Monday, April 27, 2015

A Strategy Agenda Is Not a Strategic Plan

I introduced a new term in my association last year. Our Strategy Agenda. What is it? Well, as the title of this blog post suggests, it is not another pseudonym for our strategic plan. It is something distinct.

Unlike too many strategic plans in the association world, our Strategy Agenda doesn't deal at all with what we intend to do. It deals only with what we intend to achieve, and how we will know when we achieved it. And it is owned solely by our Board of Directors.

At least that's the theory. I introduced it last year to help everyone--Board and staff members alike--make the distinction between the job of the Board and the job of the staff. In fact, in addition to Strategy Agenda, I also launched the use of another new term--the Operational Plan--to reinforce this important separation.

Now, in our discussions, there is no Strategic Plan. There's the Strategy Agenda, determined by the Board and focused on what we want to achieve, and there's the Operational Plan, determined by the staff and focused on how we will achieve it.

As with most things in our world, there's more nuance than that, but that's the bare essence. If we want the Board and staff to understand their distinct roles, why not give them a vocabulary that supports that distinction?

We're still getting used to the new terminology, but in discussing and explaining the definitions, it has more that once prompted a helpful conversation about who does what and why.

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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, April 20, 2015

There is No Them

We are all marketers.

We are all in membership.

We are all meeting planners and facilitators.

These are the skill sets that we all must possess if we are going to achieve the things we need to achieve.

Turfing things to the marketing, membership, or meeting planning department is abdicating our primary responsibilities.

We know who are members are, we know the value of the products we offer them, we know what we want to achieve from each meeting.

We do.

There is no them.

[Inspired by this.]

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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, April 18, 2015

When Millennials Take Over by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant

Jamie and Maddie are friends of mine, so please take what I say with whatever grain of salt you think is necessary, but I really enjoyed this, their second collaborative book, especially one important feature of the way they approached their subject matter.

In each of the chapters on the four capacities, we close with a section on how to build that capacity inside your organization. To be clear, we are not presenting the case studies in order to demonstrate “best practices.” (If you read Humanize, you know that we literally think best practices are evil.) Your challenge is not to do exactly what these companies are doing. Your challenge is to learn from them, to use their experiences to spark a new approach to succeeding in your own context.

It’s like they’ve written the book especially for me--the CEO of a small-staff, non-profit trade association, who is extremely receptive to their book’s core message, but completely turned off by the traditional “do what Google, Apple and Southwest Airlines do” approach espoused by a lot of the business press.

Jamie and Maddie certainly talk about those companies, and cite them (and others) as examples, but they know enough to help the reader understand that the goal isn’t to copy companies like that, but to understand the underlying principles that guide companies like that, and to find ways to uniquely apply those guiding principles to your own organization.

And what are those guiding principles? Those four capacities referenced in the quote above? Well, they are the things that Millennials look for in the workplace. Indeed, as the provocative book title suggests, they are not just the things Millennials look for, they are the way Millennials will shape and run things when they are in charge.

Jamie and Maddie brand these four capacities with the following terms: Digital, Clear, Fluid and Fast. If you want detailed definitions of what each means, I would suggest you go read the book yourself. My focus here will be on the things that hit home for me, and in that regard, becoming more Digital is the one that seems most compelling.

So what is Digital? To paraphrase Jamie and Maddie, despite its name, it is less about the use of technology and more about adopting a particular mindset. Organizations that embrace the digital mindset:

1. Put the customer or user first when it comes to decision making.
2. Provide customized attention to a much larger percentage of customers.
3. Commit to innovation and continuous improvement.

Technology certainly helps an organization accomplish these tasks. Indeed the primary example that Jamie and Maddie offer to demonstrate the digital mindset is Amazon, whose use of technology to understand and provide innovative services to its customers is well understood by almost everyone. It is the way Millennials are used to being treated online, and the example they will follow when moving into the business world.

In my own world, I like to think my organization already has a digital mindset, but it's still clearly using analog tools. Social media and sophisticated web analytics don’t tell us what we need to know about the world of our members--conversations with them at our conferences and at regular member visits do. Customized attention happens--but usually only when we answer their phone calls and connect them to the services they need. And although it's not fully “digital,” the approach seems to be working for us. Membership and membership engagement are both increasing.

