Monday, December 11, 2017

Working Committees Have Plenty To Do

We're looking ahead to another calendar year in our association, and as part of that look forward we are setting a year-long course for some of our working committees.

Working Committee is the term my association uses for what others might call Program Committees. They are not committees of the Board, helping the Board fulfill its governance function. They are committees comprised of the rank and file members of the association, and their purpose is to help the organization execute its programs.

A few of these working committees have stagnated over the past year, and we felt it was time to re-invigorate them. To help them do that, for each committee we drafted a one-page document that outlined several important elements of the committee's successful function. In addition to the committee's purpose statement, its conference call schedule, and its guidelines for selecting members and chairs, the document also included three things essential to understanding the role and function of working committee's in our association's structure.

1. The long-term strategic goal to which the association has committed itself. This is presented to the committee with a period, not a question mark. It's not up for discussion. The strategic goals of the association have been developed by the staff and approved and resourced by the Board. It is not the job of the working committee to try and steer the ship in a different direction.

2. The current status of the strategic goal. Long-term means long-term. The association has been working on the goal for a while and will continue working on it for a while more. Here's a quick summary of the progress made so far.

3. The supporting agenda items the committee will focus its attention on in the year ahead. And, as we look at the year ahead of us, here are the specific things that the committee can help us do to keep the strategic goal advancing forward. If you review them, you'll see these items are not busywork exercises that staff could do, but necessary and practical decisions that require the knowledge sets and perspectives of our committee members.

I'm pretty pleased with the documents. They are a kind of contract with our committee members. They inform on our strategic direction, but they also make it clear that we can't effectively execute the necessary programs without their input and direction.

But the big epiphany for me was the realization of how much we needed the committees to actually do. When I talk with other association professionals about my approach to working committees -- that they help the organization execute programs, not direct strategy -- I am sometimes met with skepticism. Oh that would never work in my association, they often say, either not wanting members meddling in program execution or not believing the members would be satisfied in doing just that. There wouldn't be enough for them to do.

But I find it to be just the opposite. There is plenty to do in that space between strategy determination and tactical implementation. Programs must be designed before they can be executed, and their design has to be informed by the needs of the members themselves. That's the ideal space for our working committees to operate in.

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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

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Saturday, December 9, 2017

American Epics edited by Austen Barron Bailly

This is the book of a traveling art exhibition I saw at the Milwaukee Art Museum -- Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.

A thoroughly American artist and a consummate storyteller, Thomas Hart Benton is an epic subject in his own right, but even Benton fans may be surprised to learn of his connections to the film industry. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood turns a spotlight on Benton’s early work in silent film production in New Jersey and his later expeditions to Hollywood, illuminating the impact of these experiences on his art and career. This stunning volume traces Benton’s relationships with film and Hollywood through more than eighty reproductions of his art and twelve informative essays by experts on Benton and American art and culture.

I didn’t know much about Thomas Hart Benton before going to the exhibition, but that entry paragraph on the front overleaf pretty well sums it up. Benton, I came to discover was a popular mural painter, receiving numerous commissions throughout his career for murals in conspicuous public spaces.

And murals, of course, are stories. And the best of that bunch, in my opinion, is his American Historical Epic.

But earlier in his career, in his first attempt at public art, Benton tried to combine the West’s myths with its realities. Seeking to participate in public debates about who and what was authentically American, Benton created his American Historical Epic, a critical history of the United States. Without a commission to pay for it or a building to house it, Benton independently produced a cinematic series of fourteen mural panels -- each five to six feet high by four to six feet wide. Installed side by side, the panels … amount to more than sixty feet in length. The titles and imagery unflinchingly revised traditional and idealized versions of American history to emphasize scenes of violence and exploitation.

I’ve reproduced above the first five of these paintings: Discovery, The Palisades, Aggression, Prayer, and Retribution; what Benton called Chapter 1 of the epic. Two other chapters follow, but today, even in the age of Google, these images are hard to find. At the exhibition, all were on display, but only nine were the original paintings. The other five were careful reproductions, placed, obviously, to give the viewer the full effect that Benton intended. And it was quite an effect. The figures are near life size, and the span of shapes and colors fill your entire field of vision. Their relative compositions are frequently doubled and interrelated with one another -- in Chapter 1, for example, Native American figures bookend the series, one facing right towards the approaching Europeans and the other facing left, poised to deliver a fatal blow to a helpless pilgrim, with a third Indian figure in the very center of the grouping, suspended in an act of violence being perpetrated on him. And throughout, despite the simplicity of the figures, a surprising number of details reveal themselves to the careful observer.

