Monday, March 26, 2012

Online Privacy and Generational Divides

image source
Two recent posts about online privacy (one from David Patt and the other from Seth Godin) got me thinking more and more about the subject. Both authors seem to take a "tough toenails" approach to the subject, calling into question why people have an expectation of privacy online in the first place.

And I agree with them. The reality is that the stuff you put on Facebook doesn't belong to you. It belongs to Facebook. Grudgingly, I think, people are now beginning to understand this. Call it the "creeping Facebook realization."

But let's take it one step further. Privacy concerns are often raised when discussions or legislation turns toward the use of electronic medical records. Some people get really incensed over the idea of doctors, employers, insurance companies, or governments accessing their medical records without their permission. I suspect these people have a painful reckoning coming similar to that of the Facebookers who are distressed at discovering that Facebook is using "their" information without their permission.

Who owns your medical record? Today, the consensus opinion probably supports the concept that you do. But I believe we are moving towards a society where that will no longer be the case. In this strange future, the entity that owns your medical record will be the one that owns the data network on which it resides.

People generally have one of two reactions when I propose this concept to them--and they usually break down along clear generational lines.

1. Older generation: "Impossible! What a dark and horrifying view of the future. Such a move would spell the end of the individual. We must fight against it at all costs!"

2. Younger generation: "So what?"

Although I don't necessarily support the change, I think progress is on the side of the younger generation on this one. The older generation will go kicking and screaming, but eventually we will enter a time when the very concept of "online privacy" will lose its political force. No one will care about it enough to ensure that online systems even take it into consideration.

There will certainly be some dystopian elements to that future society, but there will also be some benefits that we currently can't realize. The issue of our medical history and the services we need to access is a thorny one, but imagine a world in which the sharing of information we now consider personal is used to fuel greater discovery and innovation to benefit our human species. Imagine a global network of researchers with access to a new and complete database of human disease and pathology. Imagine any physician, anywhere, anytime, being able to provide an individual patient with the interventions most suited to their personal case history.

Just writing those last two sentences I know that they will terrify some people. Our culture is too laden with images of Big Brother and mistrust of bureaucratic institutions to expect anything else. But our culture is changing, and in many ways I think the creeping Facebook realization is the leading edge of it. Over the next twenty years, we'll see our notion of online privacy change from its current all-consuming fight for individual liberty to a compromise that will be struck between that liberty, the corporate interests of the network owners, and the general benefits that its erosion can deliver to society.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Jefferson Davis, American by William J. Cooper, Jr.

A couple of really profound insights struck me as I was reading this comprehensive biography of the man who served as President of the Confederate States of America. Here’s what triggered the first:

In Davis’ view the justification for his state’s decision [to secede from the Union] was simple yet profound—“a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our Fathers have bequeathed to us.” He asserted that the anchors of liberty for the South and southerners, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, had been pulled up in the cause of antislavery and racial equality to support “an attack upon [southern] social institutions.” The Declaration, Davis proclaimed, had trumpeted the great truth that “no man was born—to use the language of Mr. Jefferson—booted and spurred to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal—meaning the men of the political community.” These “great principles,” in Davis’ interpretation, were now “invoked to maintain the position of equality of the races.” Davis, on the contrary, insisted that the precepts of the Declaration referred solely to “each member of the body politic.” In his reading “they ha[d] no reference to the slave.” To Davis the meaning of the Constitution had been equally corrupted. He noted that the Constitution provided for “that very class of persons as property.” “They were not,” he pointed out, “put upon the footing of equality with white men.”

And the insight? This tug of war between the “all men created equal” language of the Declaration of Independence and the various definitions for “members of the body politic” that have graced the pages of the Constitution, is one of the great transcending narrative arcs of the American story. Slave, woman, homosexual, enemy combatant—we keep having the same argument over and over again, don’t we? Who has rights in our society? It was going on then and it’s still going on today.

Here’s another insight. When it comes to secession, Davis was not wrong. States likely did have the power to secede from the Union, and the war waged against them to bring them back was likely an illegal one. Before the Civil War, a great many more people viewed the United States as what it was originally intended to be—a collection of independent states. Davis was certainly one of them.

"This government was established as the agent of the States in their foreign relations, and as an umpire between the States in their relations one to another…”

he said once in Congress, and he lived very much by the creed these words defined. The title of this biography, American, is uniquely poignant in this regard, since Davis had a clear fealty and affection for the United States of this formulation. Indeed, in many of his public comments about the Union—both before and after the war—his words would stir the patriot hearts of yesterday and today.

