Monday, October 29, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #8: Effective Orientation and Interaction Is Key

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I've mentioned previously that I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE, something we're calling an Innovation Circle. Ours is focused on member engagement, and you can get an overview of what it is and what we're trying to achieve with it here.

I've previously posted on some of the member engagement issues people in the Circle are wrestling with. Now, I'm sharing a some of the solutions the group is coming forward with--strategies that have been demonstrated to work in at least one association environment. This is the eighth post in that series. Previous posts include:

#1: Don't Forget the Fun
#2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy
#3: Recognize Volunteer Contributions
#4: Manage Volunteer Transitions
#5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time
#6: Provide Structure, But Not Too Much
#7: Advisory Groups Can Be Tremendous Win-Wins

As always, I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments as we go along.

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Member Engagement Solution #8: Effective Orientation and Interaction is Key

Most new association members (and some old ones) have no idea what their association does and how to get engaged with it. On-going and individual orientations are important, not just to educate members on what is meant to be accomplished and how, but to learn more about the members with an interest in participating and what their individual motivations are. Being upfront about why members want to get engaged (i.e., to advance themselves professionally, to network with colleagues and competitors) and designing opportunities to satisfy those needs while getting the work of the association done can pay tremendous dividends.

I've been doing a lot of this this past summer and fall. My Board chairman and I have been going on in-person visits to some of the members of our association. We've been focusing on those that have been big contributors in the past and, for one reason or another, have fallen away, or those that have been "checkbook members" that we'd like to see get more engaged.

As part of these visits we've offered a short presentation on our association's overall mission, strategy and key objectives. In doing so, I've been surprised by two things.

1. How interested the members are in this information. Sure, they want to know what the association can do for them--what programs and services we offer and what the value of those services are compared to the dues dollars they spend. But they also want to know why we do the things that we do. What's our mission? What are we trying to achieve big picture? And why do we think those strategies are important for the future of our industry? They are, I realize in speaking with them, strategic thinkers, too. They and their companies are trying to achieve big things in difficult circumstances, and validating that the association that represents their industry conducts itself in the same manner is important to them.

2. How much there is to learn from talking to members. Without exception, I learn something every time I talk to a member. And when I sit across the table from one, in their own place a business, and engage them in a discussion about what our association does and why, I learn a ton. Not the least of which better ways to think and frame and talk about the things that we do. It's one thing to put together a Powerpoint presentation is your office and make sure the animations coincide with all the talking points. It's quite another to make the presentation to an interested listener and watch them respond and listen to their feedback. When you hit something that resonates, it's like finding gold. And when you stumble into something that falls flat, the new perspective you gain is worth all the time and expense of being out of the office.

Talking to members is something every association staff person should do more of. And to the degree you can, strip away all the marketing speak about how wonderful your association is. Just talk plainly. Here's how we see things and here's what we're trying to address it. If you haven't done anything like that before, I think you'll be surprised by how much there is to learn.

Monday, October 22, 2012

What Does Member Engagement Mean to You?

I've been busy prepping this week for the presentation that will be leading off an exciting new webinar series on member engagement. Young Association Professionals, Aggregage, Association Universe and Infinite Conferencing are all working together to host an amazing series of interactive webinars on how association professionals need to think and act differently to drive member engagement--and they've asked me to lead off their fantastic lineup on October 30, 2012.

For full details, go here.

My own presentation will be titled, "What Does Member Engagement Mean to You?" In it, I'll talk about the work I've been doing with the WSAE Innovation Circle on Member Engagement, especially some of the challenges and solutions that we've identified and discovered through our process. If you've been following this blog, you already gotten a sneak peek at some of those solutions. The webinar will give me an opportunity to add some more, and it will give you the opportunity to get directly engaged in the conversation. I'll also preview some of the structural changes going on within my own association, based on the lessons I've learned, and focused on providing more opportunities for more members to get engaged in the work of our organization.

I hope you'll join me on October 30, and as many of my fellow presenters as possible. The series runs through February.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 by Garrison Keillor

This is the first Keillor I’ve read and I didn’t know what to expect. What I got was a well-crafted story with a bad ending about a fourteen-year-old boy named Gary growing up in a strict religious household in Minnesota, just beginning to spread his artistic wings.

According to the dust jacket, The Cleveland Plain Dealer says Keillor has a gift for treading “a line delicate as a cobweb between satire and sentiment,” and that gift really is on display in this novel.

By way of example, Gary’s life is filled with a crazy cast of characters—people both real in that puckered Midwestern Protestant kind of way, but who are also archetypes for the fear and doctrines many of them cling to. A great example is Gary’s Aunt Flo—yes, he actually calls her Aunt Flo—who is hypercritical of men and their ubiquitous secret shenanigans.

