Monday, July 29, 2013

The Boss Isn't Always Right

I was going through some old posts and found this in my drafts. I wrote it back in December 2011 and never posted it.

The Boss Isn't Always Right

It’s almost 2012, so are we allowed to say this, yet? Are we finally allowed to admit in front of everyone that the boss isn’t always right? That sometimes the boss doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about. That sometimes he shoots from the hip. That his vision for the future is more nebulous than he would like to admit, and that there are many hard, practical realities of running an organization that don’t neatly fit into it.

Or are we going to keep pretending that he always knows what to do? That success is as simple as following his directions? That we can bring him any problem, at any time of day, and he will have the ideal solution for it. One that’s coherent and part of an elaborate plan that connects all pieces of the organization into a single model of success?

Come now. We both know that’s not true. So why do we keep play acting?

Staff people, what keeps you from solving your own problems, from increasing your own understanding of your environment, and defending your ideas based on what’s best for the mission of the organization? And bosses, what keeps you from being silent? When they bring you something you don’t fully understand, why do you pretend you do? Why do you solve it for them when you know they understand it better than you do?

What I find most interesting is why I didn't post this shortly after I wrote it. In my fast-moving world, December 2011 feels like a decade ago, and it's hard to exactly recreate my thinking from that dimly remembered time.

But I do remember thinking that this revealed more than I wished to reveal about my own uncertainties and still developing leadership skills. What if my staff people read this? Or my board members? Would I be taking a professional risk by letting people think that I didn't know what I was doing?

Which, of course, is exactly what the post is about. By not posting it, I was answering my own question in the negative. No, it may be almost 2012, but we are still not allowed to say that the boss isn't always right.

I'm making a different decision in 2013.

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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, July 27, 2013

Descent of Man by T. Coraghessan Boyle

This was a disappointment. Boyle is unquestionably one of my favorite authors, and this is among the worst collections of short stories I have read.

It’s his first. Maybe that forms part of the explanation. They do read more like writing exercises than stories--experimental pieces of fiction in which the young Boyle is only attempting to explore a particular concept, story idea, or literary form. Here’s the manifest of those easily passed over:

Descent of Man = Primate researcher falls in love with the chimp she’s teaching to speak in sign language.

The Champ = Eating contest champion challenged by young upstart; told in the style of a gritty boxing fable.

The Second Swimming = Something about Chairman Mao taking a swim.

Dada = Ida Amin brought to New York to reside over a Dada art festival because his nickname is Big Daddy.

The Extinction Tales = Some vignettes about species dying because of man’s actions.

Caye = Lives and loves of people living on a small island.

The Big Garage = An auto repair shop that is a waystation to nowhere on the existential highway of life.

Earth, Moon = The decay that happens on Earth while an astronaut is off on the Moon.

Quetzalcoatl Lite = Competitive collectors searching for ancient beer cans.

De Rerum Natura = An inventor whose inventions are new biological forms and the strange menagerie he attracts/creates.

John Barleycorn Lives = A battle of wits between women teetotallers and men who enjoy the drink.

Drowning = A foreshadowed drowning is lost amidst scenes of rape and violence.

None of these are stories in any real sense of the word. They are writing exercises--ones in which we can watch Boyle flex his narrative muscles, but none of which congeal into something that’s worth revisiting.

There are a few exceptions:

We Are Norsemen

A comic tale of a Norse bard and his band of marauders, sacking the New World and Ireland for whatever riches they will surrender. The unnamed narrator begins a bit sympathetic to the reader--the most cultured of his uncultured comrades--and the narrative voice piles on the literary allusions to help drive the point home. But at the end, in their last described sacking, the narrator focuses his anger on a lonely scribe.

The monk sat at a table, his hands clenched, head bent over a massive tome. He was just as I’d pictured him: pale as milk, a fringe of dark pubic hair around his tonsure, puny and frail. He did not look up. I growled again, and when I got no response I began to slash at candles and pitchers and icons and all the other superstitious trappings of the place. Pottery splashed to the floor, shelves tumbled. Still he bent over the book.

The book. What in Frigg’s name was a book anyway? Scratchings on a sheet of cowhide. Could you fasten a cloak with it, carry mead in it, impress women with it, wear it in your hair? There was gold and silver scattered round the room, and yet he sat over the book as if it could glow or talk or something. The idiot. The pale, puny, unhardy, unbold idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it--I shoved him aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic. Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, and illiterate. Snatched it up and watched the old monk’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire. Ha!

And the reader turns on the narrator, recognizing how ignorant and short-sighted he is.

Heart of a Champion

A story about a dog--a collie like Lassie--that displays uncanny intelligence and facility in rescuing her boy owner from one desperate situation after another. Except this Lassie has fallen for an gives herself over to the carnal appetites of a “stunted, scabious, syphilitic” coyote.

