Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

I enjoyed many parts of this book, but it ultimately committed one of the worst sins and book can commit—it turned out not be the book I thought it was.

Let me explain.

This book has a ton of characters in it. The protagonist is obviously Charlie Croker—a wealthy Atlanta real-estate developer and former college football star, who has tried to work one sweetheart deal too many and is now in debt up to his eyeballs and about to lose everything he owns to the bank.

But who is Charlie’s antagonist? I was convinced that it was Conrad Hensley—a young man of humble means in Oakland, California, who is trying to support a wife and two children by working as an unknown cog in one of Croker’s far-flung business interests. Conrad loses this job when Charlie cavalierly decides to reduce the workforce at some of his corporations in order to raise money to pay his creditors, and Conrad’s life spirals out of control as a result. Through a set of unfortunate circumstances, he alienates his wife, has his car impounded, assaults a security guard at the impound lot, and finds himself serving time in the county jail, where he has to navigate his way past drug dealers, violent felons, and prison rapists. And in jail, through another odd circumstance, he discovers the philosophy of the ancient Stoics, and slowly begins to turn his life over to their teachings.

At this point, I’m hooked. I’m really enjoying the book. I don’t know how Conrad is going to get out of jail and find his way to Atlanta and over master Charlie Croker, the “man in full” who destroyed his life, but with several hundred pages to go, I’m sure it’s going to happen.

Except it doesn’t. Not really. Because Conrad isn’t really Charlie’s antagonist. What feels like a fairly minor character in the rest of the story is, a character named Roger “Too” White—a black lawyer attempting to make it in Atlanta’s affluent and white-dominated society, who’s a friend of the Mayor and who gets brought into a case defending a modern black college football star against rape allegations from the daughter of a white businessman and personal friend of Charlie Croker. Roger and the Mayor cook up a scheme to get Charlie—the very embodiment of Atlanta’s white business community—to speak out on behalf of the black football star, thereby defusing the ugly and very real possibility of a modern-day race riot.

Roger is Charlie’s antagonist, but it doesn’t make any sense that he is. The book would be far better if Charlie and Conrad have the climactic clash in its final pages.

And I think there are clues sprinkled throughout that this clash is destined to happen. The whole titular theme of the novel seems to be driving in that direction. For the first half of the book, Charlie is clearly that “man in full,” his manhood realized in his aptitude and shrewdness in the world of business. Here he is comparing himself to his right-hand finance guy, a much younger man nicknamed “the Wiz”:

Oh, he understood the Wiz a lot better than the Wiz thought he did. The Wiz looked upon him as an aging, uneducated, and out-of-date country boy who had somehow, nonetheless, managed to create a large and, until recently, wildly successful corporation. That the country boy, with half his brainpower, should be the lord of this corporation and that he, a Wharton MBA and financial genius, with “an excellence that cuts across disciplines,” to use a Wizism, should be his vassal was an anomaly, a perversity of Fate, that would in the long run be corrected. He had youth on his side. In the meantime, his resentment rose and fell, and he took a sharp pleasure in rubbing in the old man’s ignorance with these little lectures. Or part of him felt that way. The other part of him was in awe, in unconscious awe, of something the old boy had and he didn’t: namely, the power to charm men and the manic drive to bend their wills into saying yes to projects they didn’t want, didn’t need, and never thought about before. The common word for this was salesmanship, a term the Wiz probably looked down his nose at. Yet the Wiz was in awe of something that was at the heart of salesmanship when the game got up into the hundreds of millions of dollars and it was time to make a decision and act, make your move, even though you could run the numbers all day and they added up only to imponderables and the decision tree was so full of branches, twigs, sapsuckers, and leaves, a mere Wiz couldn’t find the paradigm no matter how hard he looked…And that thing was manhood. It was as simple as that.

And here he is bemoaning the fecklessness of his own son, Wally:

What the hell had happened to all these sons of the rich in Wally’s generation, these well-brought-up boys who went off to the private schools? These damned schools were producing a new kind of scion of the elite: a boy utterly world-weary by the age of sixteen, cynical, phlegmatic, and apathetic around adults, although perfectly respectful and maddeningly polite, a boy inept at sports, averse to hunting and fishing and riding horses or handling animals in any way, a boy embarrassed by his advantages, desperate to hide them, eager to dress in backward baseball caps and homey pants and other ghetto rages, terrified of being envied, a boy facing the world without any visible signs of the joy of living and without…balls…

For Charlie, his identity as a man is inexplicably tied to his virility, and it is this identity that makes him feel invincible when operating in the world of business. The point is made abundantly clear during the scene in the very middle of the book when Croker takes his plantation guests into his breeding barn to witness the mating of two prize horses. Croker feels at one with the stallion, struggling against the beast’s strength and blind instinct to lead him in a controlled fashion towards the mare.

He had made it. He had brought the beast in without looking like an old fool. He felt as if somehow he shared in the stud’s power.

Croker is trying to impress a potential investor with the spectacle of his horses, to show the investor his own prowess and strength vicariously through that of the stallion, and read in that light, Wolfe makes an interesting point when describing the climactic scene itself.

The stallion was no longer the magnificent thoroughbred who just moments before had reared up on his hind legs, trumpeting as if he were the reigning king of all the animal kingdom. His forelegs, those visions of the graceful racing stride when he had won the Breeders’ Cup just a few years before, now hung awkwardly, ridiculously, uselessly, like a pair of vestigial appendages, down either side of the mare’s back. His great neck and head and, above all, his eyes, now looked like those of a demented creature as he tried, over and over, to bite the mare’s neck. His teeth sunk, instead, into the leather mantle that had been placed over her neck and withers for that very reason. Otherwise, in his uncontrollable sexual fury, he would have chewed her raw. All the while, his haunches, his thighs, his buttocks, the seat of the stupendous power that had propelled him, the great First Draw, this great poem in motion, this embodiment of power and coordination, to glorious victories on the track—this magnificent engine was reduced to a single jerky, spastic, convulsive, compulsive motion; rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut. His entire musculature, rippling beneath his hot black hide in the shaft of sunlight, indeed, his very hide itself, every ounce of his one ton, his three million dollars’ worth of horseflesh, was now a hopeless, helpless slave to that single synaptic impulse: rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut—while a sexual valet, and Australian elf, with his bare hands steered the rut-mad penis into a yawning vaginal canal, and an army of human beings, mere Lilliputians, pushed and shoved, and a little red-bearded conductor waved his arms about, and the lot of them, man and beast, careened twenty, thirty, forty feet across the barn’s dirt floor with thousands of pounds of rut-lust momentum.