This is her great theme. All the Lake Wobegon men who got caught in adultery and never expected to. One after another, caught at the old game like a weasel in the moonlight, held up, dangling from the leg trap, and people cry Shame! Shame! And among the shamers is a man thinking, “Lucky for me that I covered my tracks. Nobody’ll ever find out.” And they sniff him out two weeks later, and tar and feather him and ride him around on a rail, and of the men carrying the rail, one thinks, “Good I burned those letters when I did.” Two weeks later, they find two unburnt letters addressed to Angel Eyes, and put him in stocks, and people throw dead fish and used fruit at him and buckets of slime and entrails, and one of the main hurlers thinks, “If I’m ever caught, which I won’t be, I’ll deny everything,” and two weeks later, he’s caught. He denies it, but they have found the pink garter, the hotel-room key, and he is made to walk around with a deceased pelican hanging around his neck, and the man who ties the pelican to him thinks, “I’ll call her and tell her I can’t meet her again until after this all blows over.” And two weeks later, he meets her, and when they are at a high pitch of excitement, suddenly red lights flash and two cops arrest him for gross indecency and drag him downtown, and one cop thinks, “I am the last person anyone would ever suspect of misdeeds.” And two weeks later, he stands up in the HiDeHo, wearing his fake beard and glasses, and he inserts the $10 bill in the dancer’s bodice, and feels the hand on his shoulder, and it’s his wife’s brother, who drags him home, where he sits in the dark basement and weeps for all the pain he has caused, and the wife’s brother is thinking, “I’ll meet Trixie tonight, as planned. Nothing to fear. We’ll go to Sauk Centre, where nobody knows us.”

There is so much that is so good here. It’s light and fun, sure it is, but it flows and the word choice is pitch perfect. It is masterful.

And so it goes. One after another. Each one dumber than the one ahead of him in the parade. Ping-Pong balls for brains! Pudding heads! She sits on the daybed and snorts. Mr. Hansen, that gilded idiot, who fell for the size 38-DD waitress at the Chatterbox and bought her a dozen tubes of crimson lipstick and promised her the moon and stars and inveigled her to accompany him to a truckers’ motel on Highway 10, and who should be parked in a booth at that very same motel coffeeshop but Hansen’s brother-in-law, eating a hot pork sandwich! He rose and collared the old goat before he could get his paws on the room key, and oh how the pitiful miscreant begged the brother-in-law to please look the other way. Oh, he was ten yards short of glory—oh, please please please, but no, he was hauled home and these was hell to pay and women yelling at him, How could you be so dirt stupid? He was in the doghouse for years! And yet—did that keep Clint Bunsen from flirting with the very same waitress? Sitting there drinking coffee and suggesting he show her Chicago. Show her Chicago! What is that supposed to mean? And him a former mayor and deacon of the Lutheran church. Didn’t stop him for one minute. And Mr. Hansen’s brother-in-law? He of the hot pork sandwich? Six months later, he pulled over by the Benton County sheriff for speeding; and sitting next to him was the reason for the his haste, a married woman from Kimball in a pink negligee with little fur puffs on the sleeves. The man returned home with his tail between his legs and had to sleep on the couch for six months and was made to take his dinner and go sit in the garage. And for what? A roll in the hay. A ride on the Ferris wheel. Wham bam, thank you, ma’am. For this they’re willing to give up everything? But that’s men. Men believe in their hearts that God will make an exception in their case and look the other way.

Yes, there’s humor here, plenty of it, humor and sentiment; but there is also satire, deep biting satire about what women think about men in their darkest hours, but also in that last line about darkness and light there is that fundamental truth on which those thoughts are based.

Gary is a young man, much like we would imagine Garrison at that age, just beginning the scratch the surface of what it means to be a writer. The deep meaning that hides under the surface of people and the choices they make is as seemingly opaque to Gary as it is initially to the reader. And Keillor’s ability to turn a phrase and his finely-honed comedic touch obscures these meanings even more, only poking through into our consciousness late in the novel, much in the same way it begins to manifest to Gary.

One pivotal scene comes during a visit to his Aunt Eva, a woman who raised him for a few years in his early childhood while he father served in the Army and his mother lived out east with him. Gary consistently has fond memories of his Aunt Eva, but sees her less and less as he grows older, until this day in his fourteenth year when she has guilted him enough that he goes to visit her.

I stood at the window waiting for my chance to escape. Grandma heisted herself up and headed for the biffy, and Eva said it again. If I thought you were going to forget all about me, I’d go upstairs right this minute and take that poison. She said she’d had a dream that I was grown up, wearing a very expensive suit and tie, walking in a crowd of strangers down a city street where she stood alone on the corner, hungry, lost, scared, and I walked right past her, not recognizing her, my own flesh and blood. She spoke my name and I turned and said, “Who are you?” And she ran away into the woods and the woods stood for her own death. “In the dream I knew I was about to die, and I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “I was happy to.”

And as she said it, I knew that the dream was real. That was exactly what was going to happen someday.

“What kind of poison?” I asked.


“Wouldn’t that be painful?”

“I don’t care. It’d be the last pain I’d ever have to suffer, and it couldn’t be anything like the pain of seeing people I love turn away from me.”

