Monday, August 29, 2016

Organizational Cultures at the Crossroads

Associations typically know a lot about organizational partnerships. I've previously described associations as organizations whose goals are consistently larger than their resources, and one of the strategies many associations employ to help close that gap is to enter into synergistic partnerships with other organizations. Often other associations, but just as often other kinds of non-profit and even for-profit organizations.

Making sure both organizations in a partnership share and understand the same goal is essential. So is making sure that each organization has something unique that only it can leverage towards the goal, and that the contributions of both organizations are needed in order to achieve the goal. You can get tips like these out of almost any management book, but one thing that often isn't discussed is that the two organizations in any partnership are likely to have two different cultures, and it can frequently be a clash of these cultures that creates the most challenge to the partnership.

In my experience, partnerships with other associations often make the most sense and have the highest likelihood of success. When your partner organization is not an association there can be a cultural gap between the two organizations that can be difficult to close. And frequently, this cultural gap centers around the two organizations and their respective tolerances for risk.

Associations are often tarred with the "risk averse" brush. Board chairs are often unwilling to take chances "on their watch," and staff executives are often unwilling to challenge conventional thinking, leading associations to stay entrenched longer than they should in poor-performing systems and programs. But there is one area in which most associations I know actively embrace risk, and it is an area that can scare the pants off some of their non-association partners. It's the area I've already mentioned--chasing after big goals with inadequate resources.

Think about it. An association that avoids turning over applecarts in the Board room or in the corner office can still find itself charging headlong into the marketplace with the intent of accomplishing big things but without the developed capacity to do so. Sometimes we frame such an adventure as a stretch goal, or as a professional development opportunity, but more often we don't put any frame on it at all. It is simply an expectation we place on ourselves and our under-resourced and over-burdened staff.

Try, we say. Or, learn by doing. Or, shoot for the moon and maybe we'll find ourselves in low orbit. We know that our only alternate is to stay grounded and admit that we can't do what we've said it's the job of our organization to do--and that's unthinkable.

Some of the non-association organizations I've partnered with are flabbergasted by this mindset, by this almost foolhardy willingness to embrace the risk of a failed venture. Failure is the thing that is unthinkable to them, and the courage that we show in the face of long odds appears to them as anything but. Getting halfway there for the partner organization is a failure, but getting halfway there for us is a smashing success.

Sometimes, when two partner organizations, one association and one not, disagree on the resources that are necessary to achieve their shared goal, the disagreement can be traced back to two different approaches to the kind of risk I'm describing in this post. And when that happens, the partnership may very well find itself at a crossroads. Culturally-speaking, one organization is forever aligned in a north-south direction, and the other is facing east-west. There is still and always a place where those two cultures meet, and the challenge for both is to find a way to co-exist there, where both organizations can see but don't have to march down the road of the other.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, August 22, 2016

You Can't Please Everyone

My association hosted its largest conference of the year this past week. In all my years in association management--including my formative ones as the meeting planner putting events just like last week's conference together--there is still nothing quite like the high that comes at the close of a successful and well-executed conference. The speakers were top-notch. The members were energized. The association advanced its agenda.

But even the best conference comes with its fair share of well-intentioned comments and constructive criticisms. The rooms were too cold. The screens were too small. There weren't enough chairs in the breakout sessions. They generally run the gamut from small inconveniences like these to more expansive suggestions for improvement. You should shorten the conference so I can spend less time out of the office. You should build in more structured networking time. You should add a third session track.

As I fielded all of these comments (and more) at our recent conference, I struggled to assess which suggestions warranted some kind of action and which didn't. What about the one I heard nine times instead of one? Or the one that came from a Board member rather those suggested by members who weren't involved in our leadership? If the comment wasn't related to something obviously broken with the conference, if it was based purely on someone's opinion or preference, what kind of weight should I give them, and on what basis?

As I was mulling over these questions, an interesting thought suddenly occurred to me. Working with our Board, we had just developed a set of key performance indicators for this conference. The context for doing so included the wide recognition that the conference had reached consistently high levels of success, and that it was time to set metrics that would help us keep it there, but which would allow us to focus our attention in other key areas. To oversimplify the thinking, instead of constantly trying to turn a 90% success into an 100% success, let's instead work on maintaining that 90% success, and shift some of the energy we had been pouring into improving that program to something else that was performing in the 40-50% range.

