Monday, December 29, 2014

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2014

As we end another year, here's a look back at the five posts on this blog that received the most page views in 2014.

1. Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
This was #1 on last year's list, and #3 the year before that. It was originally posted in January 2012, and keeps getting a ton of traffic, including as the page through which the highest number of people enter my site. 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. The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling
A newcomer to these lists, this one was originally posted in May 2014, and summarizes my takeaways from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution. The book's subtitle is “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” and it contains a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for doing exactly that--with a lot of potential applicability for associations. Among the many practical tools it taught me was the need to create "winnable games" for your team to go after, with regular and visual scorecards showing the team's progress towards each goal. As the authors continually remind the reader, people play differently when they are keeping score. When they can see at a glance whether or not they are winning they become profoundly engaged.

3. The Chairman's Gift
Missing from last year's list, this one, originally posted in July 2012, made #4 on the list the year before that. It tells the story about how my association ensures that our outgoing Board Chair receives a gift that recognizes not just his service to the association, but the fact that he is an individual who has made a personal sacrifice to serve in that capacity. The true value is the message it sends to others who might be considering a similar commitment in their futures.

4. No One Knows How to Make a Computer Mouse
This was #2 on last year's list, 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.

5. I'm Not Building a Navy SEAL Team
Another newcomer to the list, originally posted in October 2014. I felt this one was going to strike a nerve when I was writing it. In it, I push back on the all-too-common practice of presenting ex-military officers as leadership examples at conferences and seminars. SEAL team members, Army Rangers and Green Beret all deserve our thanks for their heroism and service, but the challenges they face and the methods for team cohesion and development they use don't relate well to the world of association management. We should stop pretending that they do.

My thanks to everyone who has been reading what I've been putting up here. I hope you plan to stay engaged in 2015.

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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

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

This is a marvelous little book that uses four different narrators to explore the dark and painful repercussions that come with the loss of innocence. On the surface, the innocence in question is the lives of fourteen children from a small town called Sam Dent, who are killed in a school bus accident, but roiling away under the surface are the irrevocable thoughts and fears of our four narrators.

The first is Dolores Driscoll, a woman with grown children and a husband who has trouble speaking because of a stroke, who drove the bus in question, swerving to avoid what she would swear was a stray dog and rolling the bus into the winter countryside. Dolores is a keen observer of children--those she raised and those she drives to school each day…

By now there was some noise in the bus, the early morning sounds of children practicing at being adults, making themselves known to one another and to themselves in their small voices (some of them not so small)--asking questions, arguing, making exchanges, gossiping, bragging, pleading, courting, threatening, testing--doing everything we ourselves do, the way puppies and kittens at play mimic grown dogs and cats at work. It’s not altogether peaceful or sweet, any more than the noises adults make are peaceful and sweet, but it doesn’t do any serious harm. And because you can listen to children without fear, the way you can watch puppies tumble and bite and kittens sneak up on one another and spring without worrying that they’ll be hurt by it, the talk of children can be very instructive. I guess it’s because they play openly at what we grownups do seriously and in secret.

The second is Billy Ansel, a Vietnam veteran and widower, raising two kids on his own, and involved with Risa Walker, a married woman in town as miserable as he after all their children are killed in the accident. Billy’s a keen observer, too; not so much of children, but of the fate that awaits them and us all...

The way we deal with death depends on how it’s imagined for us beforehand, by our parents and the people who surround them, and what happens to us early on. And if we believed properly in death--the way we actually do believe in taxes, for instance--and did not insist on thinking that we had it beat, we might never have had a Vietnam war. Or any war. Instead, we believe the lie, that death, unlike taxes, can be postponed indefinitely, and we spend our lives defending that belief. Some people are very good at it, and they become our nation’s heroes. Some, like me, for obscure reasons, see the lie early for what it is, fake it for a while and grow bitter, and then go beyond bitterness what? To this, I suppose Cowardice. Adulthood.

The third is Mitchell Stephens, Esquire, a lawyer from the big city, who comes to the small town after hearing of the accident to bring the only kind of justice he believes can come out of such a tragedy. Mitch, too, is a keen observer. His specialty is human nature and the system it can’t help build and which is forever beyond its control...

But anytime I hear about a case like that school bus disaster up there, I turn into a heat-seeking missile, homing in on a target that I know in my bones is going to turn out to be some bungling corrupt state agency or some multinational corporation that’s cost-accounted for the difference between a ten-cent bolt and a million-dollar out-of-court settlement and has decided to sacrifice a few lives for the difference. They do that, work the bottom line; I’ve seen it play out over and over again, until you start to wonder about the human species. They’re like clever monkeys, that’s all. They calculate ahead of time what it will cost them to assure safety versus what they’re likely to be forced to settle for damages when the missing bolt sends the bus over a cliff, and they simply choose the cheaper option. And it’s up to people like me to make it cheaper to build the bus with that extra bolt, or add the extra yard of guardrail, or drain the quarry. That’s the only check you’ve got against them. That’s the only way you can ensure moral responsibility in this society. Make it cheaper.

And the fourth is Nichole Burrell, one of the most popular teenagers in town, a survivor of the bus crash, now confined to a wheelchair, and a girl with a dark and unspeakable secret.

Back then, though, with Jennie sound asleep in the bunk above me, I used to lie awake at night thinking up ways to kill myself. Dying was the only way I could imagine the end of what I was doing with Daddy, although sometimes I imagined that he had suddenly decided to leave me alone, because weeks would go by, whole months, when he did leave me alone, when he just acted regular, and I thought then that maybe he had decided that what he was making me do with him was wrong, really wrong, and he was sorry and wouldn’t come to me anymore when we were alone in the house or in the car and touch me and make me touch him.

Needless to say, Nichole is a keen observer, too. In her circumstance she has come to understand the imperviousness of our outer lives, and how the pain that lies beneath them, however sordid and nasty, when never mentioned, has no power to affect them.

It is through these four narrators, then, that we see the story Banks is telling--see both the plot and its details, as well as the meaning and implications of these events on the people themselves. They form an interesting quartet, their lives and story lines intersecting in the narrative, especially as the lawsuit that Mitch is determined to bring to this small town begins to create deep divides that almost no one is able to cross.

Mitch and Billy are stark opposites in this story--the lawyer convinced that someone, somewhere is to blame for this horrible accident, and the Vietnam veteran believing just as fervently that no one is to blame, that it was, in essence, an unforeseeable event that no one brought about.

Billy’s perspective is clearly colored by his past experiences--Vietnam and the death of his wife, Lydia, among them--and he has achieved a certain fatalism that seems to make the search for both proximate and ultimate causes superfluous.

Desperately, we struggled to arrange the event in our minds so that it made sense. Each of us in his own way went to the bottom and top of his understanding in search of a believable explanation, trying to escape this huge black nothingness that threatened to swallow our world whole. I guess the Christians in town, and there are a lot of them, got there first, at least the adults did, and I’m glad for them, but I myself could not rest there, and I believe that secretly most of them could not, either. To me, the religious explanation was just another sly denial of the facts. Not as sly, maybe, as insisting that the accident was actually not an accident, that someone--Dolores, the town, the state, someone--had caused it; but a denial nonetheless. Biology doesn’t matter, the Christians argued, because this body we live in is not ultimately real; history doesn’t matter, they said, because God’s time is different and superior to man’s anyhow; and forget cause and effect, forget what you’ve been told about the physical world, because there is heaven and there is hell and there is this green earth in between, and you are always alive in one of the three places.

I was raised, like most folks in Sam Dent, with a Christian perspective, and I remember it well: they made no bones about it. Billy, they said, there is no such thing as death. Just everlasting life. Isn’t that great? That was the bottom line, whether you were Protestant like me and Lydia or Catholic like half of the other folks in town. But when I was nineteen and went to Vietnam, I was still young enough to learn something new, and the new thing was all this dying that I saw going on around me. Consequently, when I came home from Vietnam, I couldn’t take the Christian line seriously enough even to bother arguing with it. To please Lydia and the kids, I went to church a couple of times a year, but the rest of the time I stayed home and read the Sunday paper. Then Lydia died, and the Christian perspective came to seem downright cruel to me, because I had learned that death touched everyone. Even me. I stopped going to church altogether.

