Monday, May 27, 2013

The Folly of Suppressing Overhead

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"This notion of suppressing overhead to give taxpayers more bang for their buck is the opposite of how it works. Suppressing overhead suffocates organizations and leads to higher turnover, poorer leadership, and worse service."

I read this in a recent Dan Pallotta post on the HBR blog. I like reading Pallotta because I regularly come across insights like this. He writes about the non-profit sector, and usually social service organizations, but so many of his perspectives are directly applicable to the association world.

This is a great example. The post is one of several Pallotta has written about how social service organizations can be deprived of the executive leadership necessary to achieve their difficult humanitarian goals by the pervasive mentality that they must be spending high percentages of their expenses on programs in order to be successful. Indeed, as this post shows, "wasting" too much money on executive salaries can be cause for investigations and indictments.

I have seen a corollary in the way some association board members view the organizations over which they act as fiduciaries. Money is to be spent on member services, not "wasted" on staff salaries or "exorbitant" fees charged by association management companies. Indeed, speaking as an association board member myself, I have sometimes fallen victim to this destructive perspective.

Of course, no organization should be throwing good money after bad. But any organization that needs talented staff to design and deliver service programs needed by its constituents, must allocate the appropriate resources to recruiting and retaining that talented staff. And that allocation process, however it is structured, must take mission difficulty and program growth into account when making its decisions.

Mission difficulty. All missions require a leader with a specific skill set. And some missions are more difficult to achieve than others. Is it surprising, then, that the skills sets associated with the more difficult missions are harder to find in the marketplace, and therefore come at a premium price? Every board should think carefully about this dynamic, and be sure to allocate the resources that are necessary to attract and retain a leader with the skills commensurate with the mission of the organization. Not doing so is practically dooming the organization to failure. And holding the ill-equipped leader responsible for the failure just compounds the problem.

Program growth. This one we've all seen. The board gets together for their annual retreat, dreams up a bunch of new programs, and places them all on the shoulders of the already overburdened staff. No old programs taken off their plates. And certainly no more money allocated for the hiring of new staff. Do we want the members to think we're "wasting" their dues money or "building an empire"? Staff positions must grow with programs--that's the only way the increased program load is going to get done--and it is likely the responsibility of the CEO, not the board, to make that call and prepare a budget that takes those staff needs into account.

Don't fall victim to the folly of suppressing overhead. It may look good on your balance sheet or help your Guidestar ratings, but it also means that you're not serious about accomplishing the mission you have supposedly pledged yourself to.

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Do you like the things I say on this blog? Are you attending the 2013 ASAE Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference? Then please stop by the learning lab I'll be leading with Elizabeth Engel and Peggy Hoffman. "Walking the Walk of Deep Member Engagement" will be held from 10:15 to 11:30 AM on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. Click here for more details on the conference. Hope to see you there!

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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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, May 20, 2013

Who Owns Your Association?

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"You need to run the association as if it were YOUR business, knowing that it is NOT."  

I read this on Tom Morrison's blog the other day and thought it was one of the best answers I'd ever heard to one of the most debated questions among association staffers.

Who's association is it? Yours or the members?

Personally, I've always thought it was kind of a false dichotomy. The association obviously belongs to both the staff and the members. Would you really want either camp to act as if the association belonged to the other?

But let's take a closer look at the philosophy underlying Tom's comment. It applies most relevantly, I think, to the association's chief staff executive (CSE), for whom the question is more typically something worth considering. 

It seems to me that the CSE absolutely must run the association as if it was his or her own. In essence, this is what the CSE job entails--running the association. You can't defer that responsibility to the board, and we all know why. They're volunteers, they're a committee, they don't have the professional expertise--we know the dangers of turning the management of any organization over to such a group, however well-intentioned they may be. The CSE must own the association in a way that enables him or her to make the proactive and often difficult decisions that are necessary to keep it growing and successful.

But the terms of that growth and success have to be determined by the board, and they should always remain in the position of ownership that will enable them to exert the power and influence necessary to hold the CSE accountable for those terms. In Tom's phraseology, the board members are the owners--or perhaps more accurately the elected representatives of the owners--and their primary task is to employ a CSE that can take the organization where they want it to go.

And I think this is why some CSEs shy away from the ownership idea. It's far easier to think that the board members are in charge, that it is their association, and that if something goes wrong, it is because they led the association in the wrong direction. To me, this is overly simplistic, and doesn't take into account the real decision-making role that the CSE must play if any association is to be successful. If you're the CSE, you must own the association, because only you are in a position to take it where it needs to go.

But that doesn't mean you get to do anything you want with it. You're running the association, yes, but you're running it for the benefit of the members, and their representatives, the board, will (and should) always have the power to fire you if you stray too far from their vision. It may be difficult reality for some CSEs to face, but it is an absolutely necessary one.

