Saturday, November 29, 2014

Budding Prospects by T. C. Boyle

Why do I like reading Boyle? One big reason is chapters that start like this…

Grim, silent, dehydrated and disappointed, hemmed in by eight bags of clean laundry, miscellaneous groceries and three coolers of ice, we passed under the great arching portals of the Golden Gate Bridge, skirted Sausalito and plunged into the blistering hellish heat of Route 101 North. We had six dollars left--for gas--the ravaged exhaust system screamed like a kamikaze coming in for the kill, and a cordon of semis--STAY BACK; DON’T TREAD ON ME; PETROCHEM LTD.--spewed diesel fumes in our faces. Gesh lit a cigarette. I flicked on the radio and got fire and brimstone, static, and Roy Rogers singing “Happy Trails.” We were on our way back to bondage.

The previous day--the Fourth--we’d awakened sometime after noon to a barrage of cherry bombs and the tat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers. Startled from concupiscent dreams, I thought at first that war had broken out, made the groping but inescapable connection between the hiss of Roman candles and the birth of the Republic, and then snatched desperately for the glass of water standing on the night table. If I could just manage to reach that glass, there was a chance I might survive; if not, I was doomed. Sun tore through the curtains like an avenging sword, the sky was sick with smog and the stink of sulfur hung on the air. Straining, my fingers trembling with alcoholic dyscrasia, monkeys shrieking and war drums thumping in my head, I managed to make contact with and knock over the glass, and I lay there gasping like some sea creature carried in with the tide and left to the merciless sun and the sharp probing beaks of the gulls. My eyes failed at that point and I dozed (dreams of staggering across the Atacama Desert, ears and nostrils full of sand, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth), until I was jolted awake again by the next concussive report. There was nothing for it but to get up and drink a quart of orange juice and six cups of coffee.

His prose is a tour de force. Terse, but abundant and rich. Like sharp sausage; meat, spices, and everything packed into a small casing, biting and flavorful at the same time. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is about, it is just a delight to savor.

But this time the story is good as well. Our narrator is Felix Nasmyth, a kind of everyman chasing a kind of everyman’s get-rich-quick scheme; this one based on the growth and harvest of illegal marijuana plants. Two thousand marijuana plants, grown in secret out in the California woods, each producing half a pound of marijuana at sixteen hundred dollars per pound. One point six million split just as many ways as people are needed to make it happen.

But like all get-rich-quick schemes, this one is a lot harder than it sounds. Difficulties abound. No rain, then too much rain. Animals and pests. Confusion over male plants and female plants and which are the ones that bud. Nosy neighbors, back-country hicks, and law enforcement authorities. With each new challenge, their projected harvest goes down, and their calculated profits keep going down with it.

At one point, Felix’s conspirators threaten to quit and leave their secret camp. And as he wonders if they will be back, Felix realizes…

They needed this thing as badly as I did--if it failed, after all the hope and sweat and toil we’d invested in it, then the society itself was bankrupt, the pioneers a fraud, true grit, enterprise and daring as vestigial as adenoids or appendixes. We believed in Ragged Dick, P. T. Barnum, Diamond Jim Brady, in Andrew Carnegie, D. B. Cooper, Jackie Robinson. In the classless society, upward mobility, the law of the jungle. We’d seen all the movies, read all the books. We never doubted that we would make it, that one day we would be the fat cats in the mansion on the hill. Never. Not for a moment. After all, what else was there?

What else indeed? This short reflection, and many others like it throughout the text, is key to understanding this novel. It is an entertaining story, but it is also a commentary on the capitalist myths that permeate the American collective unconsciousness. Felix and his crew get so wrapped up in them--so seduced by their promised but ever-elusive riches--that they drive themselves to ever more ridiculous extremes, desperate to protect the snake oil dream that’s been sold to them.

Felix is only able to create some distance, to gain some perspective, when he meets and falls in love with a local sculptress named Petra. Only in telling her about their misadventures does he begin to see how pathetic they are and how impossible their quest.

