Monday, September 29, 2014

Six Rules of Living Your Values: Conclusion

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Over the last six weeks, I have tackled the six rules of living your values, as defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals in this HBR blog post. Those rules, and my posts about them, are:

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.

I have reflected on what my own association has or hasn't done with each, and have speculated, when appropriate, on what we might do differently.

So what, if anything, have I learned? Do I intend to do anything different as a result of this analysis, or was it was just was way to pass some time?


I was really struck by the importance of phrasing your values in the simplest language possible. As I described in that post, I think my organization's values already do a good job at passing that test, but that some of the behaviors we have defined to better describe how we intended each value to manifest in our actions could use some work. That's something I'm going to take a crack at, but I need to do something more than just circulate a new list of bullet points to everyone.

As I've reflected on where my organization has been and where it is going with its values, I have realized that the best use of the short-hand behaviors will not be as a checklist for everyone to modulate their actions by. That won't hurt, I suppose, but the best use of the short and pithy behavior statements will more likely be to help me intensify my own focus on our values.

I must, you see, do more to teach the people in my organization what the values really mean. I must publicly call out when people are and are not acting in accordance with them, and I must be ready for the discussions that come with each circumstance, knowing that both positive and negative examples will be educational.

And having sound bites instead of compound sentences is going to help me do this. When observing the actions of others, will it be easier to focus on instances of people "challenging prevailing assumptions, suggesting better approaches, and creating new ideas that prove useful," (the old language) or "trying new things and keeping what works" (the new language)? Clearly, the latter.

And what about governing my own behavior and that of my leadership team? The simpler language will prove more memorable, allowing us to act with greater intention and to more deliberately bake our values into the management decisions we must make--not only with regard to recruiting and evaluating our employees, but also in how we choose to lead the organization.

This exercise has been very helpful for me. It has given me not just a new perspective on how to help my organization live its values, but a renewed energy for doing so.

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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, September 22, 2014

Your Values Must Be Non-Negotiable

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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 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. For my comments on the second rule, go here. For my comments on the third rule, go here. For my comments on the fourth rule, go here. For my comments on the fifth rule, go here.

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

Your values must be non-negotiable. Over and over again, I have seen managers tolerate unacceptable behaviors because they believed the individuals’ technical expertise was vital. This shortsightedness is a recipe for disaster. One person’s expertise is not a good trade for negativity, loss of credibility, and the metastases of other unacceptable behaviors throughout the organization. The moment you make one exception, you’re doomed.

Another piece of excellent advice, although I fear the last line about doom following inevitably from one exception is a bit melodramatic. The real world may be a more nuanced than that line would let on. If someone is toxic to the organization, by all means, the organization is better off without that person, regardless of the technical expertise that they possess. But toxicity and behavior contrary to stated values are not necessarily the same thing--especially when the the organization is still working to figure out what behavior in alignment with its stated values can and should mean.

In one of the posts in this series, I wrote about the challenges associated with bringing new people into an organization--new people who were hired because they align well with the organization's stated values--but who find themselves inside an organization still trying to actualize itself according to those terms. New employees wonder if they've made the right decision, and feel like they are swimming upstream. And existing staff question the fit of the new employees, rejecting rather than embracing the different ways of thinking and doing they represent.

Well, something similar can happen just among existing employees who are genuinely trying to understand and adapt to the environment defined by the new values. No one will live up to them all--at least not initially--and behaviors that are contrary to the values should be expected and discussed, not rejected as unacceptable. Within a proper context, exceptions can and should always be made, especially if they can be used to demonstrate counter examples about the values and their associated behaviors to the rest of the organization.

Continued and intentional actions against the values would, of course, be cause for greater alarm, but an immediate and zero-tolerance policy towards behaviors contrary to the values--one infraction and you're gone--may be counterproductive. Not only would you risk dramatically decreasing the size of your workforce, but you could leave those who remain with serious questions about the intentions and wisdom of their leader. You are, after all, getting rid of good people with talents others need to rely on, and you're doing it for reasons that not everyone has fully bought into yet.