This seems intensely personal, and the reader is left with the impression that this is one of the most autobiographical parts of this obviously autobiographical novel. Gary’s reaction is predictable—he runs away from this smothering neediness—but it is also frustrating because Gary’s spirit is trapped, even as it yearns to be free.

I got on my bike with a big bag of tomatoes clutched in one arm and I kissed her goodbye and wheeled away and onto the paved road and down the hill and over the crick and I knew that if she took arsenic I didn’t want to be around or know anything about it or even attend the funeral. But Grandma looked good, her color was good, her mind was pretty sharp. If she could hold on for another ten years, then I’d be 24 and by that time a person knows what to do about these things. It was a fine day, no time to be thinking about funerals. I rode along no-handed, a talent common among tree toads I’m sure, and as I came to the first mailbox, I took a tomato out and threw it sidearm and missed, but I hit the big yellow sign with the curved arrow and went around the curve fast, still no hands on the handlebars, and hit the curve sign on the other side of the curve. The crowd of strangers in Aunt Eva’s dreams was a crowd of friends of mine in some city I hadn’t seen yet but would see and would be happy there. Yes! Happy! Strangers to her but dear friends to me. People who don’t sit around planning their funerals and complaining about the cost of butter nowadays and waiting for the Lord’s Return and agonizing over every light left burning in an empty room. My friends will be of another race entirely, a more joyful race, and I intend to be happy right along with them, and if you expect me to sit and weep and mope in the damp and gloom, you’ve got another thing coming, by God—and I hit the stop sign where the township road met the country road, splattered tomato all over, and missed one mailbox and then hit three in a row, for a record of six hits and two misses, and hit the RAIL ROAD CROSSING sign on both sides of the old Great Northern spur, and was coming in sight of town, up to the tree between the road and the swamp where Uncle Al had nailed the FOR ALL HAVE SINNED AND COME SHORT OF GLORY OF GOD sign—“Surely,” said Grandpa, “surely he has sense enough not to”—and Jesus looked down and said He believed I was going to hit it and of course He, being part of the triune God, was right—the big tomato made a lovely looping arc and splatted right between COME and SHORT and left a bright-red mark like blood, and now I was nine-and-two and the WELCOME TO LAKE WOBEGON was a cinch for No. 10 and the SLOW CHILDREN was No. 11 and just for the principle of the thing, I stopped to throw the last three tomatoes as high in the air as I could, to hear them hit the asphalt. If someone had come by and stopped and asked why I was wasting all those perfectly good tomatoes, I would have said, Because they’re my tomatoes and because it makes me HAPPY! Let’s hear it for Happiness! I’m h-a-p-p-y to throw t-o-m-a-t-o and a splanch and a splinch and a mighty spil-woshish. Grandpa turned away from the window, he couldn’t bear to see it. For somebody who was in heaven, he sure worried a lot.

It is revealed that Gary loves but doesn’t like many of the people in his family, his father perhaps most of all, who seems to epitomize the hand-wringing worry that he wants to leave behind for the happiness embraced in this tomato-throwing passage.

It is his older cousin Kate who is his true inspiration—a girl who seems to embrace life and its passions in a way that horrifies the rest of the family.

But Kate just laughed. “Darling,” she said to me, “I don’t intend to spend my life baking cookies and waxing the kitchen floor. These poor women! They think that, if they’re very quiet and smiley and keep their floors clean, everybody will like them. I am not a scrubwoman. I am an artist, my darling. So are you. Artists are put here to paint big strokes of color in a dull, gray world—and if some people prefer the dull, gray world, too bad for them. Don’t be a bump on a log. Wake up and die right.”

Kate is a wild girl, tap dancing on the edge of impropriety mostly for the rush of it but also for the joy that comes with creating such indignation among the others. She flirts and kisses and messes around with Gary from time to time, but it’s never very serious. She is attracted more to the latent spirit of the artist that she can see dwelling within him than she is to Gary himself. She dates an unpopular man, a local minor league ball player, someone from a family with scandalous troubles, and winds up pregnant by him and they decide to get married, partly to keep the peace and partly to better facilitate their escape from Minnesota. Her battles with her father are legendary.

On the front step she called him a name he hadn’t been called since his Army days. He cocked his arm as if he might wallop her and she called him one even worse. He let go. He cried, “Where did you ever learn words like those?”

She said, “I learned them by living! That’s how. I actually live life. Unlike some other people around here who I could name.”

And this is why Gary idolizes her. He wants to live, too, but he doesn’t have the daring or the wanderlust that Kate has. So he decides that writing will be his escape, his way of living a life of truth and passion the way Kate seems to. It may never get him out of Lake Wobegon, but even if it doesn’t, it will be the vehicle through which he leaves his childish conceptions of the world behind and becomes his own man.

I will write no more poems to please my teachers. I will write no more of boogers and farts to curry favor among cruel and callow. I will no longer toy with tornadoes and talking dogs and fatal blood diseases as if making a puppet show.