In each of his public appearances Davis emphasized the same themes, starting with the single heritage of all Americans. When called for remarks on the Fourth of July aboard the Joseph Whitney, he talked about the “common sense of nationality beat[ing] in every American bosom.” Those in any section who wanted to divide the country, he denounced as “trifling politicians” engaged in a futile endeavor: “They are like the mosquitoes around the ox; they annoy, but they cannot wound, and never kill.” He touched upon the shared Revolutionary legacy of all Americans and “the fraternity of our revolutionary fathers,” when all states aided one another in a common cause. And he assured listeners that should danger arise anew, Mississippi would rush to the side of Maine, as he was sure Maine would do the same for Mississippi. Fanatics who wanted to do away with the constitutional Union, like Senator Seward, who appealed to a “higher law,” he branded as “traitors.” “We became a nation by the constitution,” he declared. “Whatever is national springs from the constitution; and national and constitutional are convertible terms.”

To our modern sensibilities, it seems all the more strange that a man such as this should lead the upstart nation responsible for dissolving this precious Union. But in doing so, it is clear that Davis believed he was acting constitutionally, that secession was a right guaranteed by the document he so revered.

And after the war, as the nation struggled to find a crime to convict Davis of, their perennial lack of action seemed to do little more than prove Davis’ point. Granted, there was a lot of politics going on, partisan divides with demagogues of both stripes jockeying for power. We often forget this about the past—that historical actions were driven by partisan loyalties similar to those that drive us today. Reconstruction after the Civil War was really no different in this regard, as the new party in the White House (Andrew Johnson and the Democrats) sought to reassert their power over the party of Lincoln.

A reappearance of numerous southerners in Congress could of course lead to substantial strengthening of the Democratic party. Moreover, in these new [state] governments whites attempted to exercise close and harsh control over the freed slaves through laws known as Black Codes, which severely restricted the rights and economic opportunities of blacks. Neither of these developments troubled President Johnson. A resurgent Democratic party might well look to him for leadership. And because he shared the general white southern view of race relations, the shackling of freed people caused him no great difficulty. For the political and ideological goals of the Republican party, the party identified with the North and the victorious Union war effort, he had little sympathy.

It was against this political backdrop that the former Democratic Senator from Mississippi was jailed and held for several years with no charges pressed against him. From time to time the United States Government would make motions that it planned to try him for treason, but it never made good on the promise, realizing that the ramifications of losing such a case—and thereby providing a clear court precedent that secession was not treason—would be far worse than letting Davis go free. Eventually, they released him on bail, and he was never again called to appear in court.

Life and Death in the 19th Century

Something else that always strikes me when I read about life in the 19th century is the way the specter of death hovers around people. In Davis’ case, it took his first wife at a young age and four of his children. But to call death commonplace is a mistake, for although it took so much more of the young than it does today, it seems to me that the wounds it inflicted on the living went just as deep—if not deeper. Here’s a description of the after-effects of the death of his first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor:

Her loss had delivered him a massive emotional blow. In his “Autobiography,” written in the last year of his life, he spoke of “liv[ing] in great seclusion” for “many years” after her death. Her memory and his vision of that memory obviously stayed with him for the remaining fifty-four years of his life. A number of years after the tragic event, according to a family story, Davis was rummaging through an old trunk when the sight of one of Knox’s slippers so staggered him that he lost consciousness.

And here upon the loss of his first son, before the boy had turned two:

Mother and father were devastated. Varina [Davis’ second wife] depicted herself as “tortured,” while Jefferson spoke of her “irreparable grief” that caused periods of “painful depressions.” An acquaintance portrayed Jefferson as “overwhelmed with affliction and look[ing] worse than I have seen him in many years.” He had not faced such an emotional trauma since Sarah Knox’s death almost two decades before. Varina recalled an anguished man who “walked half the night and worked fiercely all day.” “A child’s cry in the street well-nigh drove him mad,” she wrote. To the end of his life he never forgot the brief existence of his first-born.

And here upon the loss of another son, five-year-old Joe, who fell from a railing at the White House of the Confederacy:

A servant brought news of the accident. Mother and father rushed home to watch and hold their boy in his last moments of life. An eyewitness recorded Varina’s “flood of tears and wild lamentations.” “Unutterable anguish” marked Jefferson’s face, which “seemed suddenly ready to burst with unspeakable grief, and then transfixed into a stony rigidity.” His wife recalled his crying out, “Not mine, oh, Lord, but thine.” Turning away a courier, he moaned, “I must have this day with my little child.” Exercising “terrible self control,” the father with his burden of “heavy sorrow” paced the floor of his bedroom throughout the night.

And here on the loss of a third son, ten-year-old Billy, of diphtheria:

Mother and father were devastated. Davis called him “the bright boy…the hope and pride of my house.” His “heart bowed down at the loss.” Davis said all his disappointments and sorrows had not increased his ability to bear them.