What could I say? We were losers, schmucks, first-class boneheads. We weren’t paying off politicians or reconnoitering the skies--we were too busy dodging our own shadows and setting fire to storage sheds. Chastened, I dropped any pretense of coming on like the macho dope king and gave her the story straight. I described rampant paranoia, xenophobia, self-enforced isolation. I told her of sleepless nights, panic at the first sputter of an internal-combustion engine, suspicion that ate like acid at the fabric of quotidian existence. I told her how Vogelsang appeared and disappeared like a wood sprite, how Phil slept with his sneakers on, how Dowst would insist that we change the hundred-dollar bills he gave us for supplies before we bought groceries, on the theory that only dope farmers would flash a hundred-dollar bill in the checkout lane. She was laughing. So was I. It was a comedy, this tale I was telling her, slapstick. We were ridiculous, we were cranks, sots, quixotic dreamers--Ponce de Leon, Percival Lowell and Donald Duck all rolled in one. When I told her everything--the whole sad laughable tale--she’d said “Poor Felix,” and patted my hand again. Then she’d asked if I wanted more Postum.

And then, the release. The realization that the dream he had been sold--the one he had actually fought to buy--was false, fake and destructive.

Now, as I watched her at the stove, the first splash of sun ripening the window and firing the kimono with color, I felt at peace for the first time in months. Annealed by the fire, shriven by confession, I rolled the cup in my clumsy hands and felt like Saint Anthony emerging from the tomb. I’d revealed my festering secret and nothing had happened. Petra hadn’t run howling from the room or telephoned the police, the DEA hadn’t burst in and demanded my surrender, the stars were still in their firmament and the seas lapped the shores. No big thing, she’d said. She was right. For the moment at least I’d been able to put things in perspective, separate myself from the grip of events, see the absurdity of what we’d come to.

This is not just the true power of confession, but as Boyle so wonderfully puts it next, the power of good storytelling.

If the best stories--or the funniest, at any rate--derive from suffering recollected in tranquility then this was hilarious. In telling it, I’d defused it, neutralized the misery through retrospection, made light of the woe. My trip to Belize? Oh, yes, I lost eight layers of skin to sunburn while snorkeling off the barrier reef, turned yellow from jaundice, got mugged outside the courthouse and couldn’t get a grip on my bowels for a month. Ha-ha-ha.

After this encounter, the rest of the novel finds Felix wavering between the twin pole stars of his idealized consciousness--the get-rich-quick scheme of the marijuana plantation and the almost archetypal love, home and hearth that Petra represents. He desperately wants and pursues both, but we’ve all seen enough movies to know that can only lead to him having neither. Indeed, on the novel’s last page, when this sorry fate has befallen him and he has to decide which direction to move with whatever remaining vigor he can muster, he fairly well summarizes the morale of the tale Boyle has told.

I don’t know how long I sat in the car. Ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? The wind drove in off the ocean, steady as a hand, the moon lay across the hood of the car like a cheap bauble. I was thinking. Of chinless Rudy, of Jones, Vogelsang and Savoy, all the stingers and stingees of the world, all the best deals, the scams and the hustles, and I realized how precious little it all mattered. Go for it, they said, get it while you can, early to bed and early to rise. Well, I’d gone for it and now I was out of work, out of money and out of luck. I had a trial coming up and no place to live, and I felt like an emotional invalid, like a balloon without the helium. I sat there, getting cold, and I thought of Phil and Gesh back in the apartment clipping away at the shreds of their yachts and restaurants with scissors that grew duller by the moment. Money, give me money. Then I thought of Petra. No, I saw Petra. Her hands, sunk in the raw clay, kneading it like bread, molding it, pulling the hard, lasting stuff from its shifting, shapeless core. Wet, yielding, fecund: I could smell the clay, I could feel it.

Love, if not conquering all, is at least the better gamble to stake your claim on.

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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, November 24, 2014

Learning and Growth

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. And it's probably time I mentioned that 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, remember that learning and growth result from the appropriate mix of challenge and support.

Many of the volunteer groups that associations bring together represent not just mechanisms for accomplishing the work of the association, they also represent opportunities for learning and growth for the participants. In my own association, we intentionally emphasize this aspect of our committee and task force work, using the learning and growth opportunities as a specific recruiting tool.

As such, we have to think and act more intentionally about this aspect of the encounter. A certain amount of organic networking and peer education will take place during any kind of committee work, but there are ways to increase the growth potential of the activity for the participants.

As the workshop helped me realize, the conscious alignment of group and task so that participants are professionally challenged by the work put before them, but provided with the support they need to be successful, creates just the kind of learning and growth environment we're looking for.

