Monday, September 30, 2013

From Flipcharts to Initial Draft

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Two weeks ago, in Flipcharts Don't Lie, 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.

After facilitating a day-long staff retreat to discuss the results of our anonymous survey and begin framing the major concepts that would go into our values statement, I was faced with a difficult task. We had had a lot of productive and cathartic conversation, and now I had nine pieces of flipchart paper, each covered with bullet points representing the honest thoughts and concerns of my staff, and it was my job to take that information an distill it down into an initial draft that could be used for the next phase of statement development process.

I'll be honest. It was a daunting task. In reviewing the output of the discussion, I was torn between concepts that seemed to address dysfunctional elements of our current culture and those that represented more aspirational aspects of the future organization I wanted to create. I knew that this was my opportunity to bake in some of my own ideas about where the organization needed to go--and I was perfectly willing to do that. This was, after all, a change initiative, and I knew that I needed to push some of us out of our comfort zones. But I was worried that if I strayed too far from what people thought we talked about, it would have a demoralizing effect.

I bounced my first attempt off a colleague to get some unbiased feedback on that very question, and he helped me polish it up in a few areas. Here's the draft I eventually shared with my staff:

NFPA Values Statement – DRAFT, revised 2012.12.16

The mission and strategic priorities of the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA) are to strengthen the fluid power industry and its members by:

  • Building and connecting its members to an educated fluid power workforce;
  • Promoting the technological advancement of fluid power; and
  • Serving as a forum where all fluid power channel partners work together.

NFPA staff play a key role in helping to create this positive vision of the fluid power industry, coalescing members and other stakeholders around these objectives and our supporting activities and initiatives. This role requires leadership, not from a single individual, but as a fundamental competency that is exercised consistently across the organization. To help ensure this level of success, NFPA will seek, develop, and reward staff members who exhibit the following values and behaviors.

(listed alphabetically, not in priority order)

  • We bring purpose and understanding to chaotic environments.
  • We think strategically, make wise decisions despite ambiguity, and act with intention.
  • We are concise and articulate in speech and writing.
  • We minimize complexity, and look for efficiencies that can be shared across the organization.
  • We are willing to experiment and try new ways of doing things.
  • We look for and accept new challenges.
  • We identify gaps in our knowledge and skill set, and take actions to correct them.
  • We apply gained knowledge and openly share the results.
  • We engage others in iterative processes that result in higher levels of value and engagement.
  • We challenge prevailing assumptions, suggest better approaches, and create new ideas that prove useful.
  • We take smart risks, learn from our mistakes, and share lessons with others.
  • We exhibit a bias towards action, and avoid analysis-paralysis.
  • We speak with candor, saying what we think even if it is controversial.
  • We question actions that are inconsistent with our values.
  • We concede when we don’t know something, are quick to admit mistakes, and are the first to apologize.
  • We care intensely about our success, celebrating wins big and small.
  • We inspire others with our positive attitude, enjoying the journey as well as the goal.
  • We display tenacity, fighting for the resources necessary to do the job right, and asking the questions necessary to get to the root causes of things.
  • We bring energy and fun to the workplace.
  • We have a calming influence in stressful situations.
  • We address conflicts openly and with tact, directly with the people concerned.
  • We seek to understand underlying assumptions, and focus on resolving rather than blaming.
  • We treat people with respect independent of their status or disagreement with us.
  • We are tolerant and understanding of people’s differences.
  • We listen to other perspectives, and are receptive to constructive criticism.
  • We share information openly and proactively, demonstrating an understanding that our actions impact others.
  • We participate productively in team discussions, collaborating to determine the best ideas, helping to clarify needed actions, and respecting the role of the team leader.
  • We take responsibility for our tasks that support team objectives, and hold others accountable for theirs.
  • We seek to understand others, the world they live in, and the problems they face.
  • We work to establish personal, long-term relationships.
  • We are responsive to inquiries, and are available when traveling or out of the office.

