Monday, August 25, 2014

Don't Post Plaques on the Wall Declaring the Values

image source
This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the six rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the series introduction, go here. For my comments on the first rule, go here.

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Here's Nader's second rule, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Don’t post plaques on the wall declaring the values. Mounting your values on a wall can trivialize them and give the false impression that they have been already achieved by decree. Values have to be internalized and lived and cannot be an object on a wall. Building a culture with values that everyone embraces requires leading by example, interpersonal communication, and permanent attention.

Boy, do I agree with him that values cannot just be an object on a wall. And the idea that values can be "achieved by decree" is the all-too-frequent reality that almost soured me on the whole project of defining core values for my own organization. From my point of view, the only values worth identifying are the ones your organization is still trying to achieve.

But I'm not sure that the values shouldn't be put on the wall. Perhaps not engraved on a plaque, but certainly written on a white board, and maybe painted as a kind of mural, especially if everyone on the team wields a paintbrush.

Because values--especially values that are intentionally defined as those the organization is still working to embody--have to be ever present if people are going to remember and focus on them. Leading by example is critical, but even leaders need to be reminded of aspirational values if they are going to do more than talk the talk.

In my own organization we've struggled with this. Right after defining our values, we didn't get any plaques made and we didn't paint any words on the wall, but we did put our values up on the screen during every one of our weekly staff meetings. The plan was to start every meeting off with a moment or two of reflection, and an opportunity for anyone to cite an example of how one of their co-workers had embodied one of the values in the past week. Initially, some people tried, but it felt forced, and after a while we stopped doing it.

And, as a result, we stopped reminding ourselves of the things we were supposed to be working on. Some of us, I think, kept working on them in the unrecognized landscapes of our own minds, but some forgot about them, dunked, as we all are, in the deep pool of tasks and expectations that drive our behaviors.

So putting your values in some visible place (bulletin boards, perhaps, or computer screensavers) is a very good idea. As long as everyone understands that they are not there because they have been achieved, but because we need to achieve 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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Antonia by Willa Cather

This is the last time I’m going to read My Antonia—at least for a while. Last time I read it, I thought I would read it over and over again, like I was doing with Moby-Dick, but I’ve decided to let this one drift into past memory for a while, the same way I have with Melville’s whale.

There’s a story that Antonia tells in the middle of the book. It’s about a tramp that comes out of nowhere while she is working on Ole Iverson’s farm.

“After a while I see a man coming across the stubble, and when he got close I see it was a tramp. His toes stuck out of his shoes, and he hadn’t shaved for a long while, and his eyes was awful red and wild, like he had some sickness. He comes right up and begins to talk like he knows me already. He says: ‘The ponds in this country is done got so low a man couldn’t drownd himself in one of ‘em.’”

He wants to kill himself, but Antonia doesn’t take him seriously—thinks he is just crazy—but when Iverson puts him to work something terrible happens.

“He cut bands all right for a few minutes, and then, Mrs. Harling, he waved his hand to me and jumped head-first right into the thrashing machine after the wheat.

“I began to scream, and the men run to stop the horses, but the belt had sucked him down, and by the time they got her stopped he was all beat and cut to pieces. He was wedged in so tight it was a hard job to get him out, and the machine ain’t never worked right since.”

No one knew who he was. After getting his body out of the machine they searched it.

“They couldn’t find no letters nor nothing on him; nothing but an old penknife in his pocket and the wishbone of a chicken wrapped up in a piece of paper, and some poetry.”

“Some poetry?” we exclaimed.

“I remember,” said Frances. “It was ‘The Old Oaken Bucket,’ cut out of a newspaper and nearly worn out. Ole Iverson brought it into the office and showed it to me.”

“Now, wasn’t that strange, Miss Frances?” Tony asked thoughtfully. “What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for? I thrashing time, too! It’s nice everywhere then.”

The Old Oaken Bucket is a poem by Samuel Woodworth about the fond recollections we have for scenes of our childhood—a theme Cather adopts for My Antonia. And how poignantly strange is it that Antonia herself can’t understand why anyone would kill themselves in summer—oblivious at that age of the regrets adults often have for their youths, even when her own father took his own life—years before in the dead of winter—for many of the same reasons.

