Monday, June 30, 2014

Leadership and U-Shaped Tables

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I'm just returned from what was a very successful strategic retreat with the Board of Directors of my association. Like many of the Board meetings we've done before, we used a U-shaped table for several of the sessions. With the open end of the U facing a projection screen, we've found that it gives the Board members an equal opportunity to see and interact with each other and to view the many presentations we use to report progress and explore strategic concepts.

But something different happened at this Board meeting--something that is a great reminder of how something as ostensibly simple as your room set can affect the the outcome of your meeting.

In order to help focus discussion, we usually break our Board up into a handful of smaller groups. Each can tackle a particular issue, and report recommended actions back to the full Board. We've found it to be helpful in increasing participation and efficiency. Fewer people dominate the conversation and more work can get done.

At this meeting, when the breakout groups came back into general session, they found that the hotel had put us into a cavernous room. Much too large for our group, and rather than put a tight U-shaped table in the middle of its footprint, it had built a giant one for us, stretching to fill the entire space, and putting people on opposite side of the U more than thirty feet away from each other.

It could have been a disaster. But when it came time for the first breakout group to report, the chair did something important--something that no breakout chair had ever done before. Rather than stay in his seat, he got up, and moved to the middle of the U to give his report. With the words on the screen behind him, and moving around to speak directly to all three sides of the U, it was almost as if he was giving a mini TED talk.

And it completely changed the dynamic. I've seen these reports go bad before. A quiet voice from one corner of the table, easily dismissed as partially heard and dimly understood. This was anything but. The chair made the information compelling--if for no other reason than he seemed to lay the recommendations directly in front of each and every Board member. The discussion that followed was robust and additive, and the breakout chair was in the best possible position to moderate it. His physical movements helped integrate ideas from all around the U, and he got the Board to a even better decision point than the one he had initially framed for them.

It was one of the best displays of leadership I have seen, especially when you consider that the breakout chairs who followed him wisely choose to emulate his style. Makes me wonder if I'm going to purposely set my U-shaped tables too wide in the future.

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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, June 28, 2014

The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Michael Hecht

This is a book about many different things, ostensibly tied together into a treatise about what it takes to be happy in our modern (or any other) era. That prescription, as such prescriptions often are, is reduced by the author down to a few simple concepts:

Know yourself.
Control your desires.
Take what’s yours.
Remember death.

But she uses these more as launching pads for a number of entertaining (and sometimes not) digressions than as elements of a cohesive happiness philosophy.

If the latter is what you’re looking for, I far prefer another schematic the author offers, one based on the (perhaps impossible) harmony one should seek among three distinct kinds of happiness:

A Good Day. A good day can be filled with many mild pleasures, repeatable and forgettable, and some rewarding efforts.

Euphoria. Euphoria is intense, lasts powerfully in memory, and often involves some risk or vulnerability.

A Happy Life. A happy life requires a lot of difficult work (studying, striving, nurturing, maintaining, negotiating, mourning, and birthing), sometimes seriously cutting into time for a good day or for euphoria.

More challenging than the first, but more squarely focused on the point of the whole exercise, if you ask me.

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Among the other entertaining bits in the book, one I really enjoyed was the following thesis, which the author returned to again and again throughout the text.

Often, the modern point of view reveals itself to consist of bossy, shaming, controlling nonsense. This realization alone can give us a bit of freedom from the mental costs of our day. Most of the strictures we live under are just cultural stories, no more inherently true than the cultural stories of any other period in history.

And one of her favorite examples is the way we currently think about body image and health.

On some subjects, I fear I will sound like an apologist for indulgence, but I do not think it is morally justifiable for an able-bodied man or woman to devote huge amounts of time and energy to worrying about things that do not really matter much. Don’t you know people who are very proud, for instance, of their “healthy” diet, and other people who are very ashamed of their “unhealthy” diet? Shouldn’t these people be proud and ashamed of something of more substance? I am embarrassed by how pathetic some of our priorities will look to the future. I think it will be clear to future historians that these mythic obsessions with the body are responsible not only for the bony fashion model, but also for the extra-large average person, for whom eating becomes an expression of rejecting these shaming forces of control.

In fact, Hecht’s advice for people saddled with this shame is at the same time refreshing as it is heretical.

