mars. I’ve been here a long time. But I’ve never been out of sight of the Hab before today. You wouldn’t think that would make a difference, but it does.

As I made my way toward the RTG’s burial site, it hit me: Mars is a barren wasteland and I am completely alone here. I already knew that, of course. But there’s a difference between knowing it and really experiencing it. All around me there was nothing but dust, rocks, and endless empty desert in all directions. The planet’s famous red color is from iron oxide coating everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a desert so old it’s literally rusting.

The Hab is my only hint of civilization, and seeing it disappear made me way more uncomfortable than I like to admit.

In this moment, and apparently this moment only, Watney is no longer the titular Martian; the alien creature, ready to science the shit out of his surroundings. Here, and only here, he is a simple human being: weak, vulnerable, and afraid.

And, to me at least, far more interesting.

I put those thoughts behind me by concentrating on what was in front of me. I found the RTG right where it was supposed to be, four kilometers due south of the Hab.

Oh well. Back to the “story”.

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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, October 7, 2019

Top Takes: Membership Sales Is About More Than Just Increasing Membership Numbers

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the fourth most pageviews on this entire blog:

Membership Sales Is About More Than Just Increasing Membership Numbers

It makes the point that selling is always about interacting with the market, and adjusting what you're saying about what you're selling (and sometimes adjusting what you're selling) based on that interaction.

Specific to associations, statements of membership value become most effective when they are tested and developed in discussion with real members and membership prospects. Crafting all your marketing copy in the office and launching it untested on the world is one of the best ways to get it wrong.

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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

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 20 (DRAFT)

It’s hard for me to describe the way I felt after that meeting. Confident. Proud. Happy in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. It was the first time since receiving my promotion that I honestly felt like I deserved it. I had actually done something important—adding value and leading the team to an outcome they couldn’t have achieved without me—instead of being just another layer of management, obfuscating what needed to be done.

When I got back to my office I somewhat giddily left Mary a voicemail. She was traveling that week, but I wanted her to know that we had completed our task, that we had a new system for screening talent that I thought she would be pleased with, and that we needed some time on her calendar to present it to her. While I was leaving the message my own voicemail light went on, and I was still feeling strong when I punched in my code to access my mailbox.

“Hi, honey,” my wife’s self-assured voice sounded. “Give me a call when you get this message. The company from Boston just called and they want to set up a phone interview at your earliest availability. I’ve got a good feeling about this one. The woman I spoke to was very nice. Love you.”

I deleted the message and put the phone back in its cradle. It was late in the afternoon and the office was starting to clear out. Even with Mary out of town, I felt a little awkward about following up on another job from my office—from a phone owned by my present employer. I thought about it for a minute or two, turning more considerations over in my mind than the situation really warranted, and eventually convinced myself it would be better to just cut out a few minutes early and talk to Jenny about it at home.

When I got there she was both surprised and disappointed to see me. “Why didn’t you call me? Boston’s an hour ahead of us. They might not be in the office anymore.”

“It didn’t feel right,” I said. “Calling from the office about another job.”

“Oh, Alan, please. You don’t work for the mob. Next time, just close your door.”

I had come in through the garage so Jenny led me to the phone sitting on a small table in our front foyer, directly at the bottom of the house’s main flight of stairs. Her stomach was big enough now that she was wearing maternity clothes, and I watched as the hem of her blouse flounced up and down with her movement. When we got to the foyer she started dialing the number for me.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Who am I calling?”

Instead of answering she simply pointed to the notepad beside the base of the wireless phone. Looking down I saw written in Jenny’s graceful script a woman’s name, the name of the Boston company, and a phone number with a 617 area code. When I looked back up Jenny was holding the receiver out for me and I could hear the distant Boston phone ringing. I quickly put the phone against my ear just as the line picked up.

“Hello, Pamela Thornsby.”

“Hello, Pamela? This is Alan Larson.”

“Alan,” the voice said, sounding relieved. “Thanks for returning my call. You caught me just before I walked out the door.”

I gave Jenny a stern look. “Is it a bad time? Should I call back tomorrow?”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Pamela said. “It’s actually better that we touch base now.”

I heard the shuffling of some papers from Pamela’s end of the line and then she quickly resumed. “I’m the human resources director for Quest Partners, and we received…yes, here it is, we received your resume and application for the account executive position we have open. We’d like to set up a telephone interview for sometime next week, if that will work in your schedule.”

Jenny moved closer to me and I knew she was trying to hear what Pamela was saying.
“That’s great,” I said, pushing Jenny gently away. “Can you hold a minute while I grab my calendar?”


I put the phone down and went to retrieve my calendar from my briefcase. As I was doing so Jacob appeared at the top of the stairs and began calling down for Jenny.