I still believed in life, however--that it goes on, in spite of death. I had my children, after all. And Risa. But four years later, when my son and daughter and so many other children of this town were killed in the accident, I could no longer believe even in life. Which meant that I had come to be the reverse, the opposite, of a Christian. For me, now, the only reality was death.

While Mitch, on the other hand, is driven to view everything from a decidedly deterministic point of view. So driven, in fact, that he--knowingly or not--will create the determinism that he feeds on if it isn’t readily apparent.

I took off my gloves, stuck my hand out, and said my name; he accepted my hand limply into his and let me shake the thing, as if it were an ear of corn. The guy’s gone, I thought, he’s off with his kid. I hoped his wife would turn out to be the angry one.

Usually, that’s all you need. The angry partner carries the defeated partner, who hasn’t then energy to argue against even the idea of a suit, let alone the actuality, which of course, once it’s under way, provides its own momentum. You do need one of them fueled by anger, however, especially in the beginning; two defeated parties tend to reinforce each other’s lassitude and make lousy litigants. The attorney often ends up fighting his own clients, especially near the end, when it gets down to dealing out the last cards, and the out-of-court settlement offers get made and refused. I wanted a mean lean team, a troop of vengeful parents willing to go the route with me and not come home without some serious trophies on our spears.

He’s done this before, you see. Invading a small community that has experienced a horrible tragedy, and manipulating people into creating the reality by which he understands the world and justifies his role in it. He is, in fact, a bit of a psychopath in this regard.

Nothing else provides me with the rush that I get from cases like this. There is a brilliant hard-edged clarity that comes over me when I take on a suit for the Ottos and the Walkers of the world, an intensity and focus that makes me feel more alive then than at any other time.

It’s almost like a drug. It’s probably close to what professional soldiers feel, or bullfighters. The rest of the time, like most people, I muddle lonely through my days and nights feeling unsure, vaguely confused, conflicted, and aimless. Put me onto something like this school bus case, though, and zap! all those feelings disappear. Nothing else does it--not illicit sex, not cocaine, not driving fast late at night on the wrong lane of the highway, all of which I’ve tried. Nothing.

This Mitchell Stephens, Esquire, as we come to understand, is a creature that must control the world around him and the people in it.

Most everyone else in the novel lives on the spectrum that stretches between the two opposite poles of Billy and Mitch. But there is one person in town who is able to cross this divide, to rise above the continuum and view things from a new perspective. Her name is Nichole Burrell.

Initially, her sympathies are much more closely aligned with Billy’s perspective.

Of course, he was also afraid that I would refuse to go along with their lawsuit. I still hadn’t agreed to do it, not in so many words, but in my mind I had decided to go ahead and say what they wanted me to say, which they insisted was only to answer Mr. Stephens's and the other lawyers’ questions truthfully. That couldn’t hurt anything, I figured, because the truth was, I didn’t really remember anything about the actual accident, so nothing I said could be used to blame anybody for it. It was an accident, that’s all. Accidents happen.

But as they pressure her, both Mitch and her father, she begins to see the lawsuit, and her role in it, as a tool that can be used to accomplish certain goals. After listening to her father and Billy arguing over whether the lawsuit would help or hurt their small community, Nichole begins to work it out.

At that moment, I hated my parents more than I ever had. I hated them for all that had gone before--Daddy for what he knew and had done, and Mom for what she didn’t know and hadn’t done--but I also hated them for this new thing, this awful lawsuit. The lawsuit was wrong. Purely in God’s eyes, as Mom especially should know, it was wrong; but also it was making Billy Ansel sadder than life had already done on its own, and that seemed stupid and cruel; and now it looked like half the people in town were doing it too, making everyone around them crazy with pain, the same as Mom and Daddy were doing to Billy, so they didn’t have to face their own pain and get over it.

Why couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t they just stand up like good people and say to Mr. Stephens, “No, forget the lawsuit. We’ll get by somehow on our own. It’s too harmful to too many people. Goodbye, Mr. Stephens. Take your law practice back to New York City, where people like to sue each other.”

Eventually, she decides that she, and only she, can make Mitch drop the lawsuit, but only if she plays her cards very carefully, revealing them to no one. And in doing so, she thinks, perhaps she can also repair the damage that’s being done to her family. They can drop all of the painful secrets that are dividing them, and go back to being the trusting family she remembers.

Except the big one, of course. Which would always be there, no matter what I did, like a huge purple birthmark on my face, something that he alone could see whenever he looked at me, and I, whenever I looked in the mirror.

I have to admit. When Banks first introduced the fact that Nichole was being sexually abused by her father, I questioned whether or not he could pull it off. It’s a difficult subject to address without gratuitous melodrama or squeamishness, but Banks does a good job with it. Especially since it becomes the axle around which Nichole’s plan ultimately turns.

Mitch wants access to the deep pockets that come with the town, or the county, or state--assuming one of them can be held accountable for building the road wrong, or not plowing it well enough, or not installing the proper guardrails. And Nichole’s father is one of the many people in town that Mitch is able to seduce into guarding this quest, agreeing to testify in any way necessary to ensure that such a case can proceed. But they need someone who can attest that the accident wasn’t Dolores’s fault. That, as the school bus driver, she was doing everything exactly as she was supposed to. And one of the only people who can do that is Nichole.

Expect Nichole decides to tell a different story. On the witness stand, she testifies that Dolores was speeding, and that Nichole knew she was because she was sitting right behind the driver’s seat and could see the speedometer. She lies, and it completely scuttles Mitch’s plans for bringing his style of justice to this small town, and there is a certain melodramatic pleasure in watching that unfold. But what’s more fascinating is the way Banks weaves into Nichole’s motivations both her desire to end the lawsuit and her desire to end the abusive relationship with her father.

But Daddy knew why I had lied. He knew who was normal and who wasn’t. Mr. Stephens couldn’t ever know the truth, but Daddy always would. He put my wheelchair into the trunk of the car and came around to the driver’s side and got in and sat there for a minute with the key in his hand, looking at it as if he didn’t quite understand its purpose. He said nothing for a long time.

They drive home and, in doing so, they pass the grounds where their county fair is held, and Nichole drifts into bittersweet reflection as she watches the fairgrounds under construction.

It looked beautiful, and sad somehow. The white grandstand and the covered stage facing it had been freshly painted, and the field of mown grass inside the oval racetrack in front of the stand was bright green and shiny under the huge blue sky. When I was Jennie’s age, the grandstand had seemed enormous to me and frightening, especially when we went at night and it was filled with a huge noisy crowd of strangers. Now the structure seemed tiny and almost sweet, and it would no longer be filled with strangers; I would know the faces and even the names of almost everyone up there on those board seats, and they would wave at me and say, Come on over, Nichole, and sit here with us. The track that looped around the field and passed between the stage and the grandstand had been raked smooth and watered until it looked like it was made of chocolate frosting. Scattered among the pine trees behind the grandstand were the low livestock barns and pens and the exhibit halls, where over the years I had won ribbons for my 4-H projects--my angora rabbits, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum; and my plaster-of-paris relief map of Sam Dent in 1866 with balsa wood houses and lichen woods and painted fields; and my Just Say No to Drugs poster. They had all won blue ribbons, which Daddy had framed and hung on the living room wall and which were still hanging there, although I had not looked at them in a long time. The skeleton of a Ferris wheel and the long arms of the octopus ride were already in place, and the game booths and tents were being assembled by a gang of tanned shirtless young men and boys with tattoos on their arms and cigarettes in their mouths, probably the same out-of-town men and boys who last year had flirted and called to me and Jody and the other local girls as we strolled along the midway and tried to ignore them but always found an excuse to turn around at the end of the row of booths and walk back, more slowly this time, looking at each other and rolling our eyes as the boys asked us to come on over and try our luck.