I've read My Antonia three times--the first time as an audiobook, and the other two times in the silence of my own thoughts. It made a deep impression on me each time. Here's what I wrote in my journal after that first experience.

My Antonia by Willa Cather. I didn’t read this one. It’s an audiobook I took out from the library and listened to while I was driving back and forth from work. I liked it a lot. I’m tempted to buy it so I can put it on my shelf. I started out not sure if I was going to like the story, but I did. It grew on me in a way I would not have predicted. And the prose, the prose is like an unknown Van Gogh tucked away in someone’s attic. An absolute treasure. Guess what I like best about the story. How sad it was. Not overtly sad, not get out the Kleenexes and have a good cry sad. But subtly sad, sad just below the surface like some deep hidden current in a black river. The recollections of world-weary Jim Burden who, as a boy, had gone to live with his grandparents on the Nebraska prairie, and had met an immigrant girl named Antonia who comes to embody everything that is honest and real through his interactions with her over the span of several decades. He loves her, says so himself, but never romantically, and you can sense the unspoken regret in his first person narrative. This is a book very much about the lives people lead, the choices they make, and how their relationships with those who happen to be around them help to shape their understanding of who they are and what life means. It makes your heart ache. I want to read it again.

It took more than two years, but when I finally got around to reading it for the second time, I couldn't stop underlining that remarkable prose.

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I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There was some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

This comes early in the book, shortly after Jim arrives in Nebraska, and I think it sets the tone for a lot of his experiences on the prairie. He grows up, goes to exciting places and does important things as a young man, but he doesn’t seem happy later, at least not happy like he is laying here in his grandmother’s garden.

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That afternoon Fuchs told me story after story: about the Black Tiger Mine, and about violent deaths and casual buryings, and the queer fancies of dying men. You never really knew a man, he said, until you saw him die. Most men were game, and went without a grudge.

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The Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledge, or out through the grating of his father’s bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings.

Cather’s prose is filled with little tidbits like this, combining story with homily in a way that is unobtrusive and clean. She’s really good and telling truth with her fiction.

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One could hang about the drugstore, and listen to the old men who sat there every evening, talking politics and telling raw stories. One could go to the cigar factory and chat with the old German who raised canaries for sale, and look at his stuffed birds. But whatever you began with him, the talk went back to taxidermy. There was the depot, of course; I often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, ‘where there was some life.’ He was sure to bring out his pictures of actresses and dancers. He got them with cigarette coupons, and nearly smoked himself to death to possess these desired forms and faces. For a change, one could talk to the station agent; but he was another malcontent; spent all his spare time writing letters to officials requesting a transfer. He wanted to get back to Wyoming where he could go trout-fishing on Sundays. He used to say ‘there was nothing in life for him but trout streams,’ ever since he’d lost his twins.

Willa Cather was someone who understood loneliness.

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These were the distractions I had to choose from. There were no other lights burning downtown after nine o’clock. On starlight nights I used to pace up and down those long, cold streets, scowling at the little, sleeping houses on either side, with their storm-windows and covered back porches. They were flimsy shelters, most of them poorly built of light wood, with spindle porch-posts horribly mutilated by the turning-lathe. Yet for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all. On Tuesday nights the Owl Club danced; then there was a little stir in the streets, and here and there one could see a lighted window until midnight. But the next night all was dark again.

This has got to be one of the best paragraphs I have ever read. How many times have I done the same thing? Looking at the little houses on the side of the road and wondering what kind of life went on inside them? Repulsed by the meanness of it, but at the same time anxious for the fellowship that comes with understanding the world of another living being. I’ll lose it. I always do. I spend nights typing lines like this out, but they pass into the forgotten realm of the past as easily as if I hadn’t. Is this why I used to read Moby-Dick over and over again? And is it why I decided to start reading My Antonia over and over again?