Create an unchallenging task and you risk having your volunteers drift away or phone it in. They question why they're being asked to do something so simple or tactical. Isnt this what we have association staff for? Create a challenging task but provide no support and you risk having your volunteers give up. They'll realize they don't have the time or the resources needed to do the job and they'll simply bow out. How do they expect me to do this? Don't they realize I have a day job?

The sometimes difficult balance to strike is a challenging task with the support needed to accomplish it. We need to stretch our volunteers enough so that they engage productively with the work we need them to do, but we also need to provide them with the right amount of intelligence, tools, and logistical support so they can see clearly a path that leads to success.

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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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Monday, November 17, 2014

Breaking the Ice

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Last week I wrote 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. 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 association members, think about what “ice” needs to be broken.

I don't mean one of those silly ice breaker exercises--like going around the room and having everyone say which Wizard of Oz character they are most like and why. No, those just make people uncomfortable and perhaps makes them question the competence of the facilitator.

Rather, given the work that needs to be done, the people gathered to do it, and the time available to get it done, what initial task should be performed in order to ensure that the group can knit together as a team and focus most effectively on the task at hand.

This is something that is often overlooked. As a volunteer, I, myself, have been in situations where we have been plunged into a task by an association staff person without taking the time to make sure that everyone knew each other and understood what we were there to do. The result? A lot of time wasted as people held back, not knowing what or how much to contribute in the presence or strangers, and then, a lot of fumbling around as the group tried to solve a problem that hadn't been clearly defined for them.

It is well worth the extra time and preparation it takes to address this issue up front; to "break the ice" so that the balance of the time reserved for the interaction can be used most productively. While I was at the workshop, I thought about three possible applications in my own association.

Staff Meetings. Here everyone knows each other, so there's no real need for introductions or for social time. What is sometimes missing, however, is a clear understanding of the intended output of the meeting. Is this a general update on staff activities or a discussion focused on solving a particular problem or making a particular decision? And if the latter, who's going to make that decision? Are we looking for consensus on something, or are we feeding information and opinions into a central decision-maker who will make the final call? This is the kind of ice that needs breaking but almost never is.

Strategic Task Force Meetings. These are the task forces of our Board I wrote about a few posts ago, where Board and non-Board members come together to focus on particular elements of our strategic plan, trying to define what success looks like and how progress will be measured. The ice that needs breaking here is clearly an orientation on all the work that has come before--certainly for the new task force members that haven't been part of the the Board's regular dialogue, but for Board members, too, who have possibly spent three months away from our strategy, working with more focus on the challenges of their businesses than those of the association. This is one of the reasons why I open every Board meeting with a "strategy briefing" session, where I summarize the Board work that happened at the last Board meeting, the staff work that has happened since then, and, with the buy-in of the Strategic Task Force chairs, the issues that will be dealt with at this Board meeting.

New Roadmapping Sessions. These will represent a brand new project for our association. Working with stakeholders in and out of our association, we plan to create a research and development roadmap for the technology our association represents. Doing so will require us to knit together a diverse coalition of technical experts. When they come together for their first meeting, we're going to have to spend some time "breaking the ice" on all the knowledge and capabilities that each person is bringing to the conversation. More than just simple introductions, the team is going to need a deeper understanding of each team member's CV so they can consciously mine the brainpower that we've assembled to complete their challenging task. In fact, some of that work is going to have to be done before the first session to make sure we've invited the right people to attend.

These groups and meetings are specific to my association, but I bet you can identify some parallels to them in your organization. Next time you do, think about the ice you may need to break before bringing them together.

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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, November 15, 2014

Creatures of Circumstance by W. Somerset Maugham

A surprisingly delightful collection of short stories--although perhaps, as I read and enjoy more and more Maugham, the surprise that ushers in the delight should begin to give way to expectation. Like all the Maugham I have so far read, the subtext here is the artist, and what it takes to do what the artist does--but this time is it turned directly, almost clinically, on the creation of short stories.

This is from Maugham’s very helpful introduction to the collection, where he more or less apologizes to his critics for continuing to produce stories that reside somewhere below their expectations of art.