I will sit at the table with my family and write down their sighs, their little pleasures, their kind hearts, their faithfulness. In the face of sin and sorrow and the shadow of death itself, they do not neglect to wash to dishes.

Whatever happens, he decides, he will write it down.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

And, oh yeah, that awful ending. There’s an undercurrent of baseball and pubescent lust throughout the book. Gary gets a part-time job writing press clippings about the town’s minor league baseball team, whose star pitcher is the guy Kate hooks up with. And he’s constantly thinking about sex and secretly reading erotic comic books behind his schoolbooks. That business about Grandpa and Jesus looking down on him from heaven—that’s a humorous device Keillor uses to good effect to put Gary’s guilty conscience on display. He knows he shouldn’t think this way, but he can’t help it.

Well, at the end of the book Keillor oddly conflates these two things together, I think in an attempt to wrap them into a tight little narrative bundle. Gary goes to the ballpark after hours, strips off all his clothes and runs around in the field naked, his “pecker jouncing around like a jockey.”

A person walks around in a cotton envelope, it’s good to open yourself to the fresh air and reveal yourself to the universe. Here I am, all secrets known, all desires revealed, and I am not ashamed. Go ahead and turn on the lights, I refuse to cringe and run away.

I could imagine Ding Schoenecker in the dugout yelling, “Hey! You! Boy! What you think you’re doing?” Imagine Miss Lewis pale from shock and required smelling salts. Imagine the sister crying out, “See? I told you! Nobody believed me! So look for yourselves!” Imagine a story in the paper, BOY, 14, FOUND NUDE AT BALLPARK, HELD FOR OBSERVATION, PARENTS SAY HE “SEEMED NORMAL.” How could you do it? they said. Because it felt good. And because I am a writer and have to live life.

I get it. I get the point Keillor is making. That to be a writer, a writer has to put himself out there for all the world to see, that he has to live a real life and write about it, not about what he thinks life is from the cloister of his typewriter. But I have to say, as I was reading this scene, I wasn’t with Gary feeling his liberation. I was with his prudish sister, tsk-tsking him and telling him to grow up.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #7: Advisory Groups Can Be Tremendous Win-Wins

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I've mentioned previously that I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE, something we're calling an Innovation Circle. Ours is focused on member engagement, and you can get an overview of what it is and what we're trying to achieve with it here.

I've previously posted on some of the member engagement issues people in the Circle are wrestling with. Now, I'm sharing a some of the solutions the group is coming forward with--strategies that have been demonstrated to work in at least one association environment. This is the seventh post in that series. Previous posts include:

#1: Don't Forget the Fun
#2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy
#3: Recognize Volunteer Contributions
#4: Manage Volunteer Transitions
#5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time
#6: Provide Structure, But Not Too Much

As always, I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments as we go along.

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Member Engagement Solution #7: Advisory Groups Can Be Tremendous Win-Wins

One zero-commitment engagement opportunity that appeals to many members is to serve on an advisory group for a particular association program or function. These are not committees with decision-making authority, but a group of talented and interested volunteers who are willing to respond to questions and provide feedback on possible new directions. The association benefits from the wisdom and engagement of its members, and the members benefit from interacting in a community of like-minded professionals. Additionally, once a habit of engagement has formed around a particular topic, the advisory group forms a ready-made community from which to recruit task force members if a particular volunteer task is identified.

I've just begun experimenting with this technique in the past year. Like a lot of similar associations, mine is experiencing two dynamics that make advisory groups almost an imperative. One, members have less and less time to assume formal volunteer responsibilities. Two, the professional expertise of staff focuses on association management and programs, not on the industry we represent. We need the direct involvement of members and their understanding of their marketplace in order to make smart decisions--not just about strategy but, increasingly, about programs.

An advisory group--as opposed to a formal committee or even an informal task force--achieves several unique objectives.

First, it keeps staff squarely in the driver's seat. When it comes to program management, I think this is essential. Unless the association does not have a professional staff, looking to volunteers to run programs can be a risky proposition. When serving on an advisory group, there generally isn't a question over where the decision is going to be made--and staff are usually better positioned to understand what resources are available for the tasks at hand.

Second, it better educates staff on the industry they serve and the marketplace in which members are trying to succeed. Most staff members need this education. There are some folks who make the transition from a specific industry to the association that serves it, but most do not. With staff schedules as busy as they are, it's often hard to find time to study up on things outside the requirements of our day-to-day activities. By keeping in regular contact with an advisory group, listening to them react to the ideas and challenges you propose, we can get a good education without straying too far away from our direct areas of responsibility.

Third, it breeds loyalty and engagement among members. I believe that most members would like to help out, but success in a formal committee or leadership role can be challenging and elusive. By regularly serving as a sounding board, offering their perspective and expertise, they feel more connected to the association, commit a fairly small amount of time and, if the advice is used to positively shape programs, see a direct impact from their interactions. This, more than anything else, is why I think of advisory groups as win-wins.