“Shhh!” Jenny hissed, springing up a few of the steps and motioning for Jacob to quiet down. “Daddy’s on an important phone call, honey.”

Calendar in hand, I picked up the phone again. “Okay, next week,” I said as calmly as I could. “Earlier in the week is better than later for me.”

“But, Mommy!” Jacob cried, if anything, louder than before. “I need your help!”

“How about Tuesday?” Pamela asked in one ear.

“One minute, honey,” Jenny’s voice echoed in the other. “After Daddy finishes his call.”

Now my mind was racing. I knew Mary was back in the office next week but I didn’t know what was on her calendar. I didn’t want to schedule this interview for a time she might later choose for our meeting on the staff qualities. Figuring she would want at least a day to catch up before meeting with us, I said, “That could work. But Monday might be better.”

“Mommy! I need you RIGHT NOW!”

“I’m sorry,” Pamela said. “I’m booking all the phone interviews for next week and Monday is full up. I do have a spot on Tuesday morning. Will that work?”

I looked up at Jenny. She was halfway up the stairs now, crouching like a bloated crab to keep both me and Jacob in her sights. She had one arm extended towards Jacob with a cautionary finger raised, but her face was turned back towards me, her ear cocked as if still trying to listen in on my telephone conversation. “Just a minute, honey,” she said.

I waved my hand at her violently, trying to shoo her the rest of the way up the stairs and keep Jacob quiet. “Yes, what time?” I said into the phone and then clamped my hand over the mouthpiece so I could shout-whisper at my wife. “Go deal with him!”

“Ten o’clock?”

Jenny looked about ready to start an argument but Jacob began bellowing Mommy again and that got her moving finally up the stairs.

“Yes,” I said, watching Jenny turn Jacob by his slender shoulders and begin marching him down the upstairs hallway towards him room. “That would be fine.”

“What number should I call you on?”

Jacob was still babbling, going on and on about something missing from his train set and Jenny needing to find it for him, with Jenny hushing him the entire time. She eventually got him behind his closed bedroom door, and that muffled him enough that I thought I could concentrate again.

“Uh, would it be all right if I called you?” I asked, realizing I wouldn’t want to take the call at home or at the office.

“Yes,” Pamela said. “Just use the same number you called today. I’ll be here.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Was that your son?”

My mind was wandering, thinking about quiet places I could go to make the call on Tuesday—a coffee shop, the library, my car in a corner of the parking structure.

“Excuse me?”

“In the background, was that your son? When I spoke to your wife earlier she said you had a four-year-old.”

“She did?”

“Yes. He sounds a lot like mine. And Jenny said she was expecting your second in a few months. Congratulations.”

In the silence of my own response I could hear my wife’s muffled voice coming through the floorboards, chiding Jacob for needing to be quiet while Mommy or Daddy was on the phone, and Jacob still pleading with her to help him.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said eventually. “The ultrasound says this one’s going to be a girl. I hope she’s quieter than her brother.”

Pamela chuckled. “Don’t bet on it,” she said. “I’ll talk to you on Tuesday, Alan.”

“Ten o’clock,” I confirmed.

We said our goodbyes and the line clicked off, but I was still turning her last few comments over in my mind. Why, I wondered, would Jenny share such personal details with a prospective employer? Couldn’t she just take a message? How on earth did such a subject even come up? Hello, is Alan there? I don’t know, let me move my pregnant belly out of the way and see if I can find him.

Jenny and Jacob still embroiled in their discussion above me, I put the phone back on its charging pad and began walking up the stairs to find out.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

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

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Monday, September 30, 2019

Top Takes: The Chairman's Gift

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the third most pageviews on this entire blog:

The Chairman's Gift

It's about a tradition we have at our association, where we give the outgoing chair of the Board a gift unique and meaningful to them. We do it because we value our chairs for the humans they are, but also to send a clear message to everyone else on the Board and at the retreat where the gift is usually bestowed.

Our association is a family, and we care about each other in ways that go beyond financial reports, strategic objectives, and key performance indicators.

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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

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass

This is a delightful short novel, ostensibly about the early Country music sensation known as the Browns, but really about something much deeper and primal.

The Browns are siblings -- Jim Ed, Bonnie, and Maxine -- and, for a time in the 1950s and 60s, they were among the most popular recording artists in the world. The harmonic sound of their voices, stylized by Bass and others as “Nashville Chrome,” was not only their claim to fame, but is, in many ways, the lever Bass uses to pry open the novel’s dark secrets.