And finally, late in life, on the death of their fourth and final son, stricken with yellow fever at the age of twenty-one.

His death staggered his parents. Davis cried out in anguish: “The last of my four sons has left me. I am crushed under such heavy and repeated blows. I presume not God to scorn, but the many and humble prayers offered before my boy was taken from me, are hushed in the despair of my bereavement.” Yet even in his torment, Sarah Dorsey spoke of his “bear[ing] it manfully.” He spoke of his son’s letters to him, a toothpick and walking stick the boy had made for him, and a pocketknife that had been a present. “These are put away to be preserved and looked at, as long as I live,” he wrote. A devastated Varina lay helpless in bed, prostrated by a dangerous fever. Sarah Dorsey said she did not leave Varina’s sickbed for six days and nights, except to bathe and change clothes. Mother and father had only their two daughters remaining.

There is something unsufferably sad about these passages to me, something that makes me see Jefferson and Varina as something closer to the simple human creatures that they were. They lived so long ago, dressed in funny clothes, and had strange thoughts, and only look out at us stiffly through those grainy photographs. But they were real, weren’t they? In their struggle to deal with the grief of losing their children, they weren’t just real people. They were people just like you and me.

The War

And finally, there’s the war. Two key thoughts here. First, the political shuffle that started the whole thing should be filed as one of the gravest crimes against humanity the world has ever seen. This book is decidedly from Davis’ point of view, but provides enough detail about Northern strategy to show that Abraham Lincoln was playing the same game. Loud, public protestations about never wanting to begin the war, but being “forced” into it by the political machinations of the other side. And all the while, never a thought given to the 600,000 Americans who would die as a result of those first few shots fired in Charleston Harbor. They didn’t know it would cost so many, of course—not then. But as the casualties started mounting up, and the charade of peace negotiations flared up from time to time between Richmond and Washington, we would again hear the same rhetoric—we have a moral duty to stop the blood shedding—and again see the same result—the shots continuing to get fired.

Davis, in all of these situations, was both self-deluded and adamant about his own innocence.

He agreed with his guests that he could not leave untried any approach that might result in peace. He told them he wanted peace and deplored bloodshed as much as they did, but claimed that “not one drop of the blood shed in this war is on my hands.” “I can look up to my God and say this,” he went on, because he had striven for a dozen years to prevent war, but he had failed.

The war came, he asserted, and “Now it must go on till that last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize his musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self government.” Insisting that Confederates were not battling for slavery, Davis claimed that slavery had never been the key issue. In his words, “it was only a means of bringing other conflicting elements to an earlier culmination. It fired the musket which was already capped and loaded.” “We are fighting for Independence,” he proclaimed, “and that, or extermination, we will have.”

This passage brings up the great theme of what the war was really all about—States’ Rights or slavery—and that’s not a subject I intend to wade deeply into. In the end, I think, it depends on who you ask. Ultimately, the war was about both, and which was the cause and which was the effect will probably be debated for generations to come. But here I’m more interested in pointing out that the two men who had it within the power to end that war before too many men had lost their lives, both claimed that they were powerless to stop it. They were either liars to history or liars to themselves or both. But now it no longer matters. For the winner is revered as the greatest President of all time, and the loser, as shown above, was never convicted of any crime.

But put all that aside for a moment, because here’s my second point about the war—the Confederates never had a chance to win. This has always been my impression. I used to think the war only lasted as long as it did because of how corrupt, disorganized and incompetent the Union Army and its generals initially were. But this book has helped me see that the Confederates were just as bad—if not worse. Here’s a passage that describes how Davis comparatively saw Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, at the time that Davis relieved Johnston of his command and turned the defense of Atlanta over the John Bell Hood.

In relieving Johnston, Davis compared his campaign to Lee’s. Although both generals had retreated before a superior foe, the president viewed their circumstances and performances as quite different. Lee had battled all the way and with Early had even tried a daring, albeit unsuccessful, move to regain the initiative. At Petersburg, he had Grant as much at bay as Grant had him. With a bloodied and weary army, Grant could neither overpower nor dislodge the Confederate defenders. Lee knew he could hold on for a considerable time. Moreover, throughout the weeks from the Wilderness to Petersburg he had kept Davis thoroughly informed and had promptly posted the president on his intentions and actions.

In contrast, Johnston, in the same amount of time, had fallen back over twice as great a distance and through country more advantageous for defense. He never seriously tried to grasp the initiative, and he constantly cried for help from outside his army. He never slowed down or weakened Sherman, who reached Atlanta relatively more powerful than Grant at Petersburg. According to a compatriot, Davis worried that Johnston thought “his army is not for the defense of the country, but that he must at all hazards protect the army.” Perhaps most important, Johnston never confided in Davis. He never gave the president any reason to have confidence in him. Of course, that would have been difficult because he had so little in himself.