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I walked home from the Opera House alone. As I passed the Methodist Church, I saw three white figures ahead of me, pacing up and down under the arching maple trees, where the moonlight filtered through the lush June foliage. They hurried toward me; they were waiting for me—Lena and Tony and Anna Hansen.

‘Oh, Jim, it was splendid!’ Tony was breathing hard, as she always did when her feelings outran her language. ‘There ain’t a lawyer in Black Hawk could make a speech like that. I just stopped your grandpa and said so to him. He won’t tell you, but he told us he was awful surprised himself, didn’t he, girls?’

Lena sidled up to me and said teasingly, ‘What made you so solemn? I thought you were scared. I was sure you’d forget.’

Anna spoke wistfully.

‘It must make you very happy, Jim, to have fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and to have words to put them in. I always wanted to go to school, you know.’

‘Oh, I just sat there and wished my papa could hear you! Jim’ — Antonia took hold of my coat lapels — ‘there was something in your speech that made me think so about my papa!’

‘I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony.’ I said. ‘I dedicated it to him.’

She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears.

I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.

Jim is graduating from law school and he gave a commencement address. He is already seeing Antonia infrequently, and he soon will be leaving and not returning for a long time, if ever. Yet they share this connection, this connection through language and shared memory and tragedy. Anna speculates that it must be wonderful, having fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and having the words to put them in. It is. And that’s why people like Cather write novels, isn’t it?

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I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the ‘Georgics’ where to-morrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. ‘Optima dies…prima figut.’ I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. ‘Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas;’ ‘for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.’ Cleric had explained to us that ‘patria’ here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatial Romana, but to his own little ‘country;’ to his father’s fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.’

Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the ‘Aeneid’ unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, that his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the ‘Georgics,’ where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, ‘I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.’

I can’t be the only one who sees some autobiography here from Cather. Virgil’s Italy is Cather’s Nebraska.

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‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly, ‘How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I’ve disappointed you so? Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I’m so glad we had each other when we were little. I can’t wait till my little girl’s old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do. You’ll always remember me when you think about old times, won’t you? And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people.’

Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? It seems to me that this is a good summation of the book’s theme. People can mean a great deal to each other, and it is wonderful when they do. Wonderful and sad all at the same time.

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This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

This is the last paragraph of the novel, and pretty good one as last paragraphs go. It again stresses the formative bond Jim and Antonia shared, and makes it clear those early experiences shaped them both in ways neither of them could ever master. How much of this is true? Are we forever shaped by what we experience and the people we meet when we are young? I think of my own youth, and how so many connections to it have been severed. If Cather is correct, what does that mean for me? Jim had Anotnia, the idea of Antonia, as part of his mind, influencing his likes and dislikes even when he didn’t realize it. Who is part of my mind, and will I ever see them again? Do I even want to? Is that another idea for a novel? A childhood unconnected to an Antonia or the idea she represents, and the adult that grows from it, searching and forever not finding that missing part of himself?

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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, August 18, 2014

Define the Values in Simple, Sixth-Grade Language

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This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the full introduction, go here.

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Here's Nader's first rule again, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Define the values in simple, sixth-grade language. Words mean different things to different people. Therefore, it is important that the words used to define the values be simple, clear, and easily understood by the constituents and are not jargon. This leaves no room for creative (mis)interpretation of the values and avoids using words that have different meanings or can’t be translated in other languages.

This one I think we did a pretty good job with. As I revealed and described in greater detail here, the four core values of our organization are:

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

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

We act with honesty and professionalism in all our relationships.

We work together to deliver exceptional service.

Simple, straightforward language. Reflecting back on what could possibly be misunderstood or misinterpreted, the only phrase that probably needs greater clarification is "creating new value for our members." Everything else, I think, is comprised of words and phrases that are intended to mean exactly what their dictionary definitions say. No jargon or hidden messages here.

Additionally, remember that we also defined a series of behavior statements to go with each of our core values. These were intended to be observable actions by which everyone in the organization could see and understand that the person exhibiting them was living up to the intent of the core value. This adds an extra layer of definition, intended to avoid confusion and misunderstandings, but certainly some of these statements stray from Nader's guidance about sixth-grade language.