Values should be non-negotiable. But the path that employees take toward bringing their actions into alignment with those values should be heavily negotiated. If the only tool you can wield in that process is an ax, you'll wind up doing damage you may not be able to repair.

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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, September 20, 2014

Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast

I picked this one up only because I read and enjoyed another of Fast’s works--Spartacus. It’s safe to say I did not enjoy this one nearly as much.

Tom Paine has always been a shadowy figure in the stage light of my historical understanding. Other than the facts that he wrote Common Sense and The Age of Reason, I knew next to nothing about him. And, if I am to believe the blurb on the back cover, a lot of other people were in the same boat with me before Fast published this work in 1943.

Among Howard Fast’s historical fiction, this book--one of America’s all-time bestsellers--occupies a very special place, for it restored to a whole generation of readers the vision of Paine’s revolutionary passion as the authentic roots of our national beginnings.

So what did I learn about him? Well, for one, that his was a mind that seemed out of place in its time. Fast makes this wonderfully clear in the dramatization of Paine’s relationship with Mary, his first wife, whom he met and courted while still living in England, and who died while pregnant with their child.

He thought afterward that if certain things had not been, if certain things had gone otherwise, it might have been different. What she was, she couldn’t help, and knowing that only made it worse for him. Long after, he would think of how he had tried to teach her to read and write, and how after ten or fifteen minutes of struggling with an idea, she would turn on him with childish fury. Sometimes he was sure she hated him, and sometimes, holding her in his arms, he would have a brief moment in which he knew she loved him. She was what she was, beaten into shape by her tiny world, a tribal creature laid over and over with a thousand taboos, Sometimes, probing as gently as he could, uncovering layer after layer, he would be at the point of finding her frightened little soul, and she would burst out at him, “Coo! High and mighty and fine you are, making fun of me again, you with your fine airs!”

This is exactly how the public reacted to Paine during his lifetime and, evidently, how history has treated him ever since. Many of his contemporaries and many of their descendants reacted to his “high and mighty” ideas exactly as Mary did, occasionally intoxicated by them, but much more often frightened and confused.

In fact, the essential portrait that Fast creates is not that of the hero, but of the reclusive writer, scribbling words capable of swaying the passions of man in solitary darkness, but forever incapable of connecting with his audience in person or on any other level. Paine is the quintessential misanthrope, whose written words speak to the hidden misanthrope that lives within us all and that nurtures our delusions of self importance, but over whom we and the society that frames us keeps tight control. Except Paine has no such control. He is all misanthrope. And while we can thrill to the words he places privately in our minds, when we meet him in person and see him for the monster he is.

And in describing this writer--for those of us who also write--we see glimmers of what it means to be a writer, what it takes to do what so few of us can or are willing to do.

He had a little room, a bed, a bolster, chest, coat-rack, and table, two fairly good suits of clothes, ink and paper. That was enough, a man should want no more. He needed a few pennies for candles, something for food, something for drink. During this time he no longer allowed himself to be drunk, yet he saw no reason to do without liquor. Rum helped him; caring little for himself or for what became of him, he was ready to use anything that might make his pen move more easily on the paper. He was writing stuff out of thought and making something out of nothing, and after he had worked steadily for five, six, or seven hours, the little room closed in on him. Rum helped; as he drank, his movements would become slow and painful, but the quill would continue to scratch, which was all that mattered. He had no delusions; what he wrote might never be read by more than a dozen persons, but it was all he could do and what he had to do. Men don’t make new worlds in an afternoon; brick has to be placed on brick, and the process is long and incredibly painful.

This, then, subsumes his role in our nation’s history. As he himself muses late in the narrative:

He sat in the dark and turned over and over in his hands the key that had unlocked the Bastille. Lafayette had given it to him to give to Washington; Washington stood in the clouds, and Lafayette was a leader of France, and he, Paine, in between, was nothing. But in between was the moving impulse of revolution, a force summed up in himself, a passionate preaching that gained neither glory nor distinction, but by the power of the written word moved worlds.