One of the most important things that I added to this first draft which wasn't specifically discussed in our staff meeting was the preamble. It both ties the values statement to the mission and strategic priorities of our association and introduces an overall frame of systemic leadership to the document.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: My reasons for making the additions I did, and how I framed the next conversation with my staff.

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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, September 23, 2013

Can You Cash That Check?

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I was proofing some copy written for my association's blog the other day and I came across the word "awe-inspiring."

Now, in defense of the person who wrote it, we use our blog to talk about things that are new and exciting about the industry our association represents. Our target audience is not our members, but the engineers and technicians that may choose to use our members' products in their designs. Describing some technical advancements that have been going on in our industry, the author used the word "awe-inspiring."

It stopped me in my tracks. Awe-inspiring. As in "instilling a sense of wonder." Is that really the word we want to use?

Can we cash that check?

Don't get me wrong. I think the things going on in our industry are pretty neat.

But are they awe-inspiring? More importantly, are they awe-inspiring to the technically-educated people we're trying to appeal to, and what if they aren't?

One thing I feel pretty strongly about when it comes to blogging is that you need to be honest. No one reads blogs because they want to be sold to. They read because they find the content interesting or they like the person writing it.

And they can smell inauthenticity a mile away. Yes, we have to write about the most exciting and interesting things going on in our industry, but we have to do it in a way that respects the knowledge of the reader.

Our situation may be atypical. We're a group of association and marketing professionals trying to write things that appeal to engineers and technicians. We are not our audience, and what we think is awe-inspiring may be surprisingly less so to our audience.

In this environment I see two things we must do to succeed.

1. Learn all we possibly can about the technology we're writing about. We'll never be engineers, but we need to have a working knowledge of the technology our industry produces--including what is viewed as run-of-the-mill, what is cutting-edge, and what the barriers to true innovation really are.

2. Honestly share that learning journey with our audience. There is a vast difference between trying to brand content as awe-inspiring when we lack the context to make such a detetmination, and sharing what we personally find awe-inspiring--and why--as we discover the inner workings of a technical subject. To an informed audience, the former risks seeming disingenuous. But the latter may just remind them of the things that got them excited about technology and engineering in the first place. That sense of wonder that comes with learning how things work.

If we do that, then we'll start writing checks we can actually cash.

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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, September 21, 2013

The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos

This is a book written by a noted biblical scholar who, unlike almost all of his colleagues, argues that biblical studies as we know them today should come to an end, and the purpose of all biblical scholars moving forward should be to eliminate the influence of the Bible on the modern world. It is a text, Avalos argues, that has no relevance to modern society. The ancient civilization that produced the Bible held beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of the world and the human race that are contrary to the views of modern society. And the scholars and institutions that continue to study and support the study of the Bible do so more out of a sense of self-preservation than for any real benefit to the human race. In translating and re-translating the ancient texts, in writing and publishing their papers on newer and more socially-minded interpretations, in attending their conferences and writing their books, Avalos says, they are doing little more than creating their own Sudoku puzzles to solve.

I think my favorite part of the book was where Avalos examines the often fruitless quest for the Bible’s original text—the first draft written down by a human, supposedly from the very lips of God. Contrary to popular Christian belief, such a book does not exist—never did. “The Bible” is, of course, a collection of dozens of different books, written by scores of people over a few thousand years, and which of those books are included and which aren’t has been disputed by different denominations throughout history and is still disputed today. The oldest existing complete copy of the Bible is only about a thousand years old. What “the Bible” looked like before that is really anybody’s guess.

And that’s all before we take into account the Bible’s complicated translation history. Get this. The oldest existing texts of the Old Testament books are written in Hebrew (the most authoritative version comprising something called the Masoretic Text), and scholars know that it was then translated into Greek, then Latin, then English and all the other languages. The oldest New Testament books are written in Greek, and when they refer to Old Testament passages, as Jesus himself does a number of times, the reference is to the Greek version of the Old Testament, an accepted translation of the “original” Hebrew. This is often a problem, as Avalos explains:

The privileging of the Masoretic Text is somewhat of an embarrassment to those self-described Christian fundamentalists who otherwise extol it. It has long been known that Jesus and the other New Testament authors did not quote the Masoretic Text or even the pre-Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, Jesus and New Testament authors routinely quote the Greek translation, even when it disagrees with the Masoretic Text.

