Monday, December 30, 2013

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2013

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As we end another year, here's a look back at the five posts on this blog that received the most page views in 2013.

1. Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
This was #3 on last year's list, and was originally posted in January 2012. It was inspired by the take-down of strategic planning in Humanize, and in it I pledge to stop using that term to describe the messy, constantly evolving process my association uses to determine our direction and set our objectives. In laying out the guidelines that govern our activities, I realize that only one term makes any sense--association management.

2. No One Knows How to Make a Computer Mouse
A newcomer to the list, this one was originally posted in February 2012. It contains a link to a TED talk video featuring Matt Ridley, who makes the case that innovation and progress depend on the accelerating exchange of ideas and information, not on the expertise or creativity of any single individual. To make his point, he uses the example of the computer mouse--a piece of technology we all depend on and that has transformed our world, but which contains so many parts and underlying technologies that no single person on the planet could construct one entirely by themselves. In my commentary, I compare this to the association environment, in which I say the role of the association leader is not to come up with the bright ideas, but to bring together and facilitate the exchange of ideas and information so that the bright ideas emerge.

3. Don't Rush to Fill the Silence
This was #1 on last year's list, and was orginially posted in May 2012. It describes a lesson I've learned about what a leader can learn from silence, and how that opportunity will be lost if one rushes to fill it. Remember, it is not the job of the leader to have all the answers, only to identify all the real problems.

4. Member Engagement Solution #1: Don't Forget the Fun
Another newcomer to the list, originally posted in July 2012. It is part of a series on member engagement I did, based on a WSAE Innovation Circle I led on the topic, and which culminated in two webinars (available for viewing here and here) and an in-person presentation at ASAE's Membership and Marketing Conference. The first of ten "solutions" to the challenge of increasing the engagement of members in association leadership and activities, it makes the case that to be truly engaging, association activities and volunteer tasks must include an element of fun.

5. Things We Must Do
The third newcomer to the list, originally posted in September 2012. In it, I describe my takeaways from a roundtable discussion I facilitated at the second annual WSAE National Summit on Association Innovation. Listening to the real barriers that people face in bringing innovation to their organizations, I realized that, depsite them, the only way to move forward was for individuals within those organizations to take action. Specifically, we need more people willing to: (1) Create a sense of urgency around the need for innovative change; (2) Educate our Boards about the rewards the come to organizations that successfully innovate; and (3) Create a process for sunsetting programs.

My thanks to everyone who has been reading what I've been putting up here. I hope you plan to stay engaged in 2014.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Victoria by Eric Lanke

A little while ago, I made my novel, Columbia, available for download from this blog.

Columbia is the story of Theodore Lomax, a nineteen-year-old Union solider in the American Civil War, and as committed as any to the ideal of human freedom. After being assigned to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman, shortly after the general’s infamous March to the Sea, he willingly participates in the destruction of civilian property in Columbia, South Carolina, believing his acts are justified by Southern resistance to the Northern cause of emancipation. But when the destruction escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, he becomes disillusioned, and feels compelled to strike out in opposition to his own countrymen.

The novel is told from Lomax's point of view, but there are ten other supporting characters, each with a story of his or her own. "Victoria" is one of these stories, centering on the character of Victoria Andrews, and describing her relationship with her favorite son and the correspondence they maintain when he goes off to war.

There was a time when I thought these stories should alternate with the chapters in Columbia, presenting a richer but perhaps more tangled tapestry of the lives that painfully converge in the novel's climactic scenes. But Columbia is clearly a more coherent narrative without them. Still, they were valuable to me as an author, and I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as a reader.

Victoria by Eric Lanke - $3

Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the story that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The story is about 21,600 words and the document is 67 pages long. Given its theme and historical setting, the work reflects the racism of the time, and includes episodes of violence and strong language.

Want a sample? Here's are the first thousand or so words.

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Victoria took her letters out onto the veranda to read them. That’s where she preferred to read them, out in the fresh air, sitting in her favorite rocking chair, and listening to the noises of life around her. It was not where she did her writing, of course, the writing of each careful and supportive reply to each and every letter she received. The writing was quiet and personal work, and it was done at the roll top desk in the sitting room, a place where Victoria had once organized all her knitting and planting projects and which now seemed solely occupied by the work of writing messages to her husband and sons off fighting the war. The sitting room was the perfect place for writing the letters she sent, soft and sometimes fearful missives oftentimes composed by candlelight long after all the chores of the day were done. But for reading the letters she received, Victoria thought there was no finer place on earth than the veranda of her home in Columbia, South Carolina. In the open air, where all the world could see her if it chose to.

There were two of them today, one from her husband, Zebulon, and one from her youngest son, Reuben. They were both in Virginia, at Petersburg, protecting their nation’s capitol at Richmond from the Northern invaders. There was a time not too long ago when receiving a letter from each of her family members in the army on the same day was an odd and welcome happenstance, providing her occasionally with a long afternoon of reading material to savor and preen over, tempered only by the unspoken realization she then had more letters to write and send. When the war was new, and volunteering was easy, and sacrifice was a word you only heard mentioned in Sunday sermons, Victoria Andrews had seen a husband and two sons off to war, pride choking back any tears she might have shed for fear or absence. In the years that followed, two more sons joined the fray, the realities of their struggle a bit more sobering but the need to commit oneself no less urgent. But now it was three and a half years later and Zebulon and Reuben were all she had left, her other three sons dying in strange and unheard of places at one time or another. If the three flags hanging in her front window wasn’t reminder enough, she always had the increasing frequency with which her remaining loved ones’s letters arrived on the same day to remind her of happier and more innocent times.

Zebulon, Jr., had been the first one lost, then Marcus, then Frederick—the good Lord deciding in whatever wisdom He used to rule the universe that He would take them in the order she bore them.

Her oldest boy, Zebulon’s namesake, had just graduated from West Point two years before the start of the war, and entered the conflict as a captain, leading a company in one of the South Carolina regiments. He was killed in the first major battle of the war, a Confederate victory called Bull Run, after a meandering creek it was fought near, and First Bull Run, after a second battle took place on practically the same ground a year later. Tragically, he was killed not by the enemy but by fire from another company in his own regiment who, in the confusion that besieged that first major engagement, fired into Zebulon, Jr., and his men as they advanced obliquely to grapple with a company of Northern soldiers.

Marcus, who was in West Point when the war began, left that institution five months shy of his graduation when his state left the Union, and came home to receive a commission as a second lieutenant from the governor of South Carolina, and later one as first lieutenant by the president of the Confederate States of America. He fought in several major battles, including every one of the Seven Days in 1862, and had risen in rank to major by the time Gettysburg happened. He survived that awful battle, only to succumb to dysentery and pneumonia on the wet, muddy retreat from the battlefield, dying in a hospital tent somewhere in Maryland, delirious and uncertain of where he was.