I think we would all be better off if we did unproductive exercise only for pleasure. If we want to do exercise, we should walk somewhere we have to go anyway, do a chore you usually get someone else to do, take the stairs, carry the baby, or chop some wood. Forget the gym unless you love it, or perhaps need a change of habit. These exhortations to be a certain type of body are the nonsense jabberings of history. Anyone above the lowest quintile of activity is not going to get happy as a direct result of exercising. If you are exercising and do not enjoy it, or are not exercising and spend time feeling guilty about it, I recommend that you find something to occupy yourself that you do enjoy, whether or not it gets your heartbeat up.

But that’s just one example, and in concept the author is making a larger point.

And it will be clear that our myths about drugs are responsible for a lot of unhappy drug taking and a lot of unhappy drug abstaining. I believe that a moral imperative to be of use begins with a moral imperative to get one’s mind right, to be able to see nonsensical cultural assumptions--trances of value--for what they are, to develop oneself as a truth detector. There is no reason to think that we can each individually do this crucial work on our own, without scholarship, and without carefully sketching out just what it is we think we mean--and what it is we want.

The challenge, of course, is determining what it is that matters most, especially if we agree that it is not necessarily what I think it is, or what you think it is. This is Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape on steroids. Somehow, scholarship will help us determine what matters most to us and our happiness.

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She also deals with the topsy-turvy, the compelling need throughout all human history to periodically turn the social order upside down in order to keep oneself from destroying civilization entirely. Its essence is being euphoric, not privately, but in public.

I think we need this, we do not get enough of it, and what we get is in the form of absurdity in art. Complaining about culture having random, intense rules of conduct is like complaining about the inconveniences of gravity. All we can do is try to find a way to alleviate the pressure now and again. That is what topsy-turvy does. Our arts reflect our hunger for it. Often they do a great job of providing it for us, singly and in communion with others: we share our love for the topsy-turvy by citing our love for artistic expressions of it. Think of the special kind of allegiance people have to films that are absurd: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example, or Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, Pink Flamingos, Being John Malkovich, or Donnie Darko. We need play, and the play has to be daring; it need not scatter all meaning, but it does have to turn things upside-down.

I sometimes feel this need intensely as, evidently, do most of the other humans on the planet.

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And there is her mind-stretching idea that, in our modern culture, the nightly news plays a role that may seem odd when described to us, but would not be at all unfamiliar to our ancestors.

Ours is a world keenly shaped by Enlightenment science, democracy, and decorum, but even in the world of the rational, scientific, and objective, we have found a way to tell ourselves the old stories.

Where, today, is the image of a crying woman searching for her abducted daughter, or the unexpectedly pregnant girl searching for a place to have her child? Where is the image of a sad young mother holding her son’s lifeless body? Where are the images of relief when the sobering mother is reunited with her child, who shows up shockingly alive? The answer is the news. We let the news anchors tell us stories of rape, murder, fire, insane mothers, cruel nannies, sly seducers, and violent fathers. This litany sounds different every year, but it is also very much the same, told in a style particular enough to constitute a genre, or a suite of myths.

...the news is our myth, helping us do our psychological work the way Demeter and Mother Mary did.

Maybe this is why I mostly shake my head at what passes for news these days--befuddled and confused at what is more traditionally offered up. But it is evidently my mistake, expecting to hear about the events and forces that have a tangible impact on my life and our society, rather than the archetypal stories of sin and redemption through which cultures throughout history have tried to understand themselves.

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There are also a number of brief passages that, when stumbled upon, helped me reflect on my own ideas of happiness and how to achieve it.

First, from the poem “Happiness,” by Jane Kenyon:

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

More and more often, it seems, this is how happiness finds me. Not planned or pursued, but unsuspecting, perhaps not in my hour of despair, but certainly on what is otherwise an ordinary day.

And second, from a section on Adam Smith:

...when a poor man’s son has ambition, it is a curse. The condition of the rich “appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings,” and to reach it, the young man “sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power.” If he attains wealth, “he will find [it] to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it.” Power and riches are high-maintenance machines “contrived to produce a few trifling coveniences to the body.” The machines “must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and … in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor … They leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death.”

This is about as true as anything you will ever find. Beyond a certain level of health and security, wealth does not add to happiness in any appreciable way. In fact, other than readier access to mechanisms that can provide euphoria, wealth, and the process of gaining and maintaining it, more frequently detracts from the happiness that any ordinary and comfortable life can provide.