Every translation introduces changes into the text. That’s the nature of translation. So if the original Old Testament was written in Hebrew (or perhaps some earlier language), why would Jesus (who, as God, should obviously know better) quote an inexact Greek translation of his own words? And, more importantly, we should realize that:

Even the oldest Greek manuscripts of Jesus’ words are translations because Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic.

That’s right. If he existed at all as a flesh and blood person in that part of the world at that time, he would have to speak in Aramaic in order to be understood by those around him. This means that even the “original” Greek version of the New Testament contains Jesus’ words in translation. We actually have no written record of Jesus’ exact words. The very source on which we have based our English translation is, in fact, a translation—and maybe a translation of a translation. How are we to know?

Another interesting section is when Avalos lists several famous Bible verses in the New Testament—verses upon which key doctrinal points are based—which are, by the best understanding of scholars, later additions to the books that comprise the New Testament. In other words, they are not original; we have versions of the New Testament books in question from earlier in history without these verses included. Among the verses so added later are:

Mark 16:9-20, which provides witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus:

After all, if Mark 16:8 ends with verse 8, then there is no story of anyone actually seeing or speaking with a resurrected Jesus. All we have is a statement that he is risen and a promise that he will appear. But it ends with nothing more than a group of women in fear. Thus, what is usually regarded as the earliest Christian gospel would not have much of a resurrection story—the door is left open for those who argue that the resurrection was not part of the earliest recorded Christian tradition.

John 7:53-8:11, which is used to preach against the death penalty:

One centers on John 8:7, where Jesus declared, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He was responding to a call to stone to death a woman caught in adultery.

For some Christians this is a primary text to support the abolition of the death penalty. In the Hebrew Bible the death penalty was permissible if at least two witnesses were found to testify against a person in the commission of a capital sin (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In this passage, however, Jesus changes the entire set of rules. Instead of making a minimum number of witnesses a requirement to execute the death penalty, Jesus requires the sinlessness of any executioner. Since no one is without sin, then no one would be qualified to carry out the death penalty. The death penalty consequently would be abolished altogether.

1 John 5:7-8, which explicitly describes the Trinity:

The King James Version reads in verse 7: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” This, of course, offers strong support for the doctrine of the Trinity. It is, in fact, the only text that is so explicit about a doctrine that is otherwise difficult to find in the New Testament.

Another interesting section is Avalos’ examination of biblical literary criticism. As part of that discussion he outlines the sometimes conflicting disciplines of ethics and aesthetics.

The role of ethics in evaluating artistic merit has been the subject of considerable discussion. Briefly, two polar positions may be identified. The “autonomist” position, advocated by scholars such as Clive Bell and Daniel Jacobson, views aesthetic value as independent of the moral content of any artistic depiction, textual or audiovisual. By this standard, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel, which includes scenes of people being tortured, is beautiful regardless of the content.

On the other pole, the “ethicist” position, associated with scholars such as Berys Gaut, sees ethics as inextricably bound with artistic evaluations. As Gaut phrases it: “The ethicist principle is a pro tanto one: it holds that a work is aesthetically meritorious (or defective) insofar as it manifests ethically admirable (or reprehensible) attitudes.” While some autonomists may object that ethical judgments cannot be imposed on fictional characters that do not exist, Gaut argues that what is being judged is a work’s attitude toward the actions of those characters.

I’m sure these are two very interesting poles to observe in the realm of biblical literary criticism. In my own literary realm, I’d have to say I’m definitely more of an autonomist.

One of the great things about a book like this is that you’re bound to stumble across something that gives you a new perspective on things. As an example, the word “covenant” is tossed around a lot in the Bible and in the religions that follow it, and to my modern, uninitiated ears, it’s usually interpreted as some kind of promise—a contract, maybe—between God and his followers, to offer them his special protection in return for their worship and loyalty. Well, according to Avalos, covenants have another historical context that isn’t stressed by many Bible scholars today.