What have your experiences with advisory groups been like?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Reduce, and Gain Power

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I was recently inspired by Tim Leberecht's thoughts on preparing for and giving a TED talk. To paraphrase, he talks about the liberation that comes with focus, of reducing things down to their barest essential. It provides more than just clarity. It opens up new horizons that may not have been visible before. It allows others to build upon your sturdy platform, and creates the opportunity for radical change.

It's a dynamic I've recently experienced myself. Like most leaders, I'm regularly faced with a number of vexing problems. Stakeholders with competing priorities. Trends that don't telegraph what they mean for the organization. Issues that won't crystallize around a common strategy. It's my job to wrestle with these problems, and it can sometimes feel that I'm blindly groping my way through an unfamiliar environment.

In one area I recently decided to take a stand. The issues were complex. The vested interests were powerful. I knew I had some ability to shape, but no real ability to control the conversation. And I perceived that we were being pulled in a direction we did not necessarily wish to go.

So rather than accepting my role as one voice among many, I decided to recast the conversation in a way that put me and my organization in the center of the dialogue. We would still need the outside stakeholders to participate, that wasn't going to change, and there would remain the chance that we would not achieve the broader potential of the previous conversation. But in reducing the complexity down to what I viewed as the most salient realities, a new sense of clarity arose in my handling of the issue, and with it, a heightened ability to act with confidence and purpose.

It has been tremendously beneficial to my organization and to my role as its leader. Where once there was a confusing mess of competing priorities, there is now a central objective that I am rallying people around. That's valuable. But more important than the greater engagement I'm getting from my members, is the greater (and unexpected) willingness I'm seeing among the external stakeholders to follow our lead, to adapt themselves to the vision we are beginning to lay out.

The story is not done being written yet, but it is this dynamic that has surprised me the most, and in it I see an example of what Leberecht is talking about in his post. He views the red circle on the TED stage of emblematic of this perspective:

The iconic red circle that marks the TED speaker’s spot on stage serves as a symbol of reduction and expansion at the same time. It is you and others' idea of you, and how you both confirm and overcome, perform and transform it. If you stay within that circle – literally and metaphorically – you are not only safe, you are powerful.

In other words, by creating our own circle and staying tightly within it, we are not only increasing our own clarity about what we wish to achieve, we are attracting stakeholders that may ordinarily be antagonistic to our intentions, and creating more viable opportunities for productive dialogue and exploration with them.

It's taught me a crucial lesson. The quest for clarity is universal. If you are the leader (or organization) that provides it, your power to influence others and shape your external environment can be dramatically increased.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

This is one of those books which, coming to it fresh and with really no knowledge of Shaw and his writing, the introduction is indispensible in understanding what the author is trying to accomplish in the text that follows. In this volume, the introduction comes in the form of an “epistle dedicatory,” a letter, to Shaw’s friend and dramatic critic Arthur Bingham Walkley. In it, Shaw writes:

The world shewn us in books, whether the books be confessed epics or professed gospels, or in codes, or in political orations, or in philosophic systems, is not the main world at all: it is only the self-consciousness of certain abnormal people who have the specific artistic talent and temperament. A serious matter this for you and me, because the man whose consciousness does not correspond to that of the majority is a madman; and the old habit of worshipping madmen is giving way to the new habit of locking them up. And since what we call education and culture is for the most part nothing but the substitution of reading for experience, of literature for life, of the obsolete fictitious for the contemporary real, education, as you no doubt observed at Oxford, destroys, by supplantation, every mind that is not strong enough to see through the imposture and to use the great Masters of Arts as what they really are and no more: that is, patentees of highly questionable methods of thinking, and manufacturers of highly questionable, and for the majority but half valid representations of life. The schoolboy who uses his Homer to throw at his fellow’s head makes perhaps the safest and most rational use of him; and I observe with reassurance that you occasionally do the same, in your prime, with your Aristotle.

Wow. It’s an interesting and complicated web that Shaw weaves in Man and Superman, and this passage is one of the keys to understanding it all. “Supermen” have been sought and identified throughout history, those of each generation believing that they are the ultimate (or perhaps the penultimate) realization of a new form of humanity, wholly and irrevocably different (and better) than the infinite masses of decaying flesh and ideas that came before them.

But does any man seriously believe that the chauffer who drives a motor car from Paris to Berlin is a more highly evolved man than the charioteer of Achilles, or that a modern Prime Minister is a more enlightened ruler than Caesar because he rides a tricycle, writes his dispatches by the electric light, and instructs his stockbroker through the telephone?

Yes, many people do, but Shaw doesn’t. Shaw understands that the vast teeming masses of today’s humanity are not fundamentally different than the vast teeming masses of humanity that existed in Ancient Rome, or even on the prehistoric savannahs of Africa. And those who believe they are Supermen, or who can bring about a race of Supermen through education or tyranny, are wrong and always will be. Given the nature of man, this ideal is not attainable, and those who seek to foment the necessary revolution should heed Shaw’s words:

Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder.

In other words, since Supermen will always ever be a tiny minority of the population, focused on a societal ideal completely foreign to the millions of men that surround them, any revolution led by them is doomed to end in failure or tyranny.