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Do you like the things I say on this blog? Are you attending the 2013 ASAE Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference? Then please stop by the learning lab I'll be leading with Elizabeth Engel and Peggy Hoffman. "Walking the Walk of Deep Member Engagement" will be held from 10:15 to 11:30 AM on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. Click here for more details on the conference. Hope to see you there!

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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, May 18, 2013

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

The subtitle here is “The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” and with good reason, although it wasn’t something that was immediately apparent to me. Many people believe that people are born as blank slates, without any innate nature bred or programmed or carved into them, and are raised as total products of their environment. I don’t think that. To me, the opposite is virtually self-evident. But evidently many people operate and make momentous decisions based on this false premise. And that, according to Pinker, is a problem.

The refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians’ embarrassment about sex, only worse: it distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse, and our day-to-day lives. Logicians tell us that a single contradiction can corrupt a set of statements and allows falsehoods to proliferate through it. The dogma that human nature does not exist, in the face of evidence from science and common sense that it does, is just such a corrupting influence.

Want an example?

In a famous case study, an eight-month-old boy lost his penis in a botched circumcision … His parents consulted the famous sex researcher John Money, who had maintained that “Nature is a political strategy of those committed to maintaining the status quo of sex differences.”

In other words, gender identity has no biological basis. It is entirely a construction of our environment, built on the blank slate of the baby’s mind.

He advised them to let the doctors castrate the baby and build him an artificial vagina, and they raised him as a girl without telling him what had happened. … A New York Times article from the era reported that Brenda (nee Bruce) “Has been sailing contentedly through childhood as a genuine girl.” The facts were suppressed until 1997, when it was revealed that from a young age Brenda felt she was a boy trapped in a girl’s body and gender role. She ripped off frilly dresses, rejected dolls in favor of guns, preferred to play with boys, and even insisted on urinating standing up. At fourteen she was so miserable that she decided either to live her life as a male or to end it, and her father finally told her the truth. She underwent a new set of operations, assumed a male identity, and today is happily married to a woman.

The fact that such edifices have been built upon the faulty foundation of the blank slate should strike fear into our hearts. But for many of us, it doesn’t. Because rejecting the blank slate means rejecting other artifices that are even more dear to us.

Killing the Ghost in the Machine

I am not a dualist. I have been convinced for a number of years now that I—if I exist at all—am a product of what my brain does, not an entity that lives inside it. But most people, I know, disagree with me. To them, the Ghost in the Machine is very real. Self-evidently so.

Francis Crick wrote a book about the brain called The Astonishing Hypothesis, alluding to the idea that all our thoughts and feelings, joys and aches, dreams and wishes consist in the physiological activity of the brain. Jaded neuroscientists, who take the idea for granted, snickered at the title, but Crick was right: the hypothesis is astonishing to most people the first time they stop to ponder it. Who cannot sympathize with the imprisoned Dmitri Karamazov as he tries to make sense of what he has just learned from a visiting academic?

“Imagine: inside, in the nerves, in the head—that is, these nerves are there in the brain…(damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves, and as soon as they begin quivering…that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes and then they begin quivering, those little tails…and when they quiver, then an image appears…it doesn’t appear at once, but an instant, a second, passes…and then something like a moment appears; that is, not a moment—devil take the moment!—but an image; that is, an object, or an action, damn it! That’s why I see and then think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul, and that I am some sort of image and likeness. All that is nonsense! Rakitin explained it all to me yesterday, brother, and it simply bowled me over. It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! A new man’s arising—that I understand…And yet I am sorry to lose God!”

Dostoevsky’s prescience is itself astonishing, because in 1880 only the rudiments of neural functioning were understood, and a reasonable person could have doubted that all experience arises from quivering nerve tails. But no longer. One can say that the information-processing activity of the brain causes the mind, or one can say that it is the mind, but in either case the evidence is overwhelming that every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of the brain.

I’m not sure why, but this last paragraph really came as a revelation to me. I don’t talk a lot about these beliefs, partly because I know most people don’t agree with them and I’d prefer to avoid an argument, and it was probably that mindset that always preserved a worthy opponent’s respect in my mind for the dualist view. I didn’t agree with it, and it seemed illogical to me, but I was willing to allow that it could be true. Lots of people, after all, are smarter than I am, and perhaps they have evidence or a line of reasoning I would find compelling if presented with it.

But I think I’m ready to drop my view that the opposing view deserves respect as a viable alternative. People will continue to cling to dualism, and non-violent people will always receive my respect, but I’m not sure I can any longer think of this position as rational.