It seems the sexual act unmans the “man in full.”

But Charlie is an aging man, and this virility is beginning to fade, and with it his own confidence in his ability to perform. Charlie divorces his wife and marries a much younger woman as a hedge against this decline, but her youth only paints a starker contrast for Charlie of his own diminishment.

But that was the thing… At fifty-five or fifty-six you still think you’re a young man. You still think your power and energy are boundless and eternal! You still think you’re going to live forever! And in fact, you’re attached to your youth only by a thread, not a cord, not a cable, and that thread can snap at any moment, and it will snap soon in any case. And then where are you?

And there’s this telling passage, where decline in business success is actually tied in Charlie’s mind to growing old and feeble.

But of course; she was young. Life was still a long, adventuresome climb up a hill. She had no clear idea what she would see at the top, let alone of the grim slide that awaited on the other side. Foreclosure, default, repossession, bankruptcy, phantom gains—all of it extending down into the gloom of a crevice, which was old age.

Charlie is falling apart at work. He is no longer the master of every situation and the stress begins to wear on him.

It wasn’t just the insomnia. Every day in this office—events propelled him in this direction and then whiplashed him back in that direction. One minute he’s in a sweat lying to creditors, double-talking creditors, hiding from creditors, and yes, even he, Cap’m Charlie Croker, beseeching creditors, beseeching like a drowning dog—and the very next he’s got to shift gears, recircuit his whole central nervous system, put on a whole new face, become a big, happy, hearty personification of confidence, omnipotence, charm, and trust, and talk people into leasing millions of dollars’ worth of space in a tower that had no business standing up forty stories high out in Cherokee County in the first place.
And his adversaries, the bankers who want to repossess his properties, they’re still “men in full”—men in the prime of their lives, full of vigor and vitality. One, in fact, decides that the situation with Croker is his long overdue opportunity to take some risks and run with the big dogs.

He, Peepgass, had gone to the Harvard Business School, whereas Croker couldn’t have gotten into Harvard on a bet. But Croker had something that Monsieur Raymond Peepgass did not possess—or, rather, something he had never been willing to let off the leash… A certain red dog… That was the way he suddenly thought of it; as a red dog you had to be willing to let off the leash… He could see that wild red dog… It had a chain around its neck, but the chain was broken… It was a red bull terrier with its forehead in a dreadful frown and its lower incisors bared and thrust forward… Every man had that red dog inside him, but only real men dared let him loose—

And eventually Croker is a impassive lump, lying in bed after knee replacement surgery, feeling sorry for himself, incapable of making a decision.

And while all this is going on, Conrad’s world is being destroyed and he is building a new philosophical foundation for himself in the tradition of the ancient Stoics. He gets hooked in his prison cell, when he discovers Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who had been sold as a slave by his parents and started his life stripped of everything—his family, his possessions, his freedom.

Now Conrad couldn’t read fast enough. He leafed through the pages to find this man Epictetus’ own words… Book I, Chapter I: “On Things in Our Power and Things Not in Our Power” …and he came upon this passage: “To ye prisoners”—prisoners—“on the earth and in an earthly body and among earthly companions, what says Zeus? Zeus says, ‘If it were possible I would have made your body and your possessions (those trifles that you prize) free and untrammeled. But as things are—never forget this—this body is not yours, it is but a clever mixture of clay. I gave you a portion of our divinity, a spark from our own fire, the power to act and not to act, the will to get and the will to avoid. If you pay heed to this, you will not groan, you will blame no man, you will flatter none.’”

And then Epictetus said: “We must die. But must we die groaning? We must be imprisoned”—we must be imprisoned! he said!—“but must we whine as well? What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain—yes, but my will—no, not even Zeus can conquer that. You say, ‘I will imprison you.’ I say, ‘My bit of body, you mean.’ You say, ‘I will behead you.’ I say, ‘When did I ever tell you I was the only man in the world that could not be beheaded?’ It is circumstances which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that Zeus, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. ‘For what purpose?’ you may say. ‘Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat—”

This is a philosophy diametrically opposed to Croker’s mastery of others through the vigor and vitality of manliness. The concept of being imprisoned is foreign to Croker. In his world, he has always been the jailer, not the jailed. Indeed, here’s how he reacts to the struggle of the nonconformist when it is described at the opening of an art exhibition he attends:

“How fitting it is”—

Charlie looked about to see if everybody else heard what he was hearing. But even Billy’s and Doris’s heads were turned in a polite blankness toward the podium.

—“that Lapeth chose the prison as the subject matter of the art treasures we see around us tonight. As Michael Foucault has demonstrated so conclusively in our own time—the prison—the actual carcerel, in his terminology—the actual center of confinement and torture—is but the end point”—

Who? thought Charlie. Michelle Fookoe? He looked at Serena, who was turned about in her chair drinking in every word as if it were ambrosia.

—“the unmistakable terminus—of a process that presses in upon us all. The torture begins soon after the moment of birth, but we choose to call it ‘education,’ ‘religion,’ ‘government,’ ‘custom,’ ‘convention,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘Western civilization.’ The result is”—

Am I hearing what I think I’m hearing or am I crazy? thought Charlie. Why wasn’t somebody at one of these many tables hissing?—or something—

—“a relentless confinement within ‘the norm,’ ‘the standard,’ a process so”—

Oh, how he twisted those words norm and standard! Such passionate contempt!