That the greatest voices, the greatest harmony in country music, should come from such a hardscrabble swamp -- Popular Creek, Arkansas -- and that fame should lavish itself upon the three of them, their voices braiding together to give the country the precise thing it most needed or desired -- silky polish, after so much raggedness, and a sound that would be referred to as Nashville Chrome -- makes an observer pause. Did their fabulous voices come from their own hungers within, or from thrice-in-a-lifetime coincidence? They were in the right place at the right time, and the wrong place at the right time.

So Much Raggedness

Bass’s novel, as beautiful and as evocative as it is, doesn’t lend itself to easy citation or explanation. There is a plot, but it is pleasantly subservient to the sparse tone and philosophic yearning of its prose.

Early on, the focus is very much on the ragged forest world from which the Browns are seemingly called.

The little sawmill was perched at the edge of the dark woods, resting atop the rich soil, with the workers gnawing their way slowly into the old forest. Some years the workers would bring the logs in to the mill, and other years -- depending on transportation logistics and contracts -- the mill would pack up and move a little farther into the woods. There were still panthers in the swamps and bears in the mountains, or what passed for mountains in those old worn-down hills.

This was another of the paths of their childhood, the physical and sensual sounds and odors of the mill, with the blades whirring on and off throughout the day -- the high whine of the spinning, waiting blade powering down to a deep groan as the blade accepted the timber, the blades sending out a different pitch for rough cut, planing, or finishing, and likewise a different tone based on size, density, even species of timber and time of year, and whether the tree grew on a north slope or a south slope.

Different smells, too, wafted through their lives in ribbons of scent -- the green odor of the living wood and the drier one of dead wood, the latter a scent like that of a campfire; the smell of the diesel engines as well as those of the mules and horses that sometimes skidded the logs out of the swamp when gasoline was scarce or could not be squandered; the scent and creaking sound of the leather harnesses and other tack of the mules and horses; the stale alcohol-sweat and the tobacco of the laborers, all of them missing fingers, even hands and arms, sometimes from the blade but more often from the logs themselves, thousand-pound rolling pins cascading off the truck, crushing and pinching anything in their way.

And where the workers had not lost some of the various parts of themselves -- where there was still a full complement of teeth and fingers and thumbs, hands, feet, arms, and legs -- there were internal injuries: broken bones, alcoholism, rage, and the mute desperation of a poverty unknown by several previous generations.

It is an ancient place, only recently occupied by man, with only a handful of generations to learn its dark secrets, not nearly enough to either master or transcend it. But...

The children knew no other world. The forest -- both the injured forest as well as the uninjured -- combined with the children’s spirits like the gold light that came down through the dense canopy of broad leaves in the morning: each pattern of leaf, each lobe and serration, already accommodated to the specificity of its time and place.

In that forest, the shady dapple of the leaves moderated the temperature of the soil and gave nutrition to the legions of meek insects, the lives of which also helped enrich and process the soil, and each morning in the spring and summer, the forest would begin to hiss with chlorophyllic excess -- a tremendous, thunderous, silent power, a silent energy shimmering above the leaves with such verve that it was almost audible.

The green light bathed the children, infiltrated their lungs, shimmered its golden way up into their minds. They could have stayed there forever -- as had the generations before them -- but the force that had come into them desired otherwise.

This is not the first mention of this force, and it will not be the last. But for now, let’s focus a moment on what happens when something as beautiful as Nashville Chrome enters this ragged world.

Floyd and Birdie [the parents of the Browns] continued to marvel at -- to revel in -- their children’s ability to make a living doing what everyone in their family had always done, playing music and singing -- and marveled too at the celebrity. Only Norma [a younger sister] remained behind now, still in school, but in some ways it was almost as if the others were still at home, for at almost any hour of the day or night, they could turn on their radio -- a gift from their children -- and, if they listened long enough, one of the Browns’ songs would always come on. It was almost like it had been when they were still living at home.

To Floyd, in such moments, lying on his back beneath the maw of a tractor, or mucking out the mules’ stalls, it was almost as if they were still right there, and occasionally he would stop in his labors and just listen: and though they were his children and it was a sound he had known all his life, even he, with his familiarity with their music, and his gruff demons, would in those moments know a balm. He would lie there looking up at the blue sky through the underside of the old engine, or would lean on his shovel and just listen, with a strange and wonderful mix of emotions; the old fevers draining away as if never to return, and pride swelling in him, and the core thing, the thing he didn’t even think about much: love.

One of the things I like so much about this book -- and, I think about Bass as a writer, is his ability to put us there, with Floyd, leaning on that shovel, remembering what love is. A moment of respite from a weary world.

When times were good like that, and Floyd was in his cups but not yet despondent or bitter or frightened, he had a saying, a little joke, that indicated how pleased he was with such rare moments of calm and cheer and fearlessness. He knew such confidence was foolish, which was why it amused him, on the occasions he felt it.