But if I may judge from the reviews I have read of the volumes of short stories that are frequently published where the critics to my mind err is when they dismiss stories as magazine stories because they are well constructed, dramatic and have a surprise ending. There is nothing to be condemned in a surprise ending if it is the natural end of a story. On the contrary it is an excellence. It is only bad when, as in some of O. Henry’s stories, it is dragged in without reason to give the reader a kick.

A valid observation, to my way of thinking. Anyone can write a surprise ending. Not everyone can write a surprise ending the seeds of which have been carefully laid throughout the story. But Maugham continues...

Nor is a story any the worse for being neatly built with a beginning, a middle and an end. All good story writers have done their best to achieve this. It is the fashion of today for writers, under the influence of an inadequate acquaintance with Chekhov, to write stories that begin anywhere and end inconclusively. They think it enough if they have described a mood, or given an impression or drawn a character. That is all very well, but it is not a story and I do not think it satisfies the reader. He does not like to be left wondering. He wants to have his questions answered.

Read some of what I said about T.C. Boyle’s early stories, or even that collection by John Updike I read, and you’ll see I agree entirely with Maugham. Some are entertaining. But they are not stories. But here’s where Maugham gets really insightful...

There is also today a fear of incident. The result is this spate of drab stories in which nothing happens. I think Chekhov is perhaps responsible for this too; one one occasion he wrote: “people do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.” But people do go to the North Pole and if they don’t fall off icebergs they undergo experiences as perilous; and there is no reason in the world why the writer shouldn’t write as good stories about them as about people who eat cabbage soup. But obviously it is not enough that they should go to office, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup. Chekhov certainly never thought it was. In order to make a story at all they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives and when they eat cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance. Cabbage soup thus becomes a symbol of the satisfaction of a domestic life or of the anguish of a frustrated one. It may then be as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg. But it is just as unusual. The simple fact that Chekhov believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe, namely that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.

So this is what Maugham sets out to do in this collection--make the otherwise mundane circumstances of life as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg, or symbolic of the anguish that comes with a frustrated life. The title of the collection now comes into sharper focus--Creatures of Circumstance. Each story within it follows a similar pattern--create a character, put that character in a circumstance, allow the drama of that character in that circumstance unfold to whatever consequence is significant or inevitable.

It is something he does with varying degrees of success, but most masterfully, I think, in the story called Sanatorium. In that story, the main character is a chap named Ashenden (the same name and, evidently, the same character as the narrator in Maugham’s Cakes and Ale), who is spending time in a sanatorium to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. While there, he becomes acquainted with a number of the other patients, including an accountant named Henry Chester.

He was a sticky, broad-shouldered, wiry little fellow, and the last person you would have ever thought would be attacked by t.b. It had come upon him as a sudden and unexpected blow. He was a perfectly ordinary man, somewhere between thirty and forty, married, with two children. He lived in a decent suburb. He went up to the city every morning and read the morning paper; he came down from the city every evening and read the evening paper. He had no interests except his business and his family. He liked his work; he made enough money to live on in comfort, he put by a reasonable sum every year, he played golf on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday, he went every August for a three weeks’ holiday to the same place on the East coast; his children would grow up and marry, then he would turn his business over to his son and retire with his wife to a little house in the country where he could potter about till death at a ripe old age claimed him. He asked nothing more from life than that and it was a life that thousands upon thousands of his fellow men lived with satisfaction. He was the average citizen.

Abundantly so. But, hark. What happens to this ordinary creature?

Then this thing had happened. He had caught a cold playing golf, it had gone to his chest, and he had had a cough that he couldn’t shake off. He had always been strong and healthy, and had no opinion of doctors; but at last at his wife’s persuasion he had consented to see one. It was a shock to him, a fearful shock, to learn that there was tubercle in both his lungs and that his only chance of life was to go immediately to a sanatorium, The specialist he saw then told him that he might be able to go back to work in a couple of years, but two years had passed and Dr. Lennox advised him not to think of it for at least a year more. He showed him the bacilli in his sputum and in an X-ray photograph the actively diseased patches in his lungs. He lost heart. It seemed to him a cruel and unjust trick that fate had played on him. He could have understood it if he had led a wild life, if he had drunk too much, played around with women or kept late hours. He would have deserved it then. But he had done none of these things. It was monstrously unfair. Having no resources in himself, no interest in books, he had nothing to do but think of his health. It became an obsession. He watched his symptoms anxiously. They had to deprive him of a thermometer because he took his temperature a dozen times a day. He got it into his head that the doctors were taking his case too indifferently and in order to force their attention used every method he could devise to make the thermometer register a temperature that would alarm; and when his tricks were foiled he grew sulky and querulous. But he was by nature a jovial, friendly creature and when he forgot himself he talked and laughed gaily; then on a sudden he remembered that he was a sick man and you would see in his eyes the fear of death.

