Monday, April 28, 2014

Three Kinds of Meetings

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I've been spending a lot of time on the road lately. Lately, as in the past decade or so. It's part of the life of most association executives. But lately, it's gotten me thinking about the three kinds of meetings I find myself at.

First, there are the meetings our associations plan themselves. Our conferences and trade shows and Board meetings. We have to attend those. Although I often joke that a well-planned meeting is like a freight train--we couldn't stop it if we tried--the fact is that these meetings wouldn't happen without us. They're ours.

Second, there are all the meetings we're invited to. Come give a presentation. Come participate in our discussion group. Come learn something important to your daily workload. We're not responsible for planning any of these meetings--and some have far more value to the planning organization than they do for us and our associations. These you have to weigh carefully. If you accept all the invitations you receive, you'll get nothing else done.

And third, there are the meetings, planned by somebody else, that you must invite yourself to. Fact is, there are things going on in your environment that are affecting you and the organization you represent, and not everyone is going to think to include you. You have to search these meetings out and get yourself there, invited or not.

For me, at least, the third kind is increasingly beginning to squeeze out the other two.

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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, April 21, 2014

Your Leader Is In Control

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I do a fair amount of reading on leadership issues. And in doing so, I encounter the following sentiment--most recently in this Corner Office column--again and again.

I have learned that leadership is all about demonstrating and exuding confidence. One of my former bosses used to say: “There will always be uncertainty in your life, doubts about yourself, about the decision you’re about to make. Keep it inside. Process it. But don’t let it show on your face. You need to come out with a confident but simple description of the problem and tell people a simple three-step process for how we’re going to get out of the problem. Because they need to know that the leader is in control.”

Let's deconstruct. In my opinion, things start out well, but they quickly go downhill.

I agree that demonstrating and exuding confidence is an essential part of effective leadership. I'm not sure I would say that leadership is "all about" it, but I agree that it's hard to lead people if you aren't confident about the decisions you're making.

And I obviously agree that there will always be uncertainty in life, and that leaders will likely always have doubts about themselves and the decisions they are making. Generally, it makes sense to keep the bulk of that angst inside, but hiding it entirely from the people you lead may not be the best idea. If you're interested in developing the leadership skills of the people under you, shouldn't you be sharing part of your thought process with them? In other words, talk with them about the things that could go wrong and about how likely they are and what can be done to mitigate against them? That's not keeping the uncertainty inside.

And coming out with a simple description of the problem and a simple three-step process for how we're going to get out of it? That may be a tool you want in your leadership toolbox to be used in certain circumstances. But positioning it as some kind of cure-all for every situation? I think that's a bit extreme, especially when capped off with the excerpt's parting thought: "They need to know that the leader is in control."

In control? Control of what, exactly? Control of themselves--yes. Control of their decisions and the actions that flow from them--yes. But control of their environment and the forces that shape it? Do you really want your people to think that you're in control of that? I'm your leader, and I have a solution for every problem you will face. Can't you tell that by how confident my voice is?

This is the thing I encounter again and again. Followers must always know that their leader is in control. Every time I read that I ask myself why. Why do people need to know that their leader is in control? And what would happen if they would discover that he isn't?

Because guess what? He isn't. The leader isn't in control any more than you are. The good ones control themselves and their actions, but no leader controls the environment around them. If they appear to, they're either faking or deluding themselves, and in my book, neither one of those correlates with effective leadership.

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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, April 19, 2014

Tommy by Eric Lanke

A little while ago, I made my novel, Columbia, available for download from this blog.

Columbia is the story of Theodore Lomax, a nineteen-year-old Union solider in the American Civil War, and as committed as any to the ideal of human freedom. After being assigned to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman, shortly after the general’s infamous March to the Sea, he willingly participates in the destruction of civilian property in Columbia, South Carolina, believing his acts are justified by Southern resistance to the Northern cause of emancipation. But when the destruction escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, he becomes disillusioned, and feels compelled to strike out in opposition to his own countrymen.

The novel is told from Lomax's point of view, but there are ten other supporting characters, each with a story of his or her own. "Tommy" is one of these stories, centering on the character of ten-year-old Tommy Pepper, and describing his adventures when playing hooky from school on the day that the Federal Army arrives in Columbia.

There was a time when I thought these stories should alternate with the chapters in Columbia, presenting a richer but perhaps more tangled tapestry of the lives that painfully converge in the novel's climactic scenes. But Columbia is clearly a more coherent narrative without them. Still, they were valuable to me as an author, and I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as a reader.

Tommy by Eric Lanke - $3

Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the story that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The story is about 14,500 words and the document is 47 pages long. Given its theme and historical setting, the work reflects the racism of the time, and includes episodes of violence and strong language.