This put a whole new spin on the question of which comments to act on and which not. Because now there was an even more compelling question to answer. How had we done on our key performance indicators? Specifically, did we attract the right number and diversity of members to the conference? And how highly had they rated the conference on their evaluation forms? Before even considering any ideas for improvement, we needed to accurately assess these two questions. Because if we are coming in above our benchmarks in those areas, then we've frankly already made the call to focus our improvement efforts elsewhere.

You can't please everyone. But if you've identified and are hitting the right performance metrics, you can rest assured that you're pleasing enough people to warrant maintaining the course that you're on.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

I knew nothing about this book when I picked it up. That is sometimes my favorite way to encounter a text. And it took me a while to figure out what I was dealing with. It wasn’t until page 26, after all, that the text even clued me into the fact that my narrator was a woman.

… Kamante spoke;--“Msabu,” he said, and gave me a great glance. The Natives use this Indian word when they address white women ...

Prior to that I had no real idea, and I was totally fine with not knowing. Part of me, in fact, hoped that the text would never reveal gender, but rather allow the reader to experience the story without that trapping, allowing either, male or female, to make the story their own.

A few minutes on Wikipedia, however, told me that Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Karen Blixen, a Danish author and Baroness, and that Out of Africa was a work based on her experiences living for a time in Kenya.

And that’s pretty much how the blurb pasted onto the frontispiece of my worn and used copy of the work describes it.

In this book, the author of Seven Gothic Tales gives a true account of her life on her plantation in Kenya. She tells with classic simplicity of the ways of the country and the natives: of the beauty of the Ngong Hills and coffee trees in blossom: of her guests, from the Prince of Wales to Knudsen, the old charcoal burner, who visited her: of primitive festivals: of big game that were her near neighbors--lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras, buffaloes--and of Lulu, the little gazelle who came to live with her, unbelievably ladylike and beautiful.

You can’t dispute the accuracy of this description, which I initially skipped over, hoping to preserve the mystery. These are certainly the subjects that Dinesen describes in Out of Africa. But there is so much more going on here, so much more than a pastoral tale of a European dilettante in the colonially-protected wilds of darkest Africa. Because Dinesen reveals a sensitive understanding of that continent, and, more importantly, of the people who lived there, both before and after the Europeans came.

The natives were Africa in flesh and blood. The tall extinct volcano if Longonot that rises above the Rift Valley, the broad Mimosa trees along the rivers, the Elephant and the Giraffe, were not more truly Africa than the Natives were,--small figures in an immense scenery. All were different expressions of one idea, variations upon the same theme. It was not a congenial upheaping of heterogeneous atoms, but a heterogeneous upheaping of congenial atoms, as in the case of the oak-leaf and the acorn and the object made from oak. We ourselves, in boots, and in our constant great hurry, often jar with the landscape. The Natives are in accordance with it, and when the tall slim, dark, and dark-eyed people travel,--always one by one, so that even the great Native veins of traffic are narrow foot-paths,--or work the soil, or herd their cattle, or hold their big dances, or tell you a tale, it is Africa wandering, dancing and entertaining you. In the highlands you remember the Poet’s words:

Noble found I
ever the Native,
and insipid the Immigrant.

The natives were Africa. That sentiment pretty well sets the tone for much of the book that follows. Africa, in her understanding of it, is not a place, but a people. And as Dinesen uses her expressive prose to reflect on the basic nature of these people, these native Africans, and of Africa itself, she does not shy away from positive comparisons to the habits and biases of her fellow Europeans.

The lack of prejudice in the Natives is a striking thing, for you expect to find dark taboos in the primitive people. It is due, I believe, to their acquaintance with a variety of races and tribes, and to the lively human intercourse that was brought upon East Africa, first by the old traders of ivory and slaves, and in our days by the settlers and big-game hunters. Nearly every Native, down to the little herd-boys of the plains, has in his day stood face to face with a whole range of nations as different from one another, and to him, as a Sicilian to an Esquimo: Englishmen, Jews, Boers, Arabs, Somali Indians, Swaheli, Masai and Kavirondo. As far as receptivity of ideas goes, the Native is more of a man of the world than the suburban or provincial settler or missionary, who has grown up in a uniform community and with a set of stable ideas. Much of the misunderstanding between the white people and the Natives arises from this fact.

And she frequently highlights the ways in which the two people--Africans and Europeans--struggle to understand each other.

The Natives, if they are not paralyzed and benumbed by the terror of the unknown, growl and grumble much in hospital, and invent schemes for getting away. Death is one of these; they do not fear it. The Europeans who have built and equipped the hospitals, and who are working in them, and have with much trouble got the patients dragged there, complain with bitterness that the Natives know nothing of gratitude, and that it is the same what you do to them.