Mourning the Death

One of my favorite things is when the religious-minded react with horror to the implications they see inherent in the material view of life. They inevitably—and unconsciously—undermine their own worldview with the “impossible” questions they reactively pose.

You most often see this in action with regard to evolution and its implications for the authority of the Bible.

The religious opposition to evolution is fueled by several moral fears. Most obviously, the fact of evolution challenges the literal truth of the creation story in the Bible and thus the authority that religion draws from it. As one creationist minister put it, “If the Bible gets it wrong in biology, then why should I trust the Bible when it talks about morality and salvation?”

To which the obvious answer is, “Yes, exactly.” If only they would embrace the logical conclusion of the question they just asked. But sadly, they more frequently retreat from it, and dismiss the truth they have just glimpsed.

The same is true with neuroscience.

By exorcising the ghost in the machine, brain science is undermining two moral doctrines that depend on it. One is that every person has a soul, which finds value, exercises free will, and is responsible for its choices. If behavior is controlled instead by circuits in the brain that follow the laws of chemistry, choice and value would be myths and the possibility of moral responsibility would evaporate. As the creationist advocate John West put it, “If human beings (and their beliefs) really are the mindless products of the material existence, then everything that gives meaning to human life—religion, morality, beauty—is revealed to be without objective basis.”

Again. “Yes, exactly.”

This is actually a short primer on a major section of Pinker’s book, in which he tackles four fears people have about the killing the ghost in the machine, or writing on the blank slate. He calls them:

1. The Fear of Inequality: If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified.
2. The Fear of Imperfectability: If people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile.
3. The Fear of Determinism: If people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions.
4. The Fear of Nihilism: If people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose.

I’m not going to dig deeply into each of them, but some do conjure up some thoughts that are worth dealing with.

Genes Drive Our Behavior

Most people don’t think of this at all, and of those that do, most probably don’t like thinking about it. The example from Pinker’s text is related to the raising of stepchildren.

The psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have documented that stepparents are far more likely to abuse a child than are biological parents. The discovery was by no means banal: many parenting experts insist that the abusive stepparent is a myth originating in Cinderella stories and that parenting is a “role” that anyone can take on. Daly and Wilson had originally examined the abuse statistics to test a prediction from evolutionary psychology. Parental love is selected over evolutionary time because it compels parents to protect and nurture their children, who are likely to carry the genes giving rise to parental love. In any species in which someone else’s offspring are likely to enter the family circle, selection will favor a tendency to prefer one’s own, because in the cold reckoning of natural selection and investment in the unrelated children would go to waste. A parent’s patience will tend to run out with stepchildren more quickly than with biological children, and in extreme cases this can lead to abuse.

The implications can be frightening. You’re not choosing to love your own child? A gene that has been bred into you over the millennia has given you a preference for your child over others? And only because “in the cold reckoning of natural selection,” the gene in question finds itself replicated more frequently across your population? Is it any wonder that people fear and reject the arguments derived from evolutionary psychology?

But wait. It gets worse.

Free Will?

The debate over whether or not we have free will is a difficult and sometimes painful one. Like most everyone, it wasn’t a subject I even thought about for most of my life—assuming that the fact of free will was as self-evident as any of the other self-evident truths I saw around me. But as I have read, listened and thought, I have come to realize that there actually is a debatable question here. And, like most philosophical arguments, it really depends on how we define our terms.

For Pinker, who does not believe we have free will, the experience of choosing is not part of his definition.

The experience of choosing is not a fiction, regardless of how the brain works. It is a real neural process, with the obvious function of selecting behavior according to its foreseeable consequences. It responds to information from the senses, including the exhortation of other people. You cannot step outside it or let it go on without you because it is you.

Speaking of philosophers, one of them could spend a lifetime teasing all the meaning out of these words. For our purposes here, let’s focus solely on the idea that you are the neural processes of your brain. Your brain doesn’t have neural processes. That’s the wrong way to phrase it, because it creates a separation between you and your brain. You are the neural processes of your brain.

And when it comes to free will, the only real question is whether those neural processes are “determined” or not (another philosophically loaded word that is best defined in every usage). I get that the neural processes are dependent on the biological, chemical and physical properties of the brain—but that doesn’t mean that their outcome is necessarily determined by them. That’s why it’s called “the process of choosing” instead of just “choosing.” There is no chooser, just the process, but the process can result in non-determined outcomes.

It’s much like what Pinker says about consciousness.

Consciousness is a manifestation of the neural computations necessary to figure out how to get the rare and unpredictable things we need.

In other words, we are not conscious. Again, that implies a separation between us and our conscious state. We are consciousness—the manifestation of the neural functioning of our brain. It works that way because, like all evolutionary successes, it helps us survive and reproduce ourselves.