In fact, a few pages later, Hecht offers this little tidbit, which can fairly be viewed as a prescription for attaining the balance between “a good day,” “euphoria,” and “a happy life” presented as well-nigh impossible in the opening chapter.

Happiness maintenance work is creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experiences for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feeling of progress and growth.

I think that is really all you need to do.

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But all in all, the book is a bit of a jumble--the connections of a genius intellect on full display, but few of them corralled and ordered by the efforts of a competent editor. If a dreamy thought journey is your cup of tea, by all means take a swim in this ocean.

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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, June 23, 2014

On Transparency

We recently moved our association offices. The lease was up at our old place and we needed a change of pace, so we went on the market to see what was available.

It was an exciting and sometimes difficult process. Plenty of compromises had to be made between what we wanted, what was available, and what we could afford, but in the end we found and secured some fantastic space that is already changing the tone of the organization in some very positive ways.

The photo I included with this post is a shot of our new conference room. Look closely and you'll see one wall is comprised of floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the office building's atrium. It's a busy place, and throughout every day hundreds of people ride up and down the escalator and walk around on the exposed hallways of the opposite floors--all treated to a direct and unobstructed view into our conference room.

Shortly after we moved in one of our volunteer Board members was in town and he paid us a visit. Looking at this space, his immediate question was: "Are you going to put up some drapes?"

"Drapes?" I said, not understanding where he was coming from. "Why would I want to put up some drapes?"

"Well," he said, looking at the SmartBoard projector we have hanging on one of the walls. "What are you going to do when you present confidential information?"

His perspective literally stopped me in my tracks. As a trade association, we do have some information we consider private and confidential. The contact information of the people working for our member companies. The amount of money each individual company pays in membership dues (which is indexed to their annual sales volume). Data each individual company submits about their monthly production and sales volumes that we aggregate into confidential reports about the size and direction of our industry. But none of this would ever find its way into a presentation that we would project on a wall, regardless of whether or not the room had windows, and I found myself having to reassure my Board member of that fact.

But the exchange got me thinking about the window wall in a way I hadn't before. Initially, its appeal was mostly aesthetic. It lets a lot of light into our office suite, and gives us a commanding view of our atrium and all the activities going on in our building. Now, I realize that it can serve another important purpose. It makes a statement about transparency. It tells everyone in the conference room and everyone walking around outside that this organization does things above-board. That it has nothing to hide.

And when you see that my office shares the same window wall, I think this statement about transparency becomes even more powerful. After all, it's not just our conference room that you can look into, but the CEO's office as well.

Can you make a louder statement than that?

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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, June 16, 2014

Staying Above the Line

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This week I'm getting ready for an upcoming strategic retreat with my association's Board of Directors. There's a lot of prep work involved. In addition to setting a strategic agenda for the upcoming year (our fiscal year begins July 1), we'll take a look back at our progress over the past year. That means a lot of reports on projects and programs, many of them distilled down to a single set of green, yellow and red lights--a one-page overview that is meant to convey a general sense of organizational progress, and to highlight any weak points that may need deeper examination to determine how they can be best overcome or eliminated.

I've written about these "stop and go lights" before, and maybe I'll write more about them after the Board meeting, but I only bring them up now because they are just one of the ways that I try and help our Board stay above the line.

What line am I talking about? The one between strategy and operations, of course, and it's very important for Boards to stay above it if they are going to help an association achieve more than it otherwise would.

But there is a bit of a quandary here. Strategy can't be completely separated from operations--even in an annual strategic retreat. Talking blue sky strategy can be a helpful exercise, but if there isn't an understanding of the current operational competencies and capacities of the organization, you run the risk of creating a strategy that is wonderful, but unachievable.

So the struggle at every Board meeting is to provide Board members with enough information about the operational progress and plans of the organization so they can put their strategy work in the proper context, without leaving them with the impression that they are there to fix, direct, or change operational programs and priorities. Yes, Board members, we need measurable objectives and we need success metrics, but we need them at the strategic level, not the operational one.

So I'm trying something new to help make that distinction even more clear. It's a worksheet that shows our current vision statement, the strategic objectives by which we think we'll achieve it, and the supporting programs that have been put in place to move us in each of those directions. They're all connected and it's important to understand how they knit together, but I have very intentionally taken the list of programs and placed them in a shaded box.