I can see why they were (and perhaps still are) unpopular. They shatter a set of prevailing myths of early American history, myths that Benton had spent several years servicing and enforcing as a set and promotional artist in the early days of the American film industry. Even before the rise of the talkies, the Western was well established as a distinct genre of popular entertainment, with many of the tropes and constructs we still recognize today.

How strange it then seemed, at least to me, to see Benton’s work during the Second World War, where, like many a patriotic American artist, he used his considerable talents not to shatter but to reinforce the myths and the stereotypes of that conflict.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor provided an instantaneous casus belli, mobilizing public and private support for American engagement in total war. Benton’s own pent-up anxieties about the security of the nation were unleashed by the attack, and he began to work immediately, and furiously, on an ambitious project called Year of Peril (YOP), a series of eight propagandistic paintings he finished in about four months. Benton dedicated the project to “those new Americans who, born again through appreciation of their country’s great need, find themselves with new shares of patriotism and intelligence, and new wills to see what is what and to come to grips with it, in this Year of Peril.”

Whether it is the depiction of savagery upon civilians in Invasion...


...or the caricaturistic allegories bleeding across the canvas in Exterminate!...


...or the monsters flying Axis flags seen crucifying Christ in Again...


...I personally find plenty of patriotism, but not much intelligence; the social commentary of his American Historical Epic entirely supplanted by the unnerving jingoism of the times.

I far prefer Benton’s more simple and more transcendent works. Pieces like Romance, painted in 1932, with allegory and meaning so deep and purposeful, I was entranced by the thoughtful essay written about it by Richard Powell.


An impossibly elongated couple, walking hand in hand, commands center stage in Romance, a painting by the renowned American artist Thomas Hart Benton. A woman, wearing a red dress and a cloche, and her partner, a barefoot man with his shirtsleeves and pant legs rolled up, are enveloped by an idealized southern United States landscape -- a rickety wagon, a moss-covered tree, a cabin with a stone chimney, a worn-out barrel -- and an anthropomorphic sky, with a cloud-shuttered moon resembling the heavy-lidded all-seeing eye of a gigantic deity.

Depicted with downcast heads and austere, serious expressions, the pair appears to be moving with an intended objective in mind, their long, gangly limbs are caught mid-stride, almost as if they are dancing but without the frivolity or theatricality of a pas de deux. Their mirrored movements and near-identical poses underscore their assumed status as a couple and suggest a common purpose within the painting’s implicit narrative, in which they are ostensibly walking away from the rustic scene behind them and toward an open, shadowy land ahead, at the lower-left corner of the painting.

I didn’t see all of that upon first look, but it is all there. But what’s more remarkable, and what the essay goes into much greater depth on, is Benton’s intended meaning behind that dangling pair of shoes.

Benton’s autobiography An Artist in America offers clues to what he might have intended with this visual passage. In the chapter titled “The South,” Benton inserted the following, somewhat cryptic, anecdote from his travels in the late 1920s below the Mason-Dixon Line:

“Two Negro boys were walking along a dusty north Georgia road. They were barefoot. Their new pants were rolled up in fat cuffs below their knees. Both had shiny patent leather shoes hanging from their shoulders. One carried a bulging black paper suitcase, the straps of which were reinforced with strands of rope. It was a heavy load. They were sad-eyed and their lips drooped.

“‘Mistah,’ said one to me, ‘is it fuh frum hyeah to Noo Yauk?’”