The reference to the Bastille is important, for after the American Revolution, Paine goes back to Europe to see what role he can play in the French one. But he discovers that what worked in America does not work in France. And he gets an initial glimpse of this when he first visits his hometown in England.

Then Thetford, and it shocked him that the old place had not changed, not at all, not a stone moved, the furrows plowed in the tracks of a thousand years of furrows, a crow perched on top a fence where he thought he remembered it perching so long ago. After America, this was entirely out of the world, for America lived by change, tear down the house and build a better one, tear down the barn and build a better one, pave the streets, sewers? Why not? The Romans did it. A higher church and a higher steeple, a bigger town hall.

Indeed, America was unique. In a telling conversation with Benjamin Rush, the physician explicitly describes the circumstance that made America possible, that allowed, for the first time, strength and violence to be used for the cause of the oppressed rather than the oppressors.

“It is true that we have here a nation of armed men who know how to use their arms; we have a Protestant tradition of discussion as opposed to autocracy; we have some notion of the dignity of man; and above all we have land, land enough for everyone.”

It is fascinating to think about how the American Revolution would have gone--or if it would have happened at all--if any one of those circumstances hadn’t been present.

But back to Paine. He has gone back to Europe to help foment the French Revolution, to try and be the people’s muse once again, but he winds up not on their shoulders but in the Bastille, where he finds himself debating the philosophical essence of his work with the other would-be revolutionaries imprisoned there. By way of example, no less than Anacharsis Clootz takes exception to some of the thoughts he expressed in The Age of Reason.

“What is this nonsense you write, Paine, about the creation being the Bible of God?”

“A simple fact which I believe.”

“Which you believe!” Clootz snorted, stopping the march and turning on Paine, arms akimbo. “You repudiate organized religion and substitute mystical rationalization! My friend, Paine, you shock me. With you I spend some of my last precious hours. On every hand people in the streets turn to stare at us and whisper to each other, There are Paine and Clootz on their way to the guillotine. These good soldiers, these two agents of what calls itself the Republic of France, will go home to their soup and their wives with the news that they marched the last march with the two greatest minds of the eighteenth century. And you rationalize about the creation being the Bible of God. What creation?”

“Of course, it happened!” Paine snapped. “Atheism, the great creed of chance! Like a game of cards, everything just fell together until it fitted nicely!”

“And why not? Where is reason, but in our minds? Where is godliness, but in the people? Where is mercy, but in the masses? A thing becomes reasonable because we make it reasonable, and we are not reaching toward God, but toward goodness, a formulation of the people, a concept of small, suffering men--”

M. Merson interrupted, “Please, please, citizens, we are on our way to the Luxembourg jail. I pray you not to argue, for it is unseemly in men going our way.” And they continued on their way, Clootz roaring his theories at the top of his lungs.

Clootz may be an extreme example, but he still reveals something of the fundamental disconnect that Paine experiences throughout his life--which continues after he survives the Bastille, by the way. Revolutions, large and small, are the children of Paine’s words, but their grandparents, the ideas in Paine's head that give birth to his words, don't seem like relatives at all. The words work because they speak directly to a broad cross-section of man, and most can find long-sought-after sustenance within them.

But when Paine tries to explain the wellspring that gives birth to his words, it is a wellspring that only he and few others care to share. Paine does not believe in the Christian God, but he does believe in a God that endows His creation with “certain inalienable rights.” Clootz does not believe in God at all, thinking that reason springs solely from the mind of man, and so when Paine walks his conception of liberty back to a non-Christian God, he alienates both the Christians and the atheists. His views, when expressed as close to their essential essence as possible, are almost entirely his and his alone.

At one point in the narrative, Fast has Paine describe someone as being like Christ--he knew not the evil from the good, but only the weak from the strong. From where I sit, that is perhaps the best description of Paine himself, and why he is almost always misunderstood.