Here, for example, is the list of behaviors that goes with Leadership:

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

Some of these seem straightforward; at least to me. But others, I admit, probably need even further definition if they are to be universally understood by everyone in our organization. We bring purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments, for example, is one that some people have asked about. Here's my interpretation: When things are confused and uncertain, members of our staff should consistently display the leadership that is necessary to bring clarity and understanding about what is trying to be accomplished. Not just among ourselves, but especially with our members, volunteers, and Board members. How one does that is intentionally left open to experimentation and interpretation, but that is the outcome the behavior statement is directed toward.

The fact that this hasn't been clear to everyone (along with many of the other behavior statements) makes me wonder if Nader wouldn't suggest that I rewrite the behavior statements to make them easier for a sixth-grader to understand. For our Leadership value, that would result in a very different list:

1. Be brief and precise.
2. Keep it simple; and do more with less.
3. Show people the way.
4. Engage others in each new attempt to succeed.
5. Think about the big picture.
6. Try new things and keep what works.
7. When uncertain, act.
8. Take risks, and share your mistakes.

Which list is better? Although there are some nuances from the first list that have been eliminated in the second, the second list is clearly more memorable, and more likely, I think, to result in a unified understanding among a diverse group of people. We may still argue about how to do these things, but the intent of each statement is much more accessible.

Looks like I have some rewriting to do.

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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, August 11, 2014

Six Rules of Living Your Values: Introduction

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This HBR blog post on building a new company culture has been sitting in my inbox for a while. In it, Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals, talks about how focusing on a new set of core values helped him turn that company around. But he doesn't talk much about what those core values were. No, more helpfully, he focuses on what he thinks it takes to make your core values--whatever they are--stick.

Of course, anyone can write down words, call them values, and incur no change. Something has to be done to turn them into an actual culture. I believe that these rules − which I applied at NPS − can work at other companies, too.

In summary, here are Nader's six rules:

1. Define the values in simple, sixth-grade language.
2. Don’t post plaques on the wall declaring the values.
3. Teach people what the values mean.
4. Recruit people who naturally are inclined to live your values.
5. Make values a primary filter for performance evaluations.
6. Your values must be non-negotiable.

When I first read this list, and what Nader says about each, I found them and his comments to be deeply insightful, and thought they would be a good filter to pass my own association's core values through. As you may know, we recently went through a process to define a set of core values for our organization, and I've been blogging here about the peaks and valleys that we've encountered on that journey.

But each time I sat down to compose that blog post, I was confronted with my own honest assessment that I and my organization haven't done much with our core values, at least not as measured by the standards of Nader's list. It seemed a little intimidating--and even more risky--to reveal that many shortcomings in a public forum. This, despite the fact, that one of the purposes of this blog is "working out loud:" thinking, processing, and learning from the work I do while I'm doing it.

I also realized that I potentially had a lot to say on the subject. Much more than what is usually acceptable in a single blog post.

So I've decided that I'm going to tackle Nader's six rules over the next six blog posts, reflecting on what my own association has or hasn't done, and speculating, when appropriate, on what we might do differently. Next week I'll start with Nader's first rule about core values: Define the values in simple, sixth-grade language.

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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, August 9, 2014

Crisis and Leviathan by Robert Higgs

We know that other great crises will come. Whether they will be occasioned by foreign wars, economic collapse, or rampant terrorism, no one can predict with assurance. Yet in one form or another, great crises will surely come again, as they have from time to time throughout all human history. When they do, governments almost certainly will gain new powers over economic and social affairs. Everything that I have argued and documented in the preceding chapters points toward this conclusion. For those who cherish individual liberty and a free society, the prospect is deeply disheartening.

This is from the very last page of Higgs’s scholarly classic of libertarian thought. It was written in 1987, and is remarkable in its ability to look both backwards and forwards in constructing a plausible model to connect “critical episodes in the growth of American government.”