As suggested in this story (and possibly in Benton’s Romance), the triumvirate of bare feet, unworn shoes, and African American travelers collectively conjures not just an image of a leisurely stroll or an obligatory walk by country folk but also visions or escape and migration. Beyond this particular recollection, there are other references in Benton’s autobiography to black subjugation and white brutality in the South that function as subliminal spurs for these boys: the psychological cuts and actual blows that prompted them to take up a “heavy load” and seek refuge in “Noo Yauk.” Their journey -- a symbolic, barefoot pilgrimage to freedom -- and their shoes -- emblems of prestige and modernity -- resonate with Benton’s Romance through these same components, the couple’s sober, ambulatory undertaking and the scene’s overarching serious-mindedness and moon-lit singularity. Indeed, the descriptive breakdown and itemized recounting of bare feet, rolled-up cuffs, and hanging shoes operated in both Benton’s text and his painting as surrealistic fragments: focal, discernable elements that triggered subconscious figments of corporeality, orderliness, and flight, respectively.

What a wonderful description of the things that all great art contains -- surrealistic fragments; focal, discernable elements that trigger our subconscious. And on that front, these shoes, it seems, have even more to trigger in us.

And one doesn’t want to exclude from a discussion of Benton’s fixations on bare feet and isolated shoes his lifelong admiration for fellow Missourian, the author and humorist Mark Twain, and Twain’s well-documented deployment of these same emancipatory icons in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Observing an African American shoeshine boy cleaning a pair of riding boots on the back stoop of a southern hotel, Benton became captivated by the boy’s work song, which he repeated over and over again, Benton noted in his autobiography, with “a funereal solemnity”:

Dem ole duhty shoes
Dem ole duhty shoes
Who se-e-ehd dem shoes --

Like Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of abandoned, seemingly forsaken shoes, the spare refrain of Benton’s shoeshine boy paints an evocative still life with words: a sound-painting fraught with privation, melancholy, and the ghostly specter of feet that once resided in an empty pair of brogans. In another Benton painting, Butterfly Catcher (1942), the artist consigned a derelict, shabby shoe to a landscape of forest undergrowth, rotted tree trunks, and debris, relying on the viewer’s ability to conceptually link the true butterfly chaser (in the far distance), the butterfly’s literary associations with departed souls, and the cadaverous shoe in the immediate foreground. Vacant, unfilled shoes, and other marked absences in Western art and visual culture, often signify death, and, in the context of Benton’s Romance, the barefoot man’s dangling oxfords unavoidably evoke, along with Mark Twain’s two defiantly shoeless protagonists, the lynched bodies of black men, suspended from gnarled tree branches and strained ropes.

Pilgrimages to freedom and the swinging bodies of lynched men. That’s a lot to pack into a pair of dangling shoes, but it is, I think, an example of what makes great art so compelling and worth understanding.

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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, December 4, 2017

I Don't Know How To Do That

I was talking to a friend last night about one of the newest education programs in my association. He's a friend, but he's not in the association business, and I often find his viewpoint as an outsider to my world refreshing.

The new program has a lot of potential, but it's not living up to expectations. Those who attend it, love it, but the number of members attending it falls far short of the demographic that it's geared for. We promote it through all our traditional channels, but it always draws about the same number of members, with the largest percentage comprised of repeat participants.

First I described the goals of the program and my friend, even from outside the association business, saw its value. He compared it to something in his business that he was familiar with and he was spot on with the comparison. Then I described the challenge we were facing, the disappointing lack of participation.

Livestream it, he said.

Now, I don't want to go into the details of why I should or should not consider livestreaming this series of programs. Some associations, in my experience, have an aversion to distributing content from their live education sessions to anyone who isn't in the session room. If people can get it online, the thinking goes, they'll stop coming to the live event. Maybe they will and maybe they won't, but that's not what I'm here to debate. I'd rather focus on the first thought that popped in my head when my friend made this suggestion.

I don't know how to do that.

So what? Even I recognized how meaningless this objection was -- so much so that I successfully kept myself from uttering it out loud. There are a dozen other people I could rely on, and some of them may know how to do it, and if they couldn't we could certainly hire a vendor with the right equipment and expertise to do it for us. I am, after all, the same blogger who posted last week on the importance of putting your resources where your strategic objectives were.

So where did this impulse come from? It was, I realized with some reflection, a fear of something I didn't fully understand, and it came from the same place that all such fears do. The place of uncertainty that keeps us from trying something new, to rely again and again on the things that feel comfortable but which ultimately don't bring us success.