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Something else happened to me when I read this book. It became apparent when I stumbled across passages like this:

It was there, hot and terrible; they were rebels. This idea that they had conceived, that they should be free men with the right to live their lives in their own way, this tenuous, dream-like idea of liberty that men of good will had played with for thousands of years had suddenly come to it brutish head on a village green in Lexington. The farmers growled and didn’t lay down their arms; instead one of them fired, and in the moment of stillness after the roar of the big musket had echoed and re-echoed, a redcoat clutched at his tunic, knelt, and then rolled over on the ground.

There was a time when such a passage would have moved me. When my heart would have swelled at the idea, so pleasantly phrased, of man fighting for his liberty against oppression.

But no longer. Now, when I find a writer who is trying to stir me in this way, my mind quickly goes to the ugly and inevitable truth, which, in this case, Fast is complex enough to present in the very next paragraph.

After that, there was no order, no memory even. The redcoat files fired a volley; the farmers fired their guns singly, by twos and threes. The women screamed and came running from their houses. Children began to cry and dogs barked madly. Then the firing died away and there was no sound except the moans of the wounded and the shrill pleading of the women.

Fighting against oppression is important, but shouldn’t we weigh the consequences of such fights outside the passion of the moment and the stirrings that demagogues (or novelists) may wish to inspire within us?

What, in the end, is the most important? Liberty? Or dignity? Fast shows us what Paine may have thought in this fictionalized dialogue with Thomas Jefferson.

“Poverty is a degree of things,” Jefferson said. “I have seen people here in America whose poverty was complete and absolute, yet they retained--”

“Dignity,” Paine said.


“Then that’s all we live for,” Paine reflected. “If there’s any meaning in human life, then it’s there, in the dignity of a human being.”

“I think so.”

“I never realized that before; I began to feel it here, but I didn’t know until I spoke of it tonight. It’s true enough; all through ten thousand years men have been corrupted by having their dignity taken from them. When my wife died and the neighbors poured in to look at her poor, tired body, the little, evil thrill of it the only excitement in their lives, each bringing a scrap of food for admission, I could think, God help me, only how comical it was. If we were made in the image of God, how rotten that image has become!”

My evolving perspective tends to agree. Perfect liberty is a bit of a pipe dream, anyway. Give me a good deal of liberty, yes, but more pressingly, give me the dignity I need to be and become what I wish to be. Preserving that, I suppose, requires a little bit of government among men, and therefore, a little bit of the ideal of liberty that is supposed to make my heart swell must be sacrificed.

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But why didn’t I like this as much as I liked Spartacus? If you’ve read this far, I’ve probably left you with the impression that I got a good deal out of Citizen Tom Paine. And I guess I have, but a lot more turned me off.

I think Fast would have been better served to have focused on only a portion of Paine’s life and not try to tell the whole story from beginning to end. Like most real people, the life of Thomas Paine is not a compelling story. There are some compelling episodes, but there are also long stretches of tedium and boredom, which Fast has to move into biography in order to make them serve as the glue between the fictionalized episodes. When doing so, the prose seems rushed and the relevance forced.

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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, September 15, 2014

Make Values a Primary Filter for Performance Evaluations

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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 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. For my comments on the second rule, go here. For my comments on the third rule, go here. For my comments on the fourth rule, go here.

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

Make values a primary filter for performance evaluations. There is no stronger lever for promoting a culture than tying adherence to its values to individual compensation. At NPS, the values evaluation and rating has a direct and significant impact on salary increases and both short- and long-term incentives. While recruitment errors happen, the performance evaluation highlights those shortcomings and gives the manager and the employee a chance to correct the situation. If the improvement plan fails to generate results, swift separation from the company is necessary. Even individuals on NPS’s leadership team who didn’t embrace our values had to go.

Like last week's rule on using your values as a filter in your hiring process, this is another recommendation that I entirely agree with. It is also something that I have done inside my organization. Our evaluations measure performance in three areas--completion of job responsibilities, achievement of strategic program objectives, and demonstration of our values and their associated behaviors.

But that third piece on our values remains the most elusive of the three.