Want a sample? Here's are the first thousand or so words.

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Playing hooky from school was getting so easy, Tommy Pepper thought that morning as he and his best friend Jackie Watson ran down the gully between the schoolhouse and the railroad tracks. It hardly seemed like they spent any time there at all anymore. There was a time when he would have caught hell for being marked absent from school—caught hell from his Pa—but his Pa had been off in the war for three years now, and his Ma was not able to control him. Never had been. She would read the notes they sent home—not the ones they gave him to deliver; no, not those. Those he would simply tear up and burn in the wood stove. But the ones they mailed or delivered in person, those she would read and then she would sigh heavily, and say, “Tommy, what am I do to with you? You simply must go to school. You must!” And Tommy would dutifully say, “Yes, Ma,” and that would be the end of it until the next note arrived and the cycle was repeated. If his Ma thought that was going to be enough to keep him in school while half the other kids were spending their days running around the city and getting into mischief, she had another thing coming. The war had brought all kinds of interesting things to Columbia for enterprising boys like Tommy and his friends to see and get tangled up with, things much more interesting than the dusty slates and rote memorization that pervaded the schoolhouse. It was downright stupid to think they would not take advantage of these opportunities when they presented themselves.

And this morning had been no exception. Tommy and his friends had been on hand to witness all sorts of events and spectacles that had come to the streets of Columbia. Early in the war there had been numerous regiments mustered in the town square, thousands of men from all over the county converging on the city to be counted, sorted, and put into orderly rows, while gray-uniformed officers walked among them, issuing orders and seeing to the dispersal of sacks and blankets. Tommy’s own father and older brother had been part of one of these musterings and they, like so many of their countrymen, had brought their own rifles and ammunition to help build the necessary firepower against the aggressors from the North. These events were more like holidays than anything else, with businesses closing, politicians making speeches, and whole families turning out to wish the young men well, cry, and cheer them as they marched in motley ranks out of the city. No one really expected Tommy and his friends to be in school on these festival-like days, but after the men had been made soldiers and the soldiers had gone to war, much of the heady fever that had gripped the city went with them, and the expectation that boys should be in school returned, like so many others associated with daily life.

But once given the taste of adventure, Tommy and his friends found its lure difficult to resist. They kept their ears to the ground as much as possible, thirsty for any rumor which would give them reason to skip school. A regiment from further south marching through town on its way to the front. A general or government official staying over in one of the downtown hotels. They would gladly wait for hours on a street corner if it meant getting out of school for the day, even if the rumored regiment failed to appear or the sequestered dignitary never left his hotel room. As time passed and they got more and more comfortable with the idea of thwarting the wishes of the elders and more and more adept at getting away with it, their reasons for cutting class got flimsier and flimsier, and eventually they dispensed with the need for a reason altogether. The simple glory of being free and available for the next unknown adventure, they eventually understood, was all the inducement they would ever need.

In this spirit they had gotten themselves into a fair amount of trouble, most of it never reported to their schoolteachers or their parents. There were so many children like them, so many who should have been in school and weren’t, that most of the adults who ran afoul of their wanderings simply gave them a cursory chase. If they scattered as they all invariably did, the adult usually considered that a victory and went back to their business. There weren’t enough truant officers left in the city to effectively deal with the situation anyway, so as long as the children kept out their sight, each individual merchant, laborer, or newspaperman considered the situation someone else’s problem.

But compared to all the adventures they previously had, all the interesting things they had seen and games they had played, this morning had promised to be something special. The granddaddy of all rumors had been circulating in the streets of Columbia for a month now, that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had marched his army of 60,000 combat veterans through the heartland of Georgia—burning Atlanta, capturing Savannah, and destroying everything of value in between—had turned his column north into South Carolina, and was bearing down inexorably on their fair capitol city. It had started as speculative whispers in the barber shops and sitting rooms, and had grown steadily in proponents and general acceptance until it had reached a near fever pitch, an absolute certainty that had some people hiding their valuables and others leaving the city. And yesterday came news that men in blue uniforms—the Enemy—had been spotted on the roads south of town, and would almost certainly be within Columbia the next day or the day following.

Tommy clearly remembered the conversation he had had with his friends about it the previous day.

“The bluebellies are coming for sure,” he had told them, reporting the news as he understood it. “Mister Jacobson saw them coming back from Gaston last night. They chased him and shot at him. If he hadn’t had his best team pulling the wagon, he wouldn’t have escaped with his life!”

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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, April 14, 2014

On the Right Track

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So we had a great time at the WSAE meeting last week with Humanize authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant. In addition to the session they conducted for everyone, Notter and Grant also facilitated a private discussion with the association CEOs in attendance, which focused on the unique role that the staff executive has in changing and shaping the culture of any organization.