These circumstances change him. They turn him into something he would not otherwise be, something that can no longer see the world as it once was. Even his loving wife, who comes to visit him regularly, fears what these circumstances have done to him.

“He’s beginning to hate me and it breaks my heart.”

“Oh, I can’t believe that,” [Ashenden said]. “Why, when you’re not here he talks of you all the time. He couldn’t talk more nicely. He’s devoted to you.”

“Yes, that’s when I’m not here. It’s when I’m here, when he sees me well and strong, that it comes over him. You see, he resents it so terribly that he’s ill and I’m well. He’s afraid he’s going to die and he hates me because I’m going to live. I have to be on my guard all the time; almost everything I say, if I speak of the children, if I speak of the future, it exasperates him, and he says bitter, wounding things. When I speak of something I’ve had to do to the house or a servant I’ve had to change it irritates him beyond endurance. He complains that I treat him as if he didn’t count any more. We used to be so united and now I feel there’s a great wall of antagonism between us. I know I shouldn’t blame him, I know it’s only his illness, he’s a dear good man really, and kindness itself, normally he’s the easiest man in the world to get on with; and now I simply dread coming here and I go with relief. He’d be terribly sorry if I had t.b. but I know in his heart of hearts it would be a relief. He could forgive me, he could forgive fate, if he thought I was going to die too. Sometimes he tortures me by talking about what I shall do when he’s dead, and when I get hysterical and cry out to him to stop, he says I needn’t grudge him a little pleasure when he’ll be dead so soon and I can go on living for years and years and have a good time. Oh, it’s so frightful to think that this love we’ve had for one another all these years should die in this sordid, miserable way.”

It is, in many ways, the basic outline of all of the stories in this collection, but here the most powerfully told. And when Maugham, in the figure of Ashenden, reflects on the painful drama that is the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Chester and the circumstances that has created it, we see as clearly as ever the bitter inspiration the storyteller must draw upon and the distance he must maintain to fully master his craft.

People often said he had a low opinion of human nature. It was because he did not always judge his fellows by the usual standards. He accepted, with a smile, a tear or a shrug of the shoulders, much that filled others with dismay. It was true that you would never have expected that good-natured, commonplace little chap to harbour such bitter and unworthy thoughts; but who has ever been able to tell to what depths man may fall or to what heights rise? The fault lay in the poverty of his ideals. Henry Chester was born and bred to lead an average life, exposed to the normal vicissitudes of existence, and when an unforeseeable accident befell him he had no means of coping with it. He was like a brick made to take its place with a million others in a huge factory, but by chance with a flaw in it so that it is inadequate to its purpose. And the brick too, if it had a mind, might cry: What have I done that I cannot fulfill my modest end, but must be taken away from all these other bricks that support me and thrown on the dust heap? It was no fault of Henry Chester’s that he was incapable of the conceptions that might have enabled him to bear his calamity with resignation. It is not everyone who can find solace in art or thought.

As I’ve commented before, this is what I enjoy most of Maugham’s work, this blending of character and story with artist and craft, the way his narrator, in interacting with the characters and events in the story, reveals equally the drama of the tale and the insights of the author.

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All of the stories in the collection contain some kind of conflict. That’s an essential part of the drama Maugham creates when he places creatures of differing circumstances into opposition with one another. Often times, the conflict is unresolvable, as the people in opposition are driven by wholly incompatible circumstances.

The most extreme example of this dynamic is in the story called The Unconquered, where Hans is a German soldier in occupied France during World War II, and Annette is a young French woman whom Hans first rapes and then, upon discovering that she is pregnant with his child, grows to love and honestly tries to woo into a loving marriage.