The challenge, you see, has nothing to do with live streaming. It rather has everything to do with banishing the fear of experimentation.

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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

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Monday, November 27, 2017

It Takes Resources

Another lesson for me this week that demonstrates how a strategy without the resources to support it is a recipe for failure.

We sometimes deceive ourselves in the association business. We know our strategies are compelling and our volunteers are dedicated, and we think that if we simply bring the two in alignment with each other the execution will take care of itself. Often, unfortunately, it doesn't. Even the most compelling strategy coupled to the most dedicated volunteers will falter in its execution if the association doesn't also bring its resources to the table.

What resources are those? Dollars, certainly. In the specific situation the confronted me this week, we needed to start spending money on something we hadn't spent money on in years. But the need for resources almost always extends beyond just dollars. It almost always also includes staff time. An association staff person has to make space on an already crowded plate to organize and coordinate a new effort.

In my experience, one of the toughest challenges associations face when it comes to resource allocation is opening up staff time for the strategic projects that matter most to the association. Adding project after project ultimately serves neither the staff person nor the association. The reason the strategic project is not getting the attention it needs is almost always associated with staff plates already being full. In these situations, if you're going to pursue something new, you have to take something else off the plate.

And that leads me to the biggest resource need that I find myself identifying, again and again, when a strategic project has stalled. Yes, it needs dollars and yes, it needs staff time, but more than anything else it needs leadership. The willingness and ability of someone in a leadership position to step in, shepherd it, and make it happen through the force of his or her will.

That person can be the association staff executive, but it doesn't have to be. I work hard in my association to consistently communicate the message that the most valuable trait any staff person can exhibit is leadership -- specifically, the kind of leadership I'm taking about in this post. The strategy is compelling, the volunteers are dedicated, but neither is truly the catalyst for true success. For that, we need a staff person to step up and make something happen.

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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

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman

This is a marvelous book, full of deep historical and sociological insight. Its subject is not just one historical episode or period of time, but a universal sociological phenomenon, manifesting itself again and again throughout the storied history of human culture.

Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick? Why did successive ministries of George III insist on coercing rather than conciliating the American colonies though repeatedly advised by many counselors that the harm done must be greater than any possible gain? Why did Charles XII and Napoleon and successively Hitler invade Russia despite the disasters incurred by each predecessor? Why did Montezuma, master of fierce and eager armies and a city of 300,000, succumb passively to a party of several hundred alien invaders even after they had shown themselves all too obviously human beings, not gods? Why did Chiang Kai-shek refuse to heed any voice of reform or alarm until he woke up to find his country had slid from under him? Why do the oil-importing nations engage in rivalry for the available supply when a firm united front vis-a-vis the exporters would gain them control of the situation? Why in recent times have British trade unions in a lunatic spectacle seemed periodically bent on dragging their country toward paralysis, apparently under the impression that they are separate from the whole? Why does American business insist on “growth” when it is demonstrably using up the three basics of life on our planet -- land, water and unpolluted air?

It is all folly, defined by Tuchman as the pursuit of policies contrary to the interests of those pursuing them. In the three primary examples that she examines -- the Renaissance popes provoking the Protestant secession, the British losing America, and America betraying herself in Vietnam -- she not only expertly describes the sequences of historical events, but also shines a light on the human and organizational frailties that are common to all three.

Walking Into Water Over Their Heads

[Folly] often does not spring from great design, and its consequences are frequently a surprise. The folly lies in persisting thereafter. [The] point is reinforced … in a perceptive comment by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who cautioned, “In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.” This is a factor usually overlooked by political scientists who, in discussing the nature of power, already treat it, even when negatively, with immense respect. They fail to see it as sometimes a matter of ordinary men walking into water over their heads, acting unwisely or foolishly or perversely as people in ordinary circumstances frequently do. The trappings and impact of power deceive us, endowing the possessors with a quality larger than life.

This, I think, is one of the most important insights in the book, and hopefully will color my reading of history from this point forward. One of the most striking examples from Tuchman’s analysis is the following quote attributed to President John Kennedy. Remember for this purpose that prior to America’s involvement in Vietnam, the French had fought there for years, and had eventually lost to local forces.