To white people there is something vexatious and mortifying in this state of mind in the Natives. It is indeed the same what you do to them; you can do but little, and what you do disappears, and will never be heard of again; they do not thank you, and they bear you no malice, and even should you want to, you cannot do anything about it. It is an alarming quality; it seems to annul your existence as an individual human being, and to inflict upon you a role not of your own choosing, as if you were a phenomenon in Nature, as if you were the weather.

This attitude had to be quite a shock to the early European visitors, especially the hardy and adventurous kind of European willing to leave the safety of home and hearth for the dangers of the Dark Continent. Europeans, remember, whose culture had for centuries been based on the idea of conquest and colonization, of mastery over the native world. From them to be relegated by their latest prize to the status of a natural force, like the weather, not to be opposed but borne, not to seek battle against but shelter from--it must have been especially unnerving.

But Out of Africa is still more than this. Neither wholly the pastoral tale of the pasted frontispiece, nor simply a sensitive testament to the uniqueness of Africa and its people, it is also a kind of call to action. Dinesen is striving, I believe, to communicate with her largely European readers the destructiveness of their simpleminded approach to Africa. And rarely is she more eloquent on this score then when she invokes her moving parables, obvious now, but probably less so when the work was written.

In the harbour Mombasa lay a rusty German cargo-steamer, homeward bound. I passed her in Ali bin Salim’s rowing boat with his Swaheli rowers, on my way to the island and back. Upon the deck there stood a tall wooden cases, and above the edge of the case rose the heads of two Giraffes. They were, Farah, who had been on board the boat, told me, coming from Portuguese East Africa, and were going to Hamburg, to a travelling Menagerie.

The Giraffes turned their delicate heads from the one side to the other, as if they were surprised, which they might well be. They had not seen the Sea before. They could only just have room to stand in the narrow case. The world had suddenly shrunk, changed and closed round them.

They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening.

Crowds, in dark smelly clothes, will be coming in from the wind and sleet of the streets to gaze on the Giraffes, and to realize man’s superiority over the dumb world. They will point and laugh at the long slim necks when the graceful, patient, smoky-eyed heads are raised over the railing of the menagerie; they look much too long in there. The children will be frightened at the sight and cry, or they will fall in love with the Giraffes, and hand them bread. Then the fathers and mothers will think the Giraffes nice beasts, and believe that they are giving them a good time.

In the long years before them, will the Giraffes sometimes dream of their lost country? Where are they now, where have they gone to, the grass and the thorn-trees, the rivers, water-holes and the blue mountains? The high sweet air over the plains has lifted and withdrawn. Where have the other Giraffes gone to, that were side by side with them when they set going, and cantered over the undulating land? They have left them, they have all gone, and it seems that they are never coming back.

In the night where is the full moon?

The Giraffes stir,and wake up in the caravan of the Menagerie, in their narrow box that smells of rotten straw and beer.

Good-bye, good-bye, I wish for you that you may die on the journey, both of you, so that not one of the little noble heads, that are now raised, surprised, over the edge of the case, against the blue sky of Mombasa, shall be left to turn from one side to the other, all alone, in Hamburg, where no one knows Africa.

As to us, we shall have to find someone badly transgressing against us, before we can in decency ask the Giraffes to forgive us our transgressions against them.

The Giraffes, of course, are offered as a symbol of all that is unique and precious about Africa.

So, in parable and in memoir, Dinesen’s work is not only a creative endeavor to capture and preserve the unique beauty and truth of Africa and its people, it is also, at times, a desperate attempt to communicate that uniqueness to her fellow, often imperial-minded Europeans. Given my own literary bent, her understanding of her difficult task seems most poignant when she decides to adopt the cultural trappings the Europeans might best understand.

All my life I have held that you can class people according to how they may be imagined behaving to King Lear. You could not reason with King Lear, any more than with an old Kikuyu, and from the first he demanded too much of everybody; but he was a king. It is true that the African Native has not handed over his country to the white man in a magnificent gesture, so that the case is in some ways different from that of the old king and his daughters; the white men took over the country as a Protectorate. But I bore in mind that not very long ago, at a time that could still be remembered, the Natives of the country had held their land undisputed, and had never heard of the white men and their laws. Within the general insecurity of their existence the land to them was still steadfast. Some of them were carried off by the slave-traders and were sold at slave-markets, but some of them always remained. Those who were taken away, in their exile and thralldom all over the Eastern world, would long back to the highlands, for that was their own land. The old dark clear-eyed Native of Africa, and the old dark clear-eyed Elephant,--they are alike, you see them standing on the ground, weighty with such impressions of the world around them as have been slowly gathered and heaped up in their dim minds; they are themselves features of the land. Either one of the two might find himself quite perplexed by the sight of the great changes that are going on all round him, and might ask you where he was, and you would have to answer him in the words of Kent: “In your own kingdom, Sir.”