—“so gradual that it requires a genius on the order of a Foucault—or a Lapeth—to awaken us”—

Fookoe again.

—“from the torpor of our long imprisionment. Lapeth chose to join the outlaws—those who want out—those who refuse to be confined by convention—in prison. Even within prison walls, of course, our society does not relent. Even incarceration, as Foucault has pointed out, is called ‘correction’ in our enlightened time. The outlaws are supposedly ‘corrected’—bent back toward the norm—when, in fact, in so many cases it is they who are in a better position to correct us in the ways of independence and”—

Charlie looked about again. This table, the next table, the table next to that—people with absolutely untroubled countenances, as if the man were making the usual, entirely appropriate remarks that one makes on an important civic occasion.

—“and fulfillment.”

It is incomprehensible to Croker. But not to Conrad. Conrad learns to see the reality that surrounds from this new perspective—from the perspective of the jailed—and he realizes how constructed the jailer’s reality is—constructed largely by the Charlie Crokers of the world, who have the power to shape the world through the meat and muscle of their fellow men, but who ultimately have no power over their minds—what Conrad comes to see as the divine spark of Zeus that resides within each person. Indeed, that illusion of control is permanently shattered for Conrad after the earthquake destroys the jail and allows him to escape.

He glanced off to the side. Camp Parks appeared to be dancing in a madhouse of light beams and shadows. All in shock, the whole lot of them! The earth had risen up and shown them how helpless they actually were. Life was anchored by—nothing at all!

So now I’m ready—ready for the confrontation of Conrad and Croker, the confrontation of philosophies, anxious to see which Wolfe will decide to let win. But now the story begins to drag. This 700+ page book is 200+ pages too long, but Wolfe evidently needs them to get Conrad plausibly from the status of an escaped prisoner in California to a home health aide with a fake identity in Atlanta. And, as I said before, he needs them to tear Croker down from his perch above all other men and make him a helpless invalid, hiding from the world and unwilling to make any more decisions. These are the circumstances that bring them together, Croker requiring home health services to help him recover from his surgery.

But Conrad doesn’t destroy Croker—he rescues him! He passes on Zeus’ revelation to Croker and, in so doing, gives Croker the stoicism necessary to accept the forces aligned against him as ultimately incapable of harming who he is inside. And that impels Croker to action—finally agreeing to the press conference arranged by Roger “Too” White (remember him? he’s the antagonist) and the Mayor to rescue the reputation of the college football star and prevent a race riot. Croker does it, but he does it on his own terms, telling the truth about the football star (he’s an arrogant unlikeable prick who’s been coddled all his life and thinks the world owes him) and losing everything he owns (the deal for Croker would have erased all his debt and allowed him to keep his mansions and office buildings). But that’s all okay, because he is still, and maybe more so, a man in full. As Conrad explains by example:

“I’m glad,” said Conrad. “remember Agrippinus, the Stoic who refused to act in Nero’s play?”


“I don’t think I ever mentioned what happened to him. Several friends came by his house and they told him, ‘Your trial’s going on right now in the Senate.’ Agrippinus says, ‘Oh? That’s their business. It’s time for me to take my exercise.’ Then he singles out one of his friends and says, ‘Come on, let’s go exercise and then take a cold bath.’ So that’s what he does. When he gets back to the house, more people are there, and they’re saying, ‘They’ve reached a verdict!’ And Agrippinus says, ‘Which is?’ ‘Guilty.’ Agrippinus says, ‘What’s the sentence, death or exile?’ They answer, ‘Exile.’ Agrippinus says, ‘My property—confiscated or not?’ They answer, ‘Confiscated.’ ‘Thank you,’ says Agrippinus. Then he turns to his friend. ‘It’s time for dinner. Let’s go dine at Acicia.’ Which they did.

“Charlie—there was a man.”

Yes, I suppose. But there is also an unsatisfying ending.

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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, May 25, 2015

Time to Think

You need time to think.

Not time alone in your office thinking about strategy. If you're anything like me, you probably need that, too, but that’s not the time I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the time that exists between when someone asks you a question and when you open your mouth to respond. That, I've discovered, is one of the most critical moments of all.

You’ve been asked a question. The person is listening. They want to hear what you have to say.

When else do you have such an opportunity to...




But deciding which takes time. And executing effectively on that decision takes even more time.

You need to take it.

Even if it is only a second or 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

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Talking About Resources at the Board Table Is Hard

But I'm not sure why.

Most associations--and many other organizations of both the non- or for-profit variety--face the same reality. Their goals are bigger than their resources.

But instead of admitting this, lots of Boards and lots of staff executives silently agree to pretend it isn't true. They go through their annual process of setting goals and objectives, and no one says the obvious. That the organization is incapable of achieving the objectives that are being identified. It's not that the objectives aren't worth achieving. Or that there isn't a desire to do so. It's that there isn't enough time, talent or money in the organization to do what the Board is asking it to do.

Why doesn't someone speak up? I've found myself in this situation more than once, both as the Board member and as the staff executive, and I've tried to speak up, but in both situations I was treated like I had done something socially inappropriate. As a Board member I was thought to be questioning the competency and dedication of the staff, and as a staff executive I was thought to be admitting that I lacked passion for our mission.

Neither, of course, was true. I thought I was only trying to add some realism to the discussion. If we care about our mission, then let's make sure we identify the things that we can actually do that will move us towards its fulfillment. And if we respect the talents and dedication of our staff, then let's give them goals they can actually achieve with the resources that they have. Pretending the organization has capabilities it doesn't serves no one's interest.