He calls it The Ratchet, and he creates a kind of academic treatise around it in the first section of the book. This is how he describes it in graph form:

Figure 4.1 presents a schematic representation of the ratchet over a single full episode … Each has five stages: (I) precrisis normality (line segment AB in Figure 4.1); (II) expansion (segment BC); (III) maturity (segment CD); (IV) retrenchment (segment DE); and (V) post-crisis normality (segment EF). In the figure the vertical axis measures the logarithm of an ideal index of the size of government, and the horizontal axis measures units if time; so the slope of the profile shows the government’s rate of growth.

In other words, government grows, always. This is the Leviathan mentioned in the book’s title, referencing, I believe, Hobbs’s use of the term. But when a crisis appears, the growth of government accelerates dramatically and, while there may be some retrenchment in the governmental powers assumed after the crisis, it never goes back to what its position was, or what its growth curve would have been, before the crisis.

It’s a compelling way to look at the history of the 20th century (and with Higgs’s blessing, I assume, that of the early 21st). Indeed, the longer second half of his book is exactly that--a useful, entertaining, and sometimes sobering look at how The Ratchet has created the Leviathan now recognizable as the U.S. federal government.

Very few Americans, I believe, really know how much has changed in those 100 years.

In the 1890s, ideology decisively influenced the government’s response to a multifarious national emergency. The dominant ideology held that less government is better than more except--and it is a critically important exception--where extraordinary action is required to maintain law and order, including the monetary order of the economy. The other side of a devotion to strong but limited government is a firm commitment to extensive, secure private property rights. In the late nineteenth century most activities, including virtually all purely economic-decision making, were considered “not the proper business of government”--especially the federal government. There was therefore no ideological contradiction whatever between the government’s complete lack of interest in work-relief programs or agricultural price-fixing schemes and its vigorous intervention in the labor disturbances at Chicago and elsewhere.

Higgs is writing partially here about the Grover Cleveland administration, and how it dealt--or refused to deal--with the economic and labor market crises of the 1890s. How and why things changed is a deep and interesting historical subject, related to the rise of Progressive politics in the early 1900s, and perhaps reaching the point of no return by the time of America’s entry into World War I.

Indeed, there was something about that conflict--and perhaps about the people who led the country at that time--that seemed to incontrovertibly set America on a new course.

The various efforts for preparedness culminated in the passage of two landmark statutes in the summer of 1916.

The first was the National Defense Act, which has been called “the most comprehensive piece of military legislation ever passed by Congress.” It authorized the President “in time of war or when war is imminent” to place obligatory orders that would “take precedence over all other orders and contracts.” Should the owner of the supply facility refuse to fill such orders “at a reasonable price as determined by the Secretary of War” the President was “authorized to take immediate possession of any such plant [and] … to manufacture therein … such product or material as may be required,” while the owner would be “deemed guilty of a felony.” The law gave the government extraordinarily sweeping powers. To compel factory owners, by threat of criminal sanctions, to produce munitions for the government at whatever prices the government might choose to pay simply demolished existing private property rights in such facilities; the form of private ownership remained, but the substance had been gutted.

Just 20 years previous such an action would have been unthinkable--the dominant ideology of that day effectively tying the hands of the federal government and keeping it from such displays of power. But manufacturing facilities were not the only target.

The Army Appropriations Act that became law on August 29, 1916, granted the President additional power to seize private property. Tucked inconspicuously in an act of some fifty pages … appeared the following extraordinary grant of power:

The President, in time of war, is empowered, through the Secretary of War, to take possession and assume control of any system or systems of transportation, or any part thereof, and to utilize the same, to the exclusion as far as may be necessary of all other traffic thereon, for the transfer or transportation of troops, war material and equipment, or for such other purposes connected with the emergency as may be needful or desirable.

Sixteen months later this provision would serve as the necessary and sufficient authority for the government’s takeover of the nation’s privately owned railroads.