Bittersweet, of course, from the loss of her two innocences--the one her father took from her and the one she gave up on the witness stand.

Nichole’s own remorse comes out only at the very end of the drive.

As we pulled into the yard, I said to Daddy, “Nothing will happen to Dolores, will it?”

He shut off the engine, and we sat there for a moment in silence, listening to the dashboard clock tick. Finally, he said, “No. Nobody wants to sue Dolores. She’s one of us.”

“Will the police do anything to her now?”

“It’s too late for that. Dolores can’t drive the school bus anymore, anyhow; the school board saw to that right off. I doubt she even wants to. Everyone knows she’s suffered plenty.”

“But everyone will blame her now, won’t they?”

“Most will, yes. Those that don’t know the truth will blame Dolores. People have got to have somebody to blame, Nichole.”

“But we know the truth,” I said. “Don’t we?”

“Yes,” he said, and for the first time since before the accident, he looked me straight in the face. “We know the truth, Nichole. You and I.” His large blue eyes had filled with sorrowful tears, and his whole face seemed to beg for forgiveness.

I made a small thin smile for him, but he couldn’t smile back. Suddenly, I saw that he would never be able to smile again. Never. And then I realized that I had finally gotten exactly what I had wanted.

This result, this private victory of Nichole over her father, is much more satisfying to the reader than the more public victory she enjoyed over Mitch. In the competing philosophies our various narrators represent (Billy’s apathetic fatalism and Mitch’s domineering determinism), in the end we come to see that it is only Nichole that can dimly discern that truth. Those who are to blame rarely ever get what’s coming to them.

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Holiday Break: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

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 2014, the one I'd most like to revisit is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. I blogged about it back in July, and opened that post with the following quotation:

In the Far East, there are plenty of people who own a robe and a bowl. That’s all. They throw themselves on the waters of the world, and they know they will be borne up. They are more secure than you or I. I know by now that I can’t be like that. I’m too American. But I know it’s possible. That gives me a sense of security.

It was as good a quote as any to frame my reaction to the novel, because Ginny Cook, the novel's unreliable first person narrator, and a person very much tied to her family’s farm and her dysfunctional but outwardly upstanding family, will do exactly that by novel's end—throw herself on the waters of the world in an attempt to get washed clean of her guilt and shame.

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 15, 2014

They'll Remember That You Let Them Down

Everyone should read this great post from Seth Godin, The Tragedy of the Last 10%. In it, Seth describes how increasing market share and profitability can come when a company lowers the price of its product by 10%. Sometimes, the same thing happens when the company can re-engineer its cost structure so it can subsequently lower its price by a second, or even third 10%. But eventually, there comes a last 10% that requires the company to cut safety, quality or reliability. When that happens, the lower price no longer matters. Because the customer won't remember how cheap they were. They'll remember that the company let them down.

It spoke powerfully to me, because I see the same dynamic happening in the association world. As desperate as our associations sometimes are to spur greater engagement with our members, we sometimes decide to start lowering the price of our products or services in order to get more people engaged with them. And as Seth describes, that can sometimes work. But in my experience, many associations don't have huge profit margins, so the idea of cutting one, two or three "ten percents" isn't realistic. Almost from the first 10%, the association begins to cut into the resources that are needed to ensure the quality that their members expect.

That results in a vicious cycle of dwindling returns. Lowering the price lowers the value the members receive. As a result, fewer members engage with the product or service. And those that stop utilizing it remember, as Seth says, not how cheap the price was, but how shoddy the quality was. They become less likely to engage with the association in other areas. That lowers revenue to the association even more, and the association may need to make additional cuts that compromise the value of what they provide. And the cycle simply repeats--potentially feeding on itself until there is no association left to speak of.

I'm by no means a pricing expert, but the better strategy, I think, is to do what many associations actually do very well--deliver value and price it at a level that will support its on-going development. It can be a difficult platform to switch to if you're not already on it, but strategic investments in increasing quality--even if they are coupled with increasing prices, can set-up a different kind of cycle--one that actually does lead to higher member engagement and satisfaction.

A quality product, fairly-priced, will attract a loyal user base. And once established, on-going communication with that user base, describing the things you're doing to add even more value to the product they like will prepare them for whatever price increases are necessary for delivering the higher quality.

And even if they don't buy in, they won't be left with the memory that the association let them down. They'll remember that you tried to better meet their needs.

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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

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

This book won the Pulitzer Prize, but I’m not exactly sure why.

It’s hard, reading books like these, years after they were published, long after the ground they first broke has been trod so many times that it’s no longer clear what the fuss was all about.

It was revolutionary, evidently, in 1931, to depict Chinese people as people—as human beings with hopes and desires and a culture all their own—and to tell one of their stories from their own point of view. For this is what The Good Earth does, and to a modern reader, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. They don’t know who Jesus is, and they treat women like slaves and concubines, but they are people and their drama is our drama because we’re people, too, even if our culture has taught us different values. The Good Earth is unapologetic about its Chinese perspective. It is, in fact, a Chinese novel, written by a woman who had spent her entire life there.

And it is aptly named, for the goodness of the earth is the primary metaphor that drives all of its action. Wang Lung is a farmer who seeks to acquire ever-increasing amounts of land, and he and his family are rewarded with rich bounty as a result—a bounty initially reflected in the life-giving milk his first wife, O-lan, offers to their first son.

But out of the woman’s great brown breast the milk gushed forth for the child, milk as white as snow, and when the child suckled at one breast it flowed like a fountain from the other, and she let it flow. There was more than enough for the child, greedy though he was, life enough for many children, and she let it flow out carelessly, conscious of her abundance. There was always more and more. Sometimes she lifted her breast and let it flow out upon the ground to save her clothing, and it sank into the earth and made a soft, dark, rich spot in the field. The child was fat and good-natured and ate of the inexhaustible life his mother gave him.

But the earth—like the god it metaphorically represents—is fickle, and in times of drought it has no bounty for Wang Lung and the other farmers, and they are forced to go work in the city, living in shanties constructed against the exterior wall of a rich man’s house. The city is a place where wickedness and temptation reign, a place that beguiles men, and therefore the perfect place for the stout of heart like Wang Lung to struggle in order to keep themselves pure.

Most of these ragged men had nothing beyond what they took in the day’s labor and begging, and he was always conscious that he was not truly one of them. He owned land and his land was waiting for him. These others thought of how they might tomorrow eat a bit of fish, or of how they might idle a bit, and even how they might gamble a little, a penny or two, since their days were alike all evil and filled with want and a man must play sometimes, though desperate.

But Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it. He belonged, not to this scum which clung to the walls of a rich man’s house; nor did he belong to the rich man’s house. He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest. He listened, therefore, apart from the others, because hidden in his heart was the knowledge of the possession of his land, the good wheat land of his fathers, and the strip of rich rice land which he had bought from the great house.

They talked, these men, always and forever of money; of what pence they had paid for a small fish as long as a man’s finger, or of what they could earn in a day, and always at last of what they would do if they had the money which the man over the wall had in his coffers. Every day the talk ended with this:

“And if I had the gold that he has and the silver in my hand that he wears every day in his girdle and if I had the pearls his concubines wear and the rubies his wife wears…”

And listening to all the things they would do if they had these things, Wang Lung heard only of how much they would eat and sleep, and of what dainties they would eat that they had never yet tasted, and of how they would gamble in this great tea shop and in that, and of what pretty women they would buy for their lust, and above all, how none would ever work again, even as the rich man behind the wall never worked.

Then Wang Lung cried out suddenly,

“If I had the gold and silver and the jewels, I would buy land with it, good land, and I would bring forth harvests from the land!”