But as much as the people of my own literary heritage may appreciate the comparison of the Native African with Lear, the most subtle and powerful literary comparison in Out of Africa is not to Shakespeare but to Homer.

One night as I looked up I met these profound attentive eyes and after a moment he spoke. “Msabu,” he said, “do you believe yourself that you can write a book?”

I answered that I did not know.

To figure to oneself a conversation with Kamante one must imagine a long, pregnant, as if deeply responsible, pause before each phrase. All Natives are masters in the art of the pause and thereby give perspective to a discussion.

Kamante now made such a long pause, and then said, “I do not believe it.”

I had nobody else to discuss my book with; I laid down my paper and asked him why not. I now found that he had been thinking the conversation over before, and prepared himself for it; he stood with the Odyssey itself behind his back, and here he laid it on the table.

“Look, Msabu,” he said, “this is a good book. It hangs together from the one end to the other. Even if you hold it up and shake it strongly, it does not come to pieces. The man who had written it is very clever. But what you write,” he went on, both with scorn and with a sort of friendly compassion, “is some here and some there. When people forget to close the door it blows about, even down on the floor and you are angry. It will not be a good book.”

I explained to him that in Europe the people would be able to fix it all up together.

Dinesen, of course, is writing here about writing the book she has written. In other words, the book she is writing in this scene with the native Kamante is the same book that I found myself reading, some 80 years later, in my comfortable living room chair. I still remember the pleasant nostalgia that realization filled me with, and how it made me even more curious about what she would say about these accusations from Kamante.

“Will your book then be as heavy as this?” Kamante asked, weighing the Odyssey.

When he saw that I hesitated he handed it to me in order that I might judge for myself.

“No,” I said, “it will not, but there are other books in the library, as you know, that are lighter.”

“And as hard?” he asked.

I said it was expensive to make a book so hard.

He stood for some time in silence and then expressed his greater hopes of my book, and perhaps also repentance of his doubts, by picking up the scattered pages from the floor and laying them on the table. Still he did not go away, but stood by the table and waited, and then asked me gravely: “Msabu, what is there in books?”

A ha. Kamante, unable to read, is a stranger to books, and can only approach them with regard to their weight, their feel, their look. But there is a wonder there. A wonder that is the truest treasure that any teller of tales can find.

As an illustration, I told him the story from the Odyssey of the hero and Polyphemus, and how Odysseus had called himself Noman, had put out Polyphemus’ eye, and had escaped tied up under the belly of a ram.

Kamante listened with interest and expressed as his opinion, that the ram must have been of the same race as the sheep of Mr. Long, of Elmentaita, which he had seen at the cattle-show in Nairobi. He came back to Polyphemus, and asked me if he had been black, like the Kikuyu. When I said no, he wanted to know if Odysseus had been of my own tribe or family.

“How did he,” he asked, “say the word, Noman, in his own language? Say it.”

“He said Outis,” I told him. “He called himself Outis, which in his language means Noman.”

He is trying to understand. Kamante is trying to interpret this ancient myth through the filter of his own culture and understanding. But now the really interesting thing happens.

“Must you write about the same thing?” he asked me.

“No,” I said, “people can write of anything they like. I might write of you.”

Can they? Dinesen is going out of her way here to connect her book to the Odyssey. And despite the focus of that connection being squarely on their differences, a careful reader should be sensitive to their similarities as well.

Kamante who had opened up in the course of the talk, here suddenly closed again, he looked down himself and asked me in a low voice, what part of him I would write about.

“I might write about the time when you were ill and were out with the sheep on the plain,” I said, “what did you think of then?”

His eyes wandered over the room, up and down; in the end he said vaguely: “Sejui--I know not.”

“Were you afraid?” I asked him.

After a pause, “Yes,” he said firmly, “all the boys on the plain are afraid sometimes.”

“Of what were you afraid,” I said.

Kamante stood silent for a little while, his face became collected a deep, his eyes gazed inward. Then he looked at me with a little wry grimace:

“Of Outis,” he said. “The boys on the plain are afraid of Outis.”