Johnston in this book is a real liability to the Confederacy, and he’s not the only one. If you thought the North was plagued with in-fighting among political generals, you need to read some more about Braxton Bragg and his crew of lieutenant commanders in the Army of Tennessee. In a famous episode, all of Bragg’s lieutenants wrote to President Davis after Bragg sacked one of their number, expressing their lack of confidence in Bragg and their desire for him to be replaced. Davis, whose judgment appeared clouded by the idea that their nation’s circumstances would “lift men above all personal consideration and devote them wholly to their country’s cause,” decided to keep Bragg in charge. Soon after this decision, the Army of Tennessee would be utterly routed by Ulysses Grant at Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge.

Cooper goes into a good amount of detail about the fractiousness of the situation and Davis’ ill-informed reaction to it, but for me one message rings clear. A good deal of Grant’s success and rise to power came because of incompetence and in-fighting on the Confederate side—especially in the West.

Cooper points out in his preface that previous historians have been unkind to Davis. He is “generally portrayed as an ideologue with poor political skills and as a second-rate leader with a bureaucratic mind-set, who failed spectacularly in his star role, especially when compared to Abraham Lincoln.” Indeed, one such historian, David M. Potter, is mentioned by Cooper as having suggested that if Lincoln and Davis had exchanged positions, the Confederacy might have prevailed.

This being the first serious treatment I’ve read of Jefferson Davis, it’s probably appropriate for me to reserve my judgment on the merits of his skills. Each biographer, I know, has his own biases, and will ultimately present his subject in the light that displays them best. But to suggest that any man—even the secular god that we have created out of Abraham Lincoln—could have led the Confederacy to victory seems like the height of folly to me. Forget about Lincoln, if we’re horse trading in the fantasy Civil War league, I’d let the North keep Lincoln and try to draw a second Lee.

But, of course, there was no second Lee.

By 1864 he had become a national hero, the selfless and valiant patriot. Lee was without question his nation’s most successful soldier, a general who had so often won stirring victories against tremendous odds. To many beleaguered southerners Lee was the only person who could overcome the seemingly insuperable difficulties pressing upon the Confederacy. As one official confided to his diary, “Nearly all desire to see Lee at the head of affairs.”

And the fact that there was no second Lee, and that the war could not be won with only one, it conjures up an odd thought in my head. How long would the war have lasted if Lee had decided not to fight? How many fewer men would have died? Given how perceptive and intelligent Lee was, was there ever a point when he considered for a moment his own affect on those around him, and the chance that it may simply be prolonging the inevitable, at the cost of thousands of lives? And couldn’t that realization have been reached before Appomattox?

For apart from the incompetence of other generals, ultimately the war was lost because the South lacked the number of personnel they needed to prosecute it successfully. As this book plainly portrayed, late in 1864, after Hood’s abysmal performance in Tennessee, with people and soldiers clamoring for his replacement, Davis was forced to leave him in command. There simply wasn’t anyone capable of replacing him.

Another Novel I’ll Never Write

It’s not unusual when reading one of these historical biographies for me to stumble across a minor episode that strikes me with the uniqueness of its human story, filling me momentarily with the desire to turn it into my next great novel. First it was Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit and the time they spent together on the River of Doubt. Then it was John and John Quincy Adams crossing the Atlantic for the first time on the Boston. Now, its Sarah Ellis Dorsey and the life she led and the lives she nurtured at Beauvoir.

January 1877 found Jefferson Davis once again at Beauvoir, the Gulf front home of Sarah Dorsey. Idolizing Davis as the Confederate president, and believing him the great man of the age, she invited him to make her home his home. Tired of wandering, with no other attractive options, and ready to start on his memoirs, he accepted her invitation. He had already decided to make the Mississippi coast at least his temporary abode when Sarah Dorsey’s offer provided him a most suitable situation. He did not have to buy anything, and he could easily move.

Forty-eight years old in 1877, Sarah Ellis Dorsey had been born in Natchez into a wealthy plantation family with holdings in Mississippi and Louisiana. Her family had known the Davises, and she was a contemporary of Varina’s. An unusually gifted young woman, she received a superior education in Natchez and Philadelphia. She married in 1853, and with her Maryland-born husband Samuel Dorsey settled on a Dorsey-owned cotton plantation in northeast Louisiana. A staunch Confederate during the war, she never stopped venerating the cause and its noble leaders, particularly Jefferson Davis. Sarah became an author of some note, writing both fiction and nonfiction. In 1873 the Dorseys bought and moved to Beauvoir, where Samuel died two years later. As it had for most southern plantation magnates, the war had greatly diminished the Dorseys’ wealth and property. Yet a sizeable fortune remained.