First, there are his circumstances, magnified by his view of himself and his nation as the conqueror…

He could think of nothing but Annette and her swollen body. She had been unbearably pathetic as she sat there at the table crying her eyes out. It was his child she bore in her womb. He began to feel drowsy and then with a start he was once more wide awake, for suddenly it came to him, it came to him with the shattering suddenness of gunfire; he was in love with her. It was such a surprise, such a shock that he couldn’t cope with it. Of course he’d thought of her a lot, but never in that way, he’d thought it would be a great joke if he made her fall in love with him, it would be a triumph if the time came when she asked for what he had taken by force; but not for a moment had it occurred to him that she was anything to him but a woman like another. She wasn’t his type. She wasn’t very pretty. There was nothing to her. Why should he have all of a sudden this funny feeling for her; it wasn’t a pleasant feeling either, it was a pain. But he knew what it was all right; it was love and it made him feel happier than he had ever felt in his life. He wanted to take her in his arms, he wanted to pet her, he wanted to kiss those tear-stained eyes of hers. He didn’t desire her, he thought, as a man desires a woman, he wanted to comfort her, he wanted her to smile at him--strange, he had never seen her smile--he wanted to see her eyes, fine eyes they were, beautiful eyes, soft with tenderness.

And then there are her circumstances, magnified by her view herself and her nation as the unconquered...

Hans’s face grew sullen. It had never occurred to him that Annette might care for anyone else.

“Where is he now?”

“Where do you suppose he is? In Germany. A prisoner and starving. While you eat the fat of our land. How many times have I got to tell you that I hate you? You ask me to forgive you. Never. You want to make reparation. You fool.” She threw her head back and there was a look of intolerable anguish on her face. “Ruined. Oh, he’ll forgive me. He’s tender. But I’m tortured by the thought that one day the suspicion may come to him that perhaps I hadn’t been forced--that perhaps I’d given myself to you for butter and cheese and silk stockings. I shouldn’t be the only one. And what would our life be with that child between us, your child, a German child? Big like you, and blond like you and blue-eyed like you. Oh, my God, why do I have to suffer this?”

In the end, the conflict created by their circumstances is unresolvable. Predictably, but horribly all the same, after receiving word that her fiancee has died in Germany and after giving birth to Hans’s child, Annette drowns the infant in the river that runs through her family farm.

Hans gave a great cry, the cry of an animal wounded to death; he covered his face with his hands and staggering like a drunken man flung himself out of the door. Annette sank into a chair and leaning her forehead on her two fists burst into passionate weeping.

And in the horror of that concluding paragraph, the reader is left to wonder if any of us is able to rise above the circumstances that seem to control our lives, or if, like Hans and Annette, we are creatures wholly beholden to them. Love, hate, happiness or sorrow--our circumstances, and not ourselves, are the very authors of our fate.

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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, November 10, 2014

Association Staff as Facilitative Leaders

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I recently participated in a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator, and to teach others to do the same. Going into the session, I saw a lot of potential application to the work my staff and I do with the various committees and task forces in our association. Coming out of the session, I saw even more.

Generally speaking, the session leader said, the job of the facilitator in any group setting is to ensure the group achieves a good outcome, not to drive them towards any pre-determined outcome. I agree, and this is also the responsibility that my staff and I assume when we work with one of our association's committees or task forces.

Each group has a set of decisions that its members have been asked to make, and it is not the job of our staff to make those decisions for them. Rather, it often falls to staff to be the facilitator in the needed discussion and decision process.

In one key sense, however, I think it's fair to think of this role not just as a facilitator, but as a facilitative leader. What's the difference? Well, in our environment, the work doesn't end when the facilitated decision has been made. That's just the first step. Action follows each decision, action that frequently the staff must lead, and which requires them to engage other volunteers, committees, or task forces in its execution.

This means that the staff person is more than just a facilitator. They are a champion and an advocate for the outcome of their facilitation. They have to communicate the decision to others and engage them in supporting the actions that naturally flow from it.

This isn't always easy. With each new person or group, there exists the potential for confusion or disagreement. Wait a minute, someone might say. I wasn't part of the original decision. I'm not sure I agree with it. If staff stays in facilitator mode, this resistance will turn into another facilitated conversation. One that has the potential of adjusting or overturning the facilitated decision that has already been made.

Instead, in these circumstances, staff must adopt the pose of leadership. They are there to represent the process and outcome that came before, and to engage the necessary stakeholders in its execution. This is a very different role for them to play. But it is essential if the association is to advance its mutually-determined objectives.