But something in the following anecdote about the generations and their use of technology gives me pause about the need to start embracing the digital tools that usually accompany a digital mindset.

Let’s say an older supervisor is heading to a meeting with a vendor about 15 minutes from now, and she realizes she needs some information from one of her Millennial direct reports, so she shoots off a quick email asking for the information. A few minutes later, when she hasn’t received a response, she follows up with a phone call that starts with one of the most annoying sentences in the business world today: “Hey, did you get my email?”

For the Millennial employee (who hadn’t yet seen the email), it is actually confusing that his supervisor would use email when she needed an immediate response. Why wouldn’t she just use the instant messaging client? An instant message will pop up on the employee’s screen (both his computer and his phone), so he will see it right away. Given the volume of email that he receives, he can’t have every email notification on the screen, so the only way he would see the email right away is if he was checking his email every two minutes, which is incredibly inefficient.

The thought that email and instant messages are two different tools to be used for two different purposes was just as lost on me as it was for the fictional supervisor in this anecdote. But Jamie and Maddie are right…

Millennials entering the workforce have already spent years using a variety of digital tools to communicate with friends and coworkers. As much as this draws criticism from older generations who fear that either their writing skills or their people skills have declined as a result, their digital skill base actually brings with it a more sophisticated understanding about which tools work for which purposes.

Touche. What else can I learn about being digital from my Millennial colleagues, and how can I start using those same skills to understand my customers and create better products for them?

Another thing I like about Jamie and Maddie’s work is that it is very well researched and footnoted. They do their homework, reading and incorporating into their thinking and analysis many of other thinkers and theories I don’t ordinarily have time to explore on my own. So reading Notter and Grant is, among other things, like being given a syllabus of other works you should short-list if you want to understand something in greater depth.

In this category, the following paragraph really caught my eye:

In 1960, MIT Business School professor Douglas McGregor published his management classic, The Human Side of Enterprise, which made the famous distinction between what he termed the “Theory X” and “Theory Y” approaches to management, with the X cohort of managers believing workers are fundamentally lazy and need to be coerced to produce, and the Y cohort believing employees are self-motivated and need to be supported to let their full potential be realized.

Reminds me a lot of something I stumbled across some years ago in The Leader’s Handbook by Peter Scholtes. The advice there was always to set personnel policies based on the premise that your employees are trustworthy, not untrustworthy, which that author defined as:

The Trustworthy Employee… a responsible adult.
...wants to contribute and do good work.
...cares about the company and wants it to succeed.
...comes to work every day.
...can be trusted.

The Untrustworthy Employee...
...given an inch, takes a mile.
...does just what’s required.
...feels that it’s just another job.
...doesn’t really give a damn. today—tomorrow?
...can’t be trusted.

And the situational example given comes from the Falk Corporation, which the author says revised its personnel policies based on a switch from the untrustworthy to the trustworthy premise. In the case of bereavement leave, this meant going from a page-long description of all the situations in which the untrustworthy employee could and could not take leave to the following single sentence: “If you require time off due to the death of a friend or family member, make arrangements with your supervisor.” The result? A 53% decrease in the number of bereavement days taken.

Seems like more people than just Jamie and Maddie are referencing that management classic.

But here’s the paragraph from When Millennials Take Over that sparked my biggest takeaway.

More and more organizations are abandoning what have traditionally been deemed “best practices” in the HR world. Menlo Innovations (featured in Chapter 4) specifically hires for what it calls “kindergarten skills,” knowing it can train for technical skills later. Buffer, another technology company, also eliminated the technical interview in its hiring process, focusing only on culture. Both companies then hire people on a short-term basis at first so they can actually see candidates’ technical work in the real world.

I’ve been moving in a similar direction myself, increasing my emphasis on the soft skills and the cultural fit in my hiring practices. But giving those qualities pre-eminence over technical aptitude is the change that I’m moving forward with, and one that I think most small-staff associations should consider.