“We might get out of this alive after all,” he would say, grinning, enormously pleased with life, and the moment. Laughing at himself, mostly, knowing how quickly that moment of optimism was fading even as he briefly inhabited it.

Their Own Hungers Within

But Nashville Chrome has other effects -- effects both on those who hear it and on those who produce it. With the love, it awakens a deep and unsatisfiable hunger for more, more, more. And of the three Brown siblings, it is Maxine that feels this hunger the deepest of them all.

For a long time, things had been simple, and any hungers they ever had were physical, but once the world discovered their sound, they knew a different kind of hunger. The size and magnitude of it, she realizes now, was precisely the size of the world’s hunger, though for what, even now, she cannot say for sure.

This is told in the future, when Maxine is an old woman, living alone in a house with the memories of her youth and career.

Sometimes she goes into her tiny office, where all her memorabilia is stored neatly in cedar chests, and where framed photographs cover every inch of wall and occupy every portion of desk space: photos of her and her brother and sister with all of the old greats: Ernest Tubb, Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner. Elvis, of course, and the Beatles, and the Mamas and the Papas, even Dylan. Pictures of her with senators, governors, and presidents. A newspaper from London that reported them to be the number one musical act in all of England. Pictures of her throwing out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in 1956, when the Browns were at the top of both the country and pop charts simultaneously, the first time that had ever been done, and also the last. She was dating the Washington Senators’ third baseman, who was playing in the game; they were a couple in the era before the proliferation of tabloids dedicated to chronicling such movements. He suggested that she throw out the first pitch, and that the Browns sing the national anthem, which they did.

A clock somewhere ticking, melting away, back then, but they had no idea.

Maxine’s end is not a pretty one. A practical shut-in, she dreams of a return to her former glory, dreams even while her brother enjoys a semi-successful solo career and her younger sister -- after coming close to marrying Elvis Presley, settles down with another man and fades happily from the spotlight. Maxine, it seems, can do neither -- too proud to settle down and too frightened to put herself out and fail.

And in her end, Bass, I believe, wants us to see his, ours, everyone’s.

Restricted to the downstairs section of her house as she is, Maxine longs for the day when she can climb the steps again and shower in her own bathroom, can select clothes from her bedroom closet, rather than sleeping on the couch and living out of the cardboard box that Bonnie brought downstairs for her. No one ever thinks they will end up this way; yet neither are there any plans that can be laid to prevent such steady approach of darkness, when it is darkness’s time to come.

Only An Elemental Force

And Bass’s judgment, again and again, is that this story, all of it, both the raggedness that gave them birth and the hungers that compelled them, is all part of some fundamental force that shapes us and the way the world receives us. This “elemental force” is mentioned frequently, given as an explanation that of course explains nothing.

The girls didn’t get to sleep around. That was the boys’ task, the boys’ duty. Bonnie didn’t want to -- was saving herself for marriage -- and Maxine, though she wanted to, didn’t, mostly just because she wasn’t supposed to. More smoldering. So much waiting. Still believing she had a hand in this matter of her life -- in any of it.

In the morning the party-life would be gone entirely, passing like a wonderful storm for the boys, and they would all four reconvene for breakfast, bleary-eyes and wrung out, but filling back up, the well recharging from what was surely a limitless reservoir.

Did Maxine and Bonnie want their own partners, as enduring and steadfast as were the boys’ liaisons fleeting? Bonnie, certainly; Maxine, less so. By that point she would bury any ten lovers if it helped her get more of the drug she needed. She told Bonnie she was “horny as a two-peckered billy goat,” but her real hunger was for something far below.

Was it her fault that she was that way, or anyone’s fault that two sisters of the same parents could be so different? There was no right or wrong in it. It was all only an elemental force blowing through them. It was all requisite for the world to turn as it turned.

I think Bass is able to capture the poignancy of it all, even if his characters never really do. When it comes to Nashville Chrome -- both the sweet sound of the Browns and the metaphoric spirit that it represents -- there can never really be an explanation for why it comes and why it goes. The world produces it, the same way it produces both summer showers and raging hurricanes, either for reasons beyond our comprehension or for no reason at all. We, after all, are only the droplets of water that the world harnesses for its inscrutable purpose.

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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, September 23, 2019

Top Takes: The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the second most pageviews on this entire blog:

The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling

It's my take on a book with the subtitle of “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” something the authors refer to as WIGs. In the overall, it describes a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for achieving them. They call it 4DX, short for the Four Disciplines of Execution, and they are:

1. Focus on the Wildly Important
2. Act on the Lead Measures
3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
4. Create a Cadence of Accountability

Lots of great content in the post, even a theoretical application of these disciplines to my own organization.

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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