What I find fascinating is not the libertarian’s revulsion to this act of unconstitutional federal power, but the circumstances in the country that allowed it to take place. The U.S. was at war, yes, and being at war is still today reason enough for many to imbue the government with additional, sweeping powers. But World War I was a war--as near as I can tell--that was so tenuously linked to the population’s sense of national pride and its fears for national security, that the only way to engage in it was to pass such grievously authoritarian laws. Why pass a law, after all, that allowed the President to seize control of manufacturing plants and transportation systems if the people who owned those enterprises as their private property supported the war effort as something intrinsically necessary for their enterprise’s and their nation’s survival?

Indeed, even the common man seemed to think this was not his fight.

Even after the declaration of war, volunteers came forward in a trickle. “Despite all the recruiting appeals of the press and of the leaders of opinion, from officials to society women and actresses, the Regular Army had enlisted 4,355 men, an average of 435 a day, in the first ten days after [U.S.] entry into the war.” Secretary Baker then announced that volunteers would not have to serve beyond the end of the war, but the promise has little effect. By April 24 only 32,000, just one-sixth of the War Department’s quota had joined.

Compare this to the waves of civilians that volunteered for the American Civil War, which, right or wrong, hundred of thousands (on both sides) saw as very much their fight.

The answer was, of course, conscription--a draft--making the federal government not just a thief but a kidnapper. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not share that interpretation. In 1918 it ruled that the draft was constitutional, with Chief Justice Edward White saying:

“It may not be doubted that the very conception of a just government and its duty to the citizen includes the reciprocal obligation of the citizen to render military service in case of need and the right to compel it.”

Obviously, the decision on the constitutionality of the draft had long-term ramifications for the use of federal power, but Higgs makes the argument that it was also the tip of an iceberg of other abuses, now “widely regarded as among the most deplorable in American constitutional history.” These are the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1918, which were used to to put people in jail merely for questioning the constitutionality of the draft. A prevailing opinion seemed to be that of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:

“When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.”

I would find the opinion quaint if it hadn’t been enshrined in the nation’s public consciousness, its descendant ideology remaining in some quarters to this very day. The idea that a free people has the right to disagree with its government--and that never is that right more necessary than when that nation is engaged in violence perpetrated in that people’s name--may be too abstract for those subsumed with “superheated patriotism” to recognize, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary for the preservation of actual liberty.

But let me get back to the idea that the President has the right to seize private property in times of national emergency or war. Higgs quotes contemporary economist John Maurice Clark to show that the rationale for this action was based upon another prevailing opinion:

“In time of war, the movements called for are so huge in quantity and the demand for speed so urgent, that if it were left to the incentives of increased prices and increased wages to bring about these changes, this could only be done at a huge increase in the returns to labor and capital.”

To which Higgs (and I) say, “Precisely.” The market is one of the most critical bellwethers we have to determine if a cause is just--if it is one that people are willing to sacrifice for. By circumventing it--by “requiring all people to do what but a few people wished”--one invites a kind of despotism of decision-making. It is no longer society-at-large that decides to commit itself, but a small handful of people, or even a single individual.

Objectively, that’s wrong. But there are times when people will willingly abdicate their collective decision-making for the actions of strong executive, and that seems as good an explanation as any for the continued increases in federal power Higgs continues to describe during the Great Depression.

In many ways, it was the “mother of all crises,” and as the Depression clung more and more tightly to more and more of American society, more and more people seemed willing to abandon the intellectual blessings of private property and rugged individualism for the concrete balms of social welfare and make-work government programs.

The economic crisis and the governmental responses to it “dissipated the distrust of the state” inherited from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Even Republicans who protested that Roosevelt’s policies were snuffing out liberty voted overwhelmingly in favor of coercive measures.” The great majority of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, “accepted and approved the new ideals of social welfare democracy.”

And Higgs’s conclusion hinges on that great bugaboo of libertarian thought--that none of the government programs instituted to combat the Great Depression (or, indeed, even to build up to take on Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito) did anything to bring the economic crisis to an end--despite that fact that everyone believes it to be true.

The nation had weathered its worst storm. Always susceptible to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the masses concluded that Roosevelt and his policies had saved the country. It would never do, they thought, to risk a return to a regime of economic freedom, a regime most people believed responsible for the catastrophe of the Great Depression.