It’s a lesson that is reinforced again and again for Wang Lung. One of the ways he is able to buy so much land is that an old Lord who lives in the city had fallen on bad times and needed to sell off his assets in order to stay solvent.

And the more he mused the more monstrous it seemed that the great and rich family, who all his own life and all his father’s and grandfather’s lives long had been a power and a glory in the town, were now fallen and scattered.

“It comes of their leaving the land,” he thought regretfully, and he thought of his own two sons, who were growing like young bamboo shoots in the spring, and he resolved that on this very day he would make them cease playing in the sunshine and he would set them to tasks in the field, where they would early take into their bones and their blood the feel of the soil under their feet, and the feel of the hoe hard in their hands.

When the land floods and Wang Lung is not able to tend it for a long period of time, he starts spending time in town again, falling in love with a high-priced prostitute. He dotes on her to distraction, until he eventually buys her outright, and brings her home with him, building private courtyards and accommodations for her and her servant. She possesses all of his attention until she ridicules his feebleminded daughter—Wang Lung’s “poor fool”—and he suddenly snaps out of his stupor just as the water finally recedes from the land.

There came a day when summer was ended and the sky in the early morning was clear and cold and blue as sea water and a clean autumn wind blew hard over the land, and Wang Lung woke as from a sleep. He went to the door of his house and he looked over his fields. And he saw that the waters had receded and the land lay shining under the dry cold wind and under the ardent sun.

Then a voice cried out in him, a voice deeper than love cried out in him for his land. And he heard it above every other voice in his life and he tore off the long robe he wore and he stripped off his velvet shoes and his white stockings and he rolled his trousers to his knees and he stood forth robust and eager and he shouted,

“Where is the hoe and where the plow? And where is the seed for the wheat planting? Come, Ching, my friend—come—call the men—I go out to the land!”

Wang Lung’s poor fool is another very interesting part of the novel’s subtext. The introduction to the edition I read describes her as a nameless child, who serves throughout the novel as a symbol of humanity’s essential helplessness, and her few and scattered scenes are all the more poignant when read with that interpretation. Here Buck describes her ignorance of her mother’s impending death.

Only the poor fool knew nothing, and only she smiled and twisted her bit of cloth as she smiled. Yet one had to think of her to bring her in to sleep at night and to feed her and to set her in the sun in the day and to lead her in if it rained. All this one of them had to remember. But even Wang Lung himself forgot, and once they left her outside through a whole night, and the next morning the poor wretch was shivering and crying in the early dawn, and Wang Lung was angry and cursed his son and daughter that they had forgotten the poor fool who was their sister. Then he saw that they were but children trying to take their mother’s place and not able to do it, and he forebore and after that he saw to the poor fool himself night and morning. If it rained or snowed or a bitter wind blew he led her in and he let her sit among the warm ashes that dropped from the kitchen stove.

We are all helpless like this, in our own way—the men in the city as distracted by their baubles and their women as Wang Lung’s poor fool is with her bit of cloth. But Wang Lung has something to save him from this helplessness. Wang Lung has his land.

Then the good land did again its healing work and the sun shone on him and healed him and the warm winds of summer wrapped him about with peace. And as if to cure him of the root of his ceaseless thought of his own troubles, there came out of the south one day a small slight cloud. At first it hung on the horizon small and smooth as mist, except it did not come hither and thither as clouds blown by the wind do, but it stood steady until it spread fanwise up into the air.

The men of the village watched it and talked of it and fear hung over them, for what they feared was this, that locusts had come out of the south to devour what was planted in the fields. Wang Lung stood there also, and he watched, and they gazed and at last a wind blew something to their feet, and one stooped hastily and picked it up and it was a dead locust, dead and lighter than the living hosts behind.

Then Wang Lung forgot everything that troubled him. Women and sons and uncle, he forgot them all, and he rushed among the frightened villagers, and he shouted at them,

“Now for our good land we will fight these enemies from the skies!”

But there were some who shook their heads, hopeless from the start, and these said,

“No, and there is no use in anything. Heaven has ordained that this year we shall starve, and why should we waste ourselves in struggle against it, seeing that in the end we must starve?”

And women went weeping to the town to buy incense to thrust before the earth gods in the little temple, and some went to the big temple in the town, where the gods of heaven were, and thus earth and heaven were worshipped.

But still the locusts spread up into the air and on over the land.

Then Wang Lung called his own laborers and Ching stood silent and ready beside him and there were others of the younger farmers, and with their own hands these set fire to certain fields and they burned the good wheat that stood almost ripe for cutting and they dug wide moats and ran water into them from the wells, and they worked without sleeping. O-lan brought them food and the women brought their men food, and the men ate standing in the field, gulping it down as beasts do, as they worked night and day.

Then the sky grew black and the air was filled with the deep still roar of many wings beating against each other, and upon the land the locusts fell, flying over this field and leaving it whole, and falling upon that field, and eating it as bare as winter. And men sighed and said “So Heaven wills,” but Wang Lung was furious and he beat the locusts and trampled on them and his men flailed them with flails and the locusts fell into the fires that were kindled and they floated dead upon the waters of the moats that were dug. And many millions of them died, but to those that were left it was nothing.

Nevertheless, for all his fighting Wang Lung had this as his reward: the best of his fields were spared and when the cloud moved on and they could rest themselves, there was still wheat that he could reap and his young rice beds were spared and he was content. Then many of the people ate the roasted bodies of the locusts, but Wang Lung himself would not eat them, for to him they were a filthy thing because of what they had done to his land. But he said nothing when O-lan fried them in oil and when the laborers crunched them between their teeth and the children pulled them apart delicately and tasted them, afraid of their great eyes. But as for himself he would not eat.

Nevertheless, the locusts did this for him. For seven days he thought of nothing but his land, and he was healed of his troubles and his fears…

Wang Lung’s god of the land is not one to reward the idle. To earn his bounty one must press his nose to the grindstone as Wang Lung does, struggling every minute of every day to wrest from him his blessings. But the bounty one receives is great indeed—peace, and the ability to face one’s troubles with equanimity.

This spirit of Wang Lung’s is evidently symbolic of the old China that was passing away at the time Buck wrote the story, and the final message of the novel is clear that this fealty to the land will not long survive in China. For Wang Lung’s sons, despite all his efforts to focus them, see no value in the land that their father has spent so much time and money acquiring, and the book ends with them whispering over Wang Lung’s befuddled and elderly head about their plans to sell it as soon as Wang Lung has passed on.

Hmmm. Now that I think about it, maybe it did deserve to win the Pulitzer.

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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 8, 2014

Opposing Views Are Allowed to Co-Exist

I've been writing about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. It was organized and led by Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's the last one.

When facilitating a meeting of members, remember that opposing views are allowed to co-exist in the room.

I'll admit it. When I first heard this advice, my immediate reaction was that it should be added to the list of ground rules for our staff meetings. We're a passionate group of people, and things can sometimes get sidetracked if we forget that not every discussion is an argument that needs to be won.

But the lesson also clearly applies to facilitating a meeting of members. When arguments erupt around a board table or in the committee meeting room, it's important to take a step back and reflect on whether the subject of the debate is actually material to the matter at hand.

It often isn't, in my experience. And there aren't many things worse for group productivity than chasing a bunch of stray rabbits down their holes.

But even when the disagreement is over something material, it remains important to take a second step back and reflect on whether it is a matter of perception.

Like the guys in the picture accompanying this post, I often see people arguing over their different perceptions of the same object. These disputes cannot be resolved, because there is no one right answer. Both parties are, in fact, right, and allowing an argument to continue in such a situation is worse than chasing rabbits down holes. In these situations, you're just chasing rabbits, because there are no holes.

More importantly, when arguments over perception are allowed to predominate, you risk rejecting the innovation and creativity benefits that come from allowing alternate perspectives to tackle the same problem. Fighting to determine who's right misses the main point. Solutions, after all, doesn't come when someone wins an argument. Solutions come when people who view a problem differently agree on a path forward.