Covenants were not as benign as Eichrodt would have them. Covenants were instruments of imperialism and slavery—Yahweh was the slavemaster and Israel was his slave. As is the case with any slave, Yahweh rewarded his subjects for obedience and punished them mercilessly for disobedience. He required genital mutilation, called circumcision, of all his slaves. Far from providing a sense of security, the covenant caused the Israelites to dread the punishment that followed transgressions against it. Only one slavemaster was allowed, and a slave risked serious harm if he did not remain faithful to the one slavemaster.

Go back and read some Bible passages with that context in mind. Passages like Exodus 20:1-6 and Deuteronomy 28:15-46. Puts a whole new perspective on things, doesn’t it?

But Avalos’ main point, which he highlights throughout this work, is that the Bible grows less and less relevant in our modern world with every passing day, despite the efforts of a class of biblical scholars who seem focused on propping the Bible up as something that should continued to be studied and revered—and this in the face of an increasingly skeptical and less adoring student population. In one example, Avalos cites:

Robert E. Mansbach, the Wolford Professor of Religion at Hartwick College and a Lutheran minister, notes that his courses are populated by students with a variety of views, ranging from atheism to Christianity and Judaism. Mansbach hopes that students will retain the following five items after taking courses in biblical studies:

(1) See historical-critical problems as important, but important always within the framework of Judeo-Christian communities which produced the scriptures;

(2) Understand that, even if one is an atheist, this does not change the way in which scripture-engendering communities understood themselves over time, i.e., as a people confronted, freed and blessed by God in history;

(3) Understand that, even if one is an atheist, these communities grew to affirm the uniqueness and universality of Yahweh’s revelations (e.g., “I am Yahweh…and there is no other,” or “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”);

(4) Know that these communities at their best saw themselves in tension with cultures calling for other, destructive allegiances; and

(5) Have a sense that these communities, at their best, saw God’s empowering love and leveling justice as their historical mandate.

He adds: “Finally, in every effective method available, I would hope to build with the class a community in which they might experience a secular shadow or parallel of Christian acceptance, faith, loving empowerment, and leveling justice.”

If you’re one of those people who believe that any sense of “Christian acceptance” and “leveling justice” Christianity enjoys today arose strictly from secular influences dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern world, then you’ll appreciate Avalos’ comments on all this navel gazing.

Mansbach, like most other advocates of the academic study of the Bible, does not want to study the Bible or religion in order to examine negative or injurious aspects of either religion or the Bible. Some of the items Mansbach lists clearly assume that biblical religions have brought only good things that can be imitated even by secular people (e.g., “Christian acceptance…loving empowerment”). Mansbach’s fourth item sees biblical communities in tension with cultures that have “destructive allegiances,” which implies that biblical religions advocated no destructive allegiances. Why not reverse this statement and say that we would want students to learn that nonbiblical cultures were often in tension with biblical cultures who called for “destructive allegiances”?

One of the fascinating reasons Avalos gives for this desire to preserve biblical studies is the self-induced notion among some that scholars are modern-day heroes—heroes in the classical sense.

Any careful study of journal articles reveals that they have a familiar pattern found in many ancient heroic legends. Consider the legend of the Twelve Labors of Herakles, where Herakles (aka Hercules) finds ingenious solutions to problems that had defeated human beings. In more schematic form, in the legends of Herakles we often see: (1) a problem presented; (2) a review of how the problem had defeated human beings before him; (3) Herakles’ specific and ingenious solution to the problem; and (4) a triumphant conclusion.

If we look at a typical journal article in biblical studies, we see that it begins with a statement of a problem or challenge. Following this is a review of past research, which usually shows that the problem has not been completely solved by past scholars. This section is then followed by the author’s proposal to solve the problem. Finally, a conclusion is announced, and usually the author presents himself as triumphant or as “contributing” something new.

And why would these scholars seek to paint themselves as heroes?

To some extent, such articles must be heroic narratives because they are partly generated by the demand for “excellence” and competition for the precious few jobs available in biblical studies. The articles are the equivalent of the Herculean tasks given to scholars by the academy.

And it is this quest for heroics—for demonstrating the value of the Bible to our modern society—which has, in fact, permeated all layers of our society. The question of the Bible’s validity is rarely questioned openly, and as a result so much of our pop culture has adopted its sensibilities and lessons. Near the end of his book, Avalos focuses on how this adoption occurs and recurs to this day, citing numerous examples in the mass media of the favorable treatment of religion and religious themes.

One case in point is ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974), in which a little mouse named Albert is portrayed as a thorough rationalist and skeptic with regard to the existence of Santa Claus. Eventually, Albert’s father convinces Albert to stop relying only on his physical senses and learn to understand with the heart. So Albert believes in Santa Claus again. Though overt denominational views may have declined in mainstream television, the affirmation of the value of faith and religion is still there.

But even this does not strictly come from the Bible. As Avalos argues, so much of what we today think of as “the Bible” is, in fact, a modern construct—a collection of human thought and understanding that our culture has pinned on the Bible but which has little relationship to it. Some liberal believers know this, but worry about the consequences of abandoning the Bible altogether.

Witness the plea of William G. Dever:

“If its professional custodians no longer take the Bible seriously, at least as the foundation of our Western cultural tradition, much less a basis for private and public morality, where does that leave us? If we simply jettison the Bible as so much excess baggage in the brave new postmodern world, what shall we put in its place?”

A question Avalos addresses head on.

But why do we need to put anything in the Bible’s place? Why do we need an ancient book that endorses everything from genocide to slavery to be a prime authority of our public or private morality? Why do we need any ancient test at all, regardless of what morality it espouses? “The Bible” is mostly a construct of the last two thousand years of human history. Modern human beings have existed for tens of thousands of years without the Bible, and they don’t seem to have been the worse for it. There are modern secularized societies in Europe that seem to get along just fine without the Bible.


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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, September 16, 2013

Flipcharts Don't Lie

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Two weeks ago, in Mental Rules for the Staff Retreat, Part 2, 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.

After surveying the staff on our current, mostly unstated values and those we needed to either jettison or adopt, and preparing myself with a set of mental rules for leading the discussion, I was ready to facilitate a day-long staff retreat we had scheduled to begin crafting our new values statement.

It was a very productive discussion. Not only did we start constructing a values statement everyone could support, more importantly, it provided a needed forum where staff could openly and honestly share their thoughts--in some cases, for the first time--on what was preventing us from achieving the success we desired.

The survey helped a lot with this process. The words from the anonymous responses were right there in front of all of us--both the good and the bad. What might have been difficult to bring up in person was suddenly easier to discuss because everyone had had time to read and reflect on the comments. No one knew who had written what, but we did all know that each comment represented the honest thoughts of one of our team members and, like the comments we ourselves had submitted, each one had been offered in the spirit of improvement, not sabotage.

In many ways, the conversation was cathartic, for individuals as well as the organization as a whole. As the discussion progressed, we began using a flipchart to record the concepts we felt were important to our future success. Some of them were clearly corrective--there to address some form of dysfunction we all perceived--while others were more purely aspirational--things we knew we needed and for which the barriers to adoption were not fully understood.

We weren't interested in wordsmithing at this first meeting. All we wanted to do was to record these thoughts with as much accuracy and honesty as possible. Here is that original list we came up with--each value supported by a flipchart paper full of bullet points seeking to tease out their deeper meaning.