But what really strikes me as odd about this situation is that many of the people who sit on the Boards that I'm familiar with deal with this exact situation in their day jobs. They are association executives, or company presidents, and they run organizations that struggle with the same problem. Their own goals--non-profit or for-profit--are bigger than the resources they have to apply to them. And their ability to succeed in their environment is directly tied to their skill at marshaling what resources they do have in the areas that they can have the greatest impact.

I don't understand why they seem to lose this perspective when they find themselves around a Board table.

Do you?

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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, May 16, 2015

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”

Cather means this in multiple ways. First, there is the story of O Pioneers! itself. Sibling rivalry, unrequited love, a tragic crime of passion and its aftermath--the plot itself is as elemental as the human stories she cites, familiar to all except the characters living them.

Then there are the stories that frame the real lives of real people living in the real world. This meaning is, naturally, more ephemeral, less clearly present in the words of the novel, but there nonetheless. It is there in the way Carl describes his failure in the city.

“You see,” he went on calmly, “measured by your standards here, I’m a failure. I couldn’t buy even one of your cornfields. I’ve enjoyed a great many things, but I’ve got nothing to show for it all.”

“But you show for it yourself, Carl. I’d rather have had your freedom than my land.”

Freedom and land. Two stories that bind different people to different lives. Read on.

Carl shook his head mournfully. “Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”

The down side of freedom. Nothing to ground you. Closer to the wonder, perhaps, but nothing to bind you to it. And lost in a sea of others just like you. Read on.

Alexandra was silent. She sat looking at the silver spot the moon made on the surface of the pond down in the pasture. He knew that she understood what he meant. At last she said slowly, “And yet I would rather have Emil grow up like that than like his two brothers. We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work. No, I would rather have Emil like you than like them. I felt that as soon as you came.”

The down side of land. Diligence and repetition. The chance to build something unique, perhaps, but at the expense of losing your ability to appreciate it. Read on.

“I wonder why you feel like that?” Carl mused.

“I don’t know. Perhaps I am like Carrie Jensen, the sister of one of my hired men. She had never been out of the cornfields, and a few years ago she got despondent and said life was just the same thing over and over, and she didn’t see the use of it. After she had tried to kill herself once or twice, her folks got worried and sent her over to Iowa to visit some relations. Ever since she’s come back she’s been perfectly cheerful, and she says she’s contented to live and work in a world that’s so big and interesting. She said anything as big as the bridges over the Platte and the Missouri reconciled her. And it’s what goes on in the world that reconciles me.

But there is a way to have both--to be grounded in one and aware of the other--and both Carrie Jensen and Alexandra Bergson have discovered it. And Alexandra, even more, I think, than Antonia Shimerdas, is Cather’s primordial creation of this loam-bound archetype. Cather describes her this way:

Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times.

She is of the land. She has more success with it than her father or any of her brothers. And even her simple fantasies are bound up in it.

There was one fancy indeed, which persisted through her girlhood. It most often came to her on Sunday mornings, the one day in the week when she lay late abed listening to the familiar morning sounds; the windmill singing in the brisk breeze, Emil whistling as he blacked his boots down by the kitchen door. Sometimes, as she lay thus luxuriously idle, her eyes closed, she used to have an illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat. She never saw him, but, with eyes closed, she could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him. She could feel him approach, bend over her and lift her, and then she could feel herself being carried swiftly off across the fields.

He is, of course, the land, and only he has the power to support and sustain her.

As she grew older, this fancy more often came to her when she was tired than when she was fresh and strong. Sometimes, after she had been in the open all day, overseeing the branding of the cattle or the loading of the pigs, she would come in chilled, take a concoction of spices and warm home-made wine, and go to bed with her body actually aching with fatigue. Then, just before she went to sleep, she had the old sensation of being lifted and carried by a strong being who took from her all her bodily weariness.

Her tie to the land is this strong. That even after working on it all day, it had the power to rejuvenate her both in body and spirit.

But if the novel is anything it is a lesson that things cannot work in reverse. Contentment can be found when one is grounded in the land and aware of the larger freedom of the world, but not when one tries to ground themselves in the freedom. That’s almost an oxymoron. Freedom has nothing for one to ground themselves in, and all the characters who cut themselves away from the land and seek freedom--Carl certainly, but, of course, Emil, most tragically--find no contentment at all.

And here is where the story of the novel merges with the universal stories of mankind. Emil is drawn to a woman of the land like his sister, but Marie Tovesky marries Frank Shabata, and Emil flees, first to University, then to Mexico, but the tie that Marie has around his heart keeps drawing him back.

“Are you sorry for me?” he [Emil] persisted.

“No, I’m not,” [Marie said]. “If I were big and free like you, I wouldn’t let anything make me unhappy. As old Napoleon Brunot said at the fair, I wouldn’t go lovering after no woman. I’d take the first train and go off and have all the fun there is.”

“I tried that, but it didn’t do any good. Everything reminded me. The nicer the place was, the more I wanted you.”

And when tragedy strikes, when they are drawn together and murdered by Marie’s husband, the good people of the land have trouble understanding it. Even Alexandra, who knows more than anyone else in the novel how important it is to be grounded, and about the different kinds of rent that people of different stories have to pay, feels a betrayal of an almost personal nature.

“Can you understand it, Carl?” Alexandra murmured. “I have had nobody but Ivar and Signa to talk to. Do talk to me. Can you understand it? Could you have believed that of Marie Tovesky? I would have been cut to pieces, little by little, before I would have betrayed her trust in me!”

Carl looked at the shining spot of water before them. “Maybe she was cut to pieces, too, Alexandra. I am sure she tried hard; they both did.”

Because, in the end, it is only Carl who can explain it to her. Carl, who himself had been ejected from the land by the fears of Alexandra’s brothers, who had spent years wandering aimlessly around the planet looking for something to fill the hole Alexandra had left in his heart. He can uniquely understand the pieces that people like Marie Tovesky and Emil Bergson can cut themselves into when they try to live lives that aren’t true to who and what the land has allowed them to be.

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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, May 11, 2015

The Association CEO is a Storyteller

What does your association need from its Board of Directors?

It needs leadership. It needs engagement. It needs what I'll call mindshare. A highly productive Board is comprised of people
who are thinking about the issues facing that association more frequently than just the time they spend around the Board table.

And this is increasingly difficult to get. The professional demands everyone is facing are so all-consuming that Board members rarely find spaces for clear and undivided focus on yet another task.

But you have to do something to address this. If you need your Board to have a series of connected conversations that lead to coherent strategy and execution, you won't get it if all they do is show up and speak off the top of their heads.

So you, as the CEO, you have to be their storyteller. Before they start talking, you have to tell them what happened at the last meeting, what decisions they made, what actions you have been taken since then, and how their decisions and your actions are combining to form a narrative that is compelling to them and to your members.

You have to do this, because they won't do it for you. They don't have time.

Do you?

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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, May 4, 2015

The Essential Elements of a Strategy Agenda

Last week I wrote about some new terms I have introduced in my association. Our Strategy Agenda, which is determined by our Board and focused on what we want to achieve, and our Operational Plan, which is determined by our staff and focused on how we will achieve it.

This week I want to write more about the elements that make up our Strategy Agenda. As I try to explain each element, it may be best to think of each as forming a kind of outline, or even better a set of nesting dolls, each element living in subservient alignment with the one that came before it.

The largest doll is our MISSION. This is our fundamental purpose, the reason our association exists.

Within the mission are our areas of STRATEGIC PRIORITY. These are the highest of our high-level goals, the things we must achieve if we are to accomplish our mission. Everything we do is in pursuit of one or more of these goals.

Within each area of strategic priority are our ENDS STATEMENTS. These are the specific outcomes that will result if we successfully pursue our areas of strategic priority. Some may think of these as vision statements--expressions of some idealized future state--and they are that, but, importantly, they must also be things we think can be achieved in the short-term. Indeed, in discussing the use of ends statements, our Board decided that they should also serve as the broadest and most compelling answers for a member asking about the benefits of membership and participation in our association. Ends statements, in other words, are the tangible things we're doing to make the world a better place for our members.

And finally, within each ends statement are our SUCCESS INDICATORS. These are the needles we will try to move, the metrics by which we’ll know that we’re making progress towards each ends statement. A baseline and goal is set for each one, and a discipline of tracking, reporting, and taking action to affect each is established. This marshals the attention of both the board and the staff--the board because positive movement indicates that our mission is being fulfilled, and staff because positive movement indicates that we are taking the right kinds of actions. The success indicators, in fact, form the link between our Board's Strategy Agenda and our staff's Operational Plan, something I'll go on to describe in greater detail in future posts.

So in summary, our Strategy Agenda is comprised of four nested concepts, our:

1. MISSION, our overall purpose, from which we derive our
2. STRATEGIC PRIORITIES, how we will achieve our mission, from which we set our
3. ENDS STATEMENTS, the outcomes each strategic priority will achieve for our members, from which we identify our
4. SUCCESS INDICATORS, the metrics by which we'll know that we're achieving the outcomes.

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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, May 2, 2015

The Selected Writings of the Marquis De Sade, selected and translated by Leonard De Saint-Yves

When I was asked to select and translate work by the Marquis de Sade for publication in England I knew that there would be two major difficulties at the outset--the difficulty of obtaining authentic texts and the difficulty of publishing in English important sections of his work which public opinion and legal precedent hold to be obscene and blasphemous.

So begins the preface to this interesting and somewhat confusing collection of writings by one of the world’s most infamous authors. It is also my first introduction to de Sade, about whom I know little more than rumor and suggestion.

To say the volume is not what I expected is an understatement.

Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit. Blasphemous. The very first item in the collection is a fictional dialogue between a priest and a dying man that de Sade wrote in 1782 while in prison. (De Sade, it turns out, wrote a lot of what he wrote in one prison or another. An almost natural product, I think, of his over-active mind with little or nothing else to occupy it.)

In the dialogue, the priest asks the dying man to repent his sins and receive the grace of God, but the dying man is unrepentant, or rather, singularly repentant, but not in the way that the priest (and much of the society de Sade found himself in) would expect.

Here is my meaning. I was created by Nature with most active tastes, sent into the world solely to surrender myself to them, and to satisfy those desires. As these effects of my creation are only the necessities relative to the first designs of Nature, or, if you prefer it, the developments essential to her projects for me, due to her laws. I only repent that I did not recognise sufficiently all her power, and my sole remorse merely extends to the mediocre use I have made of those faculties (which you would call criminal, I natural) given me by Nature for her service. Sometimes I resisted her and that I repent. Blinded by the absurdity of your doctrines, through them I have fought all the violence and desires communicated to me through a much more divine inspiration, and I repent gathering only flowers when I could have taken a generous harvest of fruit. These are the exact motives for my regrets. Esteem me highly enough not to attribute others to me.

This, in fact, is a good summary of the philosophy that will seem to spawn the bulk of the writings that follow in this tome. De Sade, long positioned in my uninformed mind as the consummate libertine, here declares himself as exactly that on this second page of his collected writings.

And as a libertine, he must by definition be blasphemous. In the passage above, the dying man says he was created by Nature and calls Christian doctrine absurd. Later in the dialogue, he refers to Jesus such…

...he was seditious, turbulent, slanderous, deceptive, libertine, vulgar comedian and dangerous rogue; he possessed the knack of imposing on the people, and therefore became fit for punishment in a kingdom of that State in which Jerusalem was then found.

So is de Sade blasphemous? Absolutely. But obscene? Well, that’s a little more difficult to discern. I mean, it all depends, as it always does, on what one means by obscene. There are obviously the tales of sexual immorality and depravity that supposedly make up his work (and I say supposedly only because the editor of this volume chooses not to include any truly egregious examples). But in his short introduction to his excerpts from the novel Justine, for example, he describes that work this way:

The heroine Justine is the embodiment of virtue and is doomed to suffer every possible form of torture, outrage and evil at the hands of a succession of monsters, perverts or criminals whom she meets in her wanderings. Usually she suffers passively; sometimes, if she attempts a good deed, her own actions turn against her. Between descriptions of orgies or crimes in which sexual desire and destructiveness are often inseparable--for example the villainous surgeon Rodin tried to make love to a girl while performing a lethal operation on her--there are discussions or speeches in which the characters express the author’s views on a multitude of ethical, moral, religious and political problems. These speeches, which invariably attack all accepted standards of thought and behavior, show the extremes to which rationalism can be taken. At first reading some of these speeches, morality apart, have a certain incisiveness, even though they do not bear analysis; at their worst they are rambling, repetitive and derivative.

And indeed, when we use this collection to examine de Sade for evidence of obscenity, we are much more frequently directed to his extreme philosophical and political views that we are to his descriptions of sexual frenzy and excess.

The latter, in fact, is, in my view, a bit of a screen for the former. De Sade himself, wrote the following note to his lawyer upon Justine’s publication.

A novel of mine is being printed. But it is too immoral to be sent to a man so well-behaved, pious and decent as you. I needed money, my printer asked me to make it very spicy and I’ve made it capable of corrupting the devil. It is called Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu [Justine or The Misfortunes of Virtue]. If by chance it falls into your hands burn it, do not read it. I renounce it.

Here, obviously, is an author who knows both how to cover his tracks and to increase sales.

Another valid charge of obscenity that seems reasonable--at least given the selected writings that are included in this volume--is in the area of sadism and graphic violence. Several of de Sade’s protagonists delight in causing pain in others. In Justine, a young man feeds his mother to his dogs, who “hungrily devoured her.”

In vain she repulsed them; in vain she redoubled her efforts to avoid their teeth; each of her movements succeeded only in further exciting them, and the lawn was flooded with streams of blood.

And in The Mystified Magistrate, a government official is essentially tortured mercilessly and without end, each depredation more horrifying that the last.

They seized hold of the unfortunate president at once, laid him face down on a narrow bench, and bound him tightly to it from head to foot. The four devilish spirits each took up a leather strap five feet long, and belaboured rhythmically with all the strength in their arms and exposed portions of the unlucky Fontanis, who was lacerated for three quarters of an hour in succession by the vigorous hands responsible for his education, and soon displayed one single would from which the blood was spurting everywhere.

But, in their repetition, we become somewhat inured to these scenes, and, in their lack of finality, we come to see them as more comic than horrific. The young man’s mother is not truly devoured by dogs--she is carried back to her room and killed with a dagger plunged into her heart--and the magistrate Fontanis (whose name is evidently similar to that of a real magistrate that prosecuted de Sade) seems almost proud of the abuse he sustains, never seeming to suffer any permanent harm. The violence portrayed is therefore the product of daydreams, not psychosis.

So if not in sex and if not in violence, wherein does de Sade’s obscenity lie? Or more accurately, if the graphic sex and violence are screens for his more obscene purpose, what are those screens masking?

Well, let’s return to that opening dialogue, and the decidedly deterministic view of the universe that it reveals.

Where in all the world is the man who seeing the scaffold beside the crime would still commit it if he were free not to? We are drawn along by an irresistible force, and not for one moment do the masters of that power choose any path for us but that towards which we are inclined. There is not a single virtue which is not necessary to nature, and conversely not a single crime which is not necessary. It is in the perfect balance maintained between one and the other that nature’s whole knowledge resides. But can we be blamed for the side on which she casts us? No more than the wasp can be blamed who plunges his sting into your flesh.

This is still more or less philosophical in its implications, but these collected writings will eventually reveal the practical (and downright, I think, obscene) extensions to which de Sade will take these philosophies.

In one essay--a kind of fictional journey into an African nation--the narrator encounters all kinds of customs and practices that offend his European sensibilities. From the treatment of women:

“You Europeans are mad,” he went on, “to worship this sex; a woman is there to be enjoyed, and not be be adored; it is an offense against the gods of your country to give these simple creatures the worship that is meant for them. It is absurd to grant authority to women, very dangerous to submit oneself to them; it lowers your sex, and degrades nature, when you become slaves to beings who were created to bow to our superiority.”

To the practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism:

“Brother,” I said, with a distress that I could not hide, “on the word of a European, could the dish that you serve me here not be by any chance a portion of the hips or buttocks of one of those maidens who blood streamed earlier over the altars of your god?”

Against which our European narrator violently rebels. But this narrator is then treated to the following lecture from a fellow European who has lived in the African nation for a number of years.

“Stop,” he said, “I forgive this shock to your habits and your national prejudices. But you abandon yourself to them too far. Stop being difficult as far as this country is concerned, and learn how to adapt yourself to situations; repugnances are only weaknesses, my friend, they are minor illnesses of organisation, whose cure you did not study when you were young, and which take possession of us when we have given in to them. It is exactly the same in this as it is in many other things: the imagination, led astray by prejudices, suggests to us first of all that we should refuse … you make the experiment … you find all is well and taste is sometimes adopted with just as much violence as distaste had been strong in us. I arrived here like you, full of stupid national prejudices; I found fault with everything … I found everything absurd; the practices of these people frightened me as much as their morals, and now I do everything like them. We still belong more to habit than to nature, my friend; the latter did no more than create us, the former shapes us. It is madness to think that a moral goodness exists: every type of behaviour, absolutely different in itself, becomes good or bad depending on the country that judges it; but if he wants to live happily, the wise man should adopt that of the region where fate casts him.”