Frederick, always the rebel, had not gone to West Point as his father had wished, and instead tried to break into the newspaper business by writing unsolicited reports of local events and submitting them to as many periodicals as possible. He had just been offered a copywriting position with the Charleston Mercury when the war came. Like so many young men across the South, he volunteered soon after, but not for the infantry. He asked to be and was sent to war by his new employer as a battlefield correspondent, and was paired up with a sketch artist named Flynn to send dispatches back from the front. This he did for two years, until the sights of his countrymen being slaughtered and his country’s need became so great that even he could not withhold his strength from the struggle and enlisted. He was sent to the front, back this time in Virginia, and was killed at a place Victoria had never heard of called Spotsylvania Court House, hit by a bullet through the neck as the Union troops shot, thrust, clawed, and bit at their Southern opponents for six hours in a failed attempt to take a little piece of land dubbed the Mule Shoe.

Victoria learned all this, learned of the death of three sons, from the letters. There were always two, one from whoever her son’s commanding officer had been and one from her husband who, although not always nearby when one of their sons met his fate, would also write to her the moment he received the news. As he had said in each of those earth-shattering and mournful letters, he had no dispute with the men who had led their sons into battle, but he fervently hoped his words, arriving before theirs, would soften the blow in some small way, enough, at least, to keep the grief from overwhelming Victoria as it so frequently threatened to overwhelm him. In each case, however, given the vagaries of battlefield reports, chains of command, and unreliable mail service, Zebulon’s letter had always arrived after the one from the commanding officer. Although the strangers who had known her sons in ways she hadn’t always wrote beautiful letters—respectful and moving tributes to the bravery of her sons and the immense sacrifice she had been asked by the Almighty to lay on the altar of their country—it had reached the point where the delivery of an envelope written in an unfamiliar hand was enough to send Victoria into convulsions of grief and loathing.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Holiday Break: The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea

Books are always the best holiday gift for me. The only thing I like better than the anticipation of reading a long sought after title is the fondness that comes with remembering the discovery of an unexpected treasure.

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2013, the one I'd most like to revisit is The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea. I blogged about it back in January, and opened that post with this reflection:

Sometimes I think about the books I’ll read again when I’m retired and have all the free time in the world. The Leatherstocking Tales always come to mind when I do this—not in the order they were written, but in “chronological order” from when Natty is the youthful Deerslayer, on his first warpath, to when we bid farewell to him as an old man on the ever-advancing westward Prairie. Another is Gordon Rhea’s meticulous and superb series on Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign.

The Battle of the Wilderness is the first in that series, and there are three more that follow, taking us through the battles of Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor. In my opinion, they are all unique in their ability to simultaneously: (a) convey a great deal of detailed information about troop movements; (b) capture the perspectives of the individual soldiers fighting the battles; and (c) explain the strategy underlying it all and the thoughts going on in the heads of the commanding generals. Most battle narratives I’ve read focus on only one of these areas and give short shrift to the other two. Rhea consistently balances all three in works that are both scholarly and accessible to the average reader.

As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book. I know I will.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 16, 2013

Capturing Useful Intelligence

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Two weeks ago, in You Are Not Innovative, I had a bit of an argument with myself--chastising myself for not doing all that I could to set a truly innovative example for my association. In the post, I leveled three essential charges against myself, including:

You talk about the need to learn more about the environment your members operate in, but you don't do it. You never go out into that world to capture any useful intelligence.

I'd like to think I was being a little too hard on myself. In fact, I do spend some small amount of time every year in the environment of my members--mostly in the form of visits to their offices and manufacturing facilities. Perhaps there are six of these visits every year--and upon reflection that seems likes ridiculously few--but there is another, even larger problem with these visits. Most of the time, I find myself talking about the things our association is doing, instead of listening to the things the member is trying to achieve.

That's usually the purpose of the visit, you see. The frame is: "Hey, you're new to the association. Why don't I come down for a visit, tell you about all the great things we're doing, and make sure that you're talking full advantage of all the services we have available. Who knows? We might even find a place for you to get engaged as a volunteer."

I'm beginning to realize that a better frame may be: "Hey, you've been in the association for a while and we've hardly ever had any kind of contact. Why don't I come down for a visit, listen to your plans and objectives for the year, and see if I can learn anything about the challenges you're facing. Who knows? I might even hear something that helps me do my job better."

I actually tried to do some of this on my last such member visit. Even though the meeting had been set up under the existing frame, I purposely let the member talk first, asking him to tell me about his world. What products did his company make? How were they faring in the marketplace? What objectives did his company have for the year? What were the biggest obstacles that might prevent him from achieving them?

It was an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot. On the positive side, as measured by the challenges facing this one particular member, I learned that my association was focused on the right set of issues. But on the negative side, I learned that my association wasn't doing nearly enough in those areas to really make a difference in this member's world. We had long-term plans. He needed some short-term fixes.

But there was another challenge associated with the experience. The next day, at our staff meeting, I shared as much as I could about what the member had told me--about the niche his company filled in our industry, about what he was trying to achieve, and what challenges he was wrestling with. There were a lot of nodding heads around the table and a bit of expanded conversation. It was useful as far as it went, but it could only go so far. It was one member's story, and while we all looked for the tidbits that reinforced for us the reasons for what we were already doing, we shied away from those that revealed that we were falling short of the impact we were hoping to make in the lives of our members.

And that's what really brought about that original accusation against myself: Never capturing any useful intelligence. Information is one thing. We can gather a lot of information about a lot of our members. But how will we decide when to act on that information? How will we know when anecdote passes into data, and when will we decide to act on data that tells us things we may not want to hear?

These are two challenges that will face any organization that wants to act in a more innovative fashion.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson

I was drawn to this one because of what I perceived to be its subject matter--an analysis of how covert actions of the United States government have resulted in “retaliations against Americans, civilians and military, at home and abroad.” And it is that. But it does it in a way that I did not expect. Expecting a historical accounting of American activities in Central America and the Middle East, I got something else instead.

It started with a learned and critical analysis of what the author called America’s richest prize in the Cold War: Japan.

The richest prize in the soviet empire was East Germany; the richest prize in the American empire is still Japan. Today, much like East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, Japan remains a rigged economy brought into being and maintained thanks to the Cold War. Its people seem increasingly tired of the American troops stationed on their soil for the last half century and of the gray, single-party regimes that presided in Tokyo for almost all of those years. East Germany’s dreary leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker can appear almost dynamic when compared to the prime ministers Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has put in office since 1955.

Just as the two satraps of the German Democratic Republic faithfully followed every order they ever received from Moscow, each and every Japanese prime minister, as soon as he comes into office, gets on an airplane and reports to Washington. And as in the former East Germany, so Japanese voters long ago discovered that as long as they continue to be allied with the United States, nothing they do ever seems to change their political system. Many ordinary Japanese have learned to avoid politics like the plague, participating only in local elections, where a surprising number vote Communist both to register a protest and because the party is competent and honest. In Japan, political idealists tend to become nihilists, not unlike their German brethren before 1989.

I have never thought of Japan this way before, but Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute at the University of California, goes on to make a persuasive argument. The United States military occupation of Japan has been in force since the end of World War II, and doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon. Johnson cites a long history of crimes and violence committed by American servicemen against Japanese citizens, especially in and around Okinawa, where practically none of the perpetrators are ever brought to justice. It is as if these rapes and killings--as regrettable as they may be--are part of the price that the Japanese must pay in order to live under U.S. protection.

The noise of American military operations in Japan is not the most horrendous of atrocities, but the described attitude towards it likely best represents this paternalistic perspective.