It's meant to say very clearly: They're there. You can see them. We can even talk about them so you can better understand what the organization is doing to try and achieve our strategy, but they're shaded out because you're not supposed to touch them. You need to stay above the shaded area--above the line--and focus on the vision, the strategic objectives, and most importantly, the criteria by which we will know that we are actually achieving them.

If that sounds parochial, it's not intended to be. All it is is an attempt to help the Board members stay focused on their very difficult job of describing what success will look like with enough specificity that an action plan with a realistic chance of getting there can actually be created.

I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

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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, June 14, 2014

Five Stories by Willa Cather

Two of the five I have already read--Tom Outland’s Story, which is a good chunk of The Professor’s House (1925), and The Best Years, which was first published in The Old Beauty and Others, and was the last story that Willa Cather completed.

The three new ones for me were:

The Enchanted Bluff

First published in Harper’s Magazine in April 1909. I have to admit, this one didn’t leave much of an impression on me.

Neighbour Rosicky

From Obscure Destinies (1932). A beautiful story about the differences between city life and country life, the choices and trade-offs between the two that our modern lives force us to make, and the distances that will always remain between the two and the people who choose them.

Rosicky is Anton Rosicky, a Bohemian farmer whose heart is failing him and whose doctor is cautioning him to lay off the strenuous farm work.

Like so much of Cather’s writing about the Nebraska farm people, there is true affection in the prose, put in many places, including in the heart of “Doctor Ed” Burleigh--a local boy who had gone off to Omaha for his medical training but, unlike so many others, had returned to the farm country to be with and care for the people that had formed him.

Sometimes the Doctor heard the gossipers in the drug-store wondering why Rosicky didn’t get on faster. He was industrious, and so were his boys, but they were rather free and easy, weren’t pushers, and they didn’t always show good judgment. They were comfortable, they were out of debt, but they didn’t get much ahead. Maybe, Doctor Burleigh reflected, people as generous and warm-hearted and affectionate as the Rosickys never got ahead much; maybe you couldn’t enjoy your life and put it into the bank, too.

But Rosicky wasn’t always so easy going. He was born and bred in the city, and even enjoyed living there as a young adult. But he slowly grew despondent.

Rosicky, the old Rosicky, could remember as if it were yesterday the day when the young Rosicky found out what was the matter with him. It was on a Fourth of July afternoon, and he was sitting in Park Place in the sun. The lower part of New York was empty. Wall Street, Liberty Street, Broadway, all empty. So much stone and asphalt with nothing going on, so many empty windows. The emptiness was intense, like the stillness in a great factory when the machinery stops and the belts and bands cease running. It was too great a change, it took all the strength out of one. Those blank buildings, without the stream of life pouring through them, were like empty jails. It struck young Rosicky that this was the trouble with big cities; they built you in from the earth itself, cemented you away from any contact with the ground. You lived in an unnatural world, like a fish in an aquarium, who were probably much more comfortable than they ever were in the sea.

He moves West, finding work as a farm hand and then marrying and getting a place of his own. It is a very different kind of life, but one he loves dearly. He is even at home in the local graveyard, adjoining his own property and already filled with his old friends and neighbors.

It was a nice graveyard, Rosicky reflected, sort of snug and homelike, not cramped or mournful--a big sweep all round it. A man could lie down in the long grass and see the complete arch of the sky over him, hear the wagons go by; in summer the mowing-machine rattled right up to the wire fence. And it was so near home. Over there across the cornstalks his own roof and windmill looked so good to him that he promised himself to mind the Doctor and take care of himself. He was awful fond of his place, he admitted. He wasn’t anxious to leave it. And it was a comfort to think that he would never have to go farther than the edge of his own hayfield. The snow, falling over his barnyard and the graveyard, seemed to draw things together like. And they were all old neighbors in the graveyard, most of them friends; there was nothing to feel awkward or embarrassed about. Embarrassment was the most disagreeable feeling Rosicky knew. He didn’t often have it--only with certain people whom he didn’t understand at all.