A Morality Play

One of the deepest fears people have of a biological understanding of the mind is that it would lead to moral nihilism. If we are not created by God for a higher purpose, say the critics on the right, or if we are products of selfish genes, say the critics on the left, then what would prevent us from becoming amoral egoists who look out only for number one.

This one continues to flabbergast me. Look around. Are you trying to tell me that human beings—regardless of their opinions about the source of moral authority—are not amoral egoists? To my way of thinking, there are times when individual humans transcend that position, and there are several individual and societal benefits that come with that transcendence, but at our core and as a species we are amoral egoists. Even believers—for whom altruism is leveraged as a tool to get them into their heaven—have a hard time honestly defending that perspective as anything other than amoral egoism.

But Pinker thinks differently, and he’s probably right. We do have an innate sense of morality, and it can be seen manifesting itself in some strange ways. Consider this story:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that; was it OK for them to make love?

This comes from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has presented this story to many people and tracked their reactions.

Most immediately declare that what Julie and Mark did was wrong, and then they grope for reasons why it was wrong. They mention the dangers of inbreeding, but they are reminded that the siblings used two forms of contraception. They suggest that Julie and Mark will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they were not. They venture that the act would offend the community, but then they recall that it was kept secret. They submit that it might interfere with future relationships, but they acknowledge that Julie and Mark agreed never to do it again. Eventually many of the respondents admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”

Haidt calls this “moral dumbfounding,” and it is a very curious phenomenon indeed. Why do we perceive things that are factually not immoral as immoral. Pinker tells us:

…private acts among consenting adults that do not harm other sentient beings are not immoral.

Which is as near a statement of fact as I’ve ever heard. So, what’s going on here?

Out of Our Depths

It’s related, I believe, to a dynamic described in another section of Pinker’s book that deals with his view that the way our brains inherently work is increasingly at odds with the strange and modern world around us. He lists ten cognitive faculties and core intuitions that evolution has bred into our brains (destroying the myth of the blank slate in just proposing them, I suppose). They are very simple things. For example, we all possess:

An intuitive physics, which we use to keep track of how objects fall, bounce, and bend. Its core intuition is the concept of the object, which occupies one place, exists for a continuous span of time, and follows law of motion and force. These are not Newton’s laws but something closer to the medieval conception of impetus, an “oomph” that keeps an object in motion and gradually dissipates.

The list is comprehensive and defensible. An intuitive moral sense is not listed among them, but the thing that gives us our intuitive moral understanding is undoubtedly the same thing that gives us our other intuitive understandings. In this domain, Pinker’s larger point is well summarized here:

These ways of knowing and core intuitions are suitable for the lifestyle of small groups of illiterate, stateless people who live off the land, survive by their wits, and depend on what they can carry. Our ancestors left this lifestyle for a settled existence only a few millennia ago, too recently for evolution to have done much, if anything, to our brains. Conspicuous by their absence are faculties suited to the stunning new understanding of the world wrought by science and technology. For many domains of knowledge, the mind could not have evolved dedicated machinery, the brain and genome show no hints of specialization, and people show no spontaneous intuitive understanding either in the crib or afterward. They include modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and mathematics.

It’s not just that we have to go to school or read books to learn these subjects. It’s that we have no mental tools to grasp them intuitively. We depend on analogies that press an old mental faculty into service, or on jerry-built mental contraptions that wire together bits and pieces of other faculties. Understanding in these domains is likely to be uneven, shallow, and contaminated by primitive intuitions.

I can’t stress enough how important this concept is—that we understand morality and reality not as they are, but only through the constructions of our aboriginal mind. It’s like an eclipse, that can’t be observed directly, but only a pinhole camera. What we see is not morality or reality in their raw sense, but only an approximation of both.

And it is this dynamic that often manifests itself as a series of logical fallacies that we all succumb to in thus trying to make sense of our modern world. There’s, for example, the naturalistic fallacy—the assumption that everything natural is good and everything unnatural is bad—wonderfully illustrated in the book through an examination of the hoopla surrounding genetically modified foods.