Kamante does not relate to Odysseus, the way a wandering European like Dinesen might. He relates instead to Polyphemus, the simple native tricked by the freebooting outsider. And in that revelation it is clear to see that the differences between Out of Africa and the Odyssey that matter to Dinesen have nothing to do with its physical construction and materials, and everything to do with the characters who propel the story forward.

A few days later, I heard Kamante explain to the other houseboys that in Europe the book which I was writing could be made to stick together, and that with terrible expense it could even be made as hard as the Odyssey, which was again displayed. He himself, however, did not believe that it could be made blue.

This return to the similarities underscores that Out of Africa should be read as Dinesen’s Odyssey, with the Natives, and more generally, Africa itself, that Kamante represents, as its hero.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, August 15, 2016

Leaders Need to Play a Different Game

This is one of those ideas that just keeps popping up again and again. That one of the things that separates leaders from managers is the game that they are playing.

It's not always obvious. No one should be faulted for thinking that everyone on the team is playing the same game. Indeed, that's a natural human tendency, and the topic of innumerable books about how to manage teams. We're all in this together!

But the job of the leader is very different than those of the managers that report to him or her. Many of us work in highly complex environments, with cross-functional teams comprised of stakeholders in and out of our business units or even our organizations. And leaders of those kind of teams have to keep their eye on a different game than the one everyone else is playing.

What game is that? Well, it goes a little something like this.

Set the high-level goals that will determine the team's success. Communicate them clearly and consistently, and then step out of the way and let the team do its work. Monitor what the team is doing, but don't intervene unless you see something happening that does not serve the high-level goals. And when team members come to you with questions, do not give them the answers. Instead ask them to make the decision based on what they think will best serve the high-level goals.

I'm playing one of these games right now--with a project and a team whose complexity rivals anything I have ever experienced before. And I have been tempted many times to rush in and start making some tactical decisions. But whenever I have strayed in that direction, I have discovered that the team gets mired in the minutiae of the moment--my decision being contested because it runs counter to someone else's understanding of what we are doing. Playing the game at that level, in other words, leads to disagreement and stalemate.

So I take a step back. What are we trying to achieve here? Do we have a clear and common understanding? If we're going to argue, let's argue about that, and let's not stop until we have agreement. And once there, then go ahead and make any tactical decision you want--as long as it conforms to the objective we've just agreed to.

It works. Not only does it keep you out of the weeds, but it leads to better tactical decisions, even among a group of people who work for different business units or organizations.

It may be playing a different game than the one you're used to, but if you're the leader of one of these cross-functional teams, it may be the only game that matters.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Organizational Alignment Flows From Decentralized Decision-Making

I wrote a post some time back on what I called paradoxes in association management, which I defined as counter-intuitive practices that we must embrace if we want to be successful. Here's one:

Organizational alignment flows more easily from decentralized decision-making than command-and-control bureaucracy.

This one might be the most counter-intuitive of them all. If you want organizational alignment, after all--everyone in your organization doing the right thing at the right time in service of your organizational mission--don't you pretty much have to tell them what to do and when to do it? You need a "command and control" management style, because otherwise the people under you will go off and do what they want. Right?


I've found the better approach to be to decentralize as much of the day-to-day decision-making as possible. Empower people to make their own decisions as close to the point of impact as possible. And if they bring decisions back to you, don't make them for them. Instead, use the interaction as an opportunity to discuss and reinforce either your organizational mission or the strategic priority most closely related to the issue at hand.

Because in a decentralized structure, those are the things everyone has to be consistent on. This is what we're here to do (mission), and these are the primary ways that we do it (strategic priorities). Every situation we encounter and decision we have to make is going to be unique, so if we're not on the same page with regard to what we're seeking to accomplish in the big picture, we'll wind up making hundreds of disconnected and potentially contradictory decisions.

It doesn't always work from day one--especially if you're trying to switch from the "command and control" to the "decentralized decision-making" model--but it does work, primarily because it forces the organization to talk about and to clarify the things that really matter and that correlate with its overall success.

Most people, in fact, don't like being told what to do. And most bosses, in fact, are juggling too many balls to consistently make appropriate decisions for the challenges met by their staff people. Dedicating the same amount of time to talking about mission and strategic priorities winds up saving time and building a more effective organization in the long run.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Moral Politics by George Lakoff

This is a fascinating, if sometimes repetitive, read. The subtitle is “How Liberals and Conservatives Think,” and under that banner it attempts to do two difficult things. One, explain why political liberals and conservatives think the way they do, and two, decide which way of thinking is better. I say difficult because, regardless of how much science and cognitive study Lakoff relies on to make his conclusions (and he relies on quite a lot, the book sometimes reading more like a textbook) lots of people in both the liberal and conservative camps are going to disagree with how he characterizes the way that they think, and everyone in the conservative camp is going to disagree with his conclusion about which way of thinking is better (i.e., liberal).