When it was my turn to summarize my thoughts on the subject, I said aloud what I had written in last week's post. That I was coming to see successful associations as those in which leadership and decision-making is not concentrated at the top, but diffused productively across many levels of the organization. And that given the ever-increasing need in our environment for nimbleness, innovation and new value creation, I believe this is one of the central challenges my organization is facing.

I'm not sure everyone in the room agreed with me, but no one challenged me, either. I didn't get the robust discussion I was hoping for, but the experience did get me thinking about the kinds of things I have been doing in my own organization to better diffuse leadership and decision-making across our hierarchical levels.

One thing I recently did, which some may think counter-intuitive, was to actually add some hierarchy to the organization. We are currently an organization of just over 11 FTEs, and until a few months ago we were an entirely flat organization. In other words, I am the CEO and I had nine direct reports. Not only did that keep me from focusing on some things that truly needed my attention, it brought every problem that needed solving to my desk, and kept the organization (and the people in it) from growing in some important dimensions.

So I created some departments and put one of my senior staff people in charge of each. They each have a staff team reporting to them, and the leaders report to me, forming with me what I have come to call my Executive Team. In that context, we work to stay aligned on the high-level strategy of our organization, and then I step out of the way and let them lead and manage the execution in each of their areas.

At least that's how it's supposed to work. When it does, it works really well and has visibly and meaningfully changed where certain decisions in the organization get made.

But, as I'm sure Notter and Grant would understand, things don't always work according to that plan in our very human organization. When those hurdles appear--miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misplaced trust the most common among them--I find myself working diligently to clear them, and am only sometimes successful in doing so.

But I find these struggles less an indictment against the decision I have made and more an expected part of the human unfolding of change within any organization. And I choose to believe that if things are continuing to trend towards diffusion of leadership and decision-making, then the track, regardless of any natural bumps we may feel along the way, is the undoubtedly the right one.

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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, April 7, 2014

Takeaways from Humainze

WSAE is hosting an education session in Green Bay this Monday and Tuesday, and our speakers are the co-authors of Humanize, Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant. In preparing for the session, I decided to go back and review the blog posts I wrote that summarized some of my major takeaways from the book. They include:

Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
Inspired by a take-down of strategic planning in Humanize, 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.

Pockets of Chaos
Arguing that human-centric organizations are decentralized, Humanize presents the concept of “pockets of chaos,” where a leader figures out how to give the maximum freedom to specific pockets within his organization, while still being able to maintain the integrity of the enterprise. It resonates strongly with me, not just as a counter to the many false arguments one hears against decentralization, but providing a constructive framework for bringing more experimentation into an organization.

Leadership Is a System Capacity
This is another essential concept behind decentralization—that leadership is not some personal characteristic or quality that exists in certain people, but it is better defined as the system’s capacity to shape its own future. Applying this concept to an association board of directors, I recognize anew that one of the most important functions of such a body is to ensure that the association has the capacity to serve its own interests for generations to come.

Every Organization Needs Two Values Statements
Humanize talks about being trustworthy, and there are several pages in there about the importance of having a values statement—a clear and transparent declaration of what actions, beliefs and assumptions your organization values. It was the inspiration that finally got me over my own hostility towards values statements (most of which are fake and wind-up undermining the very goals they were intended to achieve) and attempt to create a decidedly aspirational values statement for my own organization.

It’s safe to say that Humanize has had a positive effect on my thinking and on my leadership. Across all four of the blog posts I wrote, a central theme seems to dominate. It is the idea of an association in which leadership and decision-making is not concentrated at the top, but diffused productively across its many levels. Given the ever-increasing need in my environment for nimbleness, innovation and new value creation, I believe this is one of the central challenges my organization faces. And Humanize, if not a guidebook for charting those waters, certainly contains enough inspiration for me to begin tackling some of the tougher issues on my own.

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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, April 5, 2014

Gettysburg by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

I don’t understand why this book is called Gettysburg. It’s not about the Battle of Gettysburg. In this alternate history, in which Lee takes Longstreet’s advice to move around the Union’s left flank on July 2, 1863, and entrench somewhere between Gettysburg and Washington, the climactic battle that ensues takes place along a tiny tributary called Pipe Creek.

I guess the publisher figured a book called Pipe Creek wasn’t likely to sell as many copies as one called Gettysburg.

I also don’t like the melodramatic flourishes the authors include in their battle narratives.

Such as...

On the ground, in front of the gun he had just fired, was a rebel flag, a red Saint Andrew’s cross, torn to shreds, staff gone, a twitching body next to it, the flag bearer, the bottom half of his body nothing but a ghastly tangle of charred flesh that was still smoking from the blast.