Genetically modified foods are no more dangerous that “natural” foods because they are not fundamentally different from natural foods. Virtually every animal and vegetable sold in a health-food store has been “genetically-modified” for millennia by selective breeding and hybridization. The wild ancestor of carrots was a thin, bitter white root; the ancestor of corn had an inch-long, easily shattered cob with a few small, rock-hand kernels. Plants are Darwinian creatures with no particular desire to be eaten, so they did not go out of their way to be tasty, healthy, or easy for us to grow and harvest. On the contrary: they did go out of their way to deter us from eating them, by evolving irritants, toxins, and bitter-tasting compounds. So there is nothing especially safe about natural foods. Their “natural” method of selective breeding for pest resistance simply increases the concentration of the plant’s own poisons; one variety of natural potato had to be withdrawn from the market because it proved to be toxic to people. Similarly, natural flavors—defined by one food scientist as “a flavor that’s been derived with an out-of-date technology”—are often chemically indistinguishable from their artificial counterparts, and when they are distinguishable, sometimes the natural flavor is the more dangerous one. When “natural” almond flavor, benzaldehyde, is derived from peach pits, it is accompanied by traces of cyanide; when it is synthesized as an “artificial flavor,” it is not.

A blanket fear of all artificial and genetically modified foods is patently irrational on health grounds, and it could make food more expensive and hence less available to the poor.

And there’s the physical fallacy—an economist’s term that refers to the mistaken belief that an object had a true and constant value, as opposed to being worth only what someone is willing to pay for it at a given place and time.

The belief that goods have a “just price” implies that it is avaricious to charge anything higher, and the result had been mandatory pricing schemes in medieval times, communist regimes, and many Third World countries. Such attempts to work around the law of supply and demand have usually led to waste, shortages, and black markets. Another consequence of the physical fallacy is the widespread practice of outlawing interest, which comes from the intuition that it is rapacious to demand additional money from someone who has paid back exactly what he borrowed. Of course, the only reason people borrow at one time and repay it later is that the money is worth more to them at the time they borrow it than it will be at the time they repay it. So when regimes enact sweeping usury laws, people who could put money to productive use cannot get it, and everyone’s standards of living go down.

Just as the value of something may change with time, which creates a niche for lenders who move valuable things around in time, so it may change with space, which creates a niche for middlemen who move valuable things around in space. A banana is worth more to me in a store down the street than it is in a warehouse a hundred miles away, so I am willing to pay more to the grocer than I would to the importer—even though by “eliminating the middleman” I could pay less per banana. For similar reasons, the importer is willing to charge the grocer less than he would charge me.

And these fallacies can have dangerous consequences.

But because lenders and middlemen do not cause tangible objects to come into being, their contributions are difficult to grasp, and they are often thought of as skimmers and parasites. A recurring event in human history is the outbreak of ghettoization, confiscation, expulsion, and mob violence against middlemen, often ethnic minorities who learned to specialize in the middleman niche. The Jews in Europe are the most famous example, but the expatriate Chinese, the Lebanese, the Armenians, and the Gujeratis and Chettyars of India have suffered similar histories of persecution.

I have to admit, I never saw the persecution of Jews through this prism before, but it connects the way Pinker explains it, and it makes me wonder how much a human history can be explained by similar stories of people acting in accordance with their evolved psychology rather than more educated ways of thinking and understanding. Almost all of it, I would imagine. It forms an interesting cautionary tale for anyone looking to introduce new ideas into the world.

Political Evidence That the Slate is Not Blank

Another large section of the book is devoted to politics, and the observable fact that much of our political existence is actually premised on the idea that human nature exists—that people are not born as entirely malleable by the environment they are exposed to and the conditioning that they receive.

As the chapter on politics will explain, constitutional democracy is based on a jaundiced theory of human nature in which “we” are eternally vulnerable to arrogance and corruption. The checks and balances of democratic institutions were explicitly designed to stalemate the often dangerous ambitions of imperfect humans.

Excellent point. What was it that Madison said? Ambition must be made to counteract ambition? But let’s dig deeper.

A nonblank slate means that a tradeoff between freedom and material equality is inherent to all political systems. The major political philosophies can be defined by how they deal with the tradeoff. The Social Darwinist right places no value on equality; the totalitarian left places no value on freedom. The Rawlsian left sacrifices some freedom for equality; the libertarian right sacrifices some equality for freedom. While reasonable people may disagree about the best tradeoff, it is unreasonable to pretend that there is no tradeoff. And that in turn means that any discovery of innate differences among individuals is not forbidden knowledge to be suppressed but information that might help us decide on these tradeoffs in an intelligent and humane manner.

And, as a matter of fact, it is not just constitutional democracy that assumes an innate human nature exists. Pinker points out that both Nazism and Marxism shared a desire to reshape humanity—something that wouldn’t be necessary if an innate human nature did not exist. They also shared “a tyrannical certainty in pursuit of this goal, with no patience for incremental reform or adjustments guided by the human consequences of their policies.” This, in large part, is what led to their atrocities.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.”

Political ideology is a powerful thing—and those that seek to “reshape humanity” have within them the seeds for wholesale slaughter of the humans they seek to reform.

Tragic vs. Utopian?