Needless to say, I enjoyed the first part of the book more than the second part; not because I’m a raging conservative, but because it plainly reads more like objective conclusions drawn from science and less like political opinions based on those objective conclusions. Accusations along those lines were probably unavoidable, given Lakoff’s stated purposes, and the author admits as much in several places in the book.

But let’s start at the very beginning. In the book’s opening acknowledgements, Lakoff says:

This book began with a conversation in my garden several years ago with my friend the late Paul Baum. I asked Paul if he could think of a single question, the answer to which would be the best indicator of liberal vs. conservative political attitudes. His response: “If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?” The attempt to understand his answer led to this book.

Baum’s suggestion, it turns out, is an insightful one, at least according to the theory Lakoff subsequently offers in the book. That theory basically has two parts. One, people’s political attitudes are driven by their underlying morality and, in America, there are two basic moral frameworks at play, both arising out of different view of the family.

Conservatism, as we shall see, is based on a Strict Father model [of the family], while liberalism is centered around a Nurturant Parent model. These two models of the family give rise to different moral systems and different discourse forms, that is, different choices of words and different modes of reasoning.

And two, these family-based moral systems are relevant to political opinions because of the widespread view of the Nation through the metaphor of a family.

The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is, namely, as a family. It is the common, unconscious, and automatic metaphor of the Nation-as-Family that produces contemporary conservatism from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nurturant Parent morality.

Before reading this book, I don’t think I ever realized how powerful this Nation-as-Family metaphor is. Both conservatives and liberals use it automatically. Indeed, Lakoff’s whole point is that the reasons conservatives and liberals think differently about politics is because they are basing their opinions on two different (and valid) conceptions of the family.

Except, our nation is not a family. We are not children of the government, and to believe that we are fundamentally misses the point of American-style democracy as it was originally structured. It also excludes from political conversations things governments are able to do (and sometimes should) that families could never dream of.

Indeed, an argument regularly used for the balanced-budget amendment is that, just as a family’s budget must be balanced, so must a nation’s. Any economist, liberal or conservative, knows that there are many crucial differences between a family and a nation that make the analogy economically ludicrous: a family can’t initiate economic stimulus programs, print new currency, or increase taxes.

But, as erroneous as the metaphor may be, it is entrenched. It shapes the way both conservatives and liberals think about politics, and it makes them both think the other is crazy or evil.

So far as I can tell, the main issue in every conservative political policy is morality--good versus evil. There is nothing surprising in this. Conservatives consider themselves moral people and they talk about morality and the family constantly. But to liberals, who have their own very different moral system, conservative policies are so immoral that any conservative discussion of morality is taken as demagoguery.

Of course, liberals also see their policies as moral and their overall politics as serving moral goals. Conservatives, however, talk as if liberals were degenerates opposed to morality; as if they were corrupted by special interests; as if they loved expensive and inefficient bureaucracy; as if they wanted to take away the rights of citizens. Each side sees the other as immoral, corrupt, and lunkheaded. Neither side wants to see the other as moral in any way. Neither side wants to recognize that there are two opposed, highly-structured, well-grounded, widely accepted, and utterly contradictory moral systems at the center of American politics.

After defining his theory and these two moral systems, and before moving on to discussing which way of thinking is correct, Lakoff does something, for me, immensely more interesting. He applies, as objectively as he can, the two moral systems to some of the most politically controversial issues of our day. And in doing so, he can’t help but make observations, again and again, about how the conservative worldview is practically never an issue of coherent ideology supported by objective facts. It is practically always, as mentioned above, an issue of making moral judgments based on their Strict Father interpretation of the family and applying them to the political issue at hand.

For example, in a section called “Military Spending,” he says:

In the Strict Father model, it is the duty of the strict father to protect his family above all else. By the Nation As Family metaphor, this implies that the major function of the government is, above all else, to protect the nation. That is why conservatives see the funding of the military as moral, while the funding of social programs is seen as immoral.

There is more than a little irony in this. The military is, on the inside, a huge social program, with its own health care, schools, housing, pensions, education benefits, PX discounts, officers’ clubs, golf courses, and so on--all paid for at public expense. But the military represents the strength of the nