Monday, December 30, 2013

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Victoria by Eric Lanke

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

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

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

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

Victoria by Eric Lanke - $3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 23, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 16, 2013

Capturing Useful Intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 9, 2013

Making the Rubber Hit the Road

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

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

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

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

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

Teamwork: We work together to deliver exceptional service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

You Are Not Innovative

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

Because you never do anything that's painful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely not one that's innovative.

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