It is a life he wants to preserve for his children. And one of his biggest fears is for his son, Rudolph, who has recently married a city girl and is trying to make a go of it on a neighboring farm. The lengths that Rosicky goes to save their relationship are quite touching, and uniquely informed by Rosicky’s understanding of the allures of city life. In one scene, he takes the family car over to Rudolph’s and offers it to the young couple so they can go into town to see a movie, while he stays back and does all the kitchen chores. The young bride, Polly, is at first reluctant, but warms to the idea when she sees Rosicky’s serious intent.

That kind, reassuring grip on her elbows, the old man’s funny bright eyes, made Polly want to drop her head on his shoulder for a second. She restrained herself, but she lingered in his grasp at the door of her room, murmuring tearfully: “You always lived in the city when you were young, didn’t you? Don’t you ever get lonesome out here?”

Polly does.

As she turned round to him, her hand fell naturally into his, and he stood holding it and smiling into her face with his peculiar, knowing, indulgent smile without a shadow of reproach in it.

And Rosicky knows that she does, even though she is not able to say it.

“Dem big cities is all right fur de rich, but dey is terrible hard fur de poor.”

“I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’d like to take a chance. You lived in New York, didn’t you?”

“An’ London. Da’s bigger still. I learned my trade dere. Here’s Rudolph comin’, you better hurry.”

“Will you tell me about London some time?”

“Maybe. Only I ain’t no talker, Polly. Run an’ dress yourself up.”

Polly’s loneliness is palpable, as much as Rosicky’s desire to help her adjust to her new life on the farm. Cather’s skill at creating aching tension is on full display, and watching it play out between these two simple characters--one experienced and resigned, the other inexperienced and hungry--is a sheer delight.

Later, when Polly and Rudolph and the whole family are gathered for a Sunday meal, Rosicky tells stories of being poor, cold and hungry in London. Not at all like his life in Nebraska.

They would have to work hard on the farm, and probably they would never do much more than make a living. But if he could think of them as staying here on the land, he wouldn’t have to fear any great unkindness for them. Hardships, certainly; it was a hardship to have the wheat freeze in the ground when seed was so high; and to have to sell your stock because you had no feed. But there would be others years when everything came along right, and you caught up. And what you had was your own. You didn’t have to choose between bosses and strikers, and go wrong either way. You didn’t have to do with dishonest and cruel people. They were the only things in his experience he had found terrifying and horrible; the look in the eyes of a dishonest and crafty man, of a scheming and rapacious woman.

In the country, if you had a mean neighbor, you could keep off his land and make him keep off yours. But in the city, all the foulness and misery and brutality of your neighbors was part of your life. The worst things he had come upon in his journey through the world were human--depraved and poisonous specimens of man. To this day he could recall certain terrible faces in the London streets. There were mean people everywhere, to be sure, even in their own country town here. But they weren’t tempered, hardened, sharpened, like the treacherous people in cities who live by grinding or cheating or poisoning their fellow-men. He had helped to bury two of his fellow-workmen in the tailoring trade, and he was distrustful of the organized industries that see one out of the world in big cities. Here, if you were sick, you had Doctor Ed to look after you; and if you died, fat Mr. Haycock, the kindest man in the world, buried you.

It seemed to Rosicky that for good, honest boys like his, the worst they could do on the farm was better than the best they would be likely to do in the city. If he’d had a mean boy, now, one who was crooked and sharp and tried to put anything over on his brothers, then town would be the place for him. But he had no such boy. As for Rudolph, the discontented one, he would give the shirt off his back to anyone who touched his heart. What Rosicky really hoped for his boys was that they could get through the world without ever knowing much about the cruelty of human beings. “Their mother and me ain’t prepared them for that,” he sometimes said to himself.

The climax comes when Rosicky takes it upon himself to complete some farm work at Rudolph’s--something his son is not tending to but which could ruin his chances for a successful crop--and in the course of it suffers a heart attack. Only Polly is there to help him, and with great struggle and dedication she helps him back to the farmhouse and tends to him until the terrible pain passes.

As the pain gradually loosed its grip, the stiffness went out of his jaws, the black circles round his eyes disappeared, and a little of his natural color came back. When his daughter-in-law buttoned his shirt over his chest at last, he sighed.

“Da’s fine, de way I feel now, Polly. It was a awful bad spell, an’ I was sorry it all come on you like it did.”

Polly was flushed and excited. “Is the pain really gone? Can I leave you long enough to telephone over to your place?”