Beauvoir was a raised cottage, but its considerable size, impressive flight of steps, Greek Revival details, and extensive grounds gave it the air of a “mansion…of vernal beauty.” Built in the early 1850s to take advantage of sea breezes, the house was supported on nine-foot brick pillars above an unfinished basement. Its front broad steps rose to a verandah that extended across the front and halfway around each side. The interior, with a wide central hall and floor-length windows, was also designed to take advantage of the natural ventilation. All eight rooms of the residential story opened onto the front or rear galleries.

Architectural refinements helped make Beauvoir impressive. The exterior featured square wooden columns aligned above the basement pillars. The balustrade that flanked the steps continued along the base of these pillars, which had Doric capitals topped by a broad but simple frieze. There were also symmetrically placed chimneys as well as Doric pilasters by the doorway and three-part wooden shutters at the windows. In the interior, the frescoed walls and ceilings of the hall and parlors were notable. Their rococo themes of shells, garlands, and even mythological figures were balanced by the elaborate marble mantelpieces of the parlors. Carved door casings added more impressive detail.

The grounds magnified the distinction of Beauvoir, though it had never been a working plantation. Two cottages on either side of the mansion featured floor-length windows, smaller-scaled versions of the galleries of the main house, and pagoda-like roofs. The one on the east was prepared for Davis; it contained a bedroom and a study. The usual kitchen, stable, storerooms, and servants’ quarters stood in the rear. Kitchen and flower gardens were nearby, and orange trees and vineyards covered many of the estate’s acres. Running just a half-mile behind the estate, and with a flag stop, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad made both New Orleans and Mobile easily accessible.

 Davis’ patroness wanted to give him more than room and board. She hoped that Beauvoir would become his haven, where he would be safe from the bruises inflicted by the larger world. She would become his protectress, providing sanctuary and worshipful care. Upon his arrival, she reported him in poor emotional shape. “So he is in a very troubled condition of mind…” she wrote, “troubled about his affairs & anxious about his wife’s health, which is not much improved.” She said she had difficulty getting him involved in his memoirs.

In time he did become stronger, both physical and emotional pain subsiding. With Sarah Dorsey and various guests, Beauvoir could be a lively place. She entertained many people who came to pay their respects to her hero. She, he, and at times others engaged in what one participant called “much interesting talk” on various topics, including women’s suffrage, which she supported but Davis opposed. And Sarah Dorsey could still put on a lavish dinner. Her Christmas table in 1877 included oysters, raw, fried, and in soup, turkey, mutton, beef, crabs, salmon, sweet and Irish potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce, and jellies. Sherry and superb claret helped it all go down. Then came the main course: a roasted peacock with feathers in full display, as if it were alive. At the close of a Christmas reception, she and Davis led off in the Virginia reel.

While Davis was getting used to Beauvoir, Varina remained in London. Even in the summer of 1877, illness still kept her from rejoining her husband. Her extended absence stirred thoughts of home: “I so often long for that old shackle-down house on Court Street where I had all my children in my own home,” she confided to Jefferson. Finally, in October, she sailed from Liverpool to New York, where Burton Harrison met her and sent her on her way to Memphis and her daughter.

Varina did not go to Beauvoir. While in England she learned from newspaper accounts that her husband had taken up residence there with Sarah Dorsey, whom she had known in Natchez and as a schoolgirl in Philadelphia. Varina did not welcome the regime at Beauvoir. She told Jefferson that though she was grateful for Sarah Dorsey’s kindness to him, she never wanted to see the place. “Nothing on earth would pain me like living in that kind of community in her house or that of another,” she asserted. Because she could say nothing positive about his benefactress, she wrote Jefferson, she would say nothing. Polly concurred, writing her mother that she did not like Sarah Dorsey. Moreover, she had given her father her opinion and said her mother should never go there. In Memphis, Varina stood her ground; she even moved into a boardinghouse when her daughter had houseguests for an extended period.

In April 1878 Jefferson urged his wife to meet him in New Orleans. Varina agreed, but made it clear she did not want Sarah Dorsey at their reunion. “I cannot see her and do not desire ever to do so again, besides I do not wish to be uncivil and embarrass you.” We just have to disagree, she concluded. “I will bear my separation from you as I have the last six months—as best I can—and hope for better times the history being once over.”