When hiring decisions are made primarily on technical aptitude--on who has the technical competency to fulfill the duties defined for the vacant position--your biggest risk is paying a premium for a person with the right talent but who may not match the culture of your organization. When hiring decisions are made primarily on “kindergarten skills”--on who has the ability to play nice with others and who is eager and interested in growing and developing--your biggest risk is having an inexperienced person make mistakes. Given the choice between the two, I am from this day forward going with the latter.

Another section on what it takes to create an intentional culture really hit home for me--and not necessarily in a good way.

If you are the CEO, then it quite literally means making culture your job. It is probably already somewhere in your job description, but most CEOs put that in the category of “Yes I’m in charge of that because the buck stops here, but it doesn’t occupy too much of my attention.” That is a sure-fire path to an accidental culture. CEOs must actively choose their culture, or it will be chosen for them. And doing that one offsite meeting where you come up with the generic core values (honesty, integrity, excellence, etc.) so you can check the box on culture is not enough. Employees can smell a partial commitment to culture a mile away, and it won’t stick.

This is exactly what I have been trying to avoid. Read the Core Values section of my blog and you’ll see that I’ve been working (and struggling) to define and make core values stick for my organization--to define an intentional culture that is closely associated with success in our environment. We’ve had the retreat, we’ve defined the values, and I’m still trying to move them off my own “Yes I’m in charge of that…” plate. But what Jamie and Maddie say next really surprised me.

Instead, they will look past the bland values statement and scrutinize your actual statements and your actual behavior and then invent a culture based on that. We are not sure why employees routinely cede that power to shape culture to the CEO, but they do.

If anything, I think I have the opposite situation. From my perspective, the culture of my organization is the one I inherited, and the exercise to define and support a new set of core values is an attempt to adapt that culture to one more aligned with my own professional style and the correlates of future success. If that is a self-delusion, and I’m actually acting in ways that run counter to the new values, I would hope that someone would have the guts to stand up and tell me that.

Elsewhere in the book, Jamie and Maddie talk about the importance of authenticity--about how when “people are confident that their coworkers are more consistently who they appear to be, it becomes easier to speak the truth, challenge each other, and tackle the tough issues.” They don’t have to convince me. I’m already on-board the authenticity wagon. But what is new for me is the idea that there are things an organization can do to help its employees surface their authenticity. The suggestions include:

Self awareness. Personality assessments like the DISC profile or Myers-Briggs can help employees get clearer about their own preferences and styles, which is a good first step toward deeper self-awareness. If done in the context of a team or group, this can also be helpful in conflict resolution.

This one has occurred to me before, but as someone who, at previous organizations, has been subjected to the batteries of tests and bubble forms that normally accompany these assessments, my own struggle to take them seriously has prevented me from bringing them into my own organization. Pick the word that best describes you. You always, sometimes or never do this or that. Go ahead. Have everyone answer the 45 or the 100 or the 300 questions and see what the rubric reveals about everyone. Whatever the results, I guarantee that people will argue that they aren’t complete or even accurate, and they will cause more defensive posturing that what you had before you asked people to take the tests.

A better idea, I think, is:

Life goals. As diversity trainer and consultant Joe Gerstandt points out, if you want to act in ways that are consistent with your purpose and goals in life, then you need to have some clarity in that area to begin with. While the ultimate responsibility for this work lies with the employee, the organization can facilitate the work through the annual performance-review process. Fitness Australia (the professional association for the fitness industry in Australia) has its employees complete “personal success plans” as part of the review process, which are solely and explicitly about the employees achieving their own destiny. They are not evaluated on the work, but employees share them on the intranet so they can support each other in achieving them.

This is is much more to my taste. I’ve always been more about the journey than the destination, and there are already some personal development goals that I have (becoming a better writer and a better public speaker come immediately to mind) where my job is giving me the opportunity to exercise the necessary muscles in the service of the organization I work for. The organization benefits not just from my improved performance, but also by connecting more of my authentic self to its goals and objectives. I wonder what, if given the same opportunity, the other members of my staff would identify as the things that represent their own personal developmental goals, and how they would see connecting them to the work of our organization. Might be worth talking about.