The American failure to find any significance in the defeat of the French professional army, including the Foreign Legion, by small, thin-boned, out-of-uniform Asian guerrillas is one of the great puzzles of the time. When David Schoenbrun, correspondent for CBS, who had covered the French war in Vietnam, tried to persuade the President of the realities of that war and of the loss of French officers equivalent each year to a class at St. Cyr, Kennedy answered, “Well, Mr. Schoenbrun, that was the French. They were fighting for a colony, for an ignoble cause. We’re fighting for freedom, to free them from the Communists, from China, for their independence.”

Wow. Talk about a man walking into water over his head. Evidently, the only thing that mattered in Kennedy’s estimation was the motivation of the occupying force. The sympathies and preferences of the occupied mattered for not, a point Tuchman summarizes well in her concluding sentence.

Because Americans believed they were “different” they forgot that they too were white.

Or, here at greater length.

The reason why the French with superior manpower and American resources were doing so poorly was not beyond all conjecture. The people of Indochina, of whom more than 200,000 were in the colonial army together with some 80,000 French, 48,000 North Africans and 20,000 Foreign Legionnaires, simply had no reason to fight for France. Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters, both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. “The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe,” stated President Eisenhower on taking office, “is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia.” He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.

Persistent Aspects of Folly

But not seeing the situation from an opponent’s point of view is a persistent aspect of folly. And, as that is Tuchman’s primary purpose, her text is full of other commentary on these persistent aspects of folly. Here’s the diagnosis that comes at the end of her section on the Renaissance popes.

Their three outstanding attitudes -- obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status -- are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

Indeed. The one that was especially noteworthy for me was the obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents. Whether we’re talking about the Renaissance popes and their attitudes towards their common congregants, the British royalty and government and their attitudes towards the American colonists, or the American government and their attitudes towards their allies and enemies in Vietnam, the common perspective of the identified constituents was hardly ever taken into account. And it’s not because those in power were necessarily unwilling. As this revealing passage in regards to the Britain’s repeal of the Stamp Act shows, it was primarily because the governments in question did not have the apparatus to capture and consider other ideas.

After a mistake so absolute as to require repeal, British policy-makers might well have stopped to reconsider the relationship with the colonies, and ask themselves what course they might follow to induce a beneficial allegiance on the one hand and ensure a secure sovereignty on the other. Many Englishmen outside government did consider this problem, and Pitt and Shelburne, who were shortly to come to power, entered office intending to calm the suspicions and restore the equanimity of the colonies. Fate, as we shall see, interfered.

Policy was not reconsidered because the governing group had no habit of purposeful consultation, had the King over their heads and were at odds with one another. It did not occur to them that it might be wise to avoid provocative measures for long enough to reassure the colonies of Britain’s respect for their rights while leaving their agitators no excuse. The riotous reaction to the Stamp Act only confirmed the British in their belief that the colonies, led by “wicked and designing men” (as stated in a House of Lords resolution), were bent on rebellion. Confronted by menace, or what was perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.

Despite this judgment, Tuchman often goes out of her way to stress the existence of another of her pre-existing conditions before diagnosing anything as folly -- and that is that there were plenty of people, at the time of each government’s actions, who could see and who vocally advocated for another course of action.

In Britain’s loss of America, there were members of Parliament, and even members of the Cabinet, who saw the folly and spoke against it.

Meanwhile within the Ministry, if not the inner Cabinet, Viscount Barrington, the long-serving Secretary at War, entered a dissent. Although formerly in favor of a hard line toward America, he was one of the few in any group who allowed facts and developments to penetrate and influence their thinking. By 1774 he had come to believe that to coerce the colonies to the point of armed resistance would be disastrous. He had not turned pro-American or changed his political loyalties in any way; he had simply come to the professional conclusion, as he explained to Dartmouth in two letters of November and December 1774, that a land war in America would be useless, costly and impossible to win. Useless because it was plain that Britain could never successfully impose internal taxation; costly and impossible to win because conquered areas must be held by large armies and fortresses, “the expense of which would be ruinous and endless,” besides producing “the horrors and bloodshed of civil war.” Britain’s only war aim was proving supremacy without being able to use it; “I repeat, our contest is merely a point of honor” and “will cost us more than we can ever gain by success.”