It is very much like de Sade is going out of his way to argue for the most extreme of deterministic positions. Nothing in nature is wrong. Not even human sacrifice and cannibalism. Here, it is draped under a veil of cultural diversity and custom--but in other selections, he comes out directly in favor of such barbarities. Killing is not just good for the African brought up in that culture, it is actually a good that cultures not sensitized to them should adopt.

In some ways, de Sade seems perfectly rational, refreshingly level-headed, as he does in this excerpt from Augustine de Villeblanche, where he convicts tribalism for the excesses of conformity and xenophobia it is by nature guilty of.

“The greatest folly of all,” she said, “is to blush for the tendencies that we have received from nature. And to scorn any individual whatsoever because he has unusual tastes is as absolutely barbarous as it would be to make fun of a man or a woman who had emerged from his mother’s womb lame, or with only one eye. But to convince fools with such reasonable principles is an undertaking comparable to halting the stars in their courses. Pride finds a sort of pleasure in mocking faults that it does not possess itself, and such delights are so sweet to men, and particularly to halfwits that it is very rare to see them renounce them. Moreover it gives scope for maliciousness, chilly witticisms and paltry puns, and society, that is to say, a collection of creatures brought together by boredom and qualified by stupidity, finds it so pleasant to talk for two or three hours without ever saying anything, so delicious to shine at the expense of others, and when censuring a vice to announce that you are a very long way from having it yourself … it is a sort of eulogy tactily uttered upon yourself; for this reward you even consent to make one with the others, to form a clique to crush any individual whose great sin is not to think the same as the common herd, and you return home quite puffed up with your wit, when fundamentally you have only proved by such behaviour your pedantry and stupidity.”

And in other ways de Sade seems perfectly modern, as in this excerpt from Juliette, where he adapts the perfect moral ambivalence of the determinists.

“All moral effects,” went on Mme Delbene, “derive from physical causes to which they are irresistibly bound, like the sound which results from the shock of the drumstick upon the skin of the drum: no physical cause, that is to say no shock, and there is necessarily no moral effect, that is no sound. Certain dispositions of our organs, the nervous fluid which is irritated either more or less by the nature of the atoms that we breathe … by the type or quantity of the nitrous particles contained in the food we eat, by the circulations of the humours and by a thousand other external causes, determine a man towards crime or towards virtue, and often in the same day towards the first one then the other: that is the shock of the drumstick, the result of vice or virtue; a hundred louis stolen from my neighbor’s pocket or given from mine to an unfortunate, that is the effect of the shock, or the sound. Are we masters of these second effects when the first causes necessitate them? Can the drum be beaten without giving out a sound? And can we oppose this shock when it is itself the result of things so foreign to us, and so dependent on our organic structure?”

But when de Sade begins to practically apply these philosophical positions to the ideal conduct of man in his own society, things begin to go astray. First, he defends theft, especially the theft or the poor man against the rich man. Again, from Juliette:

The magistrates stole by taking payment for justice that they should have given freely. The priest stole by taking payment for serving as a mediator between man and his God. The merchant stole by monopolising, by charging one third more for his merchandise than its real intrinsic value. Monarchs stole by imposing upon their subjects the arbitrary rights of taxes, tolls, etc. All these thefts were permitted, all were authorised in the specious name of rights; no one thought of taking action any longer except against the most natural thefts, that is to say, against the perfectly simple conduct of a man who, pistol in hand, demanded money which he needed from those whom he believed to be richer than himself.

Like our modern libertarians, he partially bases his argument on the concept that theft by the State (or the Judiciary, or the Church, or the Merchant Class) is still theft, even though we may have been taught to call it taxation (or justice, or tithing, or capitalism). But unlike our modern libertarians, he violates their non-aggression principle by saying that these thefts by the powerful cause and justify the thefts of the weak.

If you push a servant against a precious vase, and in his fall he breaks it, you no longer have the right to punish him for his clumsiness; you should only deal with the cause which brought about your punishing him. When some unfortunate peasant, reduced to beggary by the immensity of the taxes you impose upon him, deserts his plough, seizes a weapon, and goes to waylay you upon the high road, you most certainly commit a gross injustice if you punish him. For it is not he who is at fault, he is the servant pushed against the vase: do not push him, and he will break nothing. If you do push him, do not be surprised if he does break something.

Thomas Jefferson may have enjoyed the rhetorical flourish de Sade employs here, but even that advocate of refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, I think, would have recoiled at the conclusion de Sade draws.

Thus this unfortunate man, in going to rob you, is in no way committing a crime; he is attempting to get back the goods that you have previously usurped from him, you or yours: he is only doing what is natural; he is seeking to re-establish the equilibrium which in morals as well as physics is the first of the laws of nature; he is only doing what is just.

But it gets worse. De Sade not only defends theft among the citizens in a functioning society, in La Philosophie dans le Boudoir, he defends murder as well. Like in the case of theft, he begins with a philosophical construct.

Undoubtedly we are now going to humiliate man’s pride by reducing him to the level of all the other creatures of Nature, but the philosopher does not flatter petty human vanities. Ever zealous in the pursuit of truth he singles it out from among the foolish prejudices of self-conceit, seizes it, and develops it resolutely before the eyes of the astonished world.

Okay, de Sade. Lay it on me.

What is man, and what difference is there between him and the other animals of the earth? Decidedly, none.

Wait. What?

Like them he was placed upon this globe by chance. Like them he is born, like them he propagates, increases and decreases. Like them he endures old age and disappears into oblivion at the end of the term which Nature has allotted to each species of animal by reason of the structure of his organs.

I’m not going to go on quoting him. I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about this, and I cannot understand how a rational mind can reach the conclusions that follow. First, as reported, that there is no difference between man and any other animal in Nature. You can accept that one if the context, as de Sade tries to paint it above, is predicated solely on the limitations of man’s existence. Yes, all men die and all animals die, and, on that level, there is no difference between men and animals. But that is not the context of this discussion. De Sade is defending the view that because there is no difference between men and animals, that therefore unrestrained murder is not just natural, but a net benefit to the society in which such a practice is allowed to flourish.

But not directly. He makes what he offers as several logical steps along the way to that conclusion. Next, after the fact that men and animals are identical, is that Nature is not harmed when men or animals die. Nature is, in fact, replenished by the raw materials of their bodies when they break down after death. And that leads him to the startling conclusion that death is not any kind of destruction at all.

According to these irrefutable principles then, death is nothing more than a change of form, an imperceptible transition from one existence to another…

Upon reading this, I found myself for the first time questioning de Sade’s sanity. Up until now, everything he had written seemed to me a kind of whimsical exploration of philosophical ideas, framed with erudite language and hidden within a titillating and disturbing wrapper of sexual and sadistic excess. But there is a seriousness in this extended argument on the natural virtues of murder that transcends anything that has come before it.

And since death supplies Nature with the raw materials from which to create new life, de Sade continues, then causing death is an instrument in the service of Nature’s purpose. And since human society is a conglomeration of these instruments acting in the service of Nature’s purpose, then actions taken within that society in service of that purpose serve also the interests of that society. And since they serve the interests of our society, then those who commit such acts should be held up a virtuous and courageous.

Everywhere in fact, the murderer, that is, the man who suppresses his scruples to the point where he kills his fellow and risks private or public vengeance, everywhere, I say, such a man is always considered very courageous, and consequently precious to a warrior or republican State.

Refuting de Sade’s logic seems superfluous to anyone who has either been indoctrinated in or who has meditatively considered the value of the Golden Rule. Yet he goes on to cite all kinds of historical and contemporary cultures who have embraced killing as a virtuous or necessary act.

The women of Madagascar exposed those of their children that were born on certain days of the week to savage beasts. In the Greek republics all new-born children were carefully examined to see whether they possessed the possibility of one day defending the republic; if they did not conform to this requirement they were immediately slain. They did not judge it necessary there to maintain richly endowed houses for the preservation of this vile scum of human nature. Until the transference of the Imperial Throne all Romans who did not wish to foster their children threw them to the cesspits. In the past legislators had no scruples about consigning children to their death, and none of their codes ever suppressed the rights that a father considered himself to own over his family. Aristotle favoured abortion, and these ancient republicans, filled with enthusiasm and zeal for the fatherland despised this compassion for the individual which is found in modern nations. They loved their children less, but loved their country better. Every morning in every town in China you will find an incredible number of children abandoned in the streets. A wagon scoops them up at daybreak, and they are cast into a ditch. Frequently the midwives themselves relieve the mothers of their offspring by plunging them immediately into tubs if boiling water, or throwing them into the river.

And finally, with this emphasis on republican societies, I think I begin to see a clue as to what is really going on here. De Sade may not be insane after all. He was, remember, steeped in the era of the Robespierre and the Terror of the French Revolution, when Republicanism, as a direct apostate of Monarchy, was taken more or less off the deep end. De Sade may have been swept into the extremity of these positions by that resistless tide. Resist, after all, and one might have found themselves in prison (as de Sade often was) or under the guillotine.

Let the monarchists say that a country is only large because of its big population. This country will always be poor if its population exceeds its means of existence and it will be always flourishing if it contains itself within its proper limits and can dispose of its surplus.

Defending murder as a means of population control--as a way of “disposing of the country’s surplus”--seems to be at least part of the modus operandi, and that may have been an attempt to stay in the good graces of the homicidal anarchists who had taken over the reins of government, but I’m not sure even that can entirely explain what is going on here. Remember that it was the same (and very different) de Sade that spoke to us in the words of the dying man in the book’s opening dialogue. There, he said:

God forbid that I intend to encourage crime, it must be avoided wherever possible, but we must learn to abstain from it by reason and not by false fears which come to nothing, and the effects of which are so soon destroyed in any soul with but a little firmness. Reason, yes, my friend, reason alone should warn us that doing harm to our fellows can never make us happy, and our heart should tell us that to contribute to their happiness is the greatest happiness for use that nature allows us on this earth. All human morality is enclosed in this one saying, “Make others as happy as you wish to be yourself,” and never do them more harm than you would be willing to suffer yourself. There, my friend, those are the only principles we need to observe, and there is no call for religion or God to admit and appreciate them, a good heart is all that we need.

So, clearly, he did understand the value of The Golden Rule. Might he not, therefore, have had another purpose in putting the obscenity of extreme French republican logic on display--the way, say, Jonathan Swift so expertly put the obscenity of English class warfare on display in A Modest Proposal? To wit, in the final selection of this collection, Idee sur les Romans, he offers this defense for his more lurid writing:

Never, in fact, and this I repeat, never will I paint crime other than in the colours of Hell. I want it to be seen in all its nakedness, to be feared, to be loathed, and I know no other means of achieving that than by showing it in all the horror that characterises it. Woe to those who surround it with roses, their aims are not so pure, and I will never copy them.

So he is being obscene, intentionally so, putting the crimes of hedonistic thought on display in all their nakedness. It’s an interesting theory, but one about which I’m afraid I don’t have enough knowledge of de Sade and his times to be sure makes any sense. And indeed, if you read past the few sentences listed above, you stumble into this:

Following from these principles, therefore, let no one attribute to me any longer the novel of Justine; never have I composed such works, and assuredly I never will. It is only the stupid or the malicious who despite the authenticity of my denials can still suspect or accuse me of being its author, and henceforth the most supreme contempt will be the only weapon with which I shall combat their calumnies.

Back to his games and subterfuge. This, then, is why confusion remains my final judgment on the selections pulled together in this collection. In the end, I’m left with the speculation that the Marquis de Sade might have been the Andy Kaufmann of his age--engaging with the public not for some greater purpose, but purely for his own amusement. Don’t go looking for de Sade in these writings. Just as the real Andy never appeared on stage, it may be the case that the real de Sade never appears in print.

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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