Saturday, May 31, 2014

Robert E. Lee on Leadership by H. W. Crocker III

I was looking forward to this one. Both a student of leadership and an amateur historian of the American Civil War, this analysis of Robert E. Lee’s leadership style and the lessons it offers for our modern times and challenges should have been right up my alley.

I can’t begin to express my disappointment.

Let me start here…

In any event, today our hopes for producing men like America’s Virginia-born Founding Fathers are about as distant as our hopes of hearing news of rising SAT scores, the growing unpopularity of television, and the demise of rock music.

Ummm. All right.

But the only known way to achieve self-mastery goes against the current of modern American society. That single way, the narrow gate through which effective leaders must pass, was expressed by Lee after the war when he advised a mother on the instruction of her infant son: “Teach him he must deny himself.”

The author’s manuscript is peppered with editorial comments like these. Wailings against the degradation of American society and the forces (like television and rock music?) that are causing it. So many comments, in fact, that I had to double check the copyright date on the text I was reading--assuming that it would be somewhere in the neighborhood if 1958.

Nope. 1999.

But, okay. I fundamentally disagree with his idea that effective leadership comes in only one stripe, but I can get past that. What does he have to say about Lee? And about the leadership model that we should follow?

This trust in conscience--and in the guiding hand of Providence--was another of Lee’s great strengths. By following his conscience, by doing what he honestly thought was right, by straining every sinew to achieve that right as dictated by duty, he guaranteed himself the serene self-confidence that is necessary in a leader. He expressed himself on this point in a letter to his daughter Mildred: “The struggle which you describe you experience between doing what you ought and what you desire is common to all. You have only always to do what is right. It will become easier by practice, and you will enjoy in the midst of your trials the pleasure of an approving conscience. That will be worth everything else.”

By trusting to Providence, he knew that even the worst outcomes would somehow he turned to right. As he told the Reverend J. William Jones, who could not give up thinking that the late war might have been won if certain decisions had been made at key points, “Yes, all that is very sad, and might be a cause for self-reproach, but that we are conscious that we have humbly tried to do our duty. We may therefore, with calm satisfaction, trust in God and leave the results to Him.”

Huh? Just do your duty? Trust in Providence to determine what’s right? Excuse me, Marse Robert, but that’s not leadership.That’s the abdication of leadership. Leadership, last time I checked, was doing the right thing--not just doing your duty. Was it right to go to war with the Union? It was certainly Lee’s duty, but was it right?

That, I eventually came to realize, was my fundamental disagreement with this book--and it is the great paradox of using Lee as a leadership example. When one considers the true leadership gifts that this man had, the preternatural loyalty he earned and the uncanny ability to leverage that loyalty to accomplish seemingly impossible goals, it is an unmitigated tragedy that such talent and vision was applied to the crusade it was. Imagine what phenomenal good Lee could have achieved if he had applied his considerable skill and discipline to a cause that was worth fighting for? And I’m not talking about the Union’s war effort.

But the paradox seems lost on Crocker. Indeed, he seems to revel not just in Lee’s skill, but in the cause they were put into service for.

The book documents Lee’s entire career, pulling specific lessons out of specific situations and attempting to translate them into actionable aphorisms for the modern business executive. During the Civil War years, the stress is often on the risk and long chances Lee had to take. Here’s an excerpt from the Battle of Second Manassas:

[Union General John] Pope mistakenly thought he had finally “bagged” the slippery [Conferderate General Thomas “Stonewall”] Jackson. “I see no possibility of his escape,” said Pope. But Jackson was Lee’s bramble bush. While Jackson held him, Lee rode up with General Longstreet to hit Pope on the flank, with the intention of sweeping him away as though he were a tumbleweed beside a gate. Pope could put more men on the field than Jackson and Longstreet combined, but Lee knew a leader has to face squarely the necessity of risk, especially when the odds are against him. “The disparity...between the contending forces,” Lee noted calmly, “rendered the risks unavoidable.”

What exactly is the leadership lesson here? That desperate times call for desperate measures? Well, I can’t help but wonder why the times are so desperate in the first place. Perhaps it is because our leader has chosen to fight the wrong war?

Because isn’t that an essential ingredient in any leadership cocktail? Knowing which wars to fight and which wars to avoid? And isn’t Lee the textbook example of a leader who was too blinded by loyalty and duty to make that most critical of decisions correctly?

Lee’s wartime correspondence seems peppered with admissions that the army he commanded was not up to the task with which it had been charged.

“The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of the enemy’s territory. It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and then men are poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes.”

As well as, remarkably, admissions that perhaps the cause for which they fought was not worth winning in the eyes of the world.

“As far as I have been able to judge, this war presents to the European world but two aspects. A context in which one side is contending for abstract slavery and the other against it. The existence of vital rights involved does not seem to be understood or appreciated.”

The vital rights to which Lee refers are not well understood today and were evidently not well understood then. The goal, then, was not clear, and the resources needed to achieve it were not available. What decision does a leader make when faced with such a circumstance?

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The book is also strongly biased against Confederate General James Longstreet.

When General Longstreet arrived on the flank, he waited, as was his wont, for just the right moment to strike. He kept his full complement of troops drawn up and made a careful survey of the land, unhurried by the obvious pressure on Jackson or by Lee’s repeated suggestions that he expedite his assault. Finally, Longstreet smashed the exposed Union line with an artillery barrage that lifted the pressure on Jackson. Then, at Lee’s command, Longstreet sent his troops charging into the Federals, rolling the bluecoats up, while Jackson’s own troopers jumped over their defensive positions, screaming the Rebel Yell.

The bold emphasis is my own, and I’ve found this kind of assumed bias common among Lee worshippers (among whose ranks it only makes sense to place Crocker). In their view, Longstreet--who Lee himself famously called his “old war horse”--was always foiling Lee’s masterful plans with his hesitant nature and borderline insubordination. I think it’s an overly simplistic narrative, and no where is it typically more relied upon than in trying to explain Lee’s loss at Gettysburg.