Rosicky’s eyelids fluttered. “Don’t telephone, Polly. It ain’t no use to scare my wife. It’s nice and quiet here, an’ if I ain’t too much trouble to you, just let me lay still till I feel like myself. I ain’t got no pain now. It’s nice here.”

In the tender moment that follows, it is revealed that Polly is pregnant, and the news--a secret still to everyone else--forms a permanent bond between Rosicky and his daughter-in-law.

“I like mighty well to see dat little child, Polly,” was all he said. Then he closed his eyes and lay half-smiling. But Polly sat still, thinking hard. She had a sudden feeling that nobody in the world, not her mother, not Rudolph, or anyone, really loved her as much as old Rosicky did. It perplexed her. She sat frowning and trying to puzzle it out. It was as if Rosicky had a special gift for loving people, something that was like an ear for music or an eye for color. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely there.

Rosicky does love Polly. He loves her, but he also loves what she and her unborn child represent for the lives of son and his descendants here in the country.

Rosicky dies the next morning, when a second heart attack strikes him in his bedchamber, Doctor Ed is away when it happens, and when he returns after Rosicky’s funeral his finds time to visit Rosicky’s final resting place in that “snug and homelike” graveyard. He reflects:

Nothing could be more undeathlike than this place; nothing could be more right for a man who had helped to do the work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got to it at last. Rosicky’s life seemed to him complete and beautiful.

Paul’s Case

From The Troll Garden (1905), and considered by some the best short story Cather ever wrote. I’m sure it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it is very much to mine, exploring, as it seems to, the unbearableness of a life that does not live up to its ideal.

Paul is a high school student who is as disgusted with the ordinariness of his life as he is intoxicated by the bright lights and transitory glory of artistic achievement. He works as an usher in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, where he is able to glimpse the life that so enchants him, and much of the story deals with the peaks and valleys he experiences as he moves between his two worlds.

The peak…

When the symphony began Paul sank into one of the rear seats with a long sigh of relief, and lost himself as he had done before the Rico. It was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious spirit within him; something that struggled there like the Genius in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman. He felt a sudden zest of life; the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor.

And the valley…

After the concert was over, Paul was often irritable and wretched until he got to sleep--and tonight he was even more than usually restless. He had the feeling of not being able to let down; of its being impossible to give up this delicious excitement which was the only thing that could be called living at all.

After the concert he follows the soprano to her hotel and, unable to enter, he looks adoringly through a door left ajar and imagines the scene within.

He seemed to feel himself go after her up the steps, into the warm, lighted building, into an exotic, a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease. He reflected upon the mysterious dishes that were brought into the dining-room, the green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper party pictures of the Sunday supplement. A quick gust of wind brought the rain down with sudden vehemence, and Paul was startled to find that he was still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway; that his boots were letting in the water and his scanty overcoat was clinging wet about him; that the lights in front of the concert hall were out, and that the rain was driving in sheets between him and the orange glow of the windows above him.

Cather expertly contrasts what is inside and outside the hotel with what is inside and outside Paul’s heart.

There it was, what he wanted--tangibly before him, like the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime; as the rain beat in his face, Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.

It is so different from the world Paul actually lives in, which he views as mean and vulgar by comparison.

After each of these orgies of living, he experienced all the physical depression which follows a debauch; the loathing of respectable beds, of common food, of a house permeated by kitchen odours; a shuddering repulsion for the flavourless, colourless mass of every-day existence; a morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers.

Cather does such an amazing job painting us a picture of the people and the life Paul despises through Paul’s eyes, that I feel compelled to include it here:

On seasonable Sunday afternoons the burghers of Cordelia Street usually sat out on their front “stoops,” and talked to their neighbours on the next stoop, or called to those across the street in neighbourly fashion. The men sat placidly on gay cushions placed upon steps that led down to the sidewalk, while the women, in their Sunday “waists,” sat in rockers on the cramped porches, pretending to be greatly at their ease. The children played in the streets; there were so many of them that the place resembled the recreation grounds of a kindergarten. The men on the steps--all in their shirt sleeves, their vests unbuttoned--sat with their legs well apart, their stomachs comfortably protruding, and talked of the prices of things, or told anecdotes of the sagacity of their various chiefs and overlords. They occasionally looked over the multitude of squabbling children, listened affectionately to their high-pitched, nasal voices, smiling to see their own proclivities reproduced in their offspring, and interspersed their legends of the iron kings with remarks about their sons’ progress at school, their grades in arithmetic, and the amounts they had saved in their toy banks.