Varina’s boycott did not end easily, but ultimately she realized her husband had nowhere else he could work on his book, and she also had no place to go. In May she appeared at Beauvoir, where Sarah Dorsey had arranged a party in her honor, though uncertain that Varina would appear. Harmony seemingly reigned, but Varina’s performance dramatized the tension in the household. Just before the reception she ran into the nearby woods. Sarah Dorsey followed her and somehow sufficiently allayed her distress so that she returned for the gathering, where she sparkled. A truce was established between the two women that over time would lead to genuinely warm relations. Varina replaced her former nemesis as Jefferson’s helpmate on his book. Then, in the fall of 1878, when Varina was seriously ill, Sarah Dorsey nursed her with unstinting care and kindness.

That’s it. That’s the story I want to write, the story summarized in this short segment—three pages out of more than the seven hundred describing Davis’ life. The woman ahead of her time in intellect and vision, her seaside retreat for restoring mind and body, the fallen hero who fought bravely for the wrong cause, the timeless gatherings of forgotten intelligentsia, the partner separated from her cherished one because of politics and jealousy, the fear and regret of a life only partially lived. In this triangle and their tangles it seems there are the seeds of every human aspiration—both those worth celebrating and those not.

Source of images

Monday, March 19, 2012

Innovation Circle on Member Engagement

I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE. If you followed me when I blogged at The Hourglass Blog, you know that I previously chaired their Innovation Task Force, and was the lead author on the White Paper on Innovation for Associations that the Task Force published.

Building on that foundation, WSAE is now launching something called Innovation Circles: informal professional networks where people interested in exploring innovative approaches to specific issues do so and share their experiences with the broader community.

I'm leading one on Member Engagement. Someone else is leading one on Search Engine Optimization. And rumor has it that someone else will soon be leading one on Association Mergers.

My own focus on Member Engagement arises directly from the challenges facing my own association. When I came into the CEO position five years ago, I frankly inherited an association that was already benefiting from high levels of engagement among a group of leaders on our Board of Directors and our key committees. And much of the success we've since experienced is a direct result of their dedication to our mission and their involvement in our activities. However, over the last year or so, we have begun to realize that we are not building an appropriate pipeline of engaged members who are ready to step into the leadership positions of the future. As a result, our momentum is slowing, and we have started looking for ways to engage a broader pool of our members in our activities and the strategic and operational mechanisms that determine and create them.

We've begun a number of experiments--a future leaders group, reforming our committee structure, aligning our volunteer tasks with the professional interests of our members--but at this point they are all just experiments.

The Innovation Circle is an opportunity to share these ideas with peers who are facing some of the same challenges, and to hear from them some of the experiments they're thinking of running in their own organizations. So far, we've been meeting roughly every other month by conference call (our next one is scheduled for Tuesday, May 1) to share war stories and help each other brainstorm possible solutions to specific challenges. It's been productive, but my hope is that we will evolve into a kind of clearinghouse for innovative practices in this area. Each of us will hopefully commit to true experimentation within our own organizations, and use the Innovation Circle to report and disseminate information about the actual successes and failures that we experience.

I think it's safe to say that given the generational, technological and economic changes that are actively reshaping our environment, the question of keeping members engaged in building productive leadership capacity for our organizations is one of the central challenges most of us are facing. As I tackle this issue for my own association and hear what other folks in the Circle are doing, I'll use this blog as an opportunity to share information and add even more voices into the conversation.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Provocative Proposals for Change

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I just finished reading an advance copy of Shelly Alcorn's "Provocative Proposals for Change," a report she authored based on Appreciative Inquiry interviews she conducted with more than 200 association executives (including me). It's chock full of ideas that are well worth your attention, especially if you have an interest in helping to shape the future of the association management profession and the overall role of associations in society. Keep an eye on Shelly's Association Subculture blog for announcements on when and where the report will be launched.

Several of the report's ideas resonated with me, but I'm going to focus on just one of them. I think it's key to determining where associations are going and how they will function in the future. Here's how Shelly introduces it:

During the course of conducting this project, we became convinced that associations are losing their ability to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, not because of a lack of innovation and creative capacity, but through a wholesale adoption of language and management techniques more suited to the purely corporate goal of product production, not experience creation.

This really hit close to home. You see, five years ago I moved into my current position as CEO of a 501(c)(6) trade association. Prior to that I had spent 13 years with an association management firm servicing 501(c)(3) professional societies. The switch to the trade association environment, and especially to the corporate cultures of my association members, has helped me engage with a new set of organizational structures and practices. A lot of the recent initiatives I've participated in, including my work with the WSAE Innovation Task Force and establishing a new policy governance model for the association that employs me, have been based on this on-the-the ground experience. Associations stand to learn a lot about organizational effectiveness from the for-profit sector.