In fact, Longstreet’s dilatory tactics had again bollixed up the execution of Lee’s plan. Colonel Alexander had expended too much ammunition. There was not enough to adequately support the Confederate advance. As had happened the day before, Longstreet’s delays, his hope against hope that the plans he disagreed with would be cancelled, resulted only in the plans being executed in the worst possible way.

This is, of course, talking about the third day at Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge. Crocker is extremely harsh on Longstreet here, and pulls the following lesson out of that harshness.

Lee learned a hard lesson at Gettysburg. Jackson, who would have executed Lee’s plans with all the vigor he desired, was irreplaceable. The lesson was, again, that people count. In any organization personnel is policy, and it is wrong to trust to subordinates who do not fully share a leader’s vision. The result will nearly always be half-hearted, faulty execution and even subversion--however well-intentioned--of one’s plans.

Actually, it is a good lesson. A leader must have people who share his vision, and it is best to entrust execution to those who do. But I believe the lesson is misapplied to this situation. Let’s continue with Crocker’s own analysis.

The Confederates now had the challenge of crossing a mile of open ground with minimal artillery support to suppress Federal fire. They did not flinch. Officers to the front, General Armistead shoved his black hat over the tip of his sword and waved his men forward.

Now--now that it was too late--Longstreet joined Colonel Alexander to find out why the Confederate guns were silent. Alexander informed him. He was saving what little ammunition he had left so that he could offer at least some support for the Confederate advance. Longstreet was shocked. Pickett’s men should have been ordered forward an hour and a half earlier. Now they were marching into a maw of doom. “Go and stop Pickett right where he is, and replenish your ammunition!” Longstreet commanded.

But it was impossible. “We can’t do that, sir. The train has but little. It would take an hour to distribute it, and meanwhile the enemy would improve the time.”

Longstreet shook his head sorrowfully. He mumbled a mournful confession. “I do not want to make this charge. I do not see how it can succeed. I would not make it now but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.”

It might have been better if Longstreet had not allowed his melancholy to overcome him, encouraging him to drag his feet--if he’d remembered the old saw that he who hesitates is lost. That was the apropos tag, which Lee and Jackson understood, but which Longstreet was constitutionally unable to see and avoid.

The trope about Jackson flawlessly executing Lee’s plans is something that deserves examination. It’s often used to explain Lee’s failure on day one to take the high ground that he winds up attacking on day three. Ewell was ordered to take that hill (if practicable) and he failed to do so. If only the immortal Jackson was there! He would’ve taken that hill. And now his ghost is being conjured up to indict Longstreet for a lackadaisical performance on the second and third days. Except Jackson didn’t always accomplish what Lee wanted him to, most notably during the Seven Days, when he was arguably more half-hearted and subversive that Longstreet is being accused of being.

But there’s something even more important I want to explore. Taking the high ground from the Federals on days two and three at Gettysburg was a suicide mission--not at all likely to be achieved even under the best of circumstances. Longstreet knew that, and he tried to talk Lee out of it. But Lee would not hear of it and decided--as the supreme commander--to move forward even knowing that his most trusted subordinate did not believe the plan would work.

And when the men came falling back after the failure of Pickett’s charge, what did Lee say? Did he blame Longstreet for his “melancholy” and for “dragging his feet”? No. Famously, Lee said, “It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”

Here is the simple crux of my argument. Lee’s vision was flawed. Now, do subordinates need to share a leader’s vision? Yes, of course they do. But do they need to do it blindly, when that vision is flawed? No. Absolutely not. Trusted subordinates share a leader’s vision. But effective leaders shape their vision by listening to trusted subordinates.

And funny how just three books ago I read a fictionalized version of events where Lee did exactly that at this critical juncture--and ended up winning the battle.

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The author also falls squarely in line with the standard Lee-worshipping interpretation of Antietam, which, by the way, he introduces like this:

Lincoln would not deliver his Emancipation Proclamation until September 23, 1862, after Lee’s invasion of Maryland and after the battle of Sharpsburg (or Antietam, as it is known in the North)...

Yes, I know that the Union named battles after rivers they were fought near (Antietam, Bull Run, etc.) and the Confederacy named the same battles after towns they were fought near (Sharpsburg, Manassas, etc.), but the war has been over for 149 years now. Maybe it’s time for historians and professional observers to adopt a common set of nomenclature?

But I digress. What I really want to talk about is the famous accident in which Lee’s plan for invading Maryland is found by Union troopers, the paper on which it is written being used to wrap three cigars. Armed with such intelligence, Union commander George McClellan boasts that he can now certainly “whip Bobby Lee.”

Here is Crocker’s commentary on the event:

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had gone from the supreme triumph of leading a Northern invasion to the supreme hazard of facing a force more than twice as large, that was privy to Lee’s plans, and that could conceivably shut off his line of retreat. Even this description does not convey the full force of Lee’s danger. McClellan was bringing 75,000 men to the attack. Lee’s full strength was only 38,000 men, and he could bring that number to the field only if Jackson’s corps returned in time from Harper’s Ferry.

Curse that rotten fate! Spoiling Lee’s “supreme triumph” and splendid plan. Were if not for this accident, Lee most certainly would have ended that war two and a half years before he was forced to surrender. But not to worry. Even against these long odds, Lee remained victorious.

While the engagement at Sharpsburg had blunted his invasion--indeed, effectively ended it--the Army of Northern Virginia had not only survived but achieved what amounted to a brilliant tactical victory. It had held its ground against overwhelming odds, and held it again without challenge the next day.

I find it very revealing that the author lauds Lee for holding ground against his foe (remarkably, even declaring the following day in which McClellan chose not to attack him as some kind of victory). As the events of late 1864 and early 1865 would painfully reveal, holding ground was not an objective that would actually win this brutal war. Lee held ground at the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania, on the North Anna River, at Cold Harbor, and at Petersburg, but still managed to lose the war, by that time, some would argue, inevitably so.

The author sees Sharpsburg as a sterling example of Lee’s leadership traits. I see it as another strike against a brilliant commander who had chosen the wrong war to fight.

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And, finally, I think Crocker is just plain wrong when he tries to draw a leadership lesson out of Lee’s famous comment that it is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.

When Lee said that it is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it, this is what he meant: war, as history has taught us, is sometimes inevitable, even necessary. But we must not let the use of force, or for that matter the necessary if harsh actions of business--and the principles or arts that must animate them--override the higher claims of our nature and of right in our other affairs, or when force can be avoided even in the affairs that require it.

Huh? Did I read that right? It’s good that war to so terrible because otherwise we would resort to it more often and even use it in situations that don’t require it? And by extension, it is good that the actions of business are so harsh otherwise we would use them more often and even in situations that don’t require them? Is that what he’s saying?

War, as Clausewitz famously defined it, is the continuance of politics by other means. In the politics of a free people, the first goal, Lee would say, is peace with honor, persuasion through debate, not settlement by force of arms. But when force of arms is chosen, a commander should behave like Lee--audacious, aggressive, and combative in strategy (though not in personal manner), and responsible in the use of power (including having a mindfulness for his opponent’s civilians and their rights and privileges).

In business, too, the striving for competitive advantage, the “hype” of marketing, the focus on man as a narrowly materialistic being with appetites and attitudes to be stimulated, prodded, and flattered--all these things might be necessary, and within their own sphere even positive goods, in that they manufacture and spread wealth, but they are not the whole of humanity, or even the best part, or even helpful to the best part. A business leader might take his cue from Lee and find it useful to remind himself that it is well for us to know that an executive’s power over his staff, the cut and thrust of competition, the “collateral damage” of products that serve amoral or immoral ends, the Mammon that is the marketplace, can all be so terrible so that we should not grow too fond of it at the expense of our families, our neighborhoods, our greater communities--our states, our country--or our religion.

Yeah. I guess he is.

First of all, this is not what Lee meant at all. Lee is purported to have said this during the Fredericksburg campaign, while standing with Longstreet at the top of Marye’s Heights, and watching as Union General Ambrose Burnside assailed the ridge with nine divisions totaling 30,000 men. One Confederate on the scene was reported as saying: "What a magnificent sight it is! We have never witnessed such a battle-array before; long lines following one another, of brigade front. It seemed like a huge blue serpent about to encompass and crush us in its folds. . . ."

But this soldier’s fears were unfounded. Not a single Union soldier reached the heights, though 8,000 fell in one bloody attempt after another.

When Lee spoke his words, he wasn’t expressing joy at crushing his enemy. He was recognizing that the bravery, valor and sacrifice borne by his enemy was so moving that such a display would make one crave more war if it wasn’t so terrible. In it, one is exposed to both the basest and the noblest actions of man.

Second, even if Lee meant what Crocker claims he did, what kind of leadership lesson it this for a business executive? Use the vile tools of business to destroy your competition, but don’t do it too bad or too often that you become intoxicated by the slaughter? Wouldn’t a better lesson be to avoid that spiral altogether and find a way to conduct business that is based on mutual respect and gain?

It is, I think, taking the military examples offered by Lee and his career too far. It is the overall theme of the book, I know, but there are times when this fundamental concept is expressed in language that is too difficult for me to swallow. He often refers to “opponents” as if the challenges that a modern business executive faces can always be directly mapped to the challenges of a military commander trying to overcome or destroy an enemy. It is a frame that has some value, but as a fundamental premise for how to conduct yourself in a business environment, I question whether it is the right one.

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Let me try to end where I started. With another one of those head-shaking phrases that makes me wonder when this book was written.

Today, a collegian with truly up-to-date, hip American parents would more likely be advised to use a condom when indulging in what in Lee’s day was regarded as the sin of fornication.

He mentions this in comparison to the fatherly advice Lee offered his son while at West Point, which he thinks epitomizes the heart of Lee’s leadership example--that of a simple Christian soul.

Lee was a man who saw the necessity of rising above a material or corporeal existence, a goal far less commonplace in our own times, except perhaps as a vague, undisciplined, and even self-centered longing for our lives to have an eternal or spiritual value.

Which for me begs a final question as I come near the close of this disappointing book. Does Lee, in the end, have anything to teach a world that doesn’t see the “necessity of rising above a material or corporeal existence?” I, for one, do not long for a life that has eternal or spiritual value--preferring instead to positively affect the world around me while I’m still living in it. Would Crocker say that Lee has something to teach me? Or would he dismiss me because of my television, rock music and condom-using habits?

I’ll tell you what I think. I think Lee does has something to teach me and a world that may have moved past his 19th Century Christian premise. Lee’s fidelity and sense of duty are admirable traits, but only when you decouple them from the archaic institutions to which he applied them. A state, a government, one’s own marble posterity--none of these deserve the attention that Lee seemed to lavish on them.

But take a Lee-like sense of duty and nourish it for the betterment of those around you, those who are worse off than you, and Lee can become a shining example that is worth following.

And, that might even be more Christian, in a 21st Century kind of way.

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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 26, 2014

Should You Break Your Own Rules?

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Here's a little quiz.

A member of your association Board is on the phone. He forgot to register for the upcoming conference and has now missed the early bird deadline. He went to the website, but if he registers there, he is going to get charged the higher registration fee. He would like you to make an exception and get him registered at the early bird rate.

Obviously there is a decision to be made. You either break your own rules and get the Board member registered at the early bird rate, or you tell the Board member that rules are rules and that he'll have to register at the higher rate.

Which do you do?

In my experience, the answer to this dilemma is tightly correlated with the kind of association professional that is being asked the question.

Staff working on the front lines, those who are responsible for making sure things like online registration systems work smoothly, will most often skew towards the integrity of their systems. They'll tell the Board member that it isn't fair to everyone else that is being charged the late registration fee to make an exception in his case. And then they might complain later in the break room about the nerve of some of their volunteers.

While staff working at the executive level, those who are responsible for making sure things like committees and Boards are populated with volunteers with the right interests and skill sets, will most often skew towards the integrity of the relationship. They'll tell the Board member absolutely, they'll take care of it, and how much they're looking forward to seeing them at the conference. And then they might hear others complaining later in the break room about how much of a pushover they are.

Who's right? In my view, probably both.

Any community that lacks to ability to set and enforce its own rules is not a community. It's a mob. And an organization that doesn't care about the integrity of its systems isn't likely to provide the kind of customer service that most associations would aspire to.

But an association that lacks the ability to put its own rules into the proper perspective is also in trouble. Over the course of my career, I have found myself on both sides of this question. I have been the front line staffer complaining about volunteers, knowing that I'm the one being held responsible for hitting our registration numbers, and I have been the executive doing favors for VIPs and being complained about by others in the break room. And with the benefit of that perspective, I have come to understand that I want my association to be the kind where the volunteers are comfortable calling and asking for special favors.

Because some aren't. Some volunteers in some associations know that there are stringent rules for things like meetings registrations, and they wouldn't dream of asking anyone at the association office to bend any of them on their behalf. They know there's no sense in asking the association to do any favors for them--and as a result, they are less than enthusiastic about doing any favors for the association. Volunteers in associations like these will sit on committees and boards, but they won't necessarily bring their A-game to those responsibilities.

So, should you occasionally break your own rules? Yes, absolutely you should. Not only does it acknowledge that your volunteers are human, and that your association thinks of them as such, it can be one of the best ways to build better engagement with 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, May 19, 2014

The Case for Sharing Information

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Two weeks ago, in Leading By Example, I wrote about my latest experiment in trying to make the values and behaviors described in my association's values statement a more active part of the day-to-day interactions of me and my staff.

Having asked everyone to make a commitment to more mindfully manifest a chosen behavior in the office--and having communicated that performance evaluations would, in part, be based on their willingness and ability to do so--I decided to lead by example and do what I had asked everyone else to do.

The behavior I chose is:

We share information openly and proactively, demonstrating an understanding that our actions impact others.

It is part of our overall value of Teamwork, which is focused on helping us work better together to deliver exceptional service to our members.

I chose this behavior very intentionally. I wanted to chose one that I thought I actually needed to improve upon. I've written before about how our values statement is intended to be aspirational in nature. In other words, it is not a description of the values we currently hold, but the ones we believe we need to hold if we are going to be successful in our environment. With that as a frame, I thought it would be it easy for people to admit the areas they need to work on, but that hasn't always been the case. So, I hoped that having the boss publicly admit that there's something he needs to improve upon would send a clear signal that such vulnerability was okay.

And sharing information openly and proactively is definitely something I could improve upon. Fact is, I don't share enough information with the team--especially about the evolving strategy of the organization. We're a small organization, and people's plates are full--mine no less so. I get pulled in a lot of different directions by a lot of different stakeholders with competing priorities. Keeping things aligned in the one direction that best helps the organization fulfill its mission is perhaps the most challenging part of my job. And previously, the thought of showing others how organic rather than strategic that process can be has been too big of a barrier to overcome.

But upon reflection, I realized that the information I was keeping locked up in the corner office had more value out in the trenches. It was our full plates that was actually creating a priority for tighter organizational alignment. Because we were so busy, we had to find ways to act in a unified fashion that didn't depend on the command and control expectations of old. When the only thing the boss shares is the polished communications of determined strategy, he creates a situation in which every environmental deviation from what was predicted results in a trip to his office and a request for new marching orders.

I thought sharing more, including the sometimes messy inner workings of strategy building, would provide everyone in the organization with a deeper understanding of not just what had been decided, but why it was decided, and what some of the reasonable alternatives might have been. That would put everyone on firmer footing when it came to applying our strategy to inevitable new situations that would continue to confront us and confound what it is we thought we wanted to achieve.

Stay tuned. In a future post, I'll write more about this behavior and some of the things I'm doing to better manifest it in the office.

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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, May 17, 2014

The End of Membership As We Know It by Sarah L. Sladek

This was an interesting experience because I had an opportunity to meet the author shortly after reading the book. In fact, had WSAE not invited her to speak at one of its events, and had WSAE not asked me to lead a discussion group on the themes in her book prior to that presentation, I’m not sure I would’ve even read the book. At the very least, I suppose, I would not have jumped the book to the top of my reading list.

Sladek’s presentation at the WSAE event was good. And having her actually join the discussion table I was leading was a special opportunity I took full advantage of. But I must be honest. While reading her book, I found myself circling sentence after sentence and asking myself: “Is that really true?”

Want some examples?

Most associations remain entirely governed and supported by the Baby Boomer generation...

This comes right up front on page 5, and can be safely described as one of the foundational premises of the book. Let me paraphrase it this way. Associations were built by and for Baby Boomers. But Baby Boomers are beginning to fade away, and the associations they are leaving behind don’t appeal to younger generations. Follow the advice offered in this book if you want to transform your association into something that appeals to those younger generations.

I’m not denying that this isn’t a real issue for some associations, but what I find interesting is how much has changed in just the last few years. Sladek’s book was written in 2011, but from where I sit in the association space, much of it already seems outdated.