And finally there is:

Community. Authenticity has a yin-yang relationship with a strong community. The best communities are ones that allow people to be themselves fully, and authentic individuals typically create the strongest and most vibrant communities. Be intentional about what kind of community you have among your staff and strengthen it by facilitating connections and relationships and supporting community rituals and artifacts.

I’ve already been trying to do more of this work around the office, so this is a timely reminder for how important this kind of thing is. Coming to work day-in and day-out without marking either the passage of time-based or accomplishment-based milestones is a big mistake. To knit together as a community of authentic individuals, we have to not just celebrate our success and our time together, we have to do it in a way that is meaningful to us as individuals. Corporate-style lunches and recognition ceremonies can provide some of that context, but generally not enough to engage people and their authentic selves.

These are the practical lessons I took out of this helpful book. There is, however, one area that I would quibble with. It has nothing to do with the book’s analysis of the Millennial generation and its transformative impact on the modern workplace. It has to do with a small issue of scale.

As Jamie has been doing for a long time, When Millennials Take Over relies heavily on the pioneering work of William Strauss and Neil Howe both to define and to provide a conceptual frame for the scholarly subject of generations. In their analysis, not only do Strauss and Howe see changes from one generation to the next throughout our history, they…

identify a deeper, cyclical pattern that more closely resembles the repetitive turning of the four seasons than a straight timeline from past to future. Each “season” in this cycle is represented by a single generation, which turns every 20 years or so, and every four “seasons” the cycle completes, marked by a major societal transition.

Strauss and Howe make a big deal out of these major societal transitions--calling them “turnings”--and so do Jamie and Maddie.

When you look at the pattern, it’s almost frightening in its accuracy. Once every four generations (roughly 80 to 100 years), there has been a major war that marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. The first transition was during the Revolutionary War in the 1770s, obviously a big shift as the Colonial era gave way to our first era as an independent nation. Flash forward 80 or 90 years from that point and you end up in the American Civil War, and the four generations later, like clockwork, there is another transition: the Great Depression and World War II, which represents the transition between the pre-modern and modern eras in the United States.

And, of course, if it was the GI Generation that came of age during this latest “turning”--the third by Strauss and Howe’s count--and if we have had three generations since then--the Silents, the Baby Boomers, and the Xers--then it is clearly our newest generation--the Millennials--who are poised to come of age and take us into our fourth turning.

That may all be true. But if the first turning was forged in the Revolutionary War, the second in the American Civil War, and the third in the Great Depression and World War II, then I’m not sure that finding a new way to lead and manage organizations scales to the same levels of major societal transition.

If I’m wrong, and there is a revolution coming, then for all our sakes, I hope it will be a peaceful 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 13, 2015

Listen to the Outsider

Last week I had the experience of being the outsider.

I won't go into too many details. It was a kind of strategy session. A group of us were brainstorming and trying to come up with a some creative solutions to some perplexing problems. And I was the unique one in the room. The one with the different background. The one not fully understanding the environment he was in. And the one at least conceptually capable of bringing a different perspective.

Now let's be honest. Most of the time, when I find myself in a situation like this, I don't say anything. My unfamiliarity with the people, or the environment, or the material being discussed, convinces me that it would be better to keep my mouth shut. To be the interested observer. Let them think I'm listening intently, and willing to participate if anyone would think to call on me. But no one will. They never do. I'm not one of them, after all. I don't know nearly as much about the subject they're discussing as they do. What could I possibly add that they haven't already thought of?

But this time was different. For whatever reason, I decided to engage. Maybe it was the late hour. Or the irascibility that seems to increase in direct proportion to my age. Whatever the cause, I started throwing my ideas into the ring. Not willy nilly, but thoughtfully. At least trying to connect my ideas to the landscape I saw emerging around me.

And although my first several attempts were unsuccessful--met with polite rejection by the other thought leaders in the room--I fairly quickly hit on something that made several people in the room sit back and ponder.

"You know," one of them said slowly. "That might work. That might really work."