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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

Image source

Monday, December 1, 2014

Seeing Through Their Lenses

I've been writing about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. It was organized and led by Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's another.

When facilitating a meeting of members, be aware of the unique mix of perspectives (or “lenses”) that participants use to make sense of the world around them.

We all have them. To help illustrate this point at the workshop, I was asked to reflect on my own way of viewing the world and to record some of the lenses that I look through that color my interpretation of things compared to someone with a different set of lenses. In doing so, I came to realize that I had three kinds of lenses.

First were the ones that were readily apparent to myself and to those around me. I'm male. I'm a CEO. I'm going to look at problems (and their potential solutions) differently than people who don't have these lenses, and that's going to be obvious to me and everyone around me. Your members have these kind of lenses, too, and you and they both know what they are. Sometimes they align with their membership type, or with their level of experience. The point is, every interaction they have with your association is going to be viewed through these lenses, and it's going to be fairly simple for you to predict and plan for them.

Second were the ones that weren't obvious, but which revealed themselves to me as I took a step outside of myself and reflected on some of the assumptions that I make about the world around me. I'm a parent. I'm an introvert. I'm a midwesterner. These are just as real as the first kind, but they lurk just below the surface of my conscious thoughts. They definitely affect the way I view things, especially compared to others that don't possess them or that possess conflicting lenses. Your members have these kind of lenses, too, and unless they are especially contemplative, they are probably just as unthinking about them as I am about mine.

And third were the ones--as yet still unidentified--that surely exist, but which are so ingrained into my way of thinking, that they will remain unconscious no matter how hard I try to expose them. Maybe you can tell me what these lenses are. Or maybe, since they form the foundational edifice of thinking, it would be better for both of us if you simply noted them for yourself and didn't challenge me on them. Especially if I'm your member and you want to engage me in some volunteer task, it may not be productive to give me the impression that you're psycho-analyzing me.

The larger point is that these lenses exist, some are more apparent than others, and they can all either impede and promote progress in a group situation.

One interesting exercise to try at your next meeting of members is to raise this topic of lenses, and rather than ask people to identify their complete laundry list (which may cause some discomfort), work to ensure that everyone acknowledges their presence, and to disclose only those that they feel may help the group complete their assigned task. I'm I marketing professional by trade, someone might say by way of example, so I'm going to be looking for member value at every turn of our discussion. Or, I specialize in conflict resolution, so I'm going to step in if we seem to be going off track.

This could both increase everyone's awareness of the often-times unstated and conflicting premises that exist in any group of people, and help each individual more consciously apply their areas of strength while accepting the areas of strength that others bring to the table.

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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

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Budding Prospects by T. C. Boyle

Why do I like reading Boyle? One big reason is chapters that start like this…

Grim, silent, dehydrated and disappointed, hemmed in by eight bags of clean laundry, miscellaneous groceries and three coolers of ice, we passed under the great arching portals of the Golden Gate Bridge, skirted Sausalito and plunged into the blistering hellish heat of Route 101 North. We had six dollars left--for gas--the ravaged exhaust system screamed like a kamikaze coming in for the kill, and a cordon of semis--STAY BACK; DON’T TREAD ON ME; PETROCHEM LTD.--spewed diesel fumes in our faces. Gesh lit a cigarette. I flicked on the radio and got fire and brimstone, static, and Roy Rogers singing “Happy Trails.” We were on our way back to bondage.

The previous day--the Fourth--we’d awakened sometime after noon to a barrage of cherry bombs and the tat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers. Startled from concupiscent dreams, I thought at first that war had broken out, made the groping but inescapable connection between the hiss of Roman candles and the birth of the Republic, and then snatched desperately for the glass of water standing on the night table. If I could just manage to reach that glass, there was a chance I might survive; if not, I was doomed. Sun tore through the curtains like an avenging sword, the sky was sick with smog and the stink of sulfur hung on the air. Straining, my fingers trembling with alcoholic dyscrasia, monkeys shrieking and war drums thumping in my head, I managed to make contact with and knock over the glass, and I lay there gasping like some sea creature carried in with the tide and left to the merciless sun and the sharp probing beaks of the gulls. My eyes failed at that point and I dozed (dreams of staggering across the Atacama Desert, ears and nostrils full of sand, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth), until I was jolted awake again by the next concussive report. There was nothing for it but to get up and drink a quart of orange juice and six cups of coffee.

His prose is a tour de force. Terse, but abundant and rich. Like sharp sausage; meat, spices, and everything packed into a small casing, biting and flavorful at the same time. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is about, it is just a delight to savor.

But this time the story is good as well. Our narrator is Felix Nasmyth, a kind of everyman chasing a kind of everyman’s get-rich-quick scheme; this one based on the growth and harvest of illegal marijuana plants. Two thousand marijuana plants, grown in secret out in the California woods, each producing half a pound of marijuana at sixteen hundred dollars per pound. One point six million split just as many ways as people are needed to make it happen.

But like all get-rich-quick schemes, this one is a lot harder than it sounds. Difficulties abound. No rain, then too much rain. Animals and pests. Confusion over male plants and female plants and which are the ones that bud. Nosy neighbors, back-country hicks, and law enforcement authorities. With each new challenge, their projected harvest goes down, and their calculated profits keep going down with it.

At one point, Felix’s conspirators threaten to quit and leave their secret camp. And as he wonders if they will be back, Felix realizes…

They needed this thing as badly as I did--if it failed, after all the hope and sweat and toil we’d invested in it, then the society itself was bankrupt, the pioneers a fraud, true grit, enterprise and daring as vestigial as adenoids or appendixes. We believed in Ragged Dick, P. T. Barnum, Diamond Jim Brady, in Andrew Carnegie, D. B. Cooper, Jackie Robinson. In the classless society, upward mobility, the law of the jungle. We’d seen all the movies, read all the books. We never doubted that we would make it, that one day we would be the fat cats in the mansion on the hill. Never. Not for a moment. After all, what else was there?

What else indeed? This short reflection, and many others like it throughout the text, is key to understanding this novel. It is an entertaining story, but it is also a commentary on the capitalist myths that permeate the American collective unconsciousness. Felix and his crew get so wrapped up in them--so seduced by their promised but ever-elusive riches--that they drive themselves to ever more ridiculous extremes, desperate to protect the snake oil dream that’s been sold to them.

Felix is only able to create some distance, to gain some perspective, when he meets and falls in love with a local sculptress named Petra. Only in telling her about their misadventures does he begin to see how pathetic they are and how impossible their quest.

What could I say? We were losers, schmucks, first-class boneheads. We weren’t paying off politicians or reconnoitering the skies--we were too busy dodging our own shadows and setting fire to storage sheds. Chastened, I dropped any pretense of coming on like the macho dope king and gave her the story straight. I described rampant paranoia, xenophobia, self-enforced isolation. I told her of sleepless nights, panic at the first sputter of an internal-combustion engine, suspicion that ate like acid at the fabric of quotidian existence. I told her how Vogelsang appeared and disappeared like a wood sprite, how Phil slept with his sneakers on, how Dowst would insist that we change the hundred-dollar bills he gave us for supplies before we bought groceries, on the theory that only dope farmers would flash a hundred-dollar bill in the checkout lane. She was laughing. So was I. It was a comedy, this tale I was telling her, slapstick. We were ridiculous, we were cranks, sots, quixotic dreamers--Ponce de Leon, Percival Lowell and Donald Duck all rolled in one. When I told her everything--the whole sad laughable tale--she’d said “Poor Felix,” and patted my hand again. Then she’d asked if I wanted more Postum.

And then, the release. The realization that the dream he had been sold--the one he had actually fought to buy--was false, fake and destructive.