Same story with America betraying herself in Vietnam. When America first got involved, it was in an attempt to help the French maintain their colonial rule there as a bulwark against Communism. But that didn’t have to be her policy, and there were plenty at the time who said so.

The alternative was present and available: to gain for America an enviable primacy among Western nations and confirm the foundation of goodwill in Asia by aligning ourselves with, even supporting, the independence movements. If this seemed indicated to some, particularly at the Far East desk, it was less persuasive to others for whom self-government by Asians was not something to base a policy on and insignificant in comparison to the security of Europe. In Indochina choice of the alternative would have required imagination, which is never a long suit with governments, and willingness to take the risk of supporting a Communist when Communism was still seen as a solid bloc. [Marshal Josip Broz] Tito [of Yugoslavia] was then its only splinter, and the possibility of another deviation was not envisaged. Moreover, it would be divisive of the Allies. Support of Humpty-Dumpty was chosen instead, and once a policy had been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it.

Whether it is the British in the 1770s or the Americans in the 1950s, the machinery of their governments prevented them from considering options contrary to their firmly held beliefs. The American colonies are wholly subservient to the British crown. Communism is a threat that must be contained, and will be conquered by the freedom-loving instincts of humanity. Perhaps most telling of all is this quote from Lyndon Johnson.

Asked once how long the war might last, [Johnson] answered, “Who knows how long, how much? The important thing is, are we right or wrong?”

Funny. I think America is still debating that one.

Executive War

And speaking of Lyndon Johnson, one of the other things Tuchman’s book helped me wrap my brain around was the, to borrow a phrase, folly of Executive War.

War is a procedure from which there can be no turning back without acknowledging defeat. This was the self-laid trap into which America had walked. Only with the greatest difficulty and rarest success, as belligerents mired in futility have often discovered, can combat be terminated in favor of compromise. Because it is a final resort to destruction and death, war has traditionally been accompanied by the solemn statement of justification, in medieval times a statement of “just war,” in modern times a Declaration of War … However false and specious the justification may be, and usually is, a legalism of this kind serves to state the case and automatically endows the government with enlarged powers.

The first half of this paragraph explains why nations should not go to war. The second half explains why no nation going to war should do so solely on the authority of its Executive. But, of course, neither of these explanations were heeded in the case of America’s war in Vietnam.

Johnson decided to do without a Declaration, partly because neither cause nor aims were clear enough in terms of national defense to sustain one, partly because he feared a Declaration might provoke Russia or China to a response in kind, mainly because he feared it would divert attention and resources from the domestic programs which he hoped would make his reputation in history.

And we know how history has judged that decision.

It would have been wiser to face the test and require Congress to assume its constitutional responsibility for going to war. The President should likewise have asked for an increase in taxes to balance war costs and inflationary pressures. He avoided this in his hope of not arousing protest. As a result his war in Vietnam was never legitimized. By forgoing a Declaration he opened a wider door to dissent and made the error, fatal to his presidency, of assuring the ground of public support.

Of course, today America has figured another way around Johnson’s problem. Still no formal Declarations of War from Congress, but now an Executive with his ear ever on public sentiment for the bombs he decides to drop around the world.

But Tuchman isn’t done diagnosing this problem. She’s writing in 1984, about events taking place in 1965, but how familiar to today’s situation the following excerpt is. It’s regarding the hearings held by Senator J. William Fulbright, investigating the causes and authorities associated with taking America to war.

Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possess secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn “not upon available facts but upon judgment,” with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge “whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve their overall interests as a nation.”

This is a view that is all too frequently absent from our major policy decisions today -- that the nation, and not solely its president, are capable (and empowered by the Constitutional separation of powers) of making them -- and especially those associated with the commitment of U.S. troops to aggressive military action. And, evidently, it was also a minority view in 1965.

The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, “We ought to support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against.” This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. “Foreign policy decisions,” concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, “are in general much more influenced by irrational motives” than are domestic ones.