One of Wiedrich’s gunners scrambled over the lunette and started to pick up the flag. The Reb feebly reached out, trying to hang onto the colors. The gunner stopped, knelt down by his side, and relinquished the flag, gently putting the colors back into the hands of the dying boy. The gunner cupped his hands around the Confederate’s, leaned over, whispering something. The eyes of the dying boy shifted, looking up at the gunner. He started to say something, lips moving. Henry heard to words drifting as the two spoke together.

“‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures...’”

The boy shook convulsively and then was still.

The gunner closed the Reb’s eyes and then gently pried the bloody fingers loose.

He picked up the flag. There was no triumphal waving of it. The men of the battery stood silent, staring at him. The gunner came back over the lunette, tears streaming down his blackened face.


Quinn knelt up again. “Those of you around me!” he shouted. “I’m making a run for the woods straight ahead. Any of you with some guts, come with me. The rest of you, well, you can go to hell!”

Making the sign of the cross, he took a deep breath, stood up, and started forward at a run. From the corner of his eye, he saw a dozen or more men stand up, going forward with him.

And, perhaps most unbelievable of all…

Along the far slope, twelve hundred yards away, men were up and out of the trench. A teenage boy from North Carolina, one of the “pets” of the company, disemboweled by a fragment, was surrounded by weeping comrades as he penned a farewell note to his mother with trembling hand, then accepted the draught of morphine from a doctor who knew the amount he was giving to him was not murder, but a merciful blessing.

It’s almost as if the authors were describing Norman Rockwell paintings.

What am I supposed to think when presented with characters who do these things? Is my heart supposed to swell with patriotism and pride? Am I supposed to marvel at how sublimely horrible war can be? Or am I meant to rage against the injustice that would bring such fanciful situations about?

I’m not sure. But apparently, I’m not the only one who is meant to be affected by these scenes of heroic fatalism. Here is some internal dialogue given to the novel’s fictionalized version of the Robert E. Lee, just after he learns of the death of Union General John Reynolds.

John, I’m sorry. This war never should have divided us. Duty, you and I lived for duty. We learned that at the Point, taught it to our cadets in turn. We were trained for this, believed it to be our sacred trust. A soldier must not ask why once he has drawn his sword for his nation. He takes his orders and carries them out unflinchingly; thus it was with the Roman Republic, with the Crusaders, with my own father who rode with Washington.

The Roman Republic, the Crusades, the American Revolutionary War. An interesting triptych. Makes me wonder how many fewer would have died if there had been few less unquestioning soldiers in each. But I digress. Back to Lee. I now responsible for all this death? For John, for the bodies that are swelling in the fields around me?

He slowed, suppressing a gag as they edged around a dead horse that had been nearly cut in half by a bursting shell, the broken body of a man twisted up in the offal.

“Lieutenant Jenson, find some men, get that poor man out of that mess, and have then drag the horse off the road. I don’t want troops seeing that.”

Of course not. A man twisted up in the burst internal organs of a dying horse. That’s not something Rockwell would have painted.

If I start thinking of this now, dwelling on all that this means, it will slow me, make me hesitate. One gets lost in it, the sight of a column of men, buoyant, filled with youthful zeal, marching along the road on a spring morning, their voices rising with the wind, a vast ocean sweeping toward victory, or the lines going forward, the first shock of battle joined, the air splitting with thunder...those are the moments we give ourselves over to the dark god.

Yes, that’s better. That will stir the blood and send it coursing through a patriot’s veins. But what’s this last bit about a dark god? Does Lee understand how faulty that vision can be? How much it lies to us?

The duality of man is so apparent then, men like myself who kneel in prayer to the Prince of Peace, who then rise up and go forth, open-eyed, into the red field, filled with mad passion for war and glorying in the moment. It is now, though, that we see the truth in what we do in this darkness before dawn.


And he visibly shook himself, as if trying to cast off a weight upon his shoulders.

Not now. Long after this day is over I can dwell on my sins. I must stay the course with all my strength; to do otherwise is a betrayal of all who have already lost their lives, leading us to this moment.

He does, he does understand--both in life and in the fiction that the authors have created. But it is such a twisted logic. We must allow more to be killed so we don’t have to face the souls of those who have already died.

It is the Norman Rockwell picture of war that enables this kind of interpretation, the sense that war--as awful as it is--swells the heart and allows for the finest example of valor and courage. Whether it is subtly placed in the mind of a commander or less artfully forced into the flow of a narrative, the shocking embrace of the perceived holy amidst a totality of mindless carnage damages both our history and the fictions on which it is based.

And it kept me from enjoying what might otherwise have been a delightful read.

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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