It's the newest, after all. Although we have clearly stated our values and provided explicit examples of behaviors that demonstrate them, everyone in the organization--myself included--is still in the process of figuring out how we can live them. The behaviors are there to aid in this process, but I have been careful not to position them as the only way the values can be demonstrated. People should not be rewarded, in my opinion, merely for aping behaviors that will bring them higher compensation. Acting in that fashion, in fact, would be contrary to our values.

So what I have done instead is try to engage people in dialogue about the values and their connection to them. Here's what they mean, and here are some ways that that can be demonstrated, but undoubtedly, they can be demonstrated in dozens of other ways. When you reflect on your performance and conduct within the office, where do you see yourself acting in accordance with the values and where do you see areas in which you could bring your actions into closer alignment?

As I have previously written, these conversations have not always gone as well as I would have hoped. And as I reflect on it now, I have to wonder if the process of linking them to our performance evaluations hasn't been part of the problem. Keeping score and holding people accountable is important, but putting people in that position also elicits a natural and predictable response from them. They will claim the highest possible success and put things in the best possible light. Of course I embody our values in everything I do. That's what you're paying me for, right?

So I have begun to take a different tack. Rather than scaling rewards to the sheer number of values and behaviors a person demonstrates, our most recent performance evaluation was focused on each staff person identifying an area of focus within our values structure, describing actions they planned to take in order to better represent it, and visibly manifesting those actions in our office and in their interactions with others.

I feel like we're making better progress with this approach, but it has been slow going. Our evaluation process is on an annual cycle, with three formal sit-downs between supervisor and employee over that time span. In the context of measuring performance on job responsibilities and achievement of strategic program objectives, that time scale is about right. But in the context of demonstrating our values--however it is that we agree that will occur--more frequent focus and discussion may be necessary.

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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, September 8, 2014

Recruit People Who Naturally Are Inclined to Live Your Values

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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 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. For my comments on the second rule, go here. For my comments on the third rule, go here.

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

Recruit people who naturally are inclined to live your values. This does not mean recruiting clones! It simply means populating the workforce with individuals who naturally embrace the values and become role models. Cultural fit is as significant as technical ability. Again, a company’s culture is a choice, and different people find their fulfillment in different cultures. Just make sure you identify and retain those individuals who will flourish in yours. We integrate the assessment of candidates’ values in our interview process, check references accordingly, and rely significantly on referrals.

I agree entirely with this recommendation, and it is something that I have been focusing on in our hiring practices ever since we put our core values down on paper. I've shared them with potential candidates and asked them to comment on them. I've written and asked interview questions designed to explore their themes. I've asked references for examples of how candidates do or do not demonstrate them. I've used them as discussion points with my leadership team in making decisions between otherwise equally-qualified candidates.

But despite all these efforts, two factors have made this rule challenging to adopt fully in my organization.

First, we're small. We have twelve staff positions, and although we currently have two vacancies, that is not normally the case. As a result, hiring is an episodic practice, not a continuous one. It can be difficult to bring a new institutional focus to something you do only every once and a while. But more critically, we don't always have our pick of candidates. Our small size and the specialized function of our organization and its positions means that we often don't have dozens of interested and qualified candidates to pick from. Sometimes, there's only one (or less), and it's really difficult to let positions go unfilled while you wait for the perfect candidate to emerge.

Second, we're trying to change our culture. To a certain degree, the values I'm hiring for are not the values currently embraced by the organization. A new employee, sold and selected based on the aspirational values we've defined, can enter an organization that is not fully living up to that promise. That creates friction on both sides of the relationship. The new employee wonders if they've made the right decision, and can feel like they are swimming upstream. And the existing staff questions the fit of the new employee, rejecting rather than embracing the different ways of thinking and doing the new employee represents. Rather than moving the organization closer to the values it believes it needs for success, the result can be more conflict and dysfunction.

Neither of these factors is a reason to abandon Nader's recommendation to recruit people who naturally are inclined to live your values, but they do create some additional complexity that a leader has to take into account. Since culture is a product of the people who make up an organization, in hiring, my focus has to remain on the organization we're trying to create, not necessarily the one that currently exists.