Pinker’s chapter on politics spends a lot of time describing how our usual classification of political philosophies—conservative and liberal—is hopelessly muddy, the lines between the two ill-defined and their spheres of concern often overlapping. He tries to establish another way of examining political differences, and coins two new terms—the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision—to elucidate the actual political differences that exist in society, both referring to a unique vision of mankind and its capabilities.

In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. … In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.

It’s an interesting dichotomy to explore, which Pinker does for several more pages. And as he did I tried to follow along, expecting to find myself squarely on one side or the other. In fact, I realized with some confusion that some of my perspectives are Tragic, while others are Utopian. Too much like the conservative/liberal axis, then, the tragic/utopian one is less useful as a guiding political philosophy, and more so as another construction through which to examine one’s various political opinions.

There are, however, more examples that support the Tragic Vision—that humans have an inborn and limited nature—than the Utopian One—that all human limitations come from the environment around them.

When law enforcement vanishes, all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansing, and petty warfare among gangs, warlords, and mafias. This was obvious in the remnants of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and parts of Africa in the 1990s, but can also happen in countries with a long tradition of civility.

Pinker offers a personal anecdote that helps demonstrate this.

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first back was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).

It’s enough to make you reconsider any Utopian vision you might have. Unless, of course, you choose to argue that the violence was direct result of the inequitable social construction that overlaid Canadian society in the late 1960s. That’s what makes politics so frustrating. The political mind doesn’t fashion philosophy from events. It weaves events into a pre-existing philosophy. Don’t know if that’s Tragic or Utopian, but it certainly seems true.

Modernity and Egalitarianism

Here’s another interesting idea, this one in reference to the growing equality of the sexes.

Another cause is the technological and economic progress that made it possible for couples to have sex and raise children without a pitiless division of labor in which a mother had to devote every waking moment to keeping the children alive. Clean water, sanitation, and modern medicine lowered infant mortality and reduced the desire for large broods of children. Baby bottles and pasteurized cow’s milk, and then breast pumps and freezers, made it possible to feed babies without their mothers being chained to them around the clock. Mass production made it cheaper to buy things than to make then by hand, and plumbing, electricity, and appliances reduced the domestic workload even more. The increased value of brains over brawn in the economy, the extension of the human lifespan (with the prospect of decades of life after childrearing), and the affordability of extended education changed the values of women’s options in life. Contraception, amniocentesis, ultrasound, and reproductive technologies made it possible for women to defer childbearing to the optimal points in their lives.

Modernity makes egalitarianism possible. Without our modern way of life, there would be no egalitarianism. The implications may be unsettling to our modern sensibilities, but can another conclusion honestly be reached?

Partners in a Human Relationship

In one of his last chapters, Pinker tackles the question of child rearing, and demonstrates to good effect how the theory of The Blank Slate can complicate if not poison that process. He cites a fair amount of evidence that supports the idea that environment and a parent’s actions towards a child—outside of actual neglect and abuse—have very little effect on the kind of person a child is and the kind of adult they turn out to be. Much of this, it seems, is encoded in our innate natures, not molded and shaped by our external environment. Most people—especially parents—rebel at this idea, but at the same time, how many of us know a pair of siblings, raised in the same house by the same parents, who are as different as night and day?

To people who, when confronted with this evidence, say “I hope to God this isn’t true. The thought that all this love that I’m pouring into my child counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate,” Pinker has some pointed advice.

No one ever asks, “So you’re saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my husband or wife?” even though no one but a newlywed believes that one can change the personality of one’s spouse. Husbands and wives are nice to each other (or should be) not to pound the other’s personality into a desired shape but to build a deep and satisfying relationship. Imagine being told that one cannot revamp the personality of a husband or wife and replying, “The thought that all this love I’m pouring into him (or her) counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate.” So it is with parents and children: one person’s behavior toward another has consequences for the quality of the relationship between them. Over the course of a lifetime the balance of power shifts, and children, complete with memories of how they were treated, have a growing say in their dealings with their parents. As [scholar Judith Rich] Harris puts it, “If you don’t think the moral imperative is a good enough reason to be nice to your kid, try this one: Be nice to your kid when he’s young so that he will be nice to you when you’re old.” There are well-functioning adults who still shake with rage when recounting the cruelties their parents inflicted on them as children. There are others who moisten up in private moments when recalling a kindness or sacrifice made for their happiness, perhaps one that the mother or father has long forgotten. If for no other reason, parents should treat their children well to allow them to grow up with such memories.

And then comes this paragraph, which I believe contains more seeds of effective parenting than some entire books written on the subject.