Now, in the play, there is just such a revolutionist who supposedly wrote most of the words I’ve just quoted—in a “Revolutionist’s Handbook” that Shaw has included as a kind of appendix to Man and Superman. This revolutionist is a self-fashioned Superman named Mr. John Tanner, a gentleman of leisure who spends a good deal of his time rebelling and quoting philosophic aphorisms against the standard and everyday morality of the rest of the characters in the play. Shaw, I believe, is having a bit of fun with the character of John Tanner, using him as a kind of literary experiment, testing the worthiness of Tanner’s revolutionary ideas in the crucible of the drama as he creates it. In this belief, I was again tipped off by a comment he made in his introduction:

Not that I disclaim the fullest responsibility for his [Tanner’s] opinions and for those of all my characters, pleasant and unpleasant. They are all right from their several points of view; and their points of view are, for the dramatic moment, mine also. This may puzzle the people who believe that there is such a thing as an absolutely right point of view, usually their own. It may seem to them that nobody who doubts this can be in a state of grace. However that may be, it is certainly true that nobody who agrees with them can possibly be a dramatist, or indeed anything else that turns upon a knowledge of mankind. Hence it has been pointed out that Shakespear had no conscience. Neither have I, in that sense.

It’s something I did a fair amount of—to a far less literate degree—in one of my earliest works, as I forced my protagonist to struggle with the philosophic reality of his world so I could see how far some of those ideas could be stretched in mine. It seems that Shaw is doing very much the same thing with Tanner in Man and Superman, even giving him authorship of a complete handbook of revolutionary ideas as a primary weapon with which to do battle.

Like Tanner’s speech, his handbook is full of political and philosophical aphorisms. Here’s a smattering of the ones that most struck my fancy:

A movement which is confined to philosophers and honest men can never exercise any real political influence: there are too few of them. Until a movement shews itself capable of spreading among brigands, it can never hope for a political majority.

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The savage bows down to idols of wood and stone: the civilized man to idols of flesh and blood.

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Whilst we have prisons it matters little which of us occupy the cells.

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You cannot believe in honor until you have achieved it. Better keep yourself clean and bright: you are the window through which you must see the world.

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We admit that when the divinity we worshipped made itself visible and comprehensible we crucified it.

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The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

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The man who listens to Reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.

As you read it, this handbook actually creates kind of its own puzzle for interpreting Shaw’s purpose and meaning in writing Man and Superman. Despite Shaw’s claim in the introduction that he has no conscience—that there is no absolutely right point of view—I can’t help but question if the Superman that Shaw clearly thought himself to be hadn’t decided to cleverly couch his own beliefs in these scribbling of his fictional character. They are certainly radical—calling, as they do, for human eugenics controlled by the few Supermen who have so far emerged among us—so perhaps he thought by more closely aligning them with Tanner they would be less likely to inflame the passions of the throngs of regular men he has warned us about, those who would never allow such a program to take place. Yet, in the guise of fiction, Shaw would have the additional luxury of inflating the ideas for greater dramatic effect, further obscuring them from the reality he held dear. Tanner’s ideas could diverge from Shaw’s own in any number of places, and we would be unlikely to know the difference. Such subterfuge may be necessary because after all, as Shaw—or Tanner—himself says in the handbook:

…the world must remain a den of dangerous animals among whom our few accidental supermen, our Shakespears, Goethes, Shelleys, and their like, must live as precariously as lion tamers do, taking the humor of this situation, and the dignity of their superiority, as a set-off to the horror of the one and the loneliness of the other.

In many ways, I think Shaw  views himself exactly this way, as a lion tamer, and Man and Superman is one of his attempts to take in the humor of that difficult situation.

But maybe that’s overanalyzing things too much.

The drama itself seems to turn on two fundamental concepts. The first is closely aligned with what I’ve discussed so far—there is no absolutely correct way of looking at things, just the popular and the unpopular, and the unpopular, whatever its relative merits to the popular, and however “super” the men are who advocate it, will always lose out. Tanner is the embodiment of this concept, clinging fast to his unpopular views, but prescient enough to know that they are ultimately just another way of interpreting the world.

That’s one major theme. The other is, well... Here’s how Tanner describes it:

TANNER. Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman. Which shall use up the other? That is the issue between them. And it is all the deadlier because, in your romanticist cant, they love each other.

I won’t even pretend that I understand it fully. Shaw devotes a good portion of his epistle dedicatory to explaining this dramatic element, which he believes fashions Man and Superman as the kind of “Don Juan play” Walkley has evidently asked for. Perhaps it’s better if I try to come at it through the dramatic dialogue rather than Shaw’s explanation of it.

Tanner returns to this theme continuously, that women and the natural procreative urgings represent a dire and deadly danger to the creative aspirations of man. He desperately tries to caution his young friend Octavius to avoid the passion that inflates his breast for the play’s “everywoman” Ann.