And I'm not going to back away from that. Admittedly, I'm still on a journey of learning, but everything I've experienced in the past five years has led me towards and not away from that conclusion. A lot of success can be derived from exploring the synergistic connections between innovative strategy and management practices of the for-profit sector and the commitments to vision and collective value creation of the association sector.

But what I am going to state, and what Shelly's paper has helped me more clearly define, is that a line does and must continue to exist between the for-profit and the association worlds. Turning associations into pseudo-for-profit enterprises, eschewing members in favor of customers and experiences in favor of products, is to abandon the central purpose and contribution that associations are uniquely positioned to offer.

Today's associations are clearly confronted with a number of difficult challenges. Declining members, declining member engagement, declining leadership capacity--just about every association is dealing with one or more of these issues. And there are voices in our community that, in response to these trends and others, are calling for self-described radical changes to our practices and business models.

Some of these changes call for a diminished role for volunteer leadership. Others for putting professional staff squarely in charge of not just program execution, but program development as well. And still others for the outright abandonment of membership as the core transactional support system of the organization.

Shelly describes a different approach, one that appealingly doubles down on these very elements of the association model's core strength. Rather than reinventing what associations are, she talks about reframing them in the eyes of a broader constituency than the ones they currently serve.

Her idea, if I can paraphrase it accurately, is to establish (or perhaps re-establish) associations as a fundamental component of our functioning democracy. Her suggested tactics include students being taught about the role of associations in school, broad civilian training academies for association participation and leadership, and associations providing meaningful services and information to public constituencies outside their core memberships. All are necessary if the public is to recognize associations as something other than the currently pejorative "special interests." In this envisioned future...

...the ability to achieve and maintain the title of association executive and to practice association management should be subject to the same rigorous rules required of attorneys or medical practitioners. Those who stray outside of them could be subject to disciplinary action and removal from practice.

This is a much different and a much more aspirational state of affairs than what exists today. It is associations and association executives as holders of the public trust. From a tactical perspective, many of Shelly's detailed suggestions lie outside my areas of expertise. But what I like best about her proposal is the way it keeps the association as something unique and beneficial in our society.

Improving our ability to identify market needs and marshal resources to meet them is important, and something we can learn gobs about from the for-profit sector. But it is only one piece of the puzzle, albeit the one seemingly most prized by the other provocative proposals now being discussed in our community. Shelly may not have the perfect answer, but I believe she has hit on something that will keep the association model more productively alive now and in the future.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

On Writing by Stephen King

According to the advice given in this book, I should be a published and successful author if can only do two things:

1. Find an agent to represent me.
2. Remove most, but not all, of the adverbs from my writing.

Seriously. Let’s take them one at a time.

Finding an agent to represent me.

I’m glad King saves this advice for the very end of his treatise on what has made him a successful author. It’s the part of the process (necessary though it is) that frankly interests me the least. If he had led with this information, I may not have been able to make it through his admittedly brief work.

Don’t get me wrong. Selling your work is essential, but it really is the last step of the process—and very different than the steps that come before it. First you have to have something worth selling. First you have to master your craft, and consistently write things that are both of interest to readers and enjoyable to read.

And that’s where I have my battle. I do want to write things that are enjoyable to read (and think I’m getting better, but still have some work to do on that front), but mostly they are things that are of interest to me. That’s essentially my motivation for writing, what gets me to actually sit down and put words on the screen. I suppose I can view myself as a sample set of my potential audience, although something tells me that would be an extremely small audience to be targeting. So small that it’ll be difficult to find anyone to represent such work. Not enough money to be made in it. Not enough appeal to the masses of our paperback devouring pop culture.

But that’s okay with me. I’ve already dabbled in that direction and found no traction. But I’m neither bitter nor resentful. In many ways it was a productive experience. I think it taught me two important things:

1. My stuff isn’t ready for publication. Like I said, I’ve got more work to do on improving my craft. More on that below.

2. Focus first on building an audience. The agents and book deals will come later. Or maybe they won’t. But in today’s fragmented marketplace, they’re certainly not going to come unless you’ve already got an audience reading your stuff. That’s what blogs and self-published e-books are all about. Putting your work out there and seeing who (if anyone) is interested, and what feedback you can get from those readers to improve what you write and to extend your reach and appeal. Doing that the old-fashioned way, through query letters and self-addressed stamped envelopes, is a cumbersome and time-consuming process that takes you away from the writing that excites your passion. Doing it this new way makes it more a part of the writing experience, and something that doesn’t take you away from the things you’d rather be doing.

But enough of that. The business and the craft of writing are two very different subjects, and like I said, I’m much more interested in the latter than the former.

Removing most, but not all of the adverbs from my writing.