Now, as I watched her at the stove, the first splash of sun ripening the window and firing the kimono with color, I felt at peace for the first time in months. Annealed by the fire, shriven by confession, I rolled the cup in my clumsy hands and felt like Saint Anthony emerging from the tomb. I’d revealed my festering secret and nothing had happened. Petra hadn’t run howling from the room or telephoned the police, the DEA hadn’t burst in and demanded my surrender, the stars were still in their firmament and the seas lapped the shores. No big thing, she’d said. She was right. For the moment at least I’d been able to put things in perspective, separate myself from the grip of events, see the absurdity of what we’d come to.

This is not just the true power of confession, but as Boyle so wonderfully puts it next, the power of good storytelling.

If the best stories--or the funniest, at any rate--derive from suffering recollected in tranquility then this was hilarious. In telling it, I’d defused it, neutralized the misery through retrospection, made light of the woe. My trip to Belize? Oh, yes, I lost eight layers of skin to sunburn while snorkeling off the barrier reef, turned yellow from jaundice, got mugged outside the courthouse and couldn’t get a grip on my bowels for a month. Ha-ha-ha.

After this encounter, the rest of the novel finds Felix wavering between the twin pole stars of his idealized consciousness--the get-rich-quick scheme of the marijuana plantation and the almost archetypal love, home and hearth that Petra represents. He desperately wants and pursues both, but we’ve all seen enough movies to know that can only lead to him having neither. Indeed, on the novel’s last page, when this sorry fate has befallen him and he has to decide which direction to move with whatever remaining vigor he can muster, he fairly well summarizes the morale of the tale Boyle has told.

I don’t know how long I sat in the car. Ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? The wind drove in off the ocean, steady as a hand, the moon lay across the hood of the car like a cheap bauble. I was thinking. Of chinless Rudy, of Jones, Vogelsang and Savoy, all the stingers and stingees of the world, all the best deals, the scams and the hustles, and I realized how precious little it all mattered. Go for it, they said, get it while you can, early to bed and early to rise. Well, I’d gone for it and now I was out of work, out of money and out of luck. I had a trial coming up and no place to live, and I felt like an emotional invalid, like a balloon without the helium. I sat there, getting cold, and I thought of Phil and Gesh back in the apartment clipping away at the shreds of their yachts and restaurants with scissors that grew duller by the moment. Money, give me money. Then I thought of Petra. No, I saw Petra. Her hands, sunk in the raw clay, kneading it like bread, molding it, pulling the hard, lasting stuff from its shifting, shapeless core. Wet, yielding, fecund: I could smell the clay, I could feel it.

Love, if not conquering all, is at least the better gamble to stake your claim on.

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Learning and Growth

I've been writing about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. And it's probably time I mentioned that it was organized and led by Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's another.

When facilitating a meeting of members, remember that learning and growth result from the appropriate mix of challenge and support.

Many of the volunteer groups that associations bring together represent not just mechanisms for accomplishing the work of the association, they also represent opportunities for learning and growth for the participants. In my own association, we intentionally emphasize this aspect of our committee and task force work, using the learning and growth opportunities as a specific recruiting tool.

As such, we have to think and act more intentionally about this aspect of the encounter. A certain amount of organic networking and peer education will take place during any kind of committee work, but there are ways to increase the growth potential of the activity for the participants.

As the workshop helped me realize, the conscious alignment of group and task so that participants are professionally challenged by the work put before them, but provided with the support they need to be successful, creates just the kind of learning and growth environment we're looking for.

Create an unchallenging task and you risk having your volunteers drift away or phone it in. They question why they're being asked to do something so simple or tactical. Isnt this what we have association staff for? Create a challenging task but provide no support and you risk having your volunteers give up. They'll realize they don't have the time or the resources needed to do the job and they'll simply bow out. How do they expect me to do this? Don't they realize I have a day job?

The sometimes difficult balance to strike is a challenging task with the support needed to accomplish it. We need to stretch our volunteers enough so that they engage productively with the work we need them to do, but we also need to provide them with the right amount of intelligence, tools, and logistical support so they can see clearly a path that leads to success.

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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

Image source

Monday, November 17, 2014

Breaking the Ice

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Last week I wrote about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's another.

When facilitating a meeting of association members, think about what “ice” needs to be broken.

I don't mean one of those silly ice breaker exercises--like going around the room and having everyone say which Wizard of Oz character they are most like and why. No, those just make people uncomfortable and perhaps makes them question the competence of the facilitator.

Rather, given the work that needs to be done, the people gathered to do it, and the time available to get it done, what initial task should be performed in order to ensure that the group can knit together as a team and focus most effectively on the task at hand.

This is something that is often overlooked. As a volunteer, I, myself, have been in situations where we have been plunged into a task by an association staff person without taking the time to make sure that everyone knew each other and understood what we were there to do. The result? A lot of time wasted as people held back, not knowing what or how much to contribute in the presence or strangers, and then, a lot of fumbling around as the group tried to solve a problem that hadn't been clearly defined for them.

It is well worth the extra time and preparation it takes to address this issue up front; to "break the ice" so that the balance of the time reserved for the interaction can be used most productively. While I was at the workshop, I thought about three possible applications in my own association.

Staff Meetings. Here everyone knows each other, so there's no real need for introductions or for social time. What is sometimes missing, however, is a clear understanding of the intended output of the meeting. Is this a general update on staff activities or a discussion focused on solving a particular problem or making a particular decision? And if the latter, who's going to make that decision? Are we looking for consensus on something, or are we feeding information and opinions into a central decision-maker who will make the final call? This is the kind of ice that needs breaking but almost never is.

Strategic Task Force Meetings. These are the task forces of our Board I wrote about a few posts ago, where Board and non-Board members come together to focus on particular elements of our strategic plan, trying to define what success looks like and how progress will be measured. The ice that needs breaking here is clearly an orientation on all the work that has come before--certainly for the new task force members that haven't been part of the the Board's regular dialogue, but for Board members, too, who have possibly spent three months away from our strategy, working with more focus on the challenges of their businesses than those of the association. This is one of the reasons why I open every Board meeting with a "strategy briefing" session, where I summarize the Board work that happened at the last Board meeting, the staff work that has happened since then, and, with the buy-in of the Strategic Task Force chairs, the issues that will be dealt with at this Board meeting.

New Roadmapping Sessions. These will represent a brand new project for our association. Working with stakeholders in and out of our association, we plan to create a research and development roadmap for the technology our association represents. Doing so will require us to knit together a diverse coalition of technical experts. When they come together for their first meeting, we're going to have to spend some time "breaking the ice" on all the knowledge and capabilities that each person is bringing to the conversation. More than just simple introductions, the team is going to need a deeper understanding of each team member's CV so they can consciously mine the brainpower that we've assembled to complete their challenging task. In fact, some of that work is going to have to be done before the first session to make sure we've invited the right people to attend.

These groups and meetings are specific to my association, but I bet you can identify some parallels to them in your organization. Next time you do, think about the ice you may need to break before bringing them together.

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Creatures of Circumstance by W. Somerset Maugham

A surprisingly delightful collection of short stories--although perhaps, as I read and enjoy more and more Maugham, the surprise that ushers in the delight should begin to give way to expectation. Like all the Maugham I have so far read, the subtext here is the artist, and what it takes to do what the artist does--but this time is it turned directly, almost clinically, on the creation of short stories.

This is from Maugham’s very helpful introduction to the collection, where he more or less apologizes to his critics for continuing to produce stories that reside somewhere below their expectations of art.

But if I may judge from the reviews I have read of the volumes of short stories that are frequently published where the critics to my mind err is when they dismiss stories as magazine stories because they are well constructed, dramatic and have a surprise ending. There is nothing to be condemned in a surprise ending if it is the natural end of a story. On the contrary it is an excellence. It is only bad when, as in some of O. Henry’s stories, it is dragged in without reason to give the reader a kick.

A valid observation, to my way of thinking. Anyone can write a surprise ending. Not everyone can write a surprise ending the seeds of which have been carefully laid throughout the story. But Maugham continues...