· No micromanaging
· No yelling
· Listening – give the other person enough time and attention and acknowledgement
· Don’t lose your temper
· No Judgmental-ism
· Avoid defensiveness
· Be willing to apologize
· Be patient and generous with others
· Communicate what you need
· Whenever possible, talk instead of email
· Don’t talk behind people’s back – deal directly with the person

Service to Members
· Strive for excellence
· Seeks insight into needs
· Responsive
· Proactively offer solutions
· No favoritism
· Listen
· Develop long-term and new relationships
· Develop personal relationships

Conflict Resolution
· Address issue directly in timely manner
· Be receptive to constructive criticism
· Check yourself first
· Apologize and accept apologies
· Seeks to understand how decisions are made
· References values and project goals in decision making

Fun and Enthusiasm
· Water cooler conversation is OK
· Celebrate success
· Sharing success
· More camaraderie
· Schedule fun events and rotate the event planner
· Share and encourage others to share what motivates us
· Be excited and passionate
· Enjoy the journey, not just the result
· Be spontaneous – it’s OK!

Open Communications
· Face-to-face vs. email – use appropriately, don’t avoid face-to-face
· Honesty and respectful/directness
· Address issue, not the personality
· Keep those who need to know informed (in the loop) – when in doubt, share/ask
· Focus on the fix rather than the blame
· Hold productive meetings
· Take responsibility for open, two-way communication

Clarity of Intent
· Degree of clarity needed depends on nature of project
· Clarity of goal, expectations
· What are we trying to achieve?
· Seek clarity of intent
· Communicate clarity of intent
· Create clarity of intent (simplify)
· Know how your individual projects fit into overall strategy

Professional Growth
· Engage in continuing education
· Assist in identifying opportunities
· Identify knowledge gaps
· Volunteering in professional organizations
· Demonstrate a curiosity in learning about environment
· Shares knowledge freely
· Accepts and looks for new challenges

· Do what you say and say what you do
· Accept responsibility
· Ensure next actions are understood
· Respect for project leader
· Self-directed
· Demonstrate an understanding that your actions impact the team
· Willingness to be appropriately available

· Willingness to learn new tools and processes
· New ways of doing things
· Minimizing complexity
· Positive attitude
· Demonstrates comfort in talking about risk
· Thoughtful approach to members engagement and be decisive
· Sharing what you learn from failure
· Bias to action

These words were captured at our meeting in December 2012. What's interesting to me about re-examining them now is the degree to which they reflect a group of people struggling to understand how to work together in a changing environment, the way they speak to how far we have progressed since then, as well as the distance that we still have to travel.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: My interpretation of the key concepts behind this original list, and how we began working to turn it into a formal 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, September 9, 2013

Member Engagement? It's...Well, It's Complicated.

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A big thanks goes out to the more than forty association professionals who joined me on Wednesday, September 4 for an informal discussion on member engagement. The call was hosted by WSAE as part of its peer-to-peer discussion group series, and it was (I think) the best attended discussion they have ever held. We even had one person dialing in from Philadelphia!

A less humble discussion leader would probably think the crowd was there to hear him talk, but I think the more reasonable explanation is that member engagement continues to be one of the issues that seems to be on everyone's minds.

I've led a few of these discussions now, and one consistent thing I've noticed is that when it comes to member engagement, we all seem to be talking about several different things.

I've written about this before. For some, member engagement means getting members to utilize the association's services. For others, its means getting more volunteers for its committees and task forces. For still others, it means a process that allows individual members to leverage the resources of the association for their self-directed development objectives. And, as I heard for the first time during Wednesday's discussion, for still others it means members engaging with each other in association-hosted venues.

Unless we are clear about which definition of member engagement we're talking about, it should be easy to appreciate how complicated an innocent conversation about member engagement can become.

But one new insight came out of Wednesday's discussion that makes things even more complicated. Not only are we often talking about different things, but even when we're talking about the same things, the differing natures of our organizations means that we're still talking about different things.

A state trade association with a dozen members and one staff person is a very different entity than a national professional society with 120,000 members and 100 staff people. Getting more volunteers for its committees and task forces, for example, means something very different to that trade association than it does to that professional society.

I'd like to think that innovation and learning can come from exposing oneself to even radically different organizations and their ways of doing things. But too often in this member engagement discussion I've seen one professional shut down when they realize the colleague they're talking to represents a dramatically different type of association than the one they work for.