And this statement about the Baby Boomers governing most associations is a perfect case in point. It is certainly not true of my association, where Xers now make up the clear majority of people on my Board of Directors. I have to believe that my association is not unique in this regard. Increasingly, it is people of Generation X (those of us between 33 and 53 years of age) who are in positions of authority in the industries and professions around which associations have been built. But Sladek’s follow-up point to the sentence above seems to purposely obscure that fact.

...and few have or are developing strategies to cushion themselves from this massive exodus of board members, committee chairs, and dedicated volunteers. According to BoardSource’s Nonprofit Governance Index, only 2 percent of board members are under 30 years old.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But why the focus on board members under 30 (i.e., Millennials)? What does the index say about board members under 50 (i.e., Generation X)? Given the fact that most Millennials have not yet reached the point of primary influence in their industries and professions, why would we expect them to be on association boards? In the membership, yes, attending conferences, yes, leading committees, yes. But on the board? That’s not the case in my association, and I’m not viewing that as any kind of looming disaster. Not when the transition from Boomers to Xers has already been accomplished.

Here’s another.

Thanks to technology, people can easily find the people they want to network with and they don’t need your association to do it.

Really? Undoubtedly true for some people in some professions, but I know for a fact that there are still associations who bring together unique groupings of people at their events and in their forums. It may be easier to find and connect with a peer group online, but bringing business people together in a social environment in order to help smooth the edges off difficult business needs and opportunities is a kind of networking that associations can still uniquely own.

Here’s another.

After all, since their founding, associations have been largely focused on in-person deliverables. In-person meetings, workshops, conferences, golf tournaments, meals, handshakes, winks, and smiles have been at the core of every association’s existence. It’s how they’ve delivered value and customer service. What most associations fail to realize is that technology has the same capability.

This one I don’t even have to debunk. Sladek does that herself three paragraphs later.

Technology can never replace an in-person experience, but that’s not to dismiss technology as an insufficient tool. Quite the opposite! Remember this: What engages people online isn’t much different than what connects them in person. It’s entirely possible to communicate an experience, a brand, a smile, and a polite handshake through technology. It may not be the same or a better experience than the in-person experience, but think about how you’re using technology to engage, captivate--even tango--with your audience.

It’s a very mixed message Sladek is delivering here, so allow me to be a little more clear cut. In-person and online connections are two different things. Ideally, they can be made to complement each other, but there are things people can learn from each other through online interactions that they can’t through in-person gatherings, and there is a value in engaging face-to-face that can never be fully replicated in the online space. As an association professional, if you’re not clear about that distinction, you're not going to get the needed balance between the two right.

Here’s another.

In associations there are two types of members: givers and takers. Givers willingly pay their dues, volunteer their time, and give of their resources. Unfortunately, most of the givers tend to be from the Baby Boomer generation and are starting to retire their association memberships as they retire from work. Takers, who tend to be from younger generations, say, “I will show up if you can show me value.”

Like most phrases that pose two types of people in the world, I find this one to be true only in the broadest of stereotypical forms. Can you find “givers” among the Baby Boomers that are leaving associations? Yes. And can you find “takers” among the younger generations that are asking for tangible ROI from their association memberships? Again, yes. But look deeper and I think you’ll find “takers” among the Baby Boomers (who undoubtedly define their ROI in a different way than the younger generations) and you’ll find “givers” among the younger generations (who still see associations and the connections they offer as a boon to their professional development plans).

It was right about here that I began to question: Who is this book really written for? There’s a section in the middle that provides advice on how to build trust with people in Generations X and Y, and includes such groundbreaking ideas as listening to their point of view, being inclusive, encouraging their feedback, and allowing those youngsters to create their own solutions.

This began to tip me towards a certain conclusion. But the clincher came for me when Sladek started talking about the benefits of creating and engaging members in association-led online communities. After extolling many of their virtues, she begins the summary of her case like this:

The fact is, technology is here to stay. Stop fearing it and starting embracing it.

And that’s when it really hit me. The book--thought-provoking and conversation starting as it may be--isn’t written for association executives who are struggling with Boomers in their leadership who are preventing the association from adapting to better appeal to younger generations. The book is written for the association executive who is a Boomer, and who finds him or herself befuddled by all the strange new online pastimes of their kids and grandkids.

That’s clearly not me. But what’s more interesting is how much the market has changed in the three years since the book was written. In 2011, there may very well have been a lot of executives that needed to hear this message and who needed a guide to help them start addressing the problem of their dwindling membership. But from where I sit, looking around at my industry in early 2014, it seems like there are fewer and fewer people who meet that description.

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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 12, 2014

Assessing Your Willingness for Dialogue

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Four weeks ago, in On the Right Track, I wrote about some of the things I'm doing in my organization to diffuse leadership and decision-making across our hierarchical levels. It was partially inspired by the CEO-level discussion facilitated by Humanize authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant at a recent WSAE meeting.

But that wasn't the only thing that grew out of that meeting.

In addition to the CEO discussion, there was a general session for all, where we each completed an assessment based on four of the cultural categories that are promoted in Humanize--decentralization, transparency, collaboration and experimentation. Not only did I complete this assessment, but two of my staff people who were in attendance completed it, too. And shortly after the meeting, the three of us sat down to compare notes and talk about what the assessment revealed to each of us.

Some leaders might think such a conversation risky. What, after all, would I do if they said something negative about the organization? Or about me as its leader? But I never hesitated. I was much more curious than fearful about what they might say. In completing the assessment, I had been as honest as possible, giving both high and low marks where they were warranted, and I expected no less from these individuals. To me, our conversation would be less about where they thought things were strong and weak, and more about where we all agreed or disagreed that things were strong or weak.

And that's exactly the kind of conversation we had. One of the most interesting parts had to do the organization's comfort level with experimentation and risk-taking. There were several statements on the assessment regarding this. Statements that you had to agree or disagree with. Statement like:

We love to beta test ideas both internally and externally.


Managers will back their employees up when they want to try a new way of doing something.