We remark how odd it is that the birds and crickets have left off their cheeping, how puzzling that the background music has begun to rumble so. Suddenly, round a bend in the path before them, the coyote appears. Nose to the ground, intent, unaware of them. But all at once he jerks to a halt, shudders like an epileptic, the hackles rising, tail dipping between his legs. The collie too stops short, just yards away, her chest proud and shaggy and white. The coyote cowers, bunches like a cat, glares at them. Timmy’s face sags with alarm. The coyote lifts his lip. But then, instead of leaping at her adversary’s throat, the collie prances up and stretches her nose out to him, her eyes soft as a leading lady’s, round as a doe’s. She’s balsamed and perfumed; her full chest tapers to a lovely S to her sleek haunches and sculpted legs. He is puny, runted, half her size, his coat like a discarded doormat. She circles him now, sniffing. She whimpers, he growls: throaty and tough, the bad guy. And stands stiff while she licks at his whiskers, noses at his rear, the bald black scrotum. Timmy is horror-struck. Then, the music sweeping off in birdtrills of flute and harpstring, the coyote slips round behind, throat thrown back, black lips tight with anticipation.

The best part is the narrative style, which is conscious of its own scene setting and stage direction; short and clipped like an MTV video.

The jolting front seat of a Ford. Dad, Mom and the Doctor, all dressed in rain slickers and flap-brimmed rain hats, sitting shoulder to shoulder behind the clapping wipers. Their jaws set with determination, eyes aflicker with pioneer gumption.

Every word counts in that one.

The ending is not the best, but there is something going on here that’s deeper than just the idea and the narrative flair. Something about our view of the hero and the evolutionary forces that drive, in this case, her away from that which wins her our admiration.


A communal house, filled with hippies and druggies, is besieged when it inexplicably begins raining blood.

It started about three-thirty, a delicate tapping at the windows, the sound of rain. No one noticed: the stereo was turned up full and Walt was thumping his bass along with it, the TV was going, they were all stones, passing wine and a glowing pipe, singing along with the records, playing Botticelli and Careers and Monopoly, crunching crackers. I noticed. In that brief scratching silence between songs, I heard it--looked up at the window and saw the first red droplets huddled there, more falling between them. Gesh and Scott and Isabelle were watching TV with the sound off, digging the music, lighting cigarettes, tapping fingers and feet, laughing. On the low table were cheese, oranges, wine, shiny paperbacks, a hash pipe. Incense smoked from a pendant urn. The three dogs sprawled on the carpet by the fireplace, Siamese cats curled on the mantel, the bench, the chair. The red droplets quivered, were struck by other, larger drops falling atop them, and began a meandering course down the windowpane. Alice laughed from the kitchen. She and Amy were peeling vegetables, baking pies, uncanning baby smoked oysters and sturgeon for hors d’oeuvres, sucking on olive pits. The windows were streaked with red. The music was too loud. No one noticed. It was another day.

The prose is Boyle at his very best. The words are choice and full of depth and meaning, but nothing is played over the top--as it so easily could be, given the subject matter. An absolute joy to read.

A Woman’s Restaurant

This one is absolutely fascinating. Ostensibly a story about a man who wants to invade the sacred sanctuary of a restaurant that admits only female clientele, but also an exploration of the aboriginal female essence that has been a mystery misunderstood and oppressed by men throughout human history.

A woman’s restaurant. The concept inflames me. There are times, at home, fish poached, pots scrubbed, my mind gone blank, when suddenly it begins to rise in my consciousness, a sunken log heaving to the surface. A woman’s restaurant. The injustice of it, the snobbery, the savory dark mothering mystery: what do they do in there?

The restaurant is owned and managed by two women--Rubie and Grace--and they are a pair of opposites.

Grace, for instance. I know Grace. She is tall, six three or four I would guess, thin and slightly stooped, her shoulders rounded like a question mark. Midthirties. Not married. She walks her square-headed cat on a leash, an advocate of women’s rights. Rubie I have spoken with. If Grace is austere, a cactus tall and thorny, Rubie is lush, a spreading peony. She is a dancer. Five feet tall, ninety pounds, twenty-four years old. Facts. She told me one afternoon, months ago, in a bar. I was sitting at a table, alone, reading, a glass of beer sizzling in the sunlight through the window. Her arms and shoulders were bare, the thin straps of her dancer’s tights, blue jeans. She was twirling, on points, between groups of people, her laughter like a honky-tonk piano.

Or maybe not opposites--maybe they are twin poles of femininity, especially as viewed from afar the way our narrator does. And when Rubie comes close to violating the sacred sanctuary of their restaurant--admitting an man to whom she is naturally and wholesomely attracted--Grace, the stooped and rigid enforcer of the feminine mystique, acts to immediately rectify one of the sources of Rubie’s allure.

I shadowed Rubie for eight blocks this morning. There were packages in her arms. Her walk was the walk of a slow-haunching beast. As she passed the dark windows of the shops she turned to watch her reflection, gliding, flashing in the sun, her bare arms, clogs, the tips of her painted toenails peeping from beneath the wide-bottomed jeans. Her hair loose, undulating across her back like a wheatfield in the wind. She stopped under the candy-striped pole outside Red’s Barber Shop.

I crossed the street, sat on a bench and opened a book. Then I saw Grace: slouching, wide-striding, awkward. Her sharp nose, the bulb of frizzed hair. She walked up to Rubie, unsmiling. They exchanged cheek-pecks and stepped into the barber shop.

When they emerged I dropped my book: Rubie was desecrated. Her head shaven, the wild lanks of hair hacked to stubble. Charley Manson, I thought. Auschwitz. Nuns and neophytes. Grace was smiling. Rubie’s ears stuck out from her head, the color of butchered chicken. Her neck and temples were white as flour, blue-veined and vulnerable. I was appalled.

They walked quickly, stiffly, Rubie hurrying to match Grace’s long strides. Grace a sunflower, Rubie a stripped dandelion. I followed them to the woman’s restaurant. Rubie did not turn to glance at her reflection in the shop windows.

There’s a lot of this throughout A Woman’s Restaurant--narrative that works on the level of the story, but which also contain currents of deeper truth and exploration. In many ways, this is a real gem of this collection.

Green Hell

And finally...

There has been a collision (with birds, black flocks of them), an announcement from the pilot’s cabin, a moment of abeyed hysteria, and then the downward rush. The plane is nosing for the ground at a forty-five-degree angle, engines wheezing, spewing smoke and feathers. Lights flash, breathing apparatus drops and dangles. Our drinks become lariats, the glasses knives. Lunch (chicken croquettes, gravy, reconstituted potatoes and imitation cranberry sauce) decorates our shirts and vests. Outside there is the shriek of the air over the wings; inside, the rock-dust rumble of grinding teeth, molar on molar. My face seems to be slipping over my head like a rubber mask. And then, horribly, the first trees become visible beyond the windows. we gasp once and then we’re down, skidding through the greenery, jolted from our seats, panicked, repentant, savage. Windows strain and pop like light bulbs. We lose out bowels. The plane grates through the trees, the shriek of branches like the keen of harpies along the fuselage, our bodies jarred, dashed and knocked like the silver balls in a pinball machine. And then suddenly it’s over: we are stopped (think of a high diver meeting the board on the way down). I expect (have expected) flames.

There are no flames. There is blood. Thick clots of it, puddles, ponds, lakes. We count heads. Eight of us still have them: myself, the professor, the pilot (his arm already bound up in a sparkling white sling), the mime, Tanqueray with a twist (nothing worse than a gin drinker), the man allergic to cats (runny eyes, red nose), the cat breeder, and Andrea, the stewardess. The cats, to a one, have survived. They crouch in their cages, coated with wet kitty litter like tempura shrimp. The rugby players, all twelve of them (dark-faced, scowling sorts), are dead. Perhaps just as well.

Dazed, palms pressed to bruised organs, handkerchiefs dabbing at wounds, we hobble from the wreckage. Tanqueray is sniveling, a soft moan and gargle like rain on the roof and down the gutter. The mime makes an Emmett Kelly face. The professor limps, cradling a black briefcase with Fiskeridirektoratets Havforskningsinstitutt engraved in the corner. The cats, left aboard, begin to yowl. The allergic man throws back his head, sneezes.

We look around: trees that go up three hundred feet, lianas, leaves the size of shower curtains, weeds thick as a knit sweater. Step back ten feet and the plane disappears. The pilot breaks the news: we’ve come down in the heart of the Amazon basin, hundred perhaps thousands of miles from the nearest toilet.

The radio, of course, is dead.

So begins what may be the purest Boyle story in the collection--the one that is so brilliantly a parody of itself, and yet a story that entertains and keeps you engaged to the very end. It’s a work of genius, if only for the mime.

Hmmm. Maybe this collection of stories wasn’t so bad after all.

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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, July 22, 2013

Careful What You Ask For

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Last week, in The First Step Is Always to Do a Survey, 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.

Wanting to create a space where honest dialogue could take place not just about the values we wanted to aspire to, but those--good and bad--that the organization currently held, I circulated an anonymous survey to eveyone on my staff. It had three areas of inquiry:

1. What values and behaviors does our organization currently reward?
2. Which of our current values contribute to our success, which detract from our success, and which could contribute to our success with some modification?
3. What new values and behaviors do we need if we are to be successful?