Even if they avoid being raped or run down, no Okinawans can escape the endless noise the Americans make. A teacher in Ginowan City typically reports, “My class lasts for fifty minutes. It is interrupted at least three times by the incredible noise of planes landing and departing. My students cannot hear me, so we just wait patiently.” There are 52,000 takeoffs and landings each year at the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station alone, or 142 a day. The military airfield is in the center of and entirely surrounded by Ginowan’s neighborhoods.


Noise-pollution suits are starting to prove expensive for the Japanese government. In 1982, some 906 residents of Kadena and Chatan villages filed a noise-pollution suite against Kadena Air Force Base and asked the court to halt night flights. Sixteen years later the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court ordered the central government to pay compensation of 1,373 million yen to those plaintiffs still alive. The court, did not, however, order a suspension of flights between seven P.M. and seven A.M., on the grounds that nothing in the security treaty or in domestic law allows Japan to interfere with the operations of Kadena Air Force Base. The U.S. military likes to say that the noise from its aircraft is the “sound of freedom,” but many Okinawans have been so deafened that they can no longer hear it.

The sound of freedom. Typical American navel-gazing swagger. Why are they so singularly obsessed with their own might and the right they think it conveys on them? Johnson has a fairly nuanced answer to this question, and it, in fact, is one of the central premises of the book. To fully understand it, you have to accept Johnson’s take that America is an empire, but a different kind of empire than those that historically preceded it.

In speaking of an “American empire” … I am not using the concept in [the] traditional sense. I am not talking about the United States’ former colony in the Philippines, or about such dependent territories as Puerto Rico; nor when I use the term “imperialism” in this book do I mean the extension of one state’s legal dominion over another; nor do I even want to imply that imperialism must have primarily economic causes. The more modern empires I have in mind normally lie concealed beneath some ideological or juridical concept--commonwealth, alliance, free world, the West, the Communist bloc--that disguises the actual relationships among its members.

According to Milovan Djilas, Stalin pithily described the origin of such new empires in a conversation he had with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia in the Kremlin in April 1945 in this way: “This war is not as in the past. Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own social system as far as his army has power to do so. It cannot be otherwise.” Imposing one’s own social system is precisely what the former Soviet Union proceeded to do in the territories it occupied in Eastern Europe and what the United States did in the territories it occupied in East Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea. Over the forty years of the Cold War these original “satellites” became the cores of the Soviet and American new-style empires , only one of which--the American empire--still remains today. The nature of that remaining empire and how it has changed over time is the subject of this book.

You may wish to dicker over Johnson’s use of the word “empire.” But it’s hard to argue that American foreign policy over the past forty years hasn’t been based on the idea that the American social system--and the particular flavors of democracy and capitalism that define it--is the correct one that should be replicated across the globe.

And I think it’s important to point out that America’s brand of democracy and capitalism is just that--a single brand among many possible others. Although many Americans treat it as sacred…

They may consider most economists to be untrustworthy witch doctors, but they regard the tenets of a laissez-faire economy--with its cutthroat competition, casino stock exchange, massive inequalities of wealth, and a minor, regulatory role for government--as self-evident truths.

...most poorly understand it and are unwilling to accept that different versions may work better in different places.

Take China, which Johnson also does authoritatively in the book. Many Americans are unable to understand that China has distinct political aspirations and positions from those of the United States, and that those positions are just as valid to China as the American positions are to the United States. Look, for example, at how the two nations view the two Koreas. The United States seems pledged to some form of unification because they view the North as a destabilizing influence in the region. While China…

...seems most interested in a perpetuation of the status quo on the Korean peninsula. Its policy is one of “no unification, no war.” Not unlike the eighth- and ninth-century Tang dynasty’s relations with the three Korean kingdoms of Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche, China presently enjoys diplomatic relations with both Koreas and may prefer a structurally divided peninsula. A Korea unable to play its obvious role as a buffer between China, Russia, and Japan would give China a determining influence there. China’s greatest worry has been that the Communist state in the North may collapse due to economic isolation and ideological irrelevance, thereby bringing about a unified, independent, and powerful new actor in northeast Asian politics, potentially the size of and as rich as the former West Germany and defended by a good army, possibly armed with nuclear weapons--not a development the Chinese would necessarily welcome.

I’m not saying that China is right and American is wrong. But I am also not saying--as many Americans do--that America is right and China is wrong. From the perspectives of their own national interests, China and America are both right.

But America, unlike China, has several instruments with which it promotes, delivers, and compels adoption of its social system. As Johnson points out, the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, is one.

The IMF, it must be noted, is staffed primarily with holders of PhDs in economics from American universities, who are both illiterate about and contemptuous of cultures that do not conform to what they call the “American way of life.” They offer only “one size (or rather, one capitalism) fits all” remedies for ailing economic institutions. The IMF has applied these over the years to countries in Latin America, Russia, and East Asia without ever achieving a single notable success.

But the far more dominant one in Johnson’s thesis is the U.S. military.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon monopolizes the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy. Increasingly, the United States has only one, commonly inappropriate means of achieving its external objectives--military force. It no longer has a full repertoire of skills, including a seasoned, culturally and linguistically expert diplomatic corps; truly viable international institutions that the American public supports both politically and financially and that can give legitimacy to American efforts abroad; economic policies that effectively leverage the tremendous power of the American market into desired foreign responses; or even an ability to express American values without being charged, accurately, with hopeless hypocrisy. The use of cruise missiles and B-2 bombers to achieve humanitarian objectives is a sign of how unbalanced our foreign policy apparatus has become.

Johnson thinks this is a problem for the United States--and I tend to agree with him--because the world is not the place it was in 1950.

Unfortunately, Americans still remain confused by the idea that the foundations of power no longer lie in military but in economic and industrial strength. They tolerate, even applaud, irrationally bloated defense budgets while doing little to rebuild and defend the industrial foundations of their own nation.

Johnson is writing in 2000, but he might just as well be writing that paragraph today, when government money spent on infrastructure is seen as socialism but government money spent on the military is seen a patriotism.

But it’s hard to blame the Americans. They’ve been on the dominant side of history for the last hundred years. Johnson explains it this way, remarkably describing the last 200 years of world history in a single paragraph.

Ever since the industrial revolution, the carinal source of friction in world politics has been the economic inequality it produced. This inequality allowed the first industrializers to use their new power to colonize or in other ways subjugate and exploit the nonindustrialized areas of the world. Nationalistically awaked elites among these subjugated peoples then sought in various ways to overcome their relative backwardness, to equalize relations with or achieve supremacy over their victimizers.

The United States is one of the “first industrializers,” extending its wealth and social system into the nonindustrialized areas of the world in order to increase its power, and now it is caught in the ever-increasing demands of empire as it tries to defend its far-flung interests from the “nationalistically awakened elites” among the world’s subjugated peoples who seek to subvert, overcome, or establish alternatives to them.