I have found what when people hear these explanations they lower their eyes and say, somewhat embarrassedly, “Yes. I knew that.” The fact that people can forget these simple truths when intellectualizing about children shows how far modern doctrines have taken us. They make it easy to think of children as lumps of putty to be shaped instead of partners in a human relationship. Even the theory that children adapt to their peer group becomes less surprising when we think of them as human beings like ourselves. “Peer group” is a patronizing term we use in connection with children for what we call “friends and colleagues and associates” when we talk about ourselves. We groan when children obsess over wearing the right kind of cargo pants, but we would be just as mortified if a very large person forced us to wear pink overalls to a corporate board meeting or a polyester disco suit to an academic conference. “Being socialized by a peer group” is another way of saying “living successfully within a society,” which for a social organism means “living.” It is children, above all, who are alleged to be blank slates, and that can make us forget they are people.

It’s a good note to end on. The Blank Slate, in addition to all its other destructive consequences, makes people forget that other people are just as human as they are.

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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, May 13, 2013

Getting Used to the Dark

image source
I found this HBR blog post to offer an interesting perspective--namely that businesses, fatigued with all the doomsday economic predictions and ineffectual political grandstanding in Washington, are muscling forward and figuring out how to be prosperous despite the constant economic and political turmoil. To quote the post's closing line: "We are stuck in an economic tunnel: there is no light and no end in sight, but at least we are getting used to the dark."

Reminds me of an association luncheon I attended recently, where the inside-the-beltway speaker looked befuddled when I asked her if it would make any difference to Washington if only a tiny fraction of the population kept voting. My bet was that it wouldn't--that the demagogues would just trumpet their 2% mandate and then get back to the serious business of sticking it to the other political party. Voters, I thought at the time, would grow weary like businesses in the HBR post, and would figure out how to get by on their own.

So much for my political opinions. What I really want you to think about is the possibility that the same HBR observation might apply to your association. In that construction, it is your organization that is running from one crisis to another, and your members who are growing fatigued with your promises that go nowhere, and who are figuring out how to get by without you.

Sound familiar? If not, then consider it a cautionary tale. There are associations that, despite ever-escalating concerns about the challenges facing their industry or profession, are growing less and less relevant to the constituents they supposedly serve. Why? Well, it may be that they are trying to solve their own problems, rather than helping their members solve theirs.

Like many of the politicians in Washington, who appear to the voters to be more concerned with winning elections than enacting good legislation, these associations appear to their members to be more concerned with their own objectives--growing membership, increasing meeting attendance, maximizing non-dues revenue--than they are with helping them solve their problems.

And what happens next? Cue the last line of the HBR post. The members get used to operating in the dark.

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Do you like the things I say on this blog? Are you attending the 2013 ASAE Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference? Then please stop by the learning lab I'll be leading with Elizabeth Engel and Peggy Hoffman. "Walking the Walk of Deep Member Engagement" will be held from 10:15 to 11:30 AM on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. Click here for more details on the conference. Hope to see you there!

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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, May 6, 2013

If the Future is a Painting, Who's the Painter?

I've been blogging lately about what it takes to lead an organization in a new direction. I don't pretend to be an expert in this area. My blog posts are reflections of the thoughts I'm having as I try to lead my own organization through the turbulent waters of change. 

If you accept this premise of one of my previous posts, that we can only see the destination by moving towards it, then it seems to me that one of the pivotal responsibilities of the leader is not to present the clearest possible picture of the future, but to define for the organization the set of terms and conditions on which the future picture will be created.

Imagine that the future is a painting. In that analogy, the leader is not the painter. The leader supplies the paints and brushes that the organization will use to paint the picture. The leader also must clarify what kind of painting is to be made. Landscape or portrait? Abstract or realism? People must understand and embrace a leader's vision, but beyond that, the organization itself must do the work of deciding what will be made and how the paint will be put on the canvas.

Why? Because the myth of the heroic leader is exactly that--a myth. A single individual can have a vision, and that person can stay slavishly faithful to that vision, pushing everyone and aligning all resources towards its unalterable execution, but that person is not a leader--at least not the kind of leader today's organizations need. The painting analogy is apt because that person is actually an artist--perhaps even a great one--and most great artists never produce anything that is appreciated in their lifetimes.

If you are going to create something that is useful and appreciated today you have to bring other people into the creative process. In the world of associations that means members--because they are the consumers whose needs you are trying to satisfy. But it also means staff people--because they are the foundation upon which the future vision must be sustained. The individual leader can create something great in a single burst of passion and energy, but no individual can offer that passion and energy in the sustainable fashion that is necessary to keep the program alive and adapting for years to come.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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, May 4, 2013

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I started off liking this book. Then I didn’t like it. Then I liked it again.

Let me explain.