I said the responses I received very accurately described our organization's current values--warts and all--and provided a solid foundation on which our future values statement would be built. In the summary I subsequently drafted, I identified some common themes:

1. There is a high level of commitment to exceeding the service expectations of members.

This is something everyone says. We're here for our members! But in my association, I had seen ample evidence that this was more than just lip-service. The staff members--especially those with long tenures in the organization--justifiably took pride in the service-minded relationships they had built with the members. And the organization--in the positive reinforcement offered by the members themselves and in the formal and informal reward systems put in place by my predecessors--had reinforced it. The result was a bundle of very positive behaviors among staff--a commitment to quality, administrative efficiency, and resourcefulness.


2. Not everyone is comfortable with experimentation and risk-taking, especially in how those concepts are communicated and shared with members.

...this tradition of selfless service to our members had what I saw as a negative undertone. I am a strong proponent of the "always in beta" concept for program and service development. I believe in quickly launching new programs in close proximity to the intended users, and then working with them in an on-going series of feedback loops to iterate improvements and new versions, steadily increasing their usefulness and market appeal throughout. I had experienced some push-back on this concept, and now I saw in the survey responses confirmation of that reluctance to embrace this idea. Given how much had been invested in achieving member satisfaction, some staff members expressed discomfort with experimenting in front of the members, concerned that by revealing the rough and sometimes unharmonious inner workings of the organization, service quality and their reputations would suffer.

In some ways, I saw this as two opposing poles of the same value, and the challenge moving forward would be minimizing one without destroying the other.

Stay tuned. Future posts will provide additional detail on the survey results, and how I prepared for the in-person discussion that created the draft values statement.

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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, July 15, 2013

The First Step Is Always to Do a Survey

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Last week, in Accepting the Value of Values Statements, I wrote about my decision to create a values statement for my association, despite some misgivings I've previously shared and still hold.

You see, as much as possible, I wanted to avoid the "values imposed from above" dynamic. This is what the boss wants, so let's agree with him and go back to doing what we were doing before. Instead, I wanted to co-create a document that fairly described the values--and more importantly, the behaviors by which those values could be observed in action--that everyone agreed were most closely associated with success in our environment.

In order to get there, I knew I needed to create a space where honest dialogue could occur. We couldn't just start talking about the ideal without first addressing our current reality. Like every other organization, ours had some warts, and if we pretended they didn't exist, or thought they wouldn't impact our ability to move towards the ideal, the project would be doomed before it even began.

So, as we often do in the association world, I began the discussion with an anonymous survey. Working with a outside facilitator, we crafted the following five questions, and asked everyone to respond candidly to the facilitator, who would compile the results and share them in aggregate and with all individual identifiers removed.

Here are the five questions we used:

1. If you were to list and describe the core values that currently influence the work of the NFPA staff, the ones that actually inform and influence individuals' and the group's decisions and directions, which ones would you identify? Please share no more than five core values below, providing both the value and any explanation or additional description of that value if you so desire.

This was absolutely key to our resulting conversation. I really encouraged everyone to take some time to think deeply about this question before responding. What behaviors--good or bad--are positively recognized and reinforced in our organization? By me? By our staff peers? By our volunteers? And taken together, what core values do those behaviors align with?

2. Think of the future strategic direction and results the staff is asked to achieve. What change (in general) do you believe they most ask of the staff culture? In other words, how would you finish the following sentence: If the staff is going to successfully create the strategic direction and desired results outlined for the future, we are going to have to...

This was a first step towards that ideal. We recognize some things need to change, but where should we start? If we're going to begin moving towards a new target, what should that target look like? And how far away can we place it and still be assured of hitting it?

3. Reflect on each of the core values you listed in your response to question #1 in relation to the desired results and future direction the staff is being asked to achieve. For each of the core values you listed, select the option that best describes how you envision it contributing to the staff culture moving forward.
(A) Preserve as is. It is desirable.
(B) Preserve, but modify its execution.
(C) Remove as a core value. It will not be helpful.

Now let's really zoom in on what's good and bad in our environment. We've described what is, and proposed something new. How do we start moving one in closer alignment with the other? What helps us, what could help us, and what would we be better off without?

4. When you think of the desired results and strategic direction the staff is being asked to achieve, what NEW core values do you believe need to become a part of the staff culture (i.e., those which need to inform and influence individual and group actions)? List each NEW core value below (no more than 3) and add any description or additional detail that explains why you believe this value needs to become a part of the NFPA staff culture.

And what are we utterly missing? What new values and behaviors are needed if we are to succeed?

5. Please share any other comments you have about the NFPA staff culture and how it can be strengthened through the existing or envisioned core values you have noted.