Johnson even makes the case that much of the urban blight and poverty that has plagued American cities in the last 30 years is a result of the United States defending its far-flung interests over those of its domestic population. In one telling paragraph, he cites Judith Stein, a professor of history at the City College of New York, who has…

...detailed how the de facto U.S. industrial policy of sacrificing American workers to pay for its empire devastated African-American households in Birmingham, Alabama, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is, of course, another form of blowback. She writes, “At the outset of the Cold War, reconstructing or creating steel industries abroad was a keystone of U.S. strategic policy, and encouraging steel imports became a tool for maintaining vital alliances. The nation’s leaders by and large ignored the resulting conflict between Cold War and domestic goals. Reminiscing about elite thinking in that era, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker recalled that ‘the strength and prosperity of the American economy was too evident to engender concern about the costs.’” Moreover, American economic ideologues always dominated what debate there was, couching the problem in terms of protectionism versus internationalism, never in terms of prosperity for whites versus poverty for blacks. The true costs to the United States should be measured in terms of crime statistics, ruined inner cities, and drug addiction, as well as trade deficits.

I don’t know that I’m knowledgeable enough to add my specific condemnation as well, but I always find it interesting to contemplate the costs and benefits associated with American foreign policy. Johnson is clearly saying that the costs--including those unintended consequences he calls blowback--have outweighed the benefits. His concluding chapter contains this summary of his position:

In February 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, defending the use of cruise missiles against Iraq, declared, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.” In this book I have tried to lay out some important aspects of America’s role in the world that suggest precisely the opposite. I have also tried to explain how the nature and shape of this role grew out of the structural characteristics of the Cold War itself and the strategies the United States pursued, particularly in East Asia, to achieve what it considered its interests during that period and after. I have argued that the United States created satellites in East Asia for the same reasons that the former Soviet Union created satellites in Eastern Europe. For over forty years, the policies needed to maintain these client states economically, while protecting and controlling them militarily, produced serious unintended consequences, most of which Americans have yet to fully grasp. They hollowed out our domestic manufacturing and bred a military establishment that is today close to being beyond civilian control. Given that the government only attempts to shore up, not change, these anachronistic arrangements, one must ask when, not whether, our accidental empire will start to unravel.

It’s a question I increasingly find myself asking as well.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 9, 2013

Making the Rubber Hit the Road

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Two weeks ago, in The Final Four, I continued writing about the process I used to create my association's values statement, despite some misgivings about the value of values statements I've previously shared and still hold.

We now had our final values statement, developed in collaboration with the entire staff, shaped by my own perspective on what was needed today and in the future, and comprised of four core values:

Leadership: We lead the organization in creating new value for our members.

Enthusiasm: We are excited about growing as individuals and about growing the organization.

Integrity: We act with honesty and professionalism in all our relationships.

Teamwork: We work together to deliver exceptional service.

We had put a lot of work into the process, and I was very satisfied with the result. My staff, too, had been energized by the discussion, and supported the four core values as being important to both our current and future success.

But it would be dishonest to say that everyone didn't realize that the hardest work still lay ahead. We had our values--but by design they were somewhat aspirational. They did not describe our current culture. They described the culture we wanted to create. Even if everyone diligently applied themselves, making the values manifest in our organization was going to be a challenge.

From my own perspective, this was not something I expected immediate action on, and I communicated as much to my staff. Culture change, I said, was a process, not an event. And that for every two steps we took forward, I expected there would be one step back.

It's been ten months since I said these words, and with the benefit of hindsight, I find myself thinking that this approach might have been a mistake. We have had less success in embracing the values than I had hoped we would, and I wonder if a more "zero tolerance" approach to actions that contradict our values wouldn't have proven more effective.

I'll write about some of our steps forward and some of our steps back in future posts, but coming out of the gate, there was one tool that we thought would help everyone understand how to demonstrate the values in our day-to-day operations.

We called them behaviors. For each value, we had worked to define a number of behaviors--descriptions of actions that could be observed--that would help us determine if someone was truly exhibiting the value in question. By way of example, here are the behaviors that we had agreed upon for the value of Leadership:

  • We are concise and articulate in our speech and writing.
  • We minimize complexity, and look for efficiencies that can be shared across the organization.
  • We bring purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments.
  • We engage others in iterative processes that result in higher levels of value and engagement.
  • We think strategically, make wise decisions despite ambiguity, and act with intention.
  • We challenge prevailing assumptions, suggest better approaches, and create new ideas that prove useful.
  • We exhibit a bias towards action, and avoid analysis-paralysis.
  • We take smart risks, learn from our mistakes, and share lessons with others.

These were intended to give us concrete examples of what it meant to demonstrate leadership in our association, and a similar list existed for each of the other values. I had hoped that staff members would be able to review the list of behaviors, and easily identify actions that they had taken that aligned with them and those that hadn't--and to test that concept, I next asked everyone to do exactly that.

It was coming up on the time for my next round of on-going performance conversations with each staff member, and simply to test the limits of everyone's understanding of our new values and behaviors, I made the request that each of them prepare a no-more-than-one-page description of how they believe their actions since the time of our last conversation had demonstrated the values and behaviors on our new values statement.

I didn't give them a form to fill out. In fact, I encouraged them to invent their own format for responding to my request. I wanted to see how different people approached the task, and my hope was that it would help reveal examples of real actions people had taken that clearly aligned with the values and behaviors. Those examples, I figured, needed to be identified, documented, and celebrated if we were to increase their prevalence within our organization.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: The various responses I received from staff, and what they revealed about how the values and behaviors were being understood.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 2, 2013

You Are Not Innovative

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You had me fooled for a while. You really did. I mean, you follow all the blogs, you read all the books and you go to all the conferences. And you talk about innovation all the time. You even have your own blog where you put up posts about innovation and the people you meet at those conferences tell you how great they are. But despite all that, you're not really innovative. You know how I know?

Because you never do anything that's painful.

A while ago, I read this on one of those blogs you follow:

Every organization I've observed that's serious about being innovative is filled with people in genuine pain — not just stress or anxiety or deadline pressure, and certainly not discomfort. Pain. This can be the physical strain of consecutive all-nighters to test every meaningful configuration of a website before it goes live, to the emotional pain of subordinating your vision of the innovation to the vicissitudes of customer taste. Ideally, innovators go through pain so their customers and clients won't have to.

And I've been thinking about it a lot since then, and I've realized that you don't do anything like this. In fact, you avoid this kind of pain at all costs.

You talk about the need to learn more about the environment your members operate in, but you don't do it. You never go out into that world to capture any useful intelligence. You talk about engaging your members in the development process of a new program or service, but you don't do it. All your ideas are kept safe and pristine within the four walls of your office. And you talk about putting something unfinished out there--some prototype of some half-formed idea to see what your members can do or create with it--but you don't do that either. You haven't the resources, or the organizational support, or the courage, to do something with that much risk associated with it.

So, you're not innovative. Stop saying that you are.

But there's something else that puzzles me. If you're not willing to do these things, if you're not willing to experience the pain of innovation, then why exactly do you think that the people on your staff will be willing to do so? Because you tell them to? Because you write about them on your blog? That's a little too much like the parent who tells his kids not to smoke while lighting up another cigarette. Like those kids, your staff won't follow what you say; they will only follow what you do.

That makes sense, doesn't it? You're the one who likes to talk about organizations as systems. What kind of system develops from a leader that plays things safe, that doesn't take risks, and that avoids the pain of difficult and confusing interactions with his customers and clients?

Surely not one that's innovative.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sally by Eric Lanke

A little while ago, I made my novel, Columbia, available for download from this blog.

Columbia is the story of Theodore Lomax, a nineteen-year-old Union solider in the American Civil War, and as committed as any to the ideal of human freedom. After being assigned to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman, shortly after the general’s infamous March to the Sea, he willingly participates in the destruction of civilian property in Columbia, South Carolina, believing his acts are justified by Southern resistance to the Northern cause of emancipation. But when the destruction escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, he becomes disillusioned, and feels compelled to strike out in opposition to his own countrymen.

The novel is told from Lomax's point of view, but there are ten other supporting characters, each with a story of his or her own. "Sally" is one of these stories, centering on the character of Sally Andrews, and describing her journey as a young girl from the slave cabins on the Andrews plantation to her favored position within their Columbia home.

There was a time when I thought these stories should alternate with the chapters in Columbia, presenting a richer but perhaps more tangled tapestry of the lives that painfully converge in the novel's climactic scenes. But Columbia is clearly a more coherent narrative without them. Still, they were valuable to me as an author, and I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as a reader.

Sally by Eric Lanke - $3

Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the story that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The story is about 13,600 words and the document is 45 pages long. Given its theme and historical setting, the work reflects the racism of the time, and includes episodes of violence and strong language.

Want a sample? Here's are the first thousand or so words.

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They intended Sally for a house slave from the moment they brought her to their home on Elmwood Avenue, but she didn’t really learn what that meant until four years later when she was twelve years old. Before that they let her run with the other children, run until she almost thought she was one of them. It was only when Bessie died that Sally was forced to stop running. And what had seemed obvious and preordained to everyone else for the first time became an overwhelming and pressing reality for Sally.

They were the Andrews, a prosperous and fairly typical family of white landowners in Columbia, South Carolina. The patriarch, Zebulon Andrews, was a graduate of West Point and had served his country faithfully for thirty-five years before settling in to raise cotton on six hundred acres a few miles outside the capitol city. He had acquired the land early in his military career when he had married the daughter of an aristocratic politician who had twice run for governor and been twice defeated. Her name was Victoria Butterfield, and although three previous suitors had all written songs about her—one about her beauty, another about her charm, and a third, unbelievably, about her feet—none had been sufficiently eloquent enough to convince her father to release Victoria to the holy trappings of matrimony.

It was the ridiculous and self-absorbed requirement Victoria’s father had drunkenly announced would be the test of all who sought his daughter’s hand in marriage, likening it to some misunderstood traditions of old. In his more sober moments, Judge Butterfield was known to regret having made such a blusterous demand, but he never once had the humility to rescind it, and as much as he decried it, he had turned away three enviable young men whose attempts to indulge his fancy had been both creative and heartfelt. By the time Zebulon came along with his composition dedicated to Victoria’s sagacity and wisdom, therefore, most folks thought old Judge Butterfield’s strange demands on potential sons-in-law had doomed poor Victoria to life as a spinster. Either because the Judge was reluctant to have his reputation besmirched in such a fashion, or because Victoria herself had prevailed upon him to be reasonable, however, Zebulon’s creation was deemed the worthiest of the bunch and the wily old man quickly gave his blessing.

Zebulon and Victoria were married by an army chaplain and spent much of their marriage moving from place to place as Zebulon’s military responsibilities took them from post to post. They were separated for only three years, while Zebulon served with distinction in the Mexican War, leading first a company and then a regiment in two battles that had helped turn the tide for the Americans. After the war their itinerant lifestyle accelerated, the army prizing him as one of its best drill instructors and transferring him from one troublesome unit to the next, where he seemed to have a knack for improving not only conduct but also morale.

As best they could during these nomadic years, Zebulon and Victoria tried to raise a family, and were successful at bringing six children into the world, only one of which died as an infant. Of their surviving children, the four oldest were all boys—Zebulon, Marcus, Frederick, and Reuben—and the youngest was a girl, Emily. As babies and children, the boys were all healthy and strong, growing as if by divine right, but Emily and the other little girl born just before her, christened Elizabeth but not surviving beyond her third month, were sickly and weak. Victoria did not believe Emily would survive either, as she seemed incapable of taking nourishment and grew at only an imperceptible rate.

But Emily was special. Although always on the verge of death for the first two years of her life, she somehow managed to survive and grew into a happy and relatively healthy young girl. Her unusual physical characteristics, which is all Zebulon and Victoria thought they were at birth, did not fade with age. Instead they deepened and heralded the mental retardation she would struggle with throughout her development. At two she was very much still a baby, at five she was like what her brothers had been at two, and at ten she was very much like them at five. Her parents loved her no less because of these challenges, and did all they could to show Emily the same fondness and attention they had showered on their boys.

Upon Zebulon’s retirement from the army, the whole family moved to the house on Elmwood Avenue in Columbia. The farmland just outside town Zebulon had acquired when he and Victoria had been married had not been standing vacant for the thirty years that elapsed between his wedding and his retirement. It had long ago been developed into a working and fairly lucrative cotton plantation, run by overseers hired initially by Victoria’s father and returning a steady stream of profits to Zebulon’s estate. With the end of his military career, Zebulon had decided to take over the plantation himself, and have a go at being a gentleman farmer. The house on Elmwood Avenue was part of the holding. Although a smaller one stood on the plantation itself, the one in town was considered more luxurious and certainly gave the owners better visibility among the important social scene in Columbia.

Another thing that came with the property was slaves, more than two hundred of them who lived in a series of long, low buildings on the plantation itself. More poorly constructed than the stables that sheltered the horses, the ramshackle slave cabins were freezing in winter and reeking in summer, and were the only place the plantation’s slaves could think of as home. All the slaves, that is, but one.

Her name was Bessie, and she was the house slave for the overseers who lived in the house on the plantation. Her job was to cook and clean for the white men who supervised the work—taking the slaves out to the crops each morning and bringing them back to the slave cabins each night.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Final Four

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Two weeks ago, in Reading Between the Lines, I continued writing about the process I used to create my association's values statement, despite some misgivings about the value of values statements I've previously shared and still hold.

In reviewing the suggested revisions that four of my staff members had made to the draft values statement that had come out of staff retreat, I had identified what I perceived to the common concerns and priorities of the people most willing to participate in the process. In looking at how they chose to organize and combine the values that had been discussed at our staff retreat, I felt I had the information I needed to distill them down to the shortest and most relevant list for both the organization that existed and the organization I wanted to create.

We had started with nine values: Clarity, Growth, Innovation, Integrity, Passion, Poise, Respect, Teamwork and Service. Various staff had reduced them down to either three, five, six or seven. In my final synthesis, I decided to focus on four.

We lead the organization in creating new value for our members.

Leadership was key. I had known that even going into the exercise. With members increasingly focused on their day jobs, I needed staff to abandon even the pretense that we were following them--of waiting for them to make the right decisions and to drive the necessary programming for the future of our industry. If new value was going to be created for the members and their association, I wanted it perfectly clear that we were going to have to do it ourselves.

Innovation would be part of this, and so would Clarity. I combined the behaviors we had initially grouped under those categories to describe an association professional who worked collaboratively with members, who helped them make sense of constant complexity of our environment, and who expertly drove things from experiment to focused action and success.

We are excited about growing as individuals and about growing the organization.

Enthusiasm was the second new term that I brought into the mix. Similar to Passion, I wanted it grounded in something tangible, something specific that would demonstrably add to our success. The natural connection seemed like Growth, both growing ourselves as professionals and growing the organization. I wanted people who would approach our work with a spirit of fun and excitement. Instead of hiding or ignoring gaps in our knowledge, we needed to embrace our own developmental journeys, and connect them to the health of the organization.

We act with honesty and professionalism in all our relationships.

Integrity had to be included. The word itself resonated strongly with almost everyone in the organization, but more importantly, the behaviors we had used to describe it, as well as Respect and Poise, were foundational to the kind of organization we needed to be. Words like honesty and professionalism seemed to sum them all up best, and they had to be characteristics that we demonstrated not just with each other, but in every relationship we valued. We're good at what we do. We're professionals. But we're also human. And we make mistakes. And when we do we're honest with each other and with ourselves. Why? Because we're professionals and that's what professionals do.

We work together to deliver exceptional service.

And finally there was Teamwork--working together to deliver the Service we all knew was important but no one seemed  sure where it should plug in. In the grand scheme of things, ours was a small organization with big goals and limited capacity. If we lost our focus on giving our members exceptional service, they would likely (and all too easily) go elsewhere. And the only way we could do that was by working together. By watching each other's backs and sharing the work and pulling together when times got tough. Although we were a staff full of independent workers, we couldn't survive if we all tried to go at it alone.

Those were my thoughts and my way of combining the ideas we had talked about as a group into a short and memorable group of values and behaviors that, if we applied ourselves to them, would have real impact on the kind of organization we needed to be.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: The rubber hits the road. Our initial experiments in trying to see the values in action inside our organization.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 18, 2013

When the Boss Loses His Cool

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First of all, it happens. Did you think it wouldn't? Bosses are human beings and sometimes they get frustrated. Sometimes it's about things that are happening inside their organization and sometimes it's about things happening in the life they lead away from their organization. But occasionally--and probably eventually--the stoic masks they wear will slip and some of the frustration that every human being feels will show through.

Okay? Fine. But, what does it mean when a boss loses his cool?

Frankly, not much. As I said, it probably means that he's frustrated. And that he's human. Maybe he's trying to do too much and maybe he needs to slow things down, but maybe not. It can sometimes be hard to tell, and there may not be much value in trying to dissect it.

Because what's more important is understanding what it doesn't mean.

It doesn't mean that he's no longer the boss. He obviously needs to own his behavior, and if he steps over the line he should apologize, but he's still the boss. And by that I mean he still has to make the decisions that bosses need to make.

It also doesn't mean he's wrong. It doesn't mean that he's right, either. The decisions bosses make are not really about being right or being wrong. They're about making the decision no one else in the organization can make, and sticking with it long enough to see if it is right or wrong.

You see, here's the thing.

Every organization does things that it already knows how to do. Decisions affecting those processes are best made by the people closest to them.

But a growing organization also tries to do things it doesn't know how to do, and decisions in that realm have to be made by someone who has the authority to commit resources, change the scope of someone's responsibilities, and resolve differences of opinion about what needs to be done.

Because there will be differences of opinion, especially when things like the allocation of resources and the scope of individual responsibilities are open questions. Someone has to make the call, and when the organization is operating out on the skinny branches, it has to be the boss that makes it. He's the one most likely to be looking out for the organization as a whole and, frankly, he's the one who's paid to take the heat if things go terribly wrong.

So in these situations, do what the boss says--even if he loses his cool when he says it.


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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

“Don’t you think it would be more interesting if you went the whole hog and drew him warts and all?”

“Oh, I couldn’t. Amy Driffield would never speak to me again. She only asked me to do the life because she felt she could trust my discretion. I must behave like a gentleman.”

“It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.”

As good as any quote to sum up the theme of this delightful little tome, written eleven years after my favorite Maugham novel, and purported to be the author’s favorite of his own novels.

The second speaker above is Alroy (Roy) Kear, an English novelist of middling fame that has been asked to write a biography of one of the recently passed lions of literature--Edward Driffield--by that author’s second wife and widow. And the first and third speaker is our narrator, William Ashenden, to whom Kear has come for information about Driffield’s early life; for Ashenden knew Driffield as a younger man, when the lion was married to his first wife and, by most accounts, at the peak of his literary prowess.

The first wife, Rosie, is one of those characters in fiction that comes to symbolize much more than just her role in the story. She was Driffield’s muse and, evidently, the muse to many other men--Ashenden included. Here, the two of them talk about Rosie’s other affairs and Ashenden’s jealousy of them.

I looked at Rosie now, with angry, hurt, resentful eyes; she smiled at me, and I wish I knew how to describe the sweet kindliness of her beautiful smile; her voice was exquisitely gentle.

“Oh, my dear, why d’you bother your head about any others? What harm does it do you? Don’t I give you a good time? Aren’t you happy when you’re with me?”


“Well, then. It’s so silly to be fussy and jealous. Why not be happy with what you can get? Enjoy yourself while you have the chance, I say; we shall all be dead in a hundred years and what will anything matter then? Let’s have a good time while we can.”

She is a free spirit, Rosie is, one who sows happiness wherever she goes and, because she does so at least in disregard if not outright ignorance of the social norms that control the rest of society, she is viewed by most as something vulgar. Ashenden himself is troubled by her behavior, trained as he and all men are to believe that happiness can only come from the possession of women. But long after Rosie leaves both him and Driffield for new adventures in America, he comes to appreciate the unique role her spirit played in his art and the art of other great men.

This extended passage comes very late in the novel, when Maugham is clearly interested in summing things up and driving his points home. In it, Kear, Ashenden, and the second Mrs. Driffield are reminiscing, and they come across some photos of Rosie that Driffield had kept locked away in a trunk. I’ll make some comments along the way.

“And here is the bride,” said Mrs. Driffield, trying not to smile.

Poor Rosie, seen by a country photographer over forty years ago, was grotesque. She was standing very stiffly against a background of baronial hall, holding a large bouquet; her dress was elaborately draped, pinched at the waist, and she wore a bustle. Her fringe came down to her eyes. On her head was a wreath of orange blossoms, perched high on a mass of hair, and from it was thrown back a long veil. Only I knew how lovely she must have looked.

“She looks fearfully common,” said Roy.

“She was,” murmured Mrs. Driffield.

Of course she looked different to Ashenden. He is looking at her through the eyes of love, memory, and understanding of what she meant for him. But note especially how vulgar Kear and Mrs. Driffield think she was. It’s not just that they don’t see the muse Ashenden knew--they see something loathsome, something almost opposite.

But first, we’ll pause for this wonderful insight into the life of a successful author.

We looked at more photographs of Edward, photographs that had been taken of him when he began to be known, photographs when he wore only a moustache and others, all the later ones, when he was clean-shaven. You saw his face grown thinner and more lined. The stubborn commonplace of the early portraits melted gradually into a weary refinement. You saw the change in him wrought by experience, thought, and achieved ambition. I looked again at the photograph of the young sailorman and fancied that I saw in it already a trace of that aloofness that seemed to me so marked in the older ones and that I had had years before the vague sensation of in the man himself. The face you saw was a mask and the actions he performed without significance. I had an impression that the real man, to his death unknown and lonely, was a wraith that went a silent way unseen between the writer of his books and the fellow who led his life, and smiled with ironical detachment at the two puppets that the world took for Edward Driffield. I am conscious that in what I have written of him I have not presented a living man, standing on his feet, rounded, with comprehensive motives and logical activities; I have not tried to: I am glad to leave that to the abler pen of Alroy Kear.