The session I attended helped me put these thoughts together. There were several other great takeaways that I'm in the process of bringing back to my staff. I'll share more in my next blog post.

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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, November 3, 2014

What Happens When Non-Board Members Attend Board Meetings?

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We did something brand new at our latest Board meeting. For a while now, our Board has been organized into three task forces--each focused on one of the three strategic priorities of the organization. These have been task forces of the Board, meaning the only Board members served on them, and they have traditionally met at each of our two-day Board meetings.

The new thing we did was to open membership in these task force to non-Board members. And not just any non-Board members. We focused on two distinct groups: (1) Members of key stakeholder groups that were under-represented on the Board; and (2) Individuals who had expressed interest and who we were beginning to groom for possible Board service in the future. All told, we added about nine people, three to each task force. And since the task forces were meeting at our Board meeting, we invited all nine of them to attend the entire meeting, increasing our overall headcount by about 50% (eighteen Board members plus the nine guests).

It was a risk. A lot could have gone wrong. We wanted them to be active participants in the task force discussions. They were members of the task forces, after all. But the task forces had been insular bodies for so long there was some concern that outsiders might come in and try to turn over apple carts that the task force had spent the last few years setting right. Or perhaps worse, they might sit there silently, listening, but not comfortable inserting themselves into the long-standing work of their colleagues. In the end, as association members being invited in for the first time, what would they think of the work the Board has been doing on their behalf?

Turns out we didn't have much to worry about. I've been calling these new task force members over the last week or so, seeking their honest feedback on what they experienced at the Board meeting. And their responses have so far validated the risk we took. I have heard them respond positively to things that we have spent a lot of time developing at our Board meetings. The fact that these newcomers picked up on them, and also found them valuable, has been extremely gratifying.

What kind of things am I talking about? Well, here's a few paraphrased comments from one of these recent phone calls:

It felt like we were there to address serious issues, and more importantly, we had the time and information we needed to address them. We weren't stacked up in endless meeting after endless meeting.

Picking the right issues for discussion at the task force meetings and at the other events during the Board meeting is one of the most challenging aspects of my job. When I hear peers complaining about how their Boards seem focused on minutiae, I always ask them what kind of things they're putting on the Board's agendas. If you want your Board talking about big picture ideas, then you must put big picture ideas on their agenda. This guest validated not only that we were talking about the right things, but that we had given the task force both the time and information they needed to discuss them adequately.

The social aspects of the meeting were very important. The other members of the Board are people I respect in the industry, and having an opportunity to socialize with them was very valuable.

We're not shy about this one at our association. When we ask you to volunteer your time and talents for the organization, we want you to get something valuable out of the interaction, too. And consistently the thing that people find valuable is the time we provide for them to network and socialize with their peers. Some are competitors. Some are current business partners. Some are potential customers. But all can provide insight and intelligence in a manner that is otherwise difficult to come by.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn how capable the staff is and how ready they are to execute. I participate on a few other Boards, and too many other organizations talk about big picture goals, but don't have the resources needed to act on them.

This was perhaps the most gratifying of all. I have worked very hard over the past few years to help our Board bring our vision into closer alignment with our resources--which has meant work both to increase our resources and to narrow our vision. The dynamic that my guest has observed in other organizations is all too common, I fear, and being honest about what can be achieved, and about what changes are necessary if more is to be achieved, is difficult but necessary work. When the guest said that seeing such great alignment makes him more willing to support our organization, because he can clearly see how strategy work at the Board table translates into action at the staff level, I felt like I had just ran--and won--a marathon.

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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, November 1, 2014

An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter

This was an enjoyable read in which the 39th president of the United States shares his memories of his boyhood growing up in rural Georgia. I had a strange reaction to it. Jimmy Carter is the first president I have conscious memories of being president—he was elected in 1976 when I was eight years old—and it took me a while to accept that he had grown up during a time of such poverty and ignorance.

Here’s an example. Carter was born in 1924, when everyone, evidently, had some kind of fungus growing on them or parasite living inside them.