TANNER. You think you are Ann’s suitor; that you are the pursuer and she is the pursued; that it is your part to woo, to persuade, to prevail, to overcome. Fool: it is you who are the pursued, the marked down quarry, the destined prey. You need not sit looking longingly at the bait through the wires of the trap: the door is open, and will remain so until it shuts behind you forever.

OCTAVIUS. I wish I could believe that, vilely as you put it.

TANNER. Why, man, what other work has she in life but to get a husband? It is a woman’s business to get married as soon as possible, and a man’s to keep unmarried as long as he can. You have your poems and your tragedies to work at: Ann has nothing.


TANNER. Tavy: that’s the devilish side of a woman’s fascination: she makes you will your own destruction.

OCTAVIUS. But it’s not destruction: it’s fulfillment.

TANNER. Yes, of her purpose; and that purpose is neither her happiness nor yours, but Nature’s. Vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation. She sacrifices herself to it: do you think she will hesitate to sacrifice you?

To Tanner, the predator and prey metaphors are legion. The charms of women are but a trap, a restraint on his freedom to pursue the sublime pleasures of philosophy and revolution. When Octavius pines for the eternal happiness he would find in marrying the object of his affection, Tanner chides:

TANNER. Yes, a lifetime of happiness. If it were only the first half hour’s happiness, Tavy, I would buy it for you with my last penny. But a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.

And this is an interesting comment given the dramatic license Shaw takes in the third act, transporting characters in his play to hell in the guise of other figures—Tanner himself in the guise of Don Juan—where it is revealed through intricate dialogue that heaven is only heaven to the Supermen. The sublime eternal pleasures offered there are only appealing to those few that seek them. To the vast majority interested in more earthly pleasures, hell is the much more accommodating place. Here, Tanner (as Don Juan), tries to convince Ann (as Ana, a woman Juan once seduced) to stay in hell and not yearn for heaven.

DON JUAN. Then you must stay here; for hell is the home of the unreal and of the seekers for happiness. It is the only refuge from heaven, which is, as I tell you, the home of the masters of reality, and from earth, which is the home of the slaves of reality. The earth is a nursery in which men and women play at being heroes and heroines, saints and sinners; but they are dragged down from their fool’s paradise by their bodies: hunger and cold and thirst, age and decay and disease, death above all, make them slaves of reality: thrice a day meals must be eaten and digested: thrice a century a new generation must be engendered: ages of faith, of romance, and of science are all driven at last to have but one prayer “Make me a healthy animal.” But here you escape this tyranny of the flesh; for here you are not an animal at all: you are a ghost, and appearance, an illusion, a convention, deathless, ageless: in a word, bodiless. There are no social questions here, no political questions, no religious questions, best of all, perhaps, no sanitary questions. Here you call your appearance beauty, your emotions love, your sentiments heroism, your aspirations virtue, just as you did on earth; but here there are no hard facts to contradict you, no ironic contrast of your needs with your pretensions, no human comedy, nothing but a perpetual romance, a universal melodrama. As our German friend put it in his poem, “the poetically nonsensical here is good sense; and the Eternal Feminine draws us ever upward and on”—without getting us a step farther. And yet you want to leave this paradise!

ANA. But if hell be so beautiful as this, how glorious must heaven be!

The Devil, the Statue, and Don Juan all begin to speak at once in violent protest; then stop, abashed.

DON JUAN. I beg your pardon.

THE DEVIL. Not at all. I interrupted you.

THE STATUE. You were going to say something.

DON JUAN. After you, gentlemen.

THE DEVIL [to Don Juan] You have been so eloquent on the advantages of my dominions that I leave you to do equal justice to the drawbacks of the alternative establishment.

DON JUAN. In heaven, as I picture it, dear lady, you live and work instead of playing and pretending. You face things as they are; you escape nothing but glamour; and your steadfastness and your peril are your glory. If the play still goes on here and on earth, and all the world is a stage. Heaven is at least behind the scenes. But heaven cannot be described by metaphor. Thither I shall go presently, because there I hope to escape at last from lies and from the tedious, vulgar pursuit of happiness, to spend my eons in contemplation.


DON JUAN. Senor Commander: I do not blame your disgust: a picture gallery is a dull place for a blind man.

And as these arguments continue, Shaw’s tension between the artist man and mother woman is further revealed, in both allegory and fact. There are stretches in which the characters argue about what is natural, and which of these two philosophies best embody it.

DON JUAN. Nature, my dear lady, is what you call immoral. I blush for it; but I cannot help it. Nature is a pandar, Time as wrecker, and Death a murderer. I have always preferred to stand up to those facts and build institutions on their recognition. You prefer to propitiate the three devils by proclaiming their chastity, their thrift, and their loving kindness; and to base your institutions on these flatteries. Is it any wonder that the institutions do not work smoothly?

Touche. And finally, there are full-on forays into political philosophy, the most eloquent declarations of which are given to The Devil is Shaw’s metaphoric third act.