As is so often in history, what is past is prologue. Imagine what Lyndon Johnson would think of the executive war-making powers afforded our modern presidents. And is Myrdal’s diagnosis about irrational motives any less true?

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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, November 20, 2017

80% Is Good Enough

I used to blog a lot about innovation in the association environment. I used to think a lot about the subject, I helped write a white paper on the subject, helped launch a regional conference focused on it, and have tried to move my association on to a more innovative footing. All that attention and all those experiments were reflected in the posts put up on this blog.

Lately; not so much.

But recently, I and a group of my staff attended the latest iteration of that regional conference I helped launch, and when we got back I asked everyone to share their major takeaways from the presentations they listened to and the discussions they participated in. And a common theme I heard emerge from that conversation was the need to push partially developed products and services out to our members, and then to refine them based on the feedback received from the very users that the products and services are intended for. 80% is good enough, one of my staff members said. And, another added, you probably can't really get to 100% without the interaction with the marketplace.

It reminded me of the topics I used to post frequently about on this blog. As evidenced by posts like "Who's Your Lead User Community?" "We Can Only See the Destination by Moving Towards It," and especially "Putting Something Unfinished Out There," there was a time when I was writing regularly on this subject. And the theme I often returned to was how difficult this was, how there often seemed to be organizational forces aligned against the idea of "putting something unfinished out there." Indeed, in the post by that title, I did the best I could to call those forces out onto the carpet.

How to combat it? Then, as now, my advice is simple. Start small. Find a member who likes to tinker and may want to try something new. Then...

Get together and talk about something that isn't working in the organization and solicit their help in addressing it. Whatever they say, find a way to do it. Not in a big way, not plastered on the front page of your magazine, but in a small way, a guerrilla way, on your own, without help from anyone else. Maybe it's not even a program at that point. Maybe it's just a document--a document with a combination of words on it that no one has ever suggested before.

Then, share it with another member. Get their feedback on it. Adapt and advance the concept. Repeat and keep repeating.

If you do it consistently, you'll realize two things. First, the thing you're working on will never be finished. At some point it will turn into an actual program, but it will always be open to another interaction and another interpretation. And second, that's a good thing. Believe it or not, putting something unfinished out there will become not just less scary, but enjoyable and productive for everyone involved.

80% is good enough. But you're the one who has to bring that 80% to the table.

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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

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Automation Is Not Always the Answer

I had an interesting conversation this week with a colleague on the subject of membership engagement tracking. It's not something that every association does, evidently, but it is something that my association does. We track many of the activities that our members participate in for the purpose of determining which are and are not highly engaged with our association.

We were talking about why some associations don't do it, and she mentioned her belief that some shy away because of how complicated the task can be, and how difficult it can be to find an automated solution for it. Their AMS (association management software) system may not have that capability, she said, and trying to build it where it doesn't already exist could be time and cost prohibitive.

Well sure, I replied, that may certainly be a case. Our tracking system, after all, is not incorporated into our AMS. It's essentially a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, updated a few times a year by a designated staff person, who, admittedly, has to pull information from a variety of different people and places in our organization to do it. It's time-consuming, but it gives us the information we're looking for, and we've used it to good effect in our organization -- reaching out to engage those less engaged, and adjusting our marketing strategies to better target them.

And that's when something else hit me. Automating our process within our AMS -- basically re-programming it to scour what would have to be a variety of different participation databases (some already digital, but others currently analog, which would have to be made digital) so that all the right ones and zeros could be put into the right fields, and then formatting a report that could be run at the touch of a button -- doing all of that, is utterly out of the question for an association of our size and budget. No question.

But that didn't stop us from creating our own, workable process for membership engagement tracking.

Too often, I've found, a desire for automated processes stops important work from getting done inside an association, and this struck me as one of those cases. An automated process can return tremendous economies of scale once the investment has been made to create it, but just because that initial investment is too much for an association to contemplate does not mean that the process can't be conducted via other means.

Specifically with regard to our process of membership engagement tracking, the knowledge we've gained from our efforts is valuable enough that, dare I say, even if we didn't have access to Microsoft Excel, we'd still be tracking what we could in a drawer full of three by five index cards.

Sometimes, doing it old school is not just the only option, it is, in fact, the best one.

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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

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