Our organization is comfortable with the approach of "fail fast, fail smart.

All three of us agreed that these were concepts closely associated with our success. Indeed, they were similar to several of the behavior descriptions that we had included on our own values statement. But we also agreed that they were a work-in-progress. That, as an organization, we were still looking for ways to make them part of our regular habits.

And what immediately became apparent to me was that this conversation was a crucial part of that very process of figuring things out. By being open to the dialogue, and by honestly engaging with members of my team on where things stood and where we wanted them to go, I had a golden opportunity to reinforce behaviors associated with our values, and speak out against ones that weren't.

Right or wrong, any assessment that gets people talking about the things that matter in an organization is worth doing.

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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 5, 2014

Leading by Example

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I've been writing a lot about the process I used to develop a values statement for my association, and even more about the experiments we've been running to try and make the values and behaviors it describes a more active part of our day-to-day interactions.

Our latest experiment is one of the simplest in its construction. Our values statement has four broad values, and for each value it includes a dozen or so behaviors by which we will know an individual is acting in accordance with the values.

Here's what I've asked everyone to do. Take one of the behaviors--not one of the values, one of the forty-some behaviors that support the values--and make a commitment to more mindfully manifest that behavior in the office. How? By communicating the observable actions you plan to take to your supervisor so that when you take those actions it is clear and obvious that you are acting in support of your chosen behavior.

Simple in construction (at least I think so) but it's proving to be challenging in its execution. People are finding it difficult to choose a behavior (worried, I think, that whatever they pick will reveal or reflect some deficiency in their existing behavior). And those who have chosen a behavior are finding it difficult to articulate observable actions that support it.

I believe I bear some responsibility for their reticence. Wanting to make sure our values and their supporting behaviors had some teeth, I decided to connect the exercise I described above to our performance evaluation process. I communicated to all that those who thoughtfully choose a behavior and who visibly manifest that behavior in the office over the next few months will be eligible for higher rewards at raise time than those who don't. It won't be the only factor considered in that decision, but it will be an important one.

My jury is still out on whether that was a good idea or not, but I am committed to seeing the experiment through. Some people may think that I'm raising the stakes needlessly high, but I think steps like this are necessary if we are going to better incorporate our values and associated behaviors into the fabric of our organization.

But sensing trepidation from the folks I rely on for our success, I decided I needed to take an additional action to better demonstrate the spirit with which I hoped everyone would approach the exercise. In essence, I needed to lead by example. I needed to do exactly what I had asked everyone else to do.

Stay tuned. In a future post, I'll write about the behavior I chose and the things I'm doing to better manifest it in the office.

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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, May 3, 2014

The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling

The subtitle here is “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” something the authors almost immediately start referring to as WIGs, and then proceed to provide a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for doing exactly that. They call it 4DX, short for the Four Disciplines of Execution, and here they are:

1. Focus on the Wildly Important
2. Act on the Lead Measures
3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
4. Create a Cadence of Accountability

I’m not going to give a comprehensive summary, but here are a few things that really spoke to me as I went through the book.

People Are Not the Problem

In a key study on organizational change, the global management-consulting firm Bain & Company reports these findings: “About 65 percent of initiatives required significant behavioral change on the part of front-line employees--something that managers often fail to consider or plan for in advance.”

Despite the significance of this problem, leaders seldom recognize it. You don’t hear leaders saying, “I wish I were better at driving strategies that require people to do things differently.” What you are more likely to hear is a leader saying, “I wish I didn’t have Tom, Paul, and Sue to deal with!”

It’s natural for a leader to assume the people are the problem. After all, they are the ones not doing what we need to have done. But you would be wrong. The people are not the problem!

W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, taught that any time the majority of people behave a particular way the majority of the time, the people are not the problem. The problem is inherent in the system. As a leader, you own responsibility for the system. Although a particular person can be a big problem, if you find yourself blaming the people, you should look again.

I could so easily be of two minds on this--and could probably argue both sides endlessly. But I suspect at the end I would come down on the side of Deming. The people are not the problem. One person may be a problem, but it is far more likely--and helpful--to understand that the problem is the system, not the people that comprise it.

Much of this book is premised on this core concept, and the challenge is that the system is all-too-often an unwieldy and unforgiving whirlwind of activity, where too many priorities compete for too little time, attention and resources.

The first discipline, Focus on the Wildly Important, confronts this reality head-on, saying that despite the whirlwind, teams need to focus their time, attention and resources on a very small number (in most cases, one) of Wildly Important Goals (WIGs).

Top Down Doesn’t Work

The highest levels of execution are never reached when the strategy is devised solely by the top leaders of the organization and simply handed down to the leaders and teams below.

I totally agree. And that’s where the second discipline, Act on the Lead Measures, comes in. Maybe the boss sets the WIG--always, according to the authors, in the form of a “lag measure,” a “from X to Y by when” statement--but the boss can’t choose the lead measures--the things that the team will focus on and try to effect in order to see action on the goal.

To pick up one of the book’s examples, a hotel identified “Increase revenue from corporate events” as their WIG, and then created a lag measure that set the goal as moving from $22 to $31 million by December 31st. Then it was up to multiple teams across the staff to identify their own lead measures--the things they could do week-in and week-out, that would have the greatest potential impact on achieving the lag measure. One chose “completing two quality site visits per week.” Another chose “upsell our premium bar package to 90% of all events.” Instead of designing a strategy from the top down, once the WIG and its lag measure was made clear, the strategies came from the bottom up.

Focus on Behaviors, Not Outcomes

This approach really reminds me of a blog post I wrote some time ago where I posed the idea that to ensure greater success, we should measure and reward the behaviors that lead to good outcomes, not the outcomes themselves. When we reward people for “getting new members to join the association,” I remember saying, people start doing all kinds of things that really don’t serve the long-term interests of the organization. But when you reward people for “visiting two prospective members per week” people do the things that do serve the organization’s interest and which tightly correlate with increasing the number of members in the association.