True or not, the crisis had finally created not just a Leviathan, but a Leviathan that most people desired, a Leviathan that today most people freely associate with an untarnished libertarian history of the proud American nation. Speaking out against the federal government has always been unpatriotic, hasn’t it? The United States has always had a standing army, hasn’t it? The U.S. President has always had the powers of a unitary executive, hasn’t he? To many people, the world we now live in is the same that has always existed--the one that our schoolyard heroes George Washington and Patrick Henry intended.

Which brings me to the most intriguing question posed by Higgs’s treatise, if not by Higgs himself than at least by me as I continued to read the assaults on iconoclastic liberty he continues to describe and document through the World War II years.

Crisis created the Leviathan. And the Leviathan is radically different than what the framers of our federal government intended. But which is worse--Crisis or Leviathan? In other words, if we hadn’t built the Leviathan, if we had instead dealt with each crisis on the terms dictated by the forms and functions of our original, constitutionally-limited federal government, how would we have fared? Would we have survived? And if so, would the judgment of history declare us better off than we are today?

These are questions I won’t attempt to answer definitively--but I will state that I believe a certain amount of leviathan-building is inevitable, that it is a natural by-product of human society, and not something that requires any kind of malicious intent.

Here’s an analogy to support that point, pulled directly from Higgs’s text, and representing another bugaboo of the libertarians.

Between the world wars, as during every other previous period of peace, the American armed forces struggled just to survive. … Congress normally authorized only the barest essentials of equipment and supply and minimal numbers of officers and men. Traditional apprehension about a peacetime standing army denied respect and high social status to the military profession, which remained a thankless calling until bullets began to fly.

After the capitulation of France in June 1940, these conditions changed marvelously. Abandoning its characteristic frugality in military appropriations, Congress approved the spending of billions, then tens of billions, and ultimately hundreds of billions of dollars; all told more than $300 billion was spent for war goods and services during 1941-1945--a classic case of solving a problem by “throwing money at it.” The associated procurement program has been described as a “buckshot operation.” Though much of the money was wasted, so much was spent that great things were accomplished anyhow. After 1941 the military procurement agencies operated virtually without a budget constraint.

Here was the beginning of the military industrial complex, something decried today by libertarian dogma as a system born from greed and the evil intent of business executives who put their profits above the desire for a peaceful world and the human lives destroyed by the lack of one. And, to certain degree, here also were the seeds of the unitary executive.

By more or less surrendering its power of the purse, Congress relinquished effective control of the military to the executive branch, where everything hinged on the President’s exercise and delegation of his war powers, including his decisions as Commander in Chief.

And what happened next seems in retrospect to confirm the libertarian’s accusations.

To procure military goods the Army and the Navy dealt mainly with big businesses. At the insistence of the military authorities, with whom FDR again sided, antitrust prosecutions were placed on the shelf for the duration of the war. There were more than eighteen thousand prime contractors, but a hundred firms got two-thirds of the war business; just thirty-three got about half; and General Motors alone got 8 percent.


No grand conspiracy produced the pattern. The military authorities wanted the goods, wanted them fast; price did not much matter to them but quality and reliability did. Big firms had the technical and managerial expertise and the large physical facilities to respond readily to the huge military demands. Besides, it was easier to deal with a few contractors than with many. If the services of smaller businesses were needed, they could be acquired under subcontracts by the prime contractors.

No grand conspiracy. Just a system of incentives acting in the context of a new challenge. Despite what the libertarians might say, the result was almost market-driven. The market created by the war demanded high quality goods, quickly shipped, and those that could provide them were rewarded in kind.

Still, there is a certain intellectual allure to the points Higgs seeks to make with the growth of the Leviathan during the World War II years.

As an example:

Historians typically consider the Japanese-American internment, which they almost universally regard as the most egregious episode in the twentieth-century history of American civil liberties, separately from the military draft and the government’s imposition of economic controls during the war. Many applaud the draft and the economic controls while deploring the internment. In fact, all were forged from the same metal: government suppression of private property rights, including the right of innocent persons to control the use of their own bodies. Hence no one should be surprised that the Supreme Court allowed all these invasions of individual rights to stand.