It gave me a good feeling. Like I was the star pupil solving a puzzle that had eluded the rest of the class. But even as a kind of Pavlovian dopamine reward flooded my brain, I realized there was a more important lesson to be learned here. A practical, real-world lesson about letting outsiders come to the inside of your organization and turning them loose on some of your thorniest problems.

You don't have to act on anything they propose. Case in point, I don't know if the group I was with last week will really decide to do anything with the idea I gave them. But, if you let them, outsiders will at least give you some new perspective and some new ways of approaching your challenges. Ways that you cannot see because you are too close to your own problems.

In some cases, just listening to these outsiders may be the only thing you need to break out of the box your organized ways of thinking and acting have put you in.

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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, April 6, 2015

Infographics Have Jumped the Shark

Okay. Time for a rant. I hate infographics. Always have. Most do exactly the opposite of what they intend to do. Instead of making the complicated simple, they make the simple complicated.

Case in point, this infographic from Top Management Degrees on Managing Introverts and Extroverts.

Let's take a look at some of the piercing insights that the colorful cartoons on this infographic provide me, a supervisor struggling to manage a group of complex and idiosyncratic humans.

First, I'm told that most of my employees actually fall into two main categories.

Extroverts, who make up 50-70% of the population, and Introverts, who make up 30-50% of the population.

Okay. But then I'm told that there's actually no such thing as either an Extrovert or an Introvert.

Such a person, should one exist, wouldn't be working for me. Instead, they would evidently be in an insane asylum.

No matter. Let's charge forward with a bunch of colorful pictures that will help me remember what skills my Extroverts and Introverts can bring to the table.

See those two green triangles? That's the picture that will help me remember that Introverts have self-regulation. And that swirly sun pattern inside the green talk balloon? Just glancing at that thing and I immediately understand that Extroverts can talk more abstractly.

But now that I understand them, how will I recognize an Extrovert or an Introvert when I see one?

Bingo! Extroverts like pretty dresses and Introverts like plain dresses. That will be easy to remember!

I could go on, but I won't. Just suffice it to say that when this infographic has anything of actual value to communicate (like some practical dos and don'ts for managing Extroverts and Introverts, or the complicated and self-defeating communications that occur when Extroverts and Introverts try to work together without recognizing their inherent differences) it does it the way almost all infographics wind up communicating them.

With lots or words and very few pictures.

Good thing they put that into graphical form, huh?

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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, April 4, 2015

Twin Sombreros by Zane Grey

This the first Zane Grey I have read. I picked it up on a whim at my library’s annual used book sale, and it’s safe to say I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out it is a sequel to a more famous Grey novel, Knights of the Range, where the hero of Twin Sombreros, Brazos Keene, has already had one adventure, something that in the end has left him heartsick and wandering away from the folks he knows and loves.

He quickly finds himself embroiled in another family’s drama--the Neeces, a father (Abe), a murdered son (Allen), and two bewitchingly beautiful twin daughters (June and Janis)--whose beloved Twin Sombreros Ranch has been stolen from them by the open range’s biggest villain: a powerful cattleman (Surface) who can bend both the law and the world of business to his will.

Swept up both by the pathos and the beauty of the daughters, Brazos makes a sudden decision.

“Allen swore he’d never rest until he’d got our--our Twin Sombreros Ranch back again,” answered Janis, with tears brimming in her eyes.

Brazos succumbed to the moment, realizing its inevitableness, and that perhaps he was swearing away his life. But the bewitching nearness of these girls, the sense of a great part he had been destined to play in their lives, magnified all his old spirit to do, his reckless disregard of self. He drew the girls closer over the counter, while he flashed a wary look around.

“Listen,” he whispered. “An’ keep this secret in yore pretty haids. … I’m gonna track down the murderers of yore brother--an’ kill them! An’ what’s more, I’m gonne run Surface oot of the ranch he stole from yore Dad an’ put you back there!”