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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, September 6, 2014

The Human Brain by Isaac Asimov

Picked this one up at my local library discarded book sale. Published in 1963, it’s seen some wear and tear since then. But given its subtitle--Its Capacities and Functions--I was mostly interested in seeing what stance the author would take on dualism. In other words, is consciousness one of the functions of the brain, or is consciousness something that exists apart from the brain? Asimov is a famously scientific writer, but he is writing here in 1963. How would such a subject be addressed?

Well, long story short, it wasn’t. At least not directly in any way I could find. The use of language seems to assume a decidedly dualist perspective, such as…

These two sets of visceral fibers, the preganglionic and the postganglionic, taken together with the ganglia themselves, make up that portion of the nervous system which is autonomous--or, not under the control of the will.

The will. Assumed to exist, but not explained. And…

To be aware of the environment, one must sense or perceive it.

One. Assuming there is an entity there to do the sensing. Maybe you think I’m nitpicking, but given all the dissecting of brain tissue and chemical substances that Asimov devotes most of the book to, isn’t it noteworthy to say no markings of consciousness are to be found in anything but the author’s assumptions?

Indeed, there are times when Asimov is quite transparent with the limitations of his then understanding of how the brain functions. In a long, opening section devoted to glands and their secretions, he says:

Yet what is it that thyroxine, tri-iodothyronine, and possible related compounds do to bring about such changes? What particular reaction or reactions do they stimulate in order to lift the entire level of metabolism? And how does iodine play a role? This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the problem, because no compound without iodine has any thyroid hormone activity whatever. Furthermore, there is no iodine in any compound present in our body except for the various forms of the thyroid hormone.

By now you should not be surprised at learning that there is no answer as yet to these questions.

I don’t know if medical science has been able to answer Asimov’s questions since he posed them in 1963, but it does show that he is willing to chase the knowledge of what the brain is and how it functions to the very limit of his understanding.

But not, evidently, when it comes to thinking philosophically about the self.

Asimov actually becomes somewhat moralizing near the end of the book, where he begins to compare to brain of the human to other brains in the animal kingdom.

Man strikes a happy medium, then. Any creature with a brain much larger than man’s has a body so huge that intelligence comparable to ours is impossible. Contrarily, any creature with a brain/body ratio much larger than ours has a brain so small in absolute size that intelligence comparable to ours is impossible.

Bold and striking statements, but dear Isaac--how can you possibly know these things? On what yardstick does one measure intelligence? Brain/body ratios? Size of the prefrontal cortex? Both have been examined and found wanting--but both remain seemingly common sense explanations for the apparent uniqueness of human intelligence.

Moreover, from Asimov’s perspective we can look at other natural phenomena and proclaim an enlightened understanding that no intelligence or will is actually there.

Because this alliance of purpose and response is so well known to us, we tend to read purpose into the action of other creatures that cannot possibly have modes of thought akin to ours. For example, in observing that a green plant will turn toward the light, and knowing that light is essential to the plant’s metabolism (so that receiving light contributes to its “well-being”), we are tempted to conclude that the plant turns to the light because it wants to, or because it likes the sensation, or because it is “hungry.” Actually this is not at all so. The plant (as nearly as we can tell) has no awareness of its action in any sense that can be considered even remotely human. Its action is developed through the same blind and slow evolutionary forces that molded its structure.

Yet, he seems reluctant to consider the processes from which the reactions of the plant grew almost certainly contain the genesis of our own. I say we are different in degree, not in kind, but Asimov seems intent on preserving the sharpest of distinctions between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. His longest argument comes near the very end, when he tackles what he calls the “behaviorist stand.”

Even granted that the behaviorist stand is correct in principle and that all human behavior, however complex, can be brought down to a mechanical pattern of nerve cells (and hormones)* the further question arises as to whether it is useful to allow matters to rest there.

The asterisk leads one to the following footnote:

*Actually, it is difficult to deny this since nerves and hormones are the only physical-chemical mediators for behavior that we know of. Unless we postulate the existence of something beyond the physical-chemical (something like abstract “mind” or “soul”) we are reduced to finding the answer to even the highest human abilities somewhere among the cells of the nervous system or among the chemicals in the blood--exactly where we find the lowest.