An obligatory catch-all for any other thoughts or comments people wanted to share.

All in all, it was a very successful exercise. I give great kudos to my staff for responding in the spirit of honesty and candor that I sought. Undoubtedly, the anonymous nature of the survey helped, but they still took a risk and were thanked for it. In my opinion, their collective answers very accurately described our organization's current values--warts and all--and provided a solid foundation on which our future values statement could be built.

Stay tuned. Future posts will provide some detail on the survey results, and how I prepared for the in-person discussion that created the draft values statement.

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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, July 13, 2013

Columbia by Eric Lanke

Theodore Lomax is 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.

So begins Columbia, my seventh novel, and the first that I have decided to make available through this blog. I hope you will consider buying it and letting me know what you think.

Columbia by Eric Lanke - $9
Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the novel that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The novel is just shy of 100,000 words and the manuscript is 336 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 the first chapter.

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Lomax felt like a seabird.

Running down the long slope from a point of observation above the city, and allowing the momentum of his descent to carry him ever forward, he felt like one of the birds he had first seen as a Northerner stationed briefly in Savannah. There, he had marveled at the great white birds and their tremendous wingspans, swooping down from airy realms over the open face of the ocean, folding their feathery wings together at the last possible moment, and plunging swiftly below the water’s rolling surface to capture unsuspecting fish in their beaks. Now, his sense of connection with that memory was undeniably strong, so strong that he caught himself with his arms out at his sides, slowly beating them up and down against the wind of his charge. In that heart-swelling moment, he felt as though he truly had wings like the white birds of Savannah, wings powerful enough to drive him willfully down into a world foreign from the one he called his own.

That world was the city of Columbia, South Carolina. As he ran down towards the town, he watched the men ahead of him pour forth like a terrible flood, washing up streets and dividing around buildings, surging forward in a resistless tide. From his vantage point, the blue fabric the men wore on their backs almost made them look like water flowing unchecked over the dark and dirty streets.

Stacks of burning bales of cotton lined those streets, their fires giving off an enormous amount of heat, and some of them already grown large enough to spread to the nearby buildings and storefronts. As he began moving up the length of Columbia’s main thoroughfare, he could feel the heat push up against him like a living thing, welcoming him to the city the way pickpockets sometimes do, blowing acrid breath into his face and probing inquisitive fingers under his clothing. The air around him was filled with floating motes of fire and ash, smoldering specks of cotton blown off the bales by a swirling and unforgiving breeze. It churned the fiery debris in one continuous cycle both above his head and down around his feet, moving the particles great distances as they devoured their small amount of fuel, but never allowing them to escape the confines of the rooftops lining the street.

He had no idea where he was going, for the moment content to let Floyd lead the way. The sheer number of Union soldiers gathered in the street—some breaking into buildings, some kicking at the burning bales to send great plumes of flaming debris into the air, others parading up and down, arms linked together in gleeful celebration—made his passage difficult and forced him and his three companions to move swiftly in a snaking single file. He had no time to look behind to see if Oates was able to stay with the group. He needed all his concentration and dexterity not to lose the smaller and zig-zagging form of Decker. Floyd, in his position at the head of their small contingent, was all but lost to him, and whether Floyd actually led them through that loud and oppressively hot channel, he had no way of knowing.

After five or six blocks the crowd thinned out, and they were able to congregate at an intersection. They were all enlisted men—Sergeant William Floyd of Illinois, and Sergeant Theodore Lomax, Corporal David Oates, and Private Enis Decker of Wisconsin—and none of them had known each other before joining the army. Behind them the bedlam raged ever louder, but down each of the remaining three streets Lomax saw only a few Union troops, most of them running in one direction or another, some of them smashing windows as they ran. In their deafening rush into the heat of the city, there hadn’t been any sign of either Confederate forces or local townspeople. As near as he could tell, they had all cleared out before the Union arrival.

Floyd looked at each of them in turn, his bearded face sweating freely. “Quite a little run, eh?” he said, hitching once or twice to catch his breath. “Wasn’t sure we’d make it through. You boys have any trouble keeping up?”

“No,” Decker answered immediately, trembling with excitement as if shivering from cold. “I was with you all the way, Bill.”

Floyd clapped the younger man warmly on the shoulder. “Well, let’s go stake our own claim, then. Kicking in doors and breaking windows is fine for the rest of this lot, but I’ve got something a little more personal in mind for the residents of this fair city.”

“Looks to me like all the locals have already left town, Bill,” Oates said. “I don’t know about you, but I kept my eyes open on the way in and all I saw were empty buildings and blue uniforms. You know something we don’t?”