Brazos, inspired by what he felt and much he could not understand, had exaggerated hope, daring, resolve. Once spoken aloud, the pledge seemed outrageous. But the girls gave him no reprieve, no chance to make provisions. They took him intensely, with deadly earnest, their faces paling to pearl hue and their eyes dilating. He might have been looking at just one girl, so incredibly similar were they. Neece’s daughters were new to the West, but they were part of it. They had been east long enough to share the tenderfoot’s glamorous regard for a cowboy desperado, but were Western enough not to doubt or fear it.

And there, in the span of those short paragraphs, the scope and action of the rest of the novel is set forth. Brazos will be as good as his word, but in doing so he will get twisted into knots over June and Janis, who he is never able to keep separate, although claiming (falsely) throughout that he only feels love for one of them.

In some ways, it was hard for me to read this Western morality play without reading into it aspects of Cooper’s romantic vision of the ever-expanding West and the pathfinder-like hero that can only exist on its leading edge. In the end, I have to admit that Brazos Keene is not Natty Bumpoo, but there are times that Grey seems to be flirting with the idea.

Southwest from where Brazos sat astride his saddle, gazing raptly at old familiar landmarks, yawned the gap in the range, where the Old Trail led up and over into New Mexico. It had a tremendous fascination for Brazos, not all of which came from the fact that he had ridden it and fought on it all they way from Dodge to Lincoln. Three hundred years before, the French fur traders had walked that trail, and the Spanish padres and explorers after them, and then the American fur men, down to the time of Kit Carson, and then the freighters in their covered wagons with their guards of soldiers, and the tide of gold hunters and pioneers, and lastly those other empire builders of whom Brazos counted himself one--the cowboys with their herds of longhorn cattle from Texas. It was a grand scene to Brazos, knowing as he did know so well what has taken place there down the long years. He had a melancholy feeling that he was a part of the West which had vanished. The noble wilderness appeared the same, despite the iron track he could see curving between the hills; the sun rose as always to gild those unassailable ramparts, and to shine on the rugged red walls, the black belts, the canyons of white, and the beckoning dim range. But the glory and the dream--that was to say the wildness and the romance--seemed to be passing away.

There’s The Prairie, beckoning and urging Brazos onward, but he, like Cooper’s Pathfinder, must stay and shepherd others towards not it, but through the narrow channels of morality and justice that he has been bred to perceive.

But there are things here that one won’t find in Cooper. There’s 1950s melodrama, almost as if written for the Technicolor screen. Here’s how Grey describes the climactic scene in which Keene confronts Allen Neece’s killers.

“You hombres murdered Allen Neece an’ blamed thet job on me,” went on Brazos relentlessly. “Yu murdered him because Surface wanted it done. An’ yu schemed to put me oot of the way because Surface was afraid I’d take Allen Neece’s trail. Wal, yu bet yore life I took it an’ it ends right heah. … Surface beat Abe Neece oot of Twin Sombreros Ranch. Yu men held up Neece thet night an’ robbed him of the money he had to pay Surface for his cattle. An’ yu-all sicked this girl on me ‘cause none of yu had the nerve to meet me face to face. … Wal, that’s my say. An’ after all yu’re meetin’ me face to face!”

As Brazos ended he read the desperate intent in Orcutt’s eyes and beat him to a gun. Orcutt’s heart was split even as he pulled trigger and his bullet hissed hotly by Brazos’ ear. Syvertsen, slow to realize and act, scarcely had his gun free when Brazos shot him through. The ball thudded into the wall. Syvertsen’s vitality equaled his terrible fury. He did not fall. He did not lose sight or intent. But his muscular co-ordination had been destroyed. Fire and smoke belched from his wavering gun. His frown of immense surprise, his pale lighted eyes, his incoherent ejaculations of hate were all appalling to see.

Brazos had to end them all. though the man was mortally struck, by blowing out his brains. Syvertsen swayed from his lofty stature, to fall across a table, to slide from that into another, and to crash down.

The smoke cleared away, disclosing Bess, back against the wall, her arms wide spread, with her gaze fixed terribly upon the fallen men.

Bess. The girl Orcutt and Syvertsen sicked on Brazos. Surface’s daughter. A dark and sultry beauty who, rather than shoot Brazos in the back as she had been instructed, had, naturally, fallen madly in love with his rugged charm and curly locks.