People Play Differently When They’re Keeping Score

Remember, people play differently when they are keeping score. The difference in performance between a team that simply understands their lead and lag measures as a concept, and a team that actually knows their score, is remarkable. If the lead and lag measures are not captured on a visual scorecard and updated regularly, they will disappear into the distraction of the whirlwind. Simply put, people disengage when they don’t know the score. When they can see at a glance whether or not they are winning they become profoundly engaged.

This brings in the book’s third discipline, Keep a Compelling Scorecard. And the best example the authors offer is something they call “Beat the Goat.”

Hopefully, the image says it all. Once you have a lag measure in place, you can easily create a graph that shows how that measure has to progress over time in order to meet its goal. That’s the “goat.” Then, by plotting your actual progress on the same graph, you can see week-by-week if your lead measures are helping you “beat the goat.”

This is where I really began to see the potential power of this system, but it is also about where I began to wonder how such a system could be wholistically applied to the notoriously difficult-to-measure world of association management. Some of the things we seek to achieve can be readily measured (e.g., membership growth, meeting attendance, fundraising) but others are more complicated (e.g., creating a better educated workforce, promoting the industry). For some of these latter goals you can certainly pick numerical metrics to determine their success, but experience has shown that whichever you choose tend to de-escalate the scope of what you’re trying to achieve.

In other words, measure how many students receive scholarships from your Foundation and you’ve changed your goal from creating a better educated workforce to giving out scholarships. Measure how many media impressions your press release generates and you’ve changed your goal from promoting the industry to getting things published in the press.

Still, the point the authors seek to make should not be lost. Part of what 4DX is doing is creating a winnable game for your team to focus on and accomplish. The strategic goal may be creating a better educated workforce or promoting the industry, but the authors would probably tell me those aren’t winnable games. Giving scholarships to 25 high school students who achieved a 3.5 GPA or better and intend to study your industry’s field in college before the end of your fiscal year and sharing one marketplace example per week for the next 26 weeks of the advantages of your industry’s technology with your list of media contacts--those may not get you to your big picture objectives, but they are winnable games. And…

A winning team doesn’t need artificial morale boosting. All the psyching up and rah-rah exercises companies do to raise morale aren’t nearly as effective in engaging people as the satisfaction that comes from executing with excellence a goal that really matters.

They Will Tear Down Walls

The authors tell a compelling story in the book about a company called Towne Park.

The largest provider of valet parking services for high-end hotels and hospitals, Towne Park has always been extremely well run. When Gaylord Entertainment (one of Towne Park’s largest customers) had great success as an early adopter of the 4DX, the leaders at Towne Park became interested as well.

Towne Park was already measuring virtually every aspect of its business: Did attendants open the door for you and your guests when you arrived? Did they use the proper hotel greeting? Did they offer you a bottle of water? Their execs could tell you all this, as they were literally measuring everything they thought mattered to their customers.

Still, they decided to apply 4DX to the wildly important goal of the company, increasing customer satisfaction, to see if they could improve it even more. While developing lead measures in Discipline 2, they realized that one thing they weren’t measuring might actually be their point of highest leverage in pleasing the customer: How long it takes the customer to get his or her car back.

So, they chose reducing retrieval time as the most predictive lead measure for further improving customer satisfaction. Although they had always known this was an important aspect of the business, they had never measured it because it isn’t an easy measure to get, even for a company that believes in measurement. They knew that collecting retrieval-time data would require them to clock when the customer called for the car and when the valet arrived with the car. The elapsed time between the two points, the retrieval time, would then need to be consistently captured for all teams in all locations.

You can imagine how difficult it would be to gather this data in the whirlwind of incoming and outgoing cars, so difficult that some leaders argued that it couldn’t be done. However, because they were committed to their WIG of unparalleled customer satisfaction, and because they believed retrieval time was the most predictive and influenceable measure for achieving it, they committed to tracking it. Like all great leadership teams, once the decision was made, they found a way.

Initially, they wondered if retrieval time was really influenceable because of all the external factors that impact it, such as the location of the parking area and the distance to the car. Despite these worries, they were able to reduce retrieval time dramatically.

How? The teams figured it out because they were highly engaged in the game. Once the lead measure went up on the scoreboard, the valets began finding new ways to win. For example, they started advising arriving guests to call before checking out so that their car would be waiting for them. Whenever a guest called in advance, the valet knew the retrieval time would be zero.

The valets also began to ask what day the guest planned on checking out. If it was later in the week, they would park the car in the back of the lot. As the day of departure drew closer, they would move the car forward so that retrieval time would be reduced.

These and a host of other innovations not only reduced the lead measure of retrieval time, but immediately raised the lag measure of customer satisfaction. Towne Park was winning, but without the team’s engagement in the game, these ideas might never have surfaced, let alone been implemented.

With me so far? Okay. Here’s where the story gets really remarkable.

However, a Towne Park team in Miami, Florida, faced an obstacle that seemed insurmountable: A four-foot high concrete wall ran down the middle of the parking garage, forcing the valets to drive around it to retrieve every car.

After several months of trying to compensate for the wall, a literal breakthrough came during their WIG session. James McNeil, one of the assistant account managers, committed to his team that the wall was coming out. He obtained clearance from the hotel’s engineer who confirmed that the wall was not load-bearing, borrowed a concrete saw, and recruited several other supervisors to help. Starting early the following Saturday morning, they cut and hauled out several tons of concrete; by the end of the day, the wall was gone.

If you’re a leader, you should be fascinated by this story.

I am.

If a Towne Park executive had ordered the team to do something as far outside their normal responsibilities as removing a concrete wall, what do you think the team’s reaction would have been? At best, resistance, and at worst, mutiny, even from a good team.

But because the lead measure had become a high-stakes game, one the players didn’t want to lose, the effect was the opposite. Taking out the wall was their idea; and their desire to win was so strong, you couldn’t have kept them from doing it. Necessity really is the mother of invention. Once they made retrieval time a high-stakes game, the creativity and invention followed.

What’s critical to understand is that this level of engagement seldom if ever comes from a command-and-control approach--that is, one that relies exclusively on the formal authority of the leader. Authority alone at best yields only compliance from a team.

By contrast, 4DX produces results not from the exercise of authority but from the fundamental desire of each individual team member to feel significant, to do work that matters, and ultimately, to win.

That kind of engagement yields true commitment, the kind of commitment that led a Towne Park team to tear down a wall. And it’s only that kind of commitment that produces extraordinary results.

So, How Would This Work in My Organization?

I don’t know. But I have some ideas and I’m talking to my senior staff about them right now.

One of our challenges is that many of our obvious WIGs do not easily translate into lag measures that can be phrased as a “from X to Y by when” statement, and for those that do, it will be challenging to come up with lead measures that can reasonably be expected to “beat the goat.”

Are you up for some “inside baseball” analysis of my own association--the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA)? If not, stop reading now.

Okay? I warned you. Here’s a simplified version of our current strategic plan:

As an organization, we have three strategic priorities. In our lexicon, a strategic priority is a kind of vision statement--an aspirational statement of an envisioned future we need to work towards if we are to fulfill our mission. One of those priorities is:

Build and connect our members to an educated fluid power workforce.

Each strategic priority has a number of objectives. These are shorter-term goals that we believe will help bring about the envisioned future described in the priority statement. Our “workforce” strategic priority has three objectives. One is:

Introduce fluid power to middle and high school students, and connect their classrooms with local NFPA members for mentorship and support.

Each objective has a number of program goals. These are year-long objectives associated with specific programs that we manage that are aligned with the spirit of the objective. Our “pre-college” objective has four program goals. One is:

Expand the number of Fluid Power Challenge events, and the number of NFPA members participating as hosts, sponsors, mentors and judges.

So, in this structure, what should we call our WIGs? My initial thought is to make our strategic priorities the WIGs, but wonder what the discipline of defining lag and lead measures at that level will do to how the organization functions.

Take the “workforce” example. If we stay tightly focused on the existing language--build and connect our members to an educated fluid power workforce--our lag measure(s) could logically be something like: “Increase the number of graduates with advanced fluid power training from X to Y in the next academic year,” or “Increase the number of member/student connections at NFPA events from X to Y in the next academic year.” Neither is how we currently define success in this area, primarily because measuring that baseline figure X is difficult in our environment. But assuming we could, these lag measure would replace what we know think of as our objectives.

And these lag measures could lead, I think, to a set of lead measures that are very different from the program goals we currently have. Say we choose “Increase the number of member/student connections at NFPA events from X to Y in the next academic year” as our lag measure. Thinking about the programs we currently manage, and the kinds of actions the staff who run them could take in order to move that needle, someone might come up with “Stage one regional Fluid Power Challenge program per month in this academic year,” or “Invite 50 NFPA members from the closest member companies to attend each Challenge program” as their lead measures.

So, let’s compare the two versions:

Notice any differences? Well, first and foremost, NFPA on 4DX has actual metrics of success baked into the “objective” and “program goal” statements--now known as our lag and lead measures. Metrics aren’t something we ignore in our current version, but they are compositionally separated from the objective and program goal statements. 4DX puts those metrics front and center and provides clearer targets to shoot for.

But are they the right targets? Frankly, I don’t have any idea. As I described above, we may now be measuring how many members we invite to attend our Fluid Power Challenge programs--but does success in that area mean that we are connecting our members to a better educated workforce?

Maybe that’s part of a process--we have to set and shoot at a few targets not just for the practice of hitting them, but for the practice of better understanding which targets are the ones worth hitting. But I worry that hitting targets that prove to be the wrong ones--that is, targets that don’t actually move the lag measure or accomplish the wildly important goal--will have the opposite effect on staff motivation than what our friends at Towne Park experienced.

So that makes me think that we should be looking deeper into our plan for our WIGs. All the way down to the program goal level--at least initially--so we can be better assured of not just hitting our target, but choosing the right one for achieving the WIG.

Keeping with the current example, if “Expand the number of Fluid Power Challenge events, and the number of NFPA members participating as hosts, sponsors, mentors and judges” was the WIG, the lag measures would practically write themselves. This is a program goal, so we know a lot more about their metrics and which ones track most closely to success. We know exactly how many Challenge events we held last year and we know exactly how many members participated as hosts, sponsors, mentors or judges. So lag measures like “Increase the number of Fluid Power Challenge events from 8 in 2013-14 to 12 in 2014-15” and “Increase the number of members participating as hosts, sponsors, mentors or judges from 24 in 2013-14 to 48 in 2014-15” quickly and easily come to mind.

And these lag measures make it a lot easier to identify the right lead measures. What are the one or two things that each staff person could do consistently to help bring the lag measures about? I wouldn’t write them for people, but at my level of the organization, I could say something like “Meet in-person with one member company per month to showcase the Fluid Power Challenge program and encourage them to get their people engaged as either a host, sponsor, mentor or judge.”

Now that I think this through, picking one of our 39 program goals to treat as a WIG is probably the best way to introduce 4DX into our environment. Rather than having everyone trying to tie their programs to a WIG that looks and feels like one of our strategic priorities--where the connections may be tenuous--staying at the program level gets everyone contributing to a much more winnable game. The weekly WIG session where we make our commitments and monitor our scorecard (that’s what the authors mean by their fourth discipline, by the way, Create a Cadence of Accountability) would really put the emphasis where it belongs and help pull everyone out of the whirlwind to achieve one collective objective.

It might be worth a try.

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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