I find this confusing. We're all associations, aren't we? You may have resources and capacities at your disposal that aren't at mine, but we're trying to solve the same basic problem, aren't we? Isn't there some insight I can gain that is useful in my world when I listen to how you tackle problems in yours?

Let's not over-complicate things. By all means, let's be sure that we're defining our member engagement challenges in the same way. But having done so, let's not shy away from listening to the ways we can potentially help each other.

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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, September 7, 2013

Decker 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. "Decker" is one of these stories, centering on the character of Enis Decker, and describing his entry into the Union Army and his first encounter with a squad of "bummers."

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.

Decker 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 16,800 words and the document is 55 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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Private Enis Decker had never seen a woman naked before. He knew about their breasts. Even fully dressed you could tell a woman had breasts, but as to what they looked like uncovered, or what she had between her legs, Decker didn’t have any idea.

He was from Kenosha, a small town in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan, and was brought up in a strict household. Although his parents were very religious, their faith and piety never truly rubbed off on little Enis, the volatile combination of his mother’s Bible lessons and his father’s savage beatings affecting him in ways neither of them had intended or would have predicted. Decker did not enjoy his life. He had, in fact, little understanding that life could be enjoyed, and so, after the war had been brewing for a few years, he joined the army without telling anybody back home. Just up and joined and left town without even saying goodbye. He was seventeen years old.

They sent him to a training camp north of Washington and attached him to a newly formed Wisconsin regiment scheduled to ship out for Savannah to reinforce William Tecumseh Sherman as the general regrouped to turn his victorious columns northward into South Carolina. Decker spent a grand total of three days in camp, the first settling in after his train ride from Chicago, the second forming and drilling uncertainly with the regiment on the parade ground, and the third packing up and marching off for the transport ship that would take him and the others down the Atlantic coast. The voyage took two days and Decker was violently sick the entire time, the pitching and rolling of the deck beneath his feet unlike anything he had ever experienced before. One of the officers gave him something designed to settle his system, but Decker was unable to keep it or anything else down, spending most of the trip with his body draped over the ship’s railing, emptying the meager contents of his stomach into the troubled sea.

Upon their arrival in Savannah, Decker was temporarily separated from his regiment and placed with the others who hadn’t fared well on the journey in the field hospital set up just outside the Union encampment, where the doctors paid him almost no attention at all, even though there seemed to be a genuine lack of any battle casualties in the area. One man had just had his leg amputated, and another had been shot in the shoulder, but there was no one else there with any real injuries. At first, Decker was happy just to have a stationary cot on which to lie down, but as his nausea passed, he became more and more frustrated with the doctors who seemed to keep him there for no good purpose.

When finally released the next day, his regiment had already gone into camp, but no one had thought to leave word for Decker as to where it could be found. Given one misguided direction after the other from officers and soldiers in other regiments, Decker spent the entire day wandering up and down the gigantic Union camp, looking either for familiar faces or for his regimental flag. He found the flag about seven o’clock that evening, fastened tightly to the post of a tent requisitioned to the regimental color bearer, a broad and serious man, and one of the few men in the regiment who, primarily because of Decker’s inexperience and ineptitude with the drill five days previous, could match Decker’s name with his face.

“Decker!” the color bearer had said upon seeing the private come stumbling into view. “Where in blazes have you been?”

“At the hospital,” Decker said.

“The hospital?” he asked. “Have you been shot?”

“No, I haven’t been shot,” Decker said irritably. “They held me there all day yesterday on account of my seasickness. They released me this morning, but nobody could tell me where the regiment was. I’ve been looking for you all day.”

The color bearer eyed Decker suspiciously, as if he didn’t quite believe Decker’s story. “Well,” he said. “You better go report to the colonel. There’s been talk that you deserted.”

“Deserted!” Decker exclaimed. “I might as well have for all the attention anyone’s paid to me.”

“Watch your tongue, private,” the man told him. “Now, go report to the colonel.”

Decker went, reported as ordered, and was assigned to a tent with three other men, none of whom he had ever met before. Rations had already been distributed for the night and, as Decker arrived at the tent he would call home for the next three days, his tentmates sat around their campfire finishing off the food they had been issued. One of the men gave Decker his last few scraps of bread and Decker munched on them hungrily while no one bothered to make any room for him around the fire.