When it comes to improving your craft, King has other bits of advice, but most of them I feel like I’m already doing. But this adverb thing really hit home for me. Here’s what he’s talking about:

The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox is this: The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in –ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me…but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:

“Put it down!” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliché, while the other two are actively ludicrous. Such dialogue attributions are sometimes known as “Swifties,” after Tom Swift, the brave inventor-hero in a series of boys’ adventure novels written by Victor Appleton II. Appleton was fond of such sentences as “Do your worst!” Tom cried bravely and “My father helped with the equations,” Tom said modestly. When I was a teenager these was a party-game based on one’s ability to create witty (or half witty) Swifties. “You got a nice butt, lady,” he said cheekily is one I remember; another is “I’m the plumber,” he said with a flush. (In this case the modifier is an adverbial phrase.) When debating whether or not to make some pernicious dandelion of an adverb part of your dialogue attribution, I suggest you ask yourself if you really want to write the sort of prose that might wind up in a party-game.

Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:

“Put down the gun, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.

Don’t do these things. Please oh please.

The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said. If you want to see this out stringently into practice, I urge you to read or reread a novel by Larry McMurtry, the Shane of dialogue attribution. That looked damned snide on the page, but I’m speaking with complete sincerity. Mc Murtry has allowed few adverbial dandelions to grow on his lawn. He believes in he-said/she-said even in moments of emotional crisis (and in Larry McMurtry novels there are a lot of those). Go and do thou likewise.

I use adverbs all the time—especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. I use them as a kind of stage direction, adding in a little more detail, not just about what was said, but how the character said it. When I’m writing, I think this makes eminent sense. But when I go back and read my stuff—especially when I read it out loud, as I imagine a first-time reader would be hearing it in their heads—I usually discover that King is absolutely right about them. One or two is okay. But when your yard is covered with dandelions, no one wants to spend very much time there.

The best part of the book comes on page 155, when King is talking about how difficult—and “morally wonky”—it is to write anything other than what you yourself are interested in. The sentiment speaks to me, as you can well imagine, and King sums up his point with this little homily:

The job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.

Precisely. That, more than anything else, is why I’m interested in writing fiction.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Leadership is a System Capacity

image source
That's the other big lesson I got out of the "How to Be Open" chapter in Humanize by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant. Here's the key passage, pulling directly on the work of Peter Senge, and again, the emphasis is mine:

Leadership, paraphrasing Peter Senge, is defined as the system's capacity to shape its future. This is a critical assumption for a decentralized culture because it realizes that our traditional notions of leadership that focus on individuals in positions of authority are not enough to propel the system to the next level. Leaders are everywhere, and leadership is not some personal characteristic or quality that we assume exists in people who get attention in organizations. Leadership development takes on a whole new meaning, moving away from preparing people to get promoted into management toward making sure the system has the capacity in every corner of the system to adequately respond and move forward in ways that generate results.

I am becoming more and more convinced that embracing this system-based view of leadership is an essential characteristic of a high-performing association board of directors. The question they must struggle with is not just the leadership structure that will serve their association's interests today, but the leadership structures that will perpetuate the system's ability to serve the association's interests for years to come. Think about it. Whoever the volunteer leader is and regardless of how much individual leadership they offer for the benefit of the organization, there will come a day when they are gone and that individual leadership will no longer be leveraged. What happens then? What kind of legacy is it for a passionate leader to see the organization they have committed so much energy to stumble and fall when their hands are taken off the reins?

Here's a personal experience I recently had that helped entrench this perspective in my thinking. My daughter is in the first grade. She attends a charter school in my hometown, one started a few years ago by a very dedicated and passionate parent in our community. She wanted to offer kids and parents an alternative to the traditional curriculum, one much more focused on science, technology, and self-directed learning. Others have been involved, but it's not unfair to say the school exists because of her efforts, and its policies and practices bear her unmistakable stamp.

When my daughter entered the school last year the principal reached out to me and asked me to get involved. Ultimately, I think he wanted me to serve on the school's governing board, but I begged off because of my busy schedule and my uncertainty over how much time I would be able to commit. What I did do was help him review the school's governing documents, and make some suggestions on how they could be improved.

My single motivation in doing so was to help ensure a system-based approach to leadership. You see, I believe in the school. I want it to grow and serve more families in our community. Not just those with kids my daughter's age, but families with kids who will come after her. Families with kids not even born yet. And I feared that if the volunteer-led organization that supported the school didn't have a system-based view of leadership, if it wasn't focused on who was going to lead the school in the future and how the system was going to identify and groom those future leaders, the school would die shortly after the last child of the mom who started it moved onto the middle school.

This is just one prism through which to view the challenge of system-based leadership, but for many organizations it's an essential first step.