Our most common ailments were the endemic ground itch, ringworm, boils and carbuncles, and sties on our eyes, plus the self-inflicted splinters, cuts, abrasions, bruises, wasp or bee stings, and what we called stumped toes. We didn’t worry much about red bugs, or chiggers, but Mama made us check for ticks after we’d spent time in the woods and swamps. She knew how to remove them with tweezers, so the aftermath of their bites was never serious. There was no insect repellent available to us except citronella, which was so ineffective that we rarely used it, despite the persistent yellow flies and the swarms of mosquitoes that emerged a few hours after a rain. We quickly developed a lifetime ability to ignore completely the tiny black gnats that were always so annoying to visitors.

Ringworm was more troublesome. The tiny, closely spaced spirals, occurring mostly around the crotch, itched terribly, and we believed they were caused by some demonic little circling creature. Later, to my surprise, I learned that no worm or bug was within these patterns, but something like a fungus. There was sometimes a competition for our scratching between them and the red bugs, which we always expected to pick up when we sat on the banks of a creek to fish.

Almost everyone was afflicted from time to time with hookworm, which we called ground itch. My playmates and I suffered the first stages of it. A study of black and white rural schoolchildren during the 1930s revealed a hookworm infection rate of between 26 and 49 percent. The difference between me and some of the others was that Mama always put medicine between my toes, which prevented the parasites from migrating over time into my lungs, then my throat, and from there into my small intestines. Untreated, the millions of tiny worms consumed a major portion of the scarce nutrients within the bodies of our poorest neighbors. More significantly, I guess, we avoided hookworm by having a fairly sanitary outdoor toilet and didn’t habitually walk in soil that included human excrement.

Yummy. And this environment was one in which not just illness was prevalent, but where the causes and courses of it were poorly understood.

We absorbed a lot of information, or superstitious beliefs, about the most prevalent illnesses. Everyone knew that for pneumonia, for example, the crisis would come on an odd-numbered day after the onset of the disease, sometimes as early as the fifth day but most likely on the seventh or ninth. At this crucial time either the patient would die or the five or six degrees of elevated temperature would break. In the white community (and I presume also among our black neighbors), special prayer services would be held in the patient’s church, and during Sunday-morning worship and regular weekday prayer meetings all the congregations would pray for recovery or (in hopeless cases) for fortitude. I remember the gathering of wagons, buggies, and automobiles in the streets or roads around the home of a desperately ill person. Friends and relatives would bring flowers, firewood, fruit, and their best-prepared dishes, and take over all responsibilities for household chores during the final days. The number of people would increase in and around the house when it was expected that the attending physician would make an announcement of either continuing life or imminent death. Our prayers were answered when he heard the words: “She has survived the crisis!”

But understood or not, when death came to these people, it was a calamity that drew them together, neighbor helping neighbor in a way little seen in our more enlightened age.

When the news was bad and the patient died, the whole town was drawn into active condolences, showing great respect and concern for the bereaved family. A group of women would be in the house around the clock, preparing food, welcoming grieving guests, cleaning up, and sparing the family as much burden as possible. Almost everyone attended the funeral service, the procession to the graveyard was always slow and stately, and for prominent citizens the mayor would direct that all the stores be closed. All other vehicles, whether local or passing through, had to stop and pull off the road as the procession passed; any people along the way who were not participating would stand facing the road, and men would remove their hats. The cemetery services were directed both by the local pastor and, depending on the secular membership of the deceased, by American Legionnaires, Masons, or Woodmen of the World. Before the casket was lowered into the grave, everyone was expected to come under the protective shade tent to embrace, or to shake hands and commiserate with the family. After these duties were performed, folks could then enjoy a kind of homecoming in the cemetery, with warm welcomes to all the out-of-town people who had come to honor the deceased.

But wait, there’s one final detail you must not fail to note.

Like everything else, the Lebanon Cemetery was segregated, with whites buried on the west side and black graves located to the east.

And this, for me, was the most interesting part of Carter’s book. You can look at the environment that shaped this future President of the United States in two ways. First, there’s the essential goodness of the people—their willingness to help each other in times of need, all equally humble and powerless against the larger forces that they perceive as the inscrutable machinations of their holy god. But second, there’s the fundamental ignorance and racism that no one seems able to transcend, baked into every aspect of their lives, commemorated for their own version of eternity in black and white plots carefully apportioned in the graveyard.

This is not an either/or proposition. It’s both. The people are good and ignorant. Loving and racist. It’s a contradiction that describes so much of American history, and it’s no surprise that it describes the boyhood of one of our most popular Presidents. After all, it almost defines what it means to be American.

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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