The orders to march came within a few days, and none too soon as far as Decker was concerned. The soldiers in his tent were all from the same town in Northern Wisconsin, two of them in fact brothers, all hailing from a logging community Decker had never heard of on the Minnesota border. While not downright rude to Decker, it was clear they did not wholly trust him, offering only a generous measure of the hostility people from small villages often reserve for those from places unknown to them. Decker got his full share of rations on each of the succeeding days, and although the soldiers allowed room for him around the warming fire and had no compunction about sleeping nearly on top of him in the crowded confines of the tent, Decker could not help but feel somewhat like an outsider among them. He would have gone wandering through the regimental camp, looking for friendlier comrades, had they all not received orders to stay with the squads assigned to them. Sherman’s army was getting ready to move, and when the orders came down, there wasn’t a colonel in the camp that wanted his regiment to be the one holding everyone else up.

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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, September 2, 2013

Mental Rules for the Staff Retreat, Part 2

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Two weeks ago, in Mental Rules for the Staff Retreat, 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.

The anonymous staff survey I circulated to gather feedback on the current values our organization rewarded and the kind of change that was needed if we were to be successful in the future had given me plenty of food for thought. As I prepared myself for an all-staff discussion at the retreat we had scheduled to craft our values statement, I codified my thoughts into a set of mental rules that I planned to use as a signpost every time the discussion wandered away from it original purpose.

The first four of these rules I shared openly with the staff, and described them in detail in my last post. The last two rules I kept to myself, but they were just as important to my successful facilitation as any of the others. Here they are:

5. I am the leader I am. I am open to improvement and change, but the shorter path to success may be through closer alignment of the organization to my leadership style.

I am not a charismatic leader. I am not the kind of leader who speaks with passion about the destination we're all rowing towards and inspires people to put even more of their backs into the cause. I'm not good at celebrating wins along the way and I don't do enough to make my association a fun and exciting place to work. I'm aware of my own shortcomings when it comes to the traditional leadership ideal, and I am interested in my own development and improvement.

However, in thinking about the kind of conversation I wanted to have at the staff retreat--and in reading some of the anonymous comments and suggestions offered through the staff survey--I felt it was important to protect against turning our discussion into an examination of my own leadership competencies. I should be willing to recognize that there were things I could do differently to help create the culture that better correlates with the success we would be describing, but I also had to be ready to communicate that there was a limit at which such efforts to change me would lead to diminishing returns for the organization.

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes--and although I may not be the kind of leader some in the organization would choose if we were starting it from scratch, the fact of the matter was that I was the leader the association had. Far greater value would come to the organization by optimizing my existing talents and expertise--and aligning the organization with those--than by trying to reinvent myself and the association at the same time.

6. It is entirely possible that not everyone in the room will be part of the future of the organization. That's OK. The degree of constructive participation each individual shows is one indicator of their readiness for the challenges that lie ahead.

I planned to stay focused on the idea what what we were doing in creating a values statement was the beginning of a process that would reshape the organization over a long period of time--not apply a quick fix to a bunch of problems that are easier for people to diagnose than to solve. As a leader focused on the long game, it would be important for me to recognize that I needed to have greater loyalty to the organization we would say we needed than the organization we currently had.

I would value everyone's perspective. I would use them to shape the direction of our discussion and the kind of values that we would define. But once those values were set, I would need to find the will and the way to hold people accountable for the behaviors they exhibited within the organization. Those that were aligned with our values would be rewarded. Those that didn't would result in reprimands. And it would have to remain conceivable that there were some in the organization who would not be able or willing to rise to the challenge the new values would set before them.

If that became the case, they would need to leave the organization--and it would be my job to bring that fact to their attention. As we went through our initial discussions, I knew that an individual's willingness to constructively participate in the process I had created would give me a first indication of which direction he or she would eventually go.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: The initial output of the staff discussion and how we began to shape it into an actual 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