“He--killed--them?” she panted, as if dazed. “Brazos Keene!”

Suddenly she sprang out from the wall, an incarnate fury, formidable as a tigress.

“Bess,” called Brazos, who had feared her reaction to the tragedy.

“You fooled me--to kill them!”

“Don’t draw, Bess. … Don’t!” warned Brazos, shrilly.

“I’ll kill you!”

As she whipped out her gun Brazos had to be quick to save his life. He took a shot at her arm, high up. The heavy bullet spun her around like a top and sent the little gun flying. Shrieking wildly she collided with the wall, bounced out to fall beyond the two dead men, where her boots pattered on the floor.

As Brazos sheathed his gun and knelt to lift her head she ceased the cry of agony. She gazed up at Brazos, fascinated, suddenly bereft of all hate and passion.

“Brazos--you shot me,” she whispered accusingly.

“My Gawd, I did, girl! But why did you draw on me? Why did yu, Bess?”

“You made a fool of me.”

“No. I swear I didn’t. At least I didn’t intend to. Yu did all the foolin’, Bess.”

“You’ve killed me--Brazos?”

“I’m terrible scared, Bess,” replied Brazos, and he did not lie. He saw that he had hit her in the breast or shoulder, instead of in the arm. Blood was pouring out. He was afraid to open her blouse.

“It’s better so. I deserve it. … But to be killed by you, Brazos Keene--for loving you! Oh, what irony! … Oh, my wasted life! … the pity of it!”

The pity of it, indeed. And what happens after this orgy of pulp violence and schmaltz? Something else the reader won’t find in Cooper--a downright Christian ritual of penance and purification, as Brazos goes off into the wilderness for a few days to purge the spirit of violence from his conscience.

Then he sought his bed in the darkness of the pines and stretched out on it as if he wished never to move again. The mountain air was cold and rare; the brook rushed murmuringly over the stones; the wind moaned through the pine tops; and the old familiar lonely wail of coyotes came thrillingly at long intervals.

He had it out then with the dark forces that had actuated him. This time Brazos did not have a drunken spree to bring oblivion and to dull memory. That ruthless side of him was only a part of his nature. Like a demon in the night it passed out, leaving him free to sleep.

Christian, of course, because the curative aspects of this sojourn are only temporary, and rather than be truly redeemed, Brazos is only forgiven and fated to fall again.

And then there is the comedy, almost Shakespearean in its bawdiness and exploitation of mistaken identities. Because, of course, Brazos Keene falls in love with both June and Janis Neece, and both fall in love with him, twin girls impossible to tell apart and with a habit of pretending to be each other at embarrassing and comedic times.

June and Janis Neece! They were twin sisters, nineteen years old. It had been the ambition of a proud and loving father to send them east to give them an education. They had come back unspoiled, still Western, beautiful as the dreams of cowboys beside lonely prairie campfires. They were amber-eyed, and no cowboy could look into those eyes and tell the twins apart, or ever have any peace of mind again. They were perfectly, absolutely, damnably alike. Their shapely forms, their pearly skin, their brown hair, their voices, looks, smiles, mannerisms, all were enhanced irresistibly by this marvelous likeness. They had an infernal habit, or coquetry, or some instinct of self-preservation, to dress precisely the same.

In the last third of the novel, Grey stretches the possibilities for all their worth, including several scenes in which the reader himself does not know which twin Brazos is interacting with at which times. The ending, inevitably, is a happy one, even if Grey can’t resist keeping the mystery alive to the very closing line. Brazos, alone with one of the twins he intends to marry, is looking for a tell-tale birthmark on her thigh while a crowd of well-wishers wait outside.

“Brazos, we’re heah, all ready to make yu the happiest cowboy in Texas,” called Wess, his voice ringing.

“Can we come in?” Doan’s booming voice attested to the joy he felt. “Parson, papers, witnesses, an’ all.”

“Just a minnit more, Tom,” Drawled Brazos. “The lady has consented to become Mrs. Keene. But, doggone it! she hasn’t proved yet which one of the Twin Sombreros twins she really is!”

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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