THE DEVIL. In the old chronicles you read of earthquakes and pestilences, and are told that these shewed the power and majesty of God and the littleness of Man. Nowadays the chronicles describe battles. In a battle two bodies of men shoot at one another with bullets and explosive shells until one body runs away, when the others chase the fugitives on horseback and cut them to pieces as they fly. And this, the chronicle concludes, shews the greatness and majesty of empires, and the littleness of the vanquished. Over such battles the people run about the streets yelling with delight, and egg their Governments on to spend hundreds of millions of money in the slaughter, whilst the strongest Ministers dare not spend an extra penny in the pound against the poverty and pestilence through which they themselves daily walk. I could give you a thousand instances; but they all come to the same thing: the power that governs the earth is not the power of Life but of Death; and the inner need that has served Life to the effort of organizing itself into the human being is not the need for higher life but for a more efficient engine of destruction. The plague, the famine, the earthquake, the tempest were too spasmodic in their action; the tiger and crocodile were too easily satiated and not cruel enough: something more constantly, more ruthlessly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of sword and gun and poison gas: above all, of justice, duty, patriotism, and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.

Ouch. Take that, modern day patriots. Shaw does this throughout the text, turning ideas on their head as if to see if they look any better with their asses in the air. And the Devil, he sees such vacillation of perspective as part of the natural order of things, as the thing that swells men with passion in the short-term, but which tires the philosopher with a longer-term perspective with its tired repeatability. As he explains to Don Juan:

THE DEVIL. But I will now go further, and confess to you that men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell; and that all history is nothing but a record of the oscillations of the world between these two extremes. An epoch is but a swing of the pendulum; and each generation thinks the world is progressing because it is always moving. But when you are as old as I am; when you have a thousand times wearied of heaven, like myself and the Commander, and a thousand times wearied of hell, as you are wearied now, you will no longer imagine that every swing from heaven to hell is an emancipation, every swing from hell to heaven an evolution. Where you now see reform, progress, fulfillment of upward tendency, continual ascent by Man on the stepping stones of his dead selves to higher things, you will see nothing but an infinite comedy of illusion.

Like Man evidently, the pendulum swings, but whichever side it’s on, and whichever Superman is pushing it, it only rises so far and never transcends the arc that defines it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #6: Provide Structure, But Not Too Much

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I've mentioned previously that I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE, something we're calling an Innovation Circle. Ours is focused on member engagement, and you can get an overview of what it is and what we're trying to achieve with it here.

I've previously posted on some of the member engagement issues people in the Circle are wrestling with. Now, I'm sharing a some of the solutions the group is coming forward with--strategies that have been demonstrated to work in at least one association environment. This is the sixth post in that series. Previous posts include:

#1: Don't Forget the Fun
#2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy
#3: Recognize Volunteer Contributions
#4: Manage Volunteer Transitions
#5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time

As always, I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments as we go along.

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Member Engagement Solution #6: Provide Structure, But Not Too Much

Increasingly, associations are finding that members want to direct their own volunteer efforts. They want to engage, they want to develop their own skills, they want to help the association advance. What they don’t want is to be micromanaged with a lot of association-specific rules and regulations. Some structure is necessary to easily on-board interested volunteers, primarily to define the job to be done and the resources that are available to them. But then learn how to step out of the way and let the volunteer create their own pathway to success.

My own association is finding success with this strategy with regard to one key constituency everyone seems to be talking about these days--the next generation of volunteer leaders. A few years ago we looked around and realized that our pipeline of potential Board members was running dry. We knew we had to reach out and better engage with the younger generation, but weren't really sure how. As an experiment we created something we called the Future Leaders Network--a new networking community within the association that had only two requirements for membership. You had to be 45 years old or less and you had to self identify as someone who was or aspired to be a leader.

We seeded the community by asking the members of our Board to identify young people in their own organizations who they felt had a future in their own organizations and in the industry. We sent a message out to the membership and invited more people in. Everyone who responded was brought together for a networking event at our next Annual Conference. Once there, we described to them what the association was trying to achieve and what resources we were making available to them.

And then we got out of their way.

They started slow. They immediately appreciated the opportunity to connect with people not too unlike themselves at our meetings and conferences. They told us they would like to have their own social event where they could share new experiences and get to know each other better. We complied. They told us they would like to have some of the leaders of our industry come to and talk to them about leadership. We complied. They told us they would like to have opportunities to present on topics of interest to them at our conferences. We complied.

In a few short years what started as an uncertain group of 10 or 15 grew into a strong and vibrant community of 50 or 60. And once that had happened, they asked for something else. They asked to get engaged in leadership positions in the association. They wanted to create their own task forces aligned with our strategic priorities. They wanted to chair some of our program committees. They wanted to serve on the Board.

Guess what we did. We complied.

It's been phenomenal. And I know at least part of this success is due to the fact that we didn't put too much structure on this young and talented group of individuals. Some early voices wanted to create a structure for them, to dictate what was expected of them. But I refused. I knew that they were the kind of people who would want to define success on their own terms, and I saw our association gaining tremendous advantage by letting them do exactly that.