If Floyd was rankled by the sarcasm in Oates’s voice, he showed no outward signs of it. “I know the lousy Rebs are here somewhere, Davey-boy. Maybe you didn’t see it way at the back like you were, but one of their little monsters tried to take a shot at me. With this!” he said, pulling an old and rusty pistol, certainly not of government issue, out of his belt and holding it up for them to see. “Little kid couldn’t have been more than ten years old.”

Lomax turned to Oates and Decker and saw the same looks of incomprehension on their faces. If such an incident as Floyd described had actually happened, none of them had seen it in all the confusion of rushing into town.

Floyd was what the army had come to call a bummer—a kind of scout, who spent most of his time out ahead of the Union army, looking for things that might help the Confederate cause and destroying them. He always wore a ruffled red shirt under his blue sergeant’s jacket, something he had picked up on one of his raids. Lomax didn’t remember seeing the pistol tucked in Floyd’s waistband when they had stood together on the rise outside of town, although he supposed it may have been hidden by one of the ruffles.

“No, sir,” Floyd resumed, tucking the pistol back into his belt. “They didn’t all bug out of town. They never do. There’s always some that stay behind to try and protect their homes and property. You think they would’ve all learned by now that we mean business and that the time for their fun and games is over. Their rebellion is dead. It died with Atlanta, and all we’ve been doing since then is beating a bloody corpse.”

Lomax had not seen the burning of Atlanta. He had joined up later than most; in 1863, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect, and had spent much of the time since then participating in one endless drill in a camp north of Washington. He had only gone on active duty a month and a half ago. That was after the destruction of Atlanta and, although he had not witnessed it, he had heard about it, to be sure. It was impossible to be part of that army and not hear about the burning of Atlanta.

“They’ve already lost,” Floyd said, “but there are still so many that don’t realize it, or at least don’t want to admit it to themselves. Those are the Rebs I mean to find. Those are the Rebs I mean to show just how badly they’ve lost this thing. Don’t try to tell me they ain’t here, because they are. They won’t be out in the open, but they’ll be here, hiding in their parlors and basements and outhouses. I’m going to find them, and when I do, I’m going to teach them a very hard lesson indeed.”

“I don’t know, Bill,” Oates said. “Seems to me we’ve been teaching them a hard lesson ever since we left Atlanta.”

“Aaaaah!” Floyd said irritably, dismissing Oates with a quick swipe of his right hand. “Piss on them. They’re just getting what they got coming. You of all people should be able to see that, Davey-boy. You’ve been with this army for as long as I can remember. You didn’t just come from Savannah like these other two. You’ve come all the way from the beginning. Christ, you were at Shiloh, weren’t you?”

Oates’s response was quiet and reserved. “Yes, Bill. I was at Shiloh.”

Floyd nodded his head vigorously. “Then you know what I’m talking about. The Rebs started this dirty war. It’s because of them that things like Shiloh happened. Can’t you see the time has finally come for them to pay for all they’ve done? Can’t you see that Uncle Billy brought us here to give them the whipping they deserve?”

Uncle Billy was the nickname almost everyone in the army used for their commanding general, William Tecumseh Sherman. Lomax had seen him once, as the general reviewed his troops before marching them out of Savannah. He looked a grim character to Lomax, who had never once thought of him as Uncle Billy.

“Can’t you all see that?” Floyd said, studying them each as if attempting to weigh the effect of his words on each of their souls.

For Lomax, at least, the sergeant’s words were chilling, alluding, as they did, to the deliberate torment of civilians and the destruction of their property. He knew all about the orders Sherman had issued, and the latitude he had given the bummers in carrying them out. Plenty of destruction had evidently occurred during the trek from Atlanta to Savannah, and even more had definitely been accomplished on the march from Savannah to here. He had seen that with his own eyes. His position in the rear of the column meant that he had marched through a number of towns his comrades had already destroyed. He had seen the blackened skeletons of the buildings they had burned. He had seen the vacant and hopeless eyes of the survivors they had left behind. If men like Floyd had saved the worst of their bestial appetites for a smorgasbord of violence in Columbia, then Lomax, even with his memory fresh with images of burned villages and homeless women, had little conception of what it was they truly meant to do.

“Come on now, boys,” Floyd said. “Each of you said you were with me when we stood on that hill outside of town. Don’t go losing your fire now.”

“Who’s losing their fire?” Decker demanded. “Not me, Bill. I still got my fire. Hell if I don’t. Let’s go get them Rebs and make them pay for what they did!”

Floyd accepted Decker’s loyalty with a quick nod of his head and turned his attention fully on Lomax. “What about you, Teddy? You in this thing or not?”

Lomax hated it when people called him Teddy, and Floyd knew it. He had made it clear he preferred the name Theo, but Floyd continued to call him Teddy, especially in situations like this one, where Lomax sensed Floyd was trying to goad him into doing something he was not sure he should do.