I want to tackle this head-on. Why down? Why is explaining human behavior and action through natural, observable phenomena taking things down? Down from what? From something that exists only in our imagination? Do we talk about modern chemistry as reducing things down from the heights of the theory of the four elements--earth, air, fire and water? Using science to explain human behavior is not bringing anything down. It provides an explanation that is more complex that any based on the existence of the abstract “mind” or “soul.” It is not down. It is up.

But back to Asimov. I’m going to quote him at length, because I want to preserve as much as his argument as possible. In tackling the difference in kind that he believes humans possess, he makes the following analogy to material phase changes.

Briefly, as a change progresses there can come a point (sometimes quite a sharp one) where the outlook must change, where a difference in degree suddenly becomes the equivalent of a difference in kind. To take an analogy in the world of the physical sciences, let us consider ice. Its structure is pretty well understood on the molecular level. If ice is heated, the molecules vibrate more and more until at a certain temperature, the vibrations are energetic enough to overcome the intermolecular attractions. The molecules then lose their order and become randomly distributed; in a fashion, moreover, that changes randomly with time. There has been a “phase change”; the ice has melted and become water. The molecules in liquid water are like the molecules in ice and it is possible to work out a set of rules that will hold for the behavior of those molecules in both ice and water. The phase changes is so sharp, however, as to make it more useful to describe ice and water in different terms, to think of water in connections with other liquids and ice in connection with other solids.

I think this analogy is fatally flawed. There is no phase change in evolution, no place where you can zoom in and see one thing and one side and another thing on the other--except, perhaps, at the level of gene mutations. The reason we seem so different is because the other hominid species went extinct and the closest relatives we have left with are the chimps and bonobos. But what would the world look like if there were dozens of additional living species on our family tree, each exhibiting traits of intelligence and consciousness on a continuum with humans on one end and chimps on the other? Would we be so distinct then? Where would Asimov put his phase change then?

Eventually, Asimov, will almost concede this point, but let’s allow him to continue, using his analogy to explain the difference between man and the rest of the animal kingdom.

The concept of the phase change can also be used to answer the question of what fixes the gulf between man and all other creatures. Since it is not reason alone, it must be something more. A phase change must take place not at the moment when reason is introduced but at some time when reason passes a certain point of intensity. The point is, one might reasonably suppose, that at which reason becomes complex enough to allow abstraction; when it allows the establishment of symbols to stand for concepts, which in turn stand for collections of things or actions or qualities. The sound “table” represents not merely this table and that table, but a concept of “all table-like objects,” a concept that does not exist physically. The sound “table” is this an abstraction of an abstraction.

Once it is possible to conceive an abstraction and represent it by a sound, communication becomes possible at a level of complexity and meaningfulness far beyond that possible otherwise. As the motor areas of the brain develop to the point where a speech center exists, enough different sounds can be made, easily and surely, to supply each of a vast number of concepts with individual sounds. And there is enough room for memory units in a brain of such complexity to keep all the necessary associations of sound and concept firmly in mind.

It is speech, then, rather than reason alone that is the phase change, and that fixes the gulf between man and nonman. As I pointed out on page 246, the existence of speech means that the gathering of experience and the drawing of conclusions is no longer a function of the individual alone. Experience is shared and the tribe becomes wiser and more knowledgeable than any individual in it. Moreover, experience unites the tribe throughout time as well as throughout space. Each generation need no longer start from scratch, as must all other creatures. Human parents can pass on their experiences and wisdom to their children, not only by demonstration but by verbalized, conceptual explanation. Not only facts and techniques, but also thought and deduction can be passed on.