Nor is a story any the worse for being neatly built with a beginning, a middle and an end. All good story writers have done their best to achieve this. It is the fashion of today for writers, under the influence of an inadequate acquaintance with Chekhov, to write stories that begin anywhere and end inconclusively. They think it enough if they have described a mood, or given an impression or drawn a character. That is all very well, but it is not a story and I do not think it satisfies the reader. He does not like to be left wondering. He wants to have his questions answered.

Read some of what I said about T.C. Boyle’s early stories, or even that collection by John Updike I read, and you’ll see I agree entirely with Maugham. Some are entertaining. But they are not stories. But here’s where Maugham gets really insightful...

There is also today a fear of incident. The result is this spate of drab stories in which nothing happens. I think Chekhov is perhaps responsible for this too; one one occasion he wrote: “people do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.” But people do go to the North Pole and if they don’t fall off icebergs they undergo experiences as perilous; and there is no reason in the world why the writer shouldn’t write as good stories about them as about people who eat cabbage soup. But obviously it is not enough that they should go to office, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup. Chekhov certainly never thought it was. In order to make a story at all they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives and when they eat cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance. Cabbage soup thus becomes a symbol of the satisfaction of a domestic life or of the anguish of a frustrated one. It may then be as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg. But it is just as unusual. The simple fact that Chekhov believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe, namely that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.

So this is what Maugham sets out to do in this collection--make the otherwise mundane circumstances of life as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg, or symbolic of the anguish that comes with a frustrated life. The title of the collection now comes into sharper focus--Creatures of Circumstance. Each story within it follows a similar pattern--create a character, put that character in a circumstance, allow the drama of that character in that circumstance unfold to whatever consequence is significant or inevitable.

It is something he does with varying degrees of success, but most masterfully, I think, in the story called Sanatorium. In that story, the main character is a chap named Ashenden (the same name and, evidently, the same character as the narrator in Maugham’s Cakes and Ale), who is spending time in a sanatorium to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. While there, he becomes acquainted with a number of the other patients, including an accountant named Henry Chester.

He was a sticky, broad-shouldered, wiry little fellow, and the last person you would have ever thought would be attacked by t.b. It had come upon him as a sudden and unexpected blow. He was a perfectly ordinary man, somewhere between thirty and forty, married, with two children. He lived in a decent suburb. He went up to the city every morning and read the morning paper; he came down from the city every evening and read the evening paper. He had no interests except his business and his family. He liked his work; he made enough money to live on in comfort, he put by a reasonable sum every year, he played golf on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday, he went every August for a three weeks’ holiday to the same place on the East coast; his children would grow up and marry, then he would turn his business over to his son and retire with his wife to a little house in the country where he could potter about till death at a ripe old age claimed him. He asked nothing more from life than that and it was a life that thousands upon thousands of his fellow men lived with satisfaction. He was the average citizen.

Abundantly so. But, hark. What happens to this ordinary creature?

Then this thing had happened. He had caught a cold playing golf, it had gone to his chest, and he had had a cough that he couldn’t shake off. He had always been strong and healthy, and had no opinion of doctors; but at last at his wife’s persuasion he had consented to see one. It was a shock to him, a fearful shock, to learn that there was tubercle in both his lungs and that his only chance of life was to go immediately to a sanatorium, The specialist he saw then told him that he might be able to go back to work in a couple of years, but two years had passed and Dr. Lennox advised him not to think of it for at least a year more. He showed him the bacilli in his sputum and in an X-ray photograph the actively diseased patches in his lungs. He lost heart. It seemed to him a cruel and unjust trick that fate had played on him. He could have understood it if he had led a wild life, if he had drunk too much, played around with women or kept late hours. He would have deserved it then. But he had done none of these things. It was monstrously unfair. Having no resources in himself, no interest in books, he had nothing to do but think of his health. It became an obsession. He watched his symptoms anxiously. They had to deprive him of a thermometer because he took his temperature a dozen times a day. He got it into his head that the doctors were taking his case too indifferently and in order to force their attention used every method he could devise to make the thermometer register a temperature that would alarm; and when his tricks were foiled he grew sulky and querulous. But he was by nature a jovial, friendly creature and when he forgot himself he talked and laughed gaily; then on a sudden he remembered that he was a sick man and you would see in his eyes the fear of death.

These circumstances change him. They turn him into something he would not otherwise be, something that can no longer see the world as it once was. Even his loving wife, who comes to visit him regularly, fears what these circumstances have done to him.

“He’s beginning to hate me and it breaks my heart.”

“Oh, I can’t believe that,” [Ashenden said]. “Why, when you’re not here he talks of you all the time. He couldn’t talk more nicely. He’s devoted to you.”

“Yes, that’s when I’m not here. It’s when I’m here, when he sees me well and strong, that it comes over him. You see, he resents it so terribly that he’s ill and I’m well. He’s afraid he’s going to die and he hates me because I’m going to live. I have to be on my guard all the time; almost everything I say, if I speak of the children, if I speak of the future, it exasperates him, and he says bitter, wounding things. When I speak of something I’ve had to do to the house or a servant I’ve had to change it irritates him beyond endurance. He complains that I treat him as if he didn’t count any more. We used to be so united and now I feel there’s a great wall of antagonism between us. I know I shouldn’t blame him, I know it’s only his illness, he’s a dear good man really, and kindness itself, normally he’s the easiest man in the world to get on with; and now I simply dread coming here and I go with relief. He’d be terribly sorry if I had t.b. but I know in his heart of hearts it would be a relief. He could forgive me, he could forgive fate, if he thought I was going to die too. Sometimes he tortures me by talking about what I shall do when he’s dead, and when I get hysterical and cry out to him to stop, he says I needn’t grudge him a little pleasure when he’ll be dead so soon and I can go on living for years and years and have a good time. Oh, it’s so frightful to think that this love we’ve had for one another all these years should die in this sordid, miserable way.”

It is, in many ways, the basic outline of all of the stories in this collection, but here the most powerfully told. And when Maugham, in the figure of Ashenden, reflects on the painful drama that is the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Chester and the circumstances that has created it, we see as clearly as ever the bitter inspiration the storyteller must draw upon and the distance he must maintain to fully master his craft.

People often said he had a low opinion of human nature. It was because he did not always judge his fellows by the usual standards. He accepted, with a smile, a tear or a shrug of the shoulders, much that filled others with dismay. It was true that you would never have expected that good-natured, commonplace little chap to harbour such bitter and unworthy thoughts; but who has ever been able to tell to what depths man may fall or to what heights rise? The fault lay in the poverty of his ideals. Henry Chester was born and bred to lead an average life, exposed to the normal vicissitudes of existence, and when an unforeseeable accident befell him he had no means of coping with it. He was like a brick made to take its place with a million others in a huge factory, but by chance with a flaw in it so that it is inadequate to its purpose. And the brick too, if it had a mind, might cry: What have I done that I cannot fulfill my modest end, but must be taken away from all these other bricks that support me and thrown on the dust heap? It was no fault of Henry Chester’s that he was incapable of the conceptions that might have enabled him to bear his calamity with resignation. It is not everyone who can find solace in art or thought.

As I’ve commented before, this is what I enjoy most of Maugham’s work, this blending of character and story with artist and craft, the way his narrator, in interacting with the characters and events in the story, reveals equally the drama of the tale and the insights of the author.

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All of the stories in the collection contain some kind of conflict. That’s an essential part of the drama Maugham creates when he places creatures of differing circumstances into opposition with one another. Often times, the conflict is unresolvable, as the people in opposition are driven by wholly incompatible circumstances.

The most extreme example of this dynamic is in the story called The Unconquered, where Hans is a German soldier in occupied France during World War II, and Annette is a young French woman whom Hans first rapes and then, upon discovering that she is pregnant with his child, grows to love and honestly tries to woo into a loving marriage.