This much I think is true. A people who would not let their government create a compulsory draft or exert anti-libertarian controls over their economy would almost certainly not let it round up a subset of its citizens and put them into internment camps. If you consider the draft and the economic controls good things, then you probably have to view the internment at least partly as their unintended consequence.

Not out there enough for you? Try this last example on for size.

The term fascism, however, has a definite meaning; and one may employ it as an analytical concept independent of distasteful historical exemplars. As Charlotte Twight has shown, the essence of fascism is nationalistic collectivism, the affirmation that the “national interest” should take precedence over the rights of individuals. So deeply has the presumption of individual subservience to the state entered into the thinking of modern Americans that few people have noticed--and no doubt many would be offended by the suggestion--that fascism has colored countless declarations by public officials during the past fifty years. Unfortunately, as Friedrich Hayek noted during World War II, “many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of naziism, and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny.”

And that, indeed, is what’s wrong with the unchecked Leviathan. The oppression its needs to bring upon the few or the obscure in order to deal with the Crisis can ultimately be used in greater and eventually intolerable measures. A little Leviathan many be exactly what the doctor ordered, but how can you keep the tadpole from becoming the frog? Higgs’s treatise seems the political equivalent of that unstoppable biological imperative. The tadpole may look different from the frog, but they are indeed creatures of the same kind.

Finally, the only recipe Higgs offers for battling the Leviathan seems to come from historian and political scientist Clinton Rossiter.

“The people with their overt or silent resistance, not the Court with its power of judicial review, will set the only practical limits to arrogance and abuse.”

It’s a potent reminder for those who might think that the Leviathan is capable--or, indeed, disposed--to check itself. It is not. And we would be remiss not to point out that resistance, either individually or in mass movements, will always first be perceived as the latest crisis, stirring a sleeping Leviathan back to its fighting weight.

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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, August 4, 2014

Communicating Takes Time

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This week I'm working on the presentation I'm going to give at my association's major conference in two weeks. As CEO, it's part of my job to make these presentations, speaking from the podium about the things the association is doing and keeping the members up to speed on important updates and initiatives.

When I started doing this seven years ago, it was a time-consuming process that I didn't enjoy and which I wasn't very good at. Figuring out what I was going to say, writing it down and rehearsing it, and finding the right pictures, graphics and words to put on the screen behind me while I was delivering each part of the message seemed to take forever. Thinking in terms of the Powerpoint presentation that would eventually get built, I would estimate that the entire process took about 30 minutes per slide--two entire working days for a 30-slide presentation.

Now, after all those years of experience, I'd like to think that I'm much better at it. And I know that I enjoy it more. But guess what? It still takes me about 30 minutes per slide. There's no getting around it. Communicating the right information, in the right way, without confusing or overwhelming your audience--it takes time. I can't do it effectively without appropriate preparation.

One lesson I've learned is not to compete with your slides. Bold images and only a handful of words seem to work best. It's not revolutionary advice. You can get it from hundreds of websites and books on how to give effective presentations. But like most things in life, learning from your own mistakes will always make a bigger impression on you than the words of someone else. One time looking out into your audience, and realizing that they aren't listening to you because they're too busy trying to read all the words you've put in front of them, and you'll remember to think more carefully about how the images on the screen can support the words coming out of your mouth.

Another lesson I've learned--with difficulty--is to slow down. Nobody will remember anything if you're rushing through your script, anxious to get to the end and get off the stage. You have to enjoy your time there--or at least appear like you do--and that means taking your time. One of my strategies for dealing with the nerves I sometimes still feel is to only prepare 25 minutes of material for a 30-minute time slot. Knowing that I've got time to spare helps me slow down and put the proper emphasis on things that need emphasizing. In contrast, if I've got 35 minutes of material for that 30-minute slot, I'm going to be focused on getting through things as quickly as I can.

Good communications take time to prepare, and I think they should also take time to deliver. If you want to improve your communication skills, I would advise you not to rush either.

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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