Perhaps the gulf between ourselves and the rest of living species might not seem so broad if we knew more about the various prehuman hominids, who might represent stages within that gap. Unfortunately we don’t. We do not actually know at what stage of development or in what species of hominid, the phase change took place.*

There it is. The glimmer of his own undoing when he speculates on the hominids. But he’s still clearly hanging his hat on the idea of the phase change--that something didn’t exist in one generation and suddenly it did in the next. It might be correct when discussing how ice turns into water, but it isn’t when discussing how species evolve. Because that’s where evolution happens. Not to individuals but to species, and the only way to think of change is to think of it as part of a never ending continuum. Will, intelligence, consciousness--they are no different from thousands of biological and anatomical attributes in the sense that all living creatures have them in some degree--some so little that they are not even recognizable to us as those factors--but all in some degree.

But note how Asimov ended that paragraph with another asterisk. Here’s where that one leads:

*If it is true that dolphins have a faculty of speech as complex as that of man, then we are not necessarily the only species to have passed the phase change. The environment of the ocean is so different from that of land, however, that the consequences of the phase change would be vastly different. A dolphin might have a man-level mind, but in the viscous and light-absorbing medium of sea water a dolphin is condemned to the flipper and to a dependence on sound rather than vision. Man is not man by mind alone, but by mind plus eye plus hand, and if all three are taken into consideration we remain the only species this side of the phase change.

I find Asimov’s use of the word “condemned” to be very revealing. The dolphin may have a man-level mind, but it is still nothing like us because it doesn't have the things that we value or to which we owe our development. In other words, let’s first create a category--which is completely arbitrary but to which only man can belong--and then use that category to assert and reassure ourselves that we are unique and superior to everything else that doesn't fit into that category. And who created that category again? By the same logic, a dolphin could create a category for big-brained animals that swim in the ocean and breathe through holes on the top of their heads, call that their phase change, and exclude the rest of creation from their elite club.

Because here’s the essential question. What creates consciousness? Asimov doesn't know. He found it nowhere in his detailed dissection of the human brain. He conjectures that it comes from the things that are uniquely human, but he doesn't know this, and nor do we know it today. To the best of our understanding, consciousness is an emergent property of life, and by that definition, every living thing has it in some measure. There is no phase change. Just a long, unbroken continuum of stimulus response and cognitive awareness. They are not, apparently, different things, but ends of the same spectrum.

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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, September 1, 2014

Teach People What the Values Mean

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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 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. For my comments on the second rule, go here.

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

Teach people what the values mean. This must come from the top. My senior executives and I made our values the language of leadership. They were embedded in how we worked and communicated at every level. Credibility is truly at the core of building a values-driven culture.

Time for some painful honesty here. I have not done this as well as I should. What I have done is ask our staff people to look at our values (and their associated behaviors) and to identify the things that they do that support them, and at least one area where they could make some conscious improvements. And I've done this along with them, thinking that I was leading by example. But Nader's comment on making your values your "language of leadership" makes me realize that I should be doing something more.

I think my attitude so far has been that our values are, and always will be, a work-in-progress. As I've already described, our values are aspirational--traits that not all of us already embody, but which we all agree we must better embody if our organization is going to be successful. And I think this mindset has allowed me to put my focus on our values on a kind of backburner, deriving satisfaction from incremental advancement rather than wholesale adoption.

But this has probably sent the wrong message. Even with values that are aspirational in nature--and perhaps especially so--people in the organization must see that they are taken seriously, and that the leaders are working just a diligently as anyone to embrace them.

In fact, looking ahead to Nader's next three rules, I see that they are all premised on this foundational idea. The leadership team in any organization that wants to create a values-driven culture must not only embody the values that have been identified, they must quickly come to equate leadership with allegiance to the values. And they must clearly communicate that throughout the organization in both words and actions.

Looking again at my organization's core values:

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.

I see things I do well and things I do not so well. I see things I do behind closed doors and things I do openly in front of everyone. And looking out across my leadership team and the rest of the people in my organization, I see the same patterns.

We have spent a lot of time defining our values and talking one-on-one about how individuals are or are not living up to them. What we haven't done as well as we should is put them front and center in our environment of intentional actions and begin the messy work of demonstrating how they can ideally be applied. That, I'm sure Nader would agree, is the best of all possible ways to teach people what they really mean.

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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