Re: I started off liking this book. The first chapter is awesome. It's told in Vonnegut’s own voice, and it’s about the book he’s going to write about his experience in World War II (i.e., the book you’re reading, Slaughterhouse-Five). It’s clever and totally deconstructs the novel form. He tells you on page 4 what the climax of this book is going to be, as he’s talking to an old war buddy about the project.

“Listen—” I said, “I’m writing this book about Dresden. I’d like some help remembering stuff. I wonder if I could come down and see you, and we could drink and talk and remember.”

He was unenthusiastic. He said he couldn’t remember much. He told me, though, to come ahead.

“I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby,” I said. “The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

“Um,” said O’Hare.

“Don’t you think that’s really where the climax should come?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “That’s your trade, not mine.”

The book that follows does indeed contain a character named Edgar Derby, but his execution is hardly the climax of the story. Every time he’s mentioned, Vonnegut reminds the reader that he’s going to get shot, and when it finally does happen it practically happens off stage. By telling us up front what the climax is going to be, Vonnegut destroys its effectiveness. He renders it impotent and takes away its sting. But there’s more than that going on here. O’Hare says, “that’s your trade, not mine,” calling attention to the idea that novel writing is a trade, and that it, like all trades, has tools. Tools like character development, plot exposition, rising action and climaxes. Slaughterhouse-Five has precious little of any of that, because Slaughterhouse-Five is not so much a novel as it is a commentary on the fundamental immorality of war—and how impervious most people are to seeing it.

Re: Then I didn’t like it. So then we get into the book, and are introduced to the protagonist, who isn’t Vonnegut, but an optometrist from Ilium, New York named Billy Pilgrim, who also fought in World War II and was present for the bombing of Dresden. Billy, as Vonnegut famously writes, “has come unstuck in time,” meaning that he seemingly jumps from time period to time period within his own life throughout the course of the novel.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that this is Vonnegut’s metaphor for war, a place where a soldier “has no control over where he is going next,” and where he lives in “a constant state of stage fright.” It also is a remnant of the trauma Billy suffered in Germany, the time travel more mental than physical for him, especially as his life also includes time periods where he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. I don’t like this part of the novel—or at least didn’t while I was first reading it. It’s rough and jarring and unbelievable (more metaphors for war, perhaps?), but even so, some of Vonnegut’s genius begins to slip through.

It starts with a couple of Billy’s encounters with the Tralfamadorians. When he is first taken for observation:

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

And later, when he is actually taken back to Tralfamadore to live in a zoo:

“Where am I?” said Billy Pilgrim.

“Trapped in another blob of amber, Mr. Pilgrim. We are where we have to be just now—three hundred million miles from Earth, bound for a time warp which will get us to Tralfamadore in hours rather than centuries.”

“How—how did I get here?”

“It would take another Earthling to explain it to you. Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

And I realize that this silliness about Tralfamadore is really very serious business, because through it Vonnegut is expressing his commentary about war and the men who fight in them. This piques my interest, and I begin to pay closer attention to what’s happening to Billy as he bounces around in time and space.

Re: Then I liked it again. And while I’m paying more attention, I bump into this:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out—in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

Which, of course, is an accurate description of what Vonnegut is trying to do with Slaughterhouse-Five.

These adventures on Tralfamadore, then, like all good science fiction, become fantastic analogies for the realities that Vonnegut is trying to convey, and since the reality he is trying to convey is the nearly inscrutable subject of war, the more fantastic the analogies become, the more accurate they can be in describing the indescribable. The Tralfamadorians put Billy on display in their zoo, and the general Tralfamadorian public has a hard time understanding him and his behaviors, because the two species perceive time in drastically different ways. So Billy’s Tralfamadorian guide gives them an analogy.

The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightways. Whatever poor Billy saw though the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”

I believe that Vonnegut is not just describing Billy’s “vision” in relation to that of the Tralfamadorians, but in fact is describing a human’s vision in relation to the actual reality that surrounds him or her, not just on the battlefield of war, but in everyday life. “That’s life,” we all say, but it isn’t really. It’s just what we are able to perceive.

And then there’s the fundamental immorality of war—and how impervious most people are to seeing it. In the course of Billy’s time jumping, he comes across a hack science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout.

This, too, was the title of a book by Trout, The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.

It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.

Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.

See what I mean? In the parable of science fiction the inscrutable becomes clear. It takes the steel sphere with its eyehole pipe off our heads and lets us see the reality that surrounds us. Through the periscope, burning the innocent city dwellers of the enemy to death with jellied gasoline may pass the constructed morality test of our times and our society, but abstracted to the world of robots and aliens, the utter lunacy and immorality of it all becomes apparent.

That’s Slaughterhouse-Five in a nutshell. And taken from this perspective, the novel is a remarkable achievement.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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