First, there are his circumstances, magnified by his view of himself and his nation as the conqueror…

He could think of nothing but Annette and her swollen body. She had been unbearably pathetic as she sat there at the table crying her eyes out. It was his child she bore in her womb. He began to feel drowsy and then with a start he was once more wide awake, for suddenly it came to him, it came to him with the shattering suddenness of gunfire; he was in love with her. It was such a surprise, such a shock that he couldn’t cope with it. Of course he’d thought of her a lot, but never in that way, he’d thought it would be a great joke if he made her fall in love with him, it would be a triumph if the time came when she asked for what he had taken by force; but not for a moment had it occurred to him that she was anything to him but a woman like another. She wasn’t his type. She wasn’t very pretty. There was nothing to her. Why should he have all of a sudden this funny feeling for her; it wasn’t a pleasant feeling either, it was a pain. But he knew what it was all right; it was love and it made him feel happier than he had ever felt in his life. He wanted to take her in his arms, he wanted to pet her, he wanted to kiss those tear-stained eyes of hers. He didn’t desire her, he thought, as a man desires a woman, he wanted to comfort her, he wanted her to smile at him--strange, he had never seen her smile--he wanted to see her eyes, fine eyes they were, beautiful eyes, soft with tenderness.

And then there are her circumstances, magnified by her view herself and her nation as the unconquered...

Hans’s face grew sullen. It had never occurred to him that Annette might care for anyone else.

“Where is he now?”

“Where do you suppose he is? In Germany. A prisoner and starving. While you eat the fat of our land. How many times have I got to tell you that I hate you? You ask me to forgive you. Never. You want to make reparation. You fool.” She threw her head back and there was a look of intolerable anguish on her face. “Ruined. Oh, he’ll forgive me. He’s tender. But I’m tortured by the thought that one day the suspicion may come to him that perhaps I hadn’t been forced--that perhaps I’d given myself to you for butter and cheese and silk stockings. I shouldn’t be the only one. And what would our life be with that child between us, your child, a German child? Big like you, and blond like you and blue-eyed like you. Oh, my God, why do I have to suffer this?”

In the end, the conflict created by their circumstances is unresolvable. Predictably, but horribly all the same, after receiving word that her fiancee has died in Germany and after giving birth to Hans’s child, Annette drowns the infant in the river that runs through her family farm.

Hans gave a great cry, the cry of an animal wounded to death; he covered his face with his hands and staggering like a drunken man flung himself out of the door. Annette sank into a chair and leaning her forehead on her two fists burst into passionate weeping.

And in the horror of that concluding paragraph, the reader is left to wonder if any of us is able to rise above the circumstances that seem to control our lives, or if, like Hans and Annette, we are creatures wholly beholden to them. Love, hate, happiness or sorrow--our circumstances, and not ourselves, are the very authors of our fate.

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Association Staff as Facilitative Leaders

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I recently participated in a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator, and to teach others to do the same. Going into the session, I saw a lot of potential application to the work my staff and I do with the various committees and task forces in our association. Coming out of the session, I saw even more.

Generally speaking, the session leader said, the job of the facilitator in any group setting is to ensure the group achieves a good outcome, not to drive them towards any pre-determined outcome. I agree, and this is also the responsibility that my staff and I assume when we work with one of our association's committees or task forces.

Each group has a set of decisions that its members have been asked to make, and it is not the job of our staff to make those decisions for them. Rather, it often falls to staff to be the facilitator in the needed discussion and decision process.

In one key sense, however, I think it's fair to think of this role not just as a facilitator, but as a facilitative leader. What's the difference? Well, in our environment, the work doesn't end when the facilitated decision has been made. That's just the first step. Action follows each decision, action that frequently the staff must lead, and which requires them to engage other volunteers, committees, or task forces in its execution.

This means that the staff person is more than just a facilitator. They are a champion and an advocate for the outcome of their facilitation. They have to communicate the decision to others and engage them in supporting the actions that naturally flow from it.

This isn't always easy. With each new person or group, there exists the potential for confusion or disagreement. Wait a minute, someone might say. I wasn't part of the original decision. I'm not sure I agree with it. If staff stays in facilitator mode, this resistance will turn into another facilitated conversation. One that has the potential of adjusting or overturning the facilitated decision that has already been made.

Instead, in these circumstances, staff must adopt the pose of leadership. They are there to represent the process and outcome that came before, and to engage the necessary stakeholders in its execution. This is a very different role for them to play. But it is essential if the association is to advance its mutually-determined objectives.

The session I attended helped me put these thoughts together. There were several other great takeaways that I'm in the process of bringing back to my staff. I'll share more in my next blog post.

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

Monday, November 3, 2014

What Happens When Non-Board Members Attend Board Meetings?

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We did something brand new at our latest Board meeting. For a while now, our Board has been organized into three task forces--each focused on one of the three strategic priorities of the organization. These have been task forces of the Board, meaning the only Board members served on them, and they have traditionally met at each of our two-day Board meetings.

The new thing we did was to open membership in these task force to non-Board members. And not just any non-Board members. We focused on two distinct groups: (1) Members of key stakeholder groups that were under-represented on the Board; and (2) Individuals who had expressed interest and who we were beginning to groom for possible Board service in the future. All told, we added about nine people, three to each task force. And since the task forces were meeting at our Board meeting, we invited all nine of them to attend the entire meeting, increasing our overall headcount by about 50% (eighteen Board members plus the nine guests).

It was a risk. A lot could have gone wrong. We wanted them to be active participants in the task force discussions. They were members of the task forces, after all. But the task forces had been insular bodies for so long there was some concern that outsiders might come in and try to turn over apple carts that the task force had spent the last few years setting right. Or perhaps worse, they might sit there silently, listening, but not comfortable inserting themselves into the long-standing work of their colleagues. In the end, as association members being invited in for the first time, what would they think of the work the Board has been doing on their behalf?

Turns out we didn't have much to worry about. I've been calling these new task force members over the last week or so, seeking their honest feedback on what they experienced at the Board meeting. And their responses have so far validated the risk we took. I have heard them respond positively to things that we have spent a lot of time developing at our Board meetings. The fact that these newcomers picked up on them, and also found them valuable, has been extremely gratifying.

What kind of things am I talking about? Well, here's a few paraphrased comments from one of these recent phone calls:

It felt like we were there to address serious issues, and more importantly, we had the time and information we needed to address them. We weren't stacked up in endless meeting after endless meeting.

Picking the right issues for discussion at the task force meetings and at the other events during the Board meeting is one of the most challenging aspects of my job. When I hear peers complaining about how their Boards seem focused on minutiae, I always ask them what kind of things they're putting on the Board's agendas. If you want your Board talking about big picture ideas, then you must put big picture ideas on their agenda. This guest validated not only that we were talking about the right things, but that we had given the task force both the time and information they needed to discuss them adequately.

The social aspects of the meeting were very important. The other members of the Board are people I respect in the industry, and having an opportunity to socialize with them was very valuable.

We're not shy about this one at our association. When we ask you to volunteer your time and talents for the organization, we want you to get something valuable out of the interaction, too. And consistently the thing that people find valuable is the time we provide for them to network and socialize with their peers. Some are competitors. Some are current business partners. Some are potential customers. But all can provide insight and intelligence in a manner that is otherwise difficult to come by.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn how capable the staff is and how ready they are to execute. I participate on a few other Boards, and too many other organizations talk about big picture goals, but don't have the resources needed to act on them.

This was perhaps the most gratifying of all. I have worked very hard over the past few years to help our Board bring our vision into closer alignment with our resources--which has meant work both to increase our resources and to narrow our vision. The dynamic that my guest has observed in other organizations is all too common, I fear, and being honest about what can be achieved, and about what changes are necessary if more is to be achieved, is difficult but necessary work. When the guest said that seeing such great alignment makes him more willing to support our organization, because he can clearly see how strategy work at the Board table translates into action at the staff level, I felt like I had just ran--and won--a marathon.

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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