But now he was conflicted, because some part of him did want to stay. Despite persistent fears over what he might witness and concerns over what he might be called on to do, he knew in his heart he wanted to stay, that he wanted to be a part of whatever the grand assault on this Rebel capitol was going to be. Most of it came from deep within himself, taking the form of a desire to engage in this final struggle against the enemies of liberty and justice, to finally make his statement after spending two years out of action in Wisconsin and two more away from it in that training camp north of Washington. But he knew part of it also came out of a strange desire to please Floyd, to measure up adequately in the older sergeant’s eyes. It was a compulsion he did not fully understand, knowing only that it affected his judgment in a way he couldn’t describe. If pressed, he might have said he felt as though Floyd ranked him, even though they both had attained the same position in their respective regiments. But whereas both of Lomax’s promotions had come in the training camp—the first seemingly by random chance and the second because of his efficiency in filing activity reports—Floyd had risen from private to corporal and from corporal to sergeant because of his performance on the field of battle.

“Come on, Teddy,” Floyd said. “What’s it going to be? If you’re going to go, you’d better decide to go now. I don’t want to turn around sometime later and find you gone.”

Lomax met the older man’s eyes as solidly as he could. “I’m not going anywhere, Bill. I’m with you all the way in this thing.”

Floyd did not smile. If anything, his face turned even more serious than before. “I’m going to hold you to that, Teddy. I really am.”

Lomax took a deep breath, the scent of burning cotton filling both his nostrils. “You go right ahead, Bill. You go right ahead.”

The two men stood looking at each other for a few moments in silence. Beside him, Lomax could sense Oates fidgeting, but he knew the importance of not turning away from Floyd.

“Well,” Decker said. “What the hell are we waiting for then? Let’s get going.”

Then a smile crept slowly over Floyd’s face, his eyes still fixing their steady and resolute gaze on Lomax. “Yes,” he said as his smile broke open into a toothy grin. “What are we waiting for? Follow me, boys. Old Bill knows where them damn Rebels are hiding.”

Floyd turned and began to move swiftly away from his followers. Decker gave a boisterous cheer and started off immediately behind him. Lomax, Floyd’s strange spell fading abruptly from his consciousness, gave himself half a moment to consider looking at Oates. Now that Floyd was gone it would be safe to do so, but he quickly decided against it. If he looked at Oates now, everything that had just passed between him and Floyd would evaporate along with his resolve and he wouldn’t go traipsing after him and Decker. If he looked at Oates now, the two of them would turn and march promptly back out of town without so much as a word of explanation between them. Oates wanted to leave. Lomax didn’t have to look at him to know that. That’s why Floyd hadn’t asked him to recommit himself to their adventure the way he had with Decker and Lomax. They could all feel the desire to leave coming off Oates like a powerful heat. Oates wanted to leave and he wanted Lomax to leave with him.

Lomax started forward after Decker.

“Theo,” Oates said.

He did not pause. He kept moving forward, forcing Oates to tag along behind him.

“Theo,” Oates said again.


“Let’s go. Let’s get out of here.”

“No. I don’t want to. I want to see what’s going to happen.”

Oates kept pace behind him, his voice coming unseen over Lomax’s shoulder. “Something bad is going to happen. Do you want to see that?”

“Yes,” he said pointedly. “Good or bad, I don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s going to big, and I want to be a part of it when it happens.”

“No, you don’t, Theo,” Oates said, sounding for all the world like the very voice of doom. “Trust me, I know. No, you don’t.”

Lomax shook his head, trying to dislodge Oates from his conscience, and quickened his pace to keep up with the steadily advancing Floyd and Decker. He needed to ignore Oates as much as he could and keep moving forward. Because Oates, of course, was right. Something bad was going to happen here, something that might very well be worse than anything that had ever happened before. It could be felt in the very air around them, rolling up and down the streets of the Southern town like a fog of pestilence. But he had spoken honestly when he had said he wanted to be part of it. It was going to be bad, but that could be overlooked, because it was also going to be big, it was going to be important. What happened over the next few hours in the capitol of the state that had started the Southern Confederacy, now that 60,000 Union troops had arrived to dispense the justice that had been four years in coming, could very well determine the outcome of the war. And Lomax—after spending so much time away from the conflict, partly by his own indecision and partly by the vagaries of army organization and training—was not going to miss his chance to be part of such a monumental achievement, no matter what somebody like Oates told him.

But even as he ran after Floyd and Decker, even as he did everything he could to shut Oates’s warning out of his head, he allowed himself a quick look over his shoulder to see if his friend was still with them, to make sure Oates, against his better judgment, had decided to trail along. Deep within himself, where thoughts and ideas existed in their purest form, in fragments too rough and unhewn to be pieced together into words and sentences, he knew he needed Oates. If he was going to get through the tribulations that lay ahead, he was going to need to rely heavily on Oates and his guidance. They all would.

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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, July 8, 2013

Accepting the Value of Values Statements

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It was more than a year ago that I wrote about values statements and how much I hated them. They're phony, I said. They're never about the values that an organization actually holds, they're about the values the leaders of that organization wished it held. And those leaders stretch the values so far into the unrealistic ideal, that there's no way for the people in the organization to take them seriously.

Well, guess what? Shortly after I wrote that post, I started working towards a values statement for my own association. Despite my misgivings, I saw the value in identifying and clearly stating the values most strongly associated with success in our environment. If nothing else, they would provide a reflection point for everyone in the organization to check their own thinking, behaviors and actions. At best, they would become a rallying cry for us to embrace and move towards.

But I couldn't impose them. That would contradict everything I wrote in my earlier post (and which I still believe). If the exercise of developing our values statement was going to be successful, and if the document which resulted was going to get productive use in shaping our culture, everyone would have to contribute and be on the same page with regard to what we were trying to achieve and how we planned to get there.

So here's how I initially positioned it with my staff, referring to an upcoming off-site session we were planning.

In terms of our agenda, I’ve been thinking more and more about the values we respect (as an organization) and the competencies we possess (as a group of individuals) and the necessary role that they play in helping the association achieve its mission and strategic priorities. Although our values and competencies are not always clearly articulated, undoubtedly:

A. Some of them help the association, and should be better articulated, further developed, and supported.

B. Some of them hinder the association, and should be identified and changed.

C. There are some that would help the association that we don’t currently possess, and they should be identified, developed and supported.

I already have some ideas about A, B and C, and suspect that you do, too. I would like to create a process by which we can all share these ideas, further our understanding of A, B and C, and begin moving our organizational culture in an appropriate direction.

A simple declaration of the facts of the situation. Like every human organization, ours wasn't (and still isn't) perfect. There were some things we did really well, and there were some things that got in the way of our good performance, or which kept us from being as good as we were capable of being. If we were going to agree on a set of values which, if fully embodied, would optimally support our performance, I knew we were first going to need an honest conversation about A, B and C.

Want to know how things turned out? Stay tuned. I plan to tell the story and share some of the lessons learned in future blog posts.

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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, July 1, 2013

When Red Lights Mean Go

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I just got back from an annual strategic retreat with the Board of Directors of my association. It always comes at the end of our fiscal year. It's a time for us to look back on our successes and failures over the past year, talk about the long-term future of our industry, and make necessary adjustments to our on-going strategy.

This year I tried something different. With a nod towards a colleague who does something similar with his board, I decided to report the annual progress of our programs in an "innovation matrix".

We'd already gotten into the habit of using the green, yellow, and red lights to indicate relative success or difficulty in meeting our performance metrics for the year. What's new is that in addition to sorting our programs horizontally by strategic priority (in our terminology: Workforce, Technology, and Inclusiveness) I also sorted them vertically by innovation factor.

On the the left we have our Core programs. These are our bread and butter, the stuff we’ve been doing for some time and for which we have robust resources and infrastructure to help us execute. On the right are our Experimental programs. These are exactly that—experiments that we launched this year with little or no track record of success to support them. And in the middle are our Developing programs, successful experiments from the past that are beginning to migrate towards to core.

Looking at our performance this way gave us the ability to make the following conclusions:

1. Generally speaking, we advanced our objectives in all three of our areas of strategic priority.

2. Most of our core and developing programs were highly successful, with a few weak spots related to our ability to reach out and connect beyond our traditional membership. This was most apparent with regard to some of the educational audiences we must build better bridges to if our long-term Workforce agenda is to be successful.

3. Finally, we were very innovative. We tried a lot of new ideas this year, and although some didn’t gain the traction they needed to succeed, a high percentage of them added value, and should be considered for stronger development next year.

These observations would have easily been lost in the noise if I hadn't organized things this way.

Like everything else you bring to an association board for the first time, it was a bit of a risk. But it turned out to be a risk worth taking. Their response was overwhelmingly positive. Turns out many of them run their companies the same way--trying many new ideas, monitoring them to see which return value, and then investing more resources into those that do. The failed experiments fall off the chart. The successful ones are developed and begin moving towards to core. And every new year a bunch of new experiments are introduced.

It's something we've been doing for a while. But the matrix gave us a way to see it in action and, perhaps more importantly, a tool for discussing the intentionality behind it at the board table.

The red lights always scare people. By themselves, they represent failures. They indicate that we failed to meet the identified metric of success of some of our programs--and some people don't like to admit that. But in the context of our innovation matrix, the red lights also become part of our success. After all, innovation doesn't happen without them.

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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