They are a programmed lot, perpetuating a bloated self aggrandizement their neither invented or understand. Unfortunately for our hero, it is these people who have the greatest sway over his life. Eventually, Paul’s father forces him to take a job in one of the local businesses, and using his influence to sever Paul’s connections to Carnegie Hall and a group of actors he idolizes. Not to be thwarted, Paul steals two thousand dollars from the company’s payroll, and makes off for one final orgy and splendor and luxury in New York, buying the finest of clothes and staying under an assumed name at the Waldorf.

It is an utterly ecstatic experience for Paul.

When he returned, the pause of the twilight had ceased, and the tune of the streets had changed. The snow was falling faster, lights streamed from the hotels that reared their many stories fearlessly up into the storm, defying the raging Atlantic winds. A long, black stream of carriages poured down the avenue, intersected here and there by other streams, tending horizontally. There were a score of cabs about the entrance of this hotel, and his driver had to wait. Boys in livery were running in and out of the awning stretched across the sidewalk, up and down the red velvet carpet laid from the door to the street. Above, about, within it all, was the rumble and roar, the hurry and toss of thousands of human beings as hot for pleasure as himself, and on every side of his towered the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth.

The boy set his teeth and drew his shoulders together in a spasm of realization; the plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations was whirling about him like the snow flakes. He burnt like a faggot in a tempest.

And in all this excess and activity, it is for Paul, momentarily, like his old life never existed.

When he reached the dining-room he sat down at a table near a window. The flowers, the white linen, the many-coloured wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra, all flooded Paul’s dream with bewildering radiance. When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added--that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass--Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all. This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected; this was what all the struggle was about. He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged looking business men boarded the early car? Mere rivets in a machine they seemed to Paul--sickening men, with combings of children’s hair always hanging to their coats, and the smell of cooking in their clothes. Cordelia Street--Ah, that belonged to another time and country! Had he not always been thus, had he not sat here night after night, from as far back as he could remember, looking pensively over just such shimmering textures, and slowly twirling the stem of a glass like this one between his thumb and middle finger? He rather thought he had.

Eventually, he is found out. He reads in the Pittsburgh papers, which he has arranged to be delivered to him, that his father has repaid the money he has stolen and that he was come east looking for Paul. The news pushes Paul to even greater excess than before, but when he realizes that he cannot wipe away all memory of his ordinary life, and is certain to be returned to it, he finally contemplates taking his own life.

He rose and moved about with a painful effort, succumbing now and again to attacks of nausea. It was the old depression exaggerated; all the world had become Cordelia Street. Yet somehow he was not afraid of anything, was absolutely calm; perhaps because he had looked into the dark corner at last, and knew. It was bad enough, what he saw there; but somehow not so bad as his long fear of it had been. He saw everything clearly now. He had a feeling that he had made the best of it, that he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live, and for half an hour he sat staring at the revolver. But he told himself that was not the way, so he went downstairs and took a cab to the ferry.

There is real truth here. The truth of what is and what we want things to be, the distance between them, and how that distance is so achingly close for some that it can no longer be borne. For me, the story could have ended better on this note. Paul’s suicide two pages later, throwing himself off a bridge and into frigid water, is anti-climactic.

But that doesn’t detract from Cather’s genius which, as perhaps best described by the author of this book’s afterword, is that “she can touch sublimity--can create it out of almost nothing.” If only Paul could have done the same.

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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, June 9, 2014

When I Choose to Spend More Nights on the Road

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This past week was a brutal one for me. Brutal from a travel perspective, that is. Four nights on the road in four different hotels--two in Texas and two in Florida. What was I doing? I was conducting site visits to help my association find a venue for a future conference.

Sometimes, when colleagues find out I take on this responsibility, they look at me crookedly. Site visits? they seem to be say. Aren't you the CEO? Don't you have someone to do that for you?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, I do have other people on my staff, and I certainly could delegate this responsibility to one or more of them. In fact, once a venue for this conference is chosen, I will step almost entirely out of the way and allow others to take charge of the program development and event planning responsibilities.

But, no, for this conference, I have decided that I need to keep the job of selecting the best venue for myself. For this conference, I will actually choose to spend more nights on the road in order to make sure I'm making the best possible decision.

You see, although we call it our Annual Conference, it is more properly thought of as our executive leadership conference, with the CEOs and senior executives of our member companies almost exclusively in attendance, more than half of them bringing their spouses to socialize in addition to network and learn.

They are the kind of people I interact most frequently with on our Board and leadership committees--and, as I often tell the hotel sales managers I find myself meeting with on these trips, they have a specific set of expectations when it comes to things like customer service, accommodations, and networking opportunities.

And I have discovered that performing the site visits for their conference helps me understand them, and understanding them helps me do my job better. By touring and spending a night in each prospective property, and by focusing on seeing it through their eyes, through the eyes of my most influential members, it helps to ground me in their perspectives and expectations.

That is something that is dangerously easy to lose track of. Working as hard as most of us do, keeping our noses pressed to the grindstone, it's easy to slip back into our own perspective and forget the things that matter to the people you're working to serve. So, taking a few nights every year to intentionally slow that pace and think carefully about how your members will view and take advantage of a new set of opportunities can be an extremely helpful exercise.

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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, June 2, 2014

Sharing Information Helps You Think

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That's one of the conclusions I've come to as I continue to take steps to better manifest a chosen behavior from my organization's values statement in the day-to-day interactions around my office.

I last wrote about this two weeks ago, in The Case for Sharing Information. Having asked everyone else in the organization to do the same, I decided I would lead by example and chose the following behavior:

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, and I chose it very intentionally. I wanted a behavior I thought I actually needed to improve upon, as a way of demonstrating both the aspirational nature of our values statement and to model the kind of honest vulnerability that I believe is necessary to actually make progress.

So far, in order to manifest my behavior, I have been putting a little more thought into my comments at our weekly staff meeting. I spend a fair amount of time on the road, chasing one strategic objective or another, and it occurred to me that the staff back in the office may have no concrete idea about where I'm going or why. In the past I haven't shared much of that information--focusing instead on the mechanics of when I'll be out of the office and how someone could reach me if they needed to.

That's starting to change. Looking back over my travel calendar, it usually easy for me to find a trip that I can spend more time talking about at the staff meeting. Where did I go? Why? Who did I meet there? What did I do? How did it help us advance our strategic objectives? These are the questions I seek to answer, not just in my own head, but in open forum with my staff. And, realizing that they will lead to expanded discussion, I find myself often sitting with a blank piece of paper (or blank computer screen), attempting to compose in at least some kind of short-hand a summary of what I'm trying to do and what, if anything, I think I'm accomplishing.

One of my latest reports was on a trip I made to Washington, DC, to attend a meeting hosted by the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) of the U.S. Department of Energy. Here are the verbatim notes I wrote for myself before going into a staff meeting to talk about it.

Next topic: AMO Peer Review Session

We are trying to create a program within the DOE’s AMO that will focus on the use of energy efficient fluid power.

Three legs to this stool:
1. Support pre-competitive research discovery – the CCEFP.
2. Support bridge projects that move from discovery to commercialization – conversations about public/private partnerships at the Council on Competitiveness.
3. Incorporate fluid power best practices into existing assessment programs – EEHPC, IAC, Better Plants, etc.?

Progress made in all three areas

Good discussion with Mark Johnson – responding to RFI

White paper from Dan Helgerson – discussion with Jay Wrobel and John Smegal

Still orbiting the goal, but feel like we’ve moved into a lower orbit

Obviously, there's a lot of specific terms, acronyms, and people's names in there, but I think even an outsider can see through those specific trees to the forest I'm trying to convey. The notes are a short and succinct summary that lists not just our objective (create a program...), but describes our core strategy for getting these (three legs to this stool...) and some of the progress we're making towards them.

And it may embarrass me to say it, but this may the only place this kind of information is actually written down. When it's just me--me going here and going there, without any expectation that others will need to be informed--the crush of other responsibilities can often prevent me from finding the time to compose or document my thoughts, reactions and next steps.

But now that I've made this new commitment to share more information with my staff, and find myself not just finding the time to document these things but, as part of the process, to think about them more carefully. What am I trying to achieve? Am I really making progress?

They're great questions to ask yourself. But they're even better questions to discuss in an environment where the information needed to answer them is broadly shared.

Stay tuned. In a future posts, I'll keep writing about my chosen 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