I really enjoy this aspect of Maugham’s fiction--the way he peppers the narrative with piercing and lyrical observations of art and artists, and how both fare in an unsympathetic world. More on that later. But for now, let’s get back to Rosie, and how she is viewed by Ashenden vs. Kear and Mrs. Driffield.

I came across the photographs that Harry Retford, the actor, had taken of Rosie, and then a photograph of the picture that Lionel Hiller had painted of her. It gave me a pang. That was how I best remembered her. Notwithstanding the old-fashioned gown, she was alive there and tremulous with the passion that filled her. She seemed to offer herself to the assault of love.

“She gives you the impression of a hefty wench,” said Roy.

“If you like the milkmaid type,” answered Mrs. Driffield. “I’ve always thought she looked rather like a white nigger.”

That was what Mrs. Barton Trafford had been fond of calling her, and with Rosie’s thick lips and broad nose there was indeed a hateful truth in the criticism. But they did not know how silvery golden her hair was, nor how golden silver her skin; they did not know her enchanting smile.

“She wasn’t a bit like a white nigger,” I said. “She was virginal like the dawn. She was like Hebe. She was like a white rose.”

Mrs. Driffield smiled and exchanged a meaning glance with Roy.

“Mrs. Barton Trafford told me a great deal about her. I don’t wish to seem spiteful, but I’m afraid I don’t think that she can have been a very nice woman.”

“That’s where you make a mistake,” I replied. “She was a very nice woman. I never saw her in a bad temper. You only had to say you wanted something for her to give it to you. I never heard her say a disagreeable thing about anyone. She had a heart of gold.”

She sounds lovely, doesn’t she? But wait. Those aren’t the kinds of things she will be judged by.

“She was a terrible slattern. Her house was always in a mess; you didn’t like to sit down in a chair because it was so dusty and you dared not look in the corners. And it was the same with her person. She could never put a skirt on straight and you’d see about two inches of petticoat hanging down on one side.”

Mercy. Ashenden, how can you possible counter that?

“She didn’t bother about things like that. They didn’t make her any the less beautiful. And she was as good as she was beautiful.”

Nice try.

Roy burst out laughing and Mrs. Driffield put her hand up to her mouth to hide her smile.

“Oh, come, Mr. Ashenden, that’s really going too far. After all, let’s face it, she was a nymphomaniac.”

That’s it. It’s out. She broke the sexual mores of their society. She must be all bad.

“I think that’s a very silly word,” I said.

He will try. Ashenden will try to explain what Rosie was in a way they can understand.

“Well, then, let me say that she can hardly have been a very good woman to treat poor Edward as she did. Of course it was a blessing in disguise. If she hadn’t run away from him he might have had to bear that burden for the rest of his life, and with such a handicap he could never have reached the position he did. But the fact remains that she was notoriously unfaithful to him. From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love.”

“Do you call that love?”

“Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn’t lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless.”

How was that? Do you think they will understand that?

Mrs. Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon.

Evidently not.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “But then I’m bound to admit that I never understood what Edward saw in her.”

“Did he know that she was carrying on with all sorts of people?” asked Roy.

“I’m sure he didn’t,” she replied quickly.

Editor’s note: He did.

“You think him a bigger fool than I do, Mrs. Driffield,” I said.

“Then why did he put up with it?”

“I think I can tell you. You see, she wasn’t a woman who ever inspired love. Only affection. It was absurd to be jealous over her. She was like a clear deep pool in a forest glade into which it’s heavenly to plunge, but it is neither less cool nor less crystalline because a tramp and a gipsy and a gamekeeper have plunged into it before you.”

Roy laughed again and this time Mrs. Driffield without concealment smiled thinly.

“It’s comic to hear you so lyrical,” said Roy.

I stifled a sigh.

So did I. They just don’t get it.

I have noticed that when I am most serious people are apt to laugh at me, and indeed when after a lapse of time I have read passages that I wrote from the fullness of my heart I have been tempted to laugh at myself. It must be that there is something naturally absurd in a sincere emotion, though why there should be I cannot imagine, unless it is that man, the ephemeral inhabitant of an insignificant planet, with all his pain and all his striving is but a jest in an eternal mind.

Wow. Write that one down on a small card and carry it around in your wallet.

The conclusion here is that Ashenden in unable to make Kear and Mrs. Driffield understand. But there is a deeper question: Is he able to make you understand? Because that’s really the point, isn’t it, Dear Reader. The point of this whole story. Where does great art come from? After the journey you’ve taken through the novel--Ashenden’s journey, a journey through his eyes and heart--are you in a position to understand in a way that Kear and Mrs. Driffield can’t?

Okay. So dwell on that for a minute. But now, here’s a twist. For as much as Ashenden understands the role that a character like Rosie can play in the soul and inspiration of a writer, Rosie herself is incapable of understanding what makes a writer truly tick.

The very end of the novel is Maugham at his very best, deftly using the narrative flow of his characters and their relationships to explore the very esoteric subject of art and its painful genesis.

Here, Ashenden happens to run across Rosie years later while visiting New York. In the course of their discussion, she mentions the child she a Driffield had had at the very beginning of their marriage.

“I didn’t know you’d ever had a child,” I said with surprise.

“Oh, yes. That’s why Ted married me. But I had a very bad time when it came and the doctors said I couldn’t have another. If she’d lived, poor little thing, I don’t suppose I’d ever have run away with George. She was six when she died. A dear little thing she was and as pretty as a picture.”

“You never mentioned her.”

“No, I couldn’t bear to speak about her. She got meningitis and we took her to the hospital. They put her in a private room and they let us stay with her. I shall never forget what she went through, screaming, screaming all the time, and nobody able to do anything.”

Rosie’s voice broke.

Someday, I’ll write a thesis on the use of brevity in portraying horror in fiction, and this paragraph will be one of the examples I cite. The brutal efficiency of the words convey so much more than they deserve to.

But Ashenden has a different reaction.

“Was it that death Driffield described in The Cup of Life?”

The Cup of Life is Driffield’s controversial masterpiece. But note what Rosie says about it.

“Yes, that’s it. I always thought it so funny of Ted. He couldn’t bear to speak of it, any more than I could, but he wrote it all down; he didn’t leave out a thing; even little things I hadn’t noticed at the time he put in and then I remembered them. You’d think he was just heartless, but he wasn’t, he was upset just as much as I was. When we used to go home at night he’d cry like a child. Funny chap, wasn’t he?”

Sure, Rosie. Funny chap. Why would he do such a thing? Oh, wait. Here’s why…

It was The Cup of Life that had raised such a storm of protest; and it was the child’s death and the episode that followed it that had especially brought down on Driffield’s head such virulent abuse. I remembered the description very well. It was harrowing. There was nothing sentimental in it; it did not excite the reader’s tears, but his anger rather that such cruel suffering should be inflicted on a little child. You felt that God at the Judgment Day would have to account for such things as this.

Obvious. What writer wouldn’t want to write something like that? And most writers know that that kind of writing comes only from real harrowing experience, not from fancies that are simply dressed up to be.

But here’s the best part of all. Rosie’s incomprehension about what would possess someone to write about such a tragic circumstance prompts Ashenden to meditate upon the writer’s life. And, as our narrator, we are privy to the following thoughts that must surely have passed through Maugham’s mind as well.

It is full of tribulation. First he must endure poverty and the world’s indifference; then, having achieved a measure of success, he must submit with a good grace to its hazards. He depends upon a fickle public. He is at the mercy of journalists who want to interview him and photographers who want to take his picture, of editors who harry him for copy and tax gatherers who harry him for income tax, of persons of quality who ask him to lunch and secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture, of women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him, of youths who want his autographs, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan, of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions, of agents, publishers, managers, bores, admirers, critics, and his own conscience. But he has one compensation. Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

Wonderfully phrased, 100% true, and makes you wonder how much of the novel you have just read is autobiographical.

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As I think I’ve commented before, Maugham’s observations about the world and the cultures in it in Cakes and Ale are as inerrant as ever. Here’s a few that really jumped out at me.

Regarding the use of ready-made phrases to abbreviate common ideas into as few imaginative words as possible:

The Americans, who are the most efficient people on the earth, have carried this device to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment’s reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication.

Regarding beauty in art:

Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all: that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome. All the critic can tell you with regard to Titian’s Entombment of Christ, perhaps of all the pictures in the world that which has most pure beauty, is to go look at it.

Regarding finding truth in fiction:

As we grow older we become more conscious of the complexity, incoherence, and unreasonableness of human beings; this indeed is the only excuse that offers for the middle-aged or elderly writer, whose thoughts should more properly be turned to graver matters, occupying himself with the trivial concerns of imaginary people. For if the proper study of mankind is man it is evidently more sensible to occupy yourself with the coherent, substantial, and significant creatures of fiction that with the irrational and shadowy figures of real life.

And regarding the subjective nature of time, this time squarely in the narrative, when Ashenden encounters and old classmate, now grown old like him:

He had drawn breath, walked the earth and presently grown to man’s estate, married, had children and they in turn had had children; I judged from the look of him that he had lived, with incessant toil, in penury. He had the peculiar manner of the country doctor, bluff, hearty, and unctuous. His life was over. I had plans in my head for books and plays, I was full of schemes for the future; I felt that a long stretch of activity and fun still lay before me; and yet, I supposed, to others I must seem the elderly man that he seemed to me.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 11, 2013

Reading Between the Lines

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Two weeks ago, in Cut, Copy and Paste, I continued writing about the process I used to create my association's values statement, despite some misgivings about the value of values statements I've previously shared and still hold.

I had challenged my staff to take the initial values statement I had drafted--which contained the nine broad areas we had discussed during our retreat--and combine or refine the values and associated behaviors described so that there were no more than six areas (and perhaps less).

Four of my nine staff members took me up on this challenge, returning revised drafts incorporating their thoughts on how to condense the statement down. In reviewing their work, I made the following observations:

1. Innovation and teamwork were core concepts that everyone seemed to emphasize.

I found the two concepts an interesting and, in some ways, a juxtaposed pair. Innovation--described as it was with behaviors like challenging prevailing assumptions, taking smart risks, and exhibiting a bias towards action--seemed to ideally embody that future organization we wanted to create. We weren't any of these things currently (at least not consistently), and there seemed to be a broad consensus that we needed to move more deliberately in this direction.

Teamwork, in contrast--described as it was with behaviors like treating people with respect, being receptive to constructive criticism, and sharing information openly and proactively--seemed specifically designed to address some of the dysfunctional elements of our current culture. Reading through the behaviors people had grouped under Teamwork, I realized that any well-functioning organization would view some of them as things that should go without saying. Admitting you weren't innovative was easy. Who was? But admitting that you didn't treat people with respect, or accept constructive criticism, or share information? That meant something was wrong.

I mentioned that this juxtapostion between what we wanted to fix and what we wanted to grow into had been part of our dialogue around values from the very beginning. And here it was again, manifesting as an essential tension as we started honing things down into a memorable and actionable set of values.

2. Concerns about maintaining a focus on service to our members were still lurking beneath the surface.

The importance of service, and more specifically, service to our members, had been a topic of conversation during our retreat, and it had made it into the initial draft as one of the nine core values. But each of the four staff members who took a stab at revising and condensing the draft did something different with it. One left it entirely alone. Two others reinforced it with new language, one focused on providing value for the member's dues dollar, the other focused on being responsive to their needs. The fourth dropped it from the list of core values, but distributed the behaviors that describe it in other areas.

In other words, everyone felt that service to our members belonged somewhere, but no one agreed on where that place should be.

I didn't necessarily disagree. Providing exceptional programs and services to our members was obviously tightly aligned with our overall success, and it surely belonged somewhere in a document that described the values and behaviors we knew we needed to exhibit if we were going achieve that success. But my own preference was that the concept more appropriately belonged as a means to that end, and not an end in and of itself. Member service, as the rallying cry that knit us together, would, in my opinion, keep us all as followers, and not the leaders I thought we needed to be.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: Making some tough decisions and putting the final draft together.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 4, 2013

What If I Make a Mistake?

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What do you mean "if"? Isn't this a better question to ask: What happens when I make a mistake?

Because you're going to make them. You'll make them, I'll make them, everyone in this organization is going to make them--and some of them are going to be whoppers. Did you really think we were going to be able to navigate the difficult waters ahead without making any mistakes?

I mean, look around. Surely you can see all the uncertainty that surrounds us. And surely you can appreciate how difficult it is just making sure everyone is rowing in the same direction, much less trying to get us all to any particular destination. You might think that it's my job as the boss to do exactly that--to remove the uncertainty and provide a well-reasoned and resourced plan that will inexorably lead to our success. A lot of people think that. And I guess they're not far wrong in doing so.

But how do you think someone in my position comes up with such a plan? Maybe you think that's what the corner office is for. I do spend a lot of time in there, after all. Maybe you think I'm sitting in there for hours at a time, thinking and devising the grand strategy that will solve all of our problems. Right?

Wrong. The plan--to the extent that it exists at all--isn't cooked up in isolation from the people it's meant to serve. Rather, it's created in continuous interaction with them. There is no end to the amount of behind-the-scenes work that we must do to prepare for those interactions. That's the nature of our work. But if we never push ourselves out onto the stage--if we never get in front of our members and let them see what we've been working on--then we will never learn anything about what they really need from us and how we can best provide it. In fact, the more frequently we can interact with them, the better.

That means taking risks. That means doing things we don't fully understand. That means launching things that aren't yet finished. And all of that means making mistakes. And being comfortable with it.

So let me try to answer that better question for you. What happens when you make a mistake?

Simple. You learn. And if you share what you learned with everyone in the organization, then the organization leans, too. And that--learning--is frankly more important than any particular objective we might want to apply that learning to.

Let me put it this way. No one gets in trouble around here for making mistakes. They get in trouble for not learning from the mistakes they make.

Isn't that obvious? If not, then I must be making mistakes of my own.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at