Monday, December 29, 2014

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2014

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

1. Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
This was #1 on last year's list, and #3 the year before that. It was originally posted in January 2012, and keeps getting a ton of traffic, including as the page through which the highest number of people enter my site. It was inspired by the take-down of strategic planning in Humanize, and in it I pledge to stop using that term to describe the messy, constantly evolving process my association uses to determine our direction and set our objectives. In laying out the guidelines that govern our activities, I realize that only one term makes any sense--association management.

2. The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling
A newcomer to these lists, this one was originally posted in May 2014, and summarizes my takeaways from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution. The book's subtitle is “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” and it contains a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for doing exactly that--with a lot of potential applicability for associations. Among the many practical tools it taught me was the need to create "winnable games" for your team to go after, with regular and visual scorecards showing the team's progress towards each goal. As the authors continually remind the reader, people play differently when they are keeping score. When they can see at a glance whether or not they are winning they become profoundly engaged.

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

4. No One Knows How to Make a Computer Mouse
This was #2 on last year's list, originally posted in February 2012. It contains a link to a TED talk video featuring Matt Ridley, who makes the case that innovation and progress depend on the accelerating exchange of ideas and information, not on the expertise or creativity of any single individual. To make his point, he uses the example of the computer mouse--a piece of technology we all depend on and that has transformed our world, but which contains so many parts and underlying technologies that no single person on the planet could construct one entirely by themselves. In my commentary, I compare this to the association environment, in which I say the role of the association leader is not to come up with the bright ideas, but to bring together and facilitate the exchange of ideas and information so that the bright ideas emerge.

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

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

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

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will the police do anything to her now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Holiday Break: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Books are always the best holiday gift for me. The only thing I like better than the anticipation of reading a long sought after title is the fondness that comes with remembering the discovery of an unexpected treasure.

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

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

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

As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book. I know I will.

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

They'll Remember That You Let Them Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Wang Lung cried out suddenly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

Opposing Views Are Allowed to Co-Exist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source

Monday, December 1, 2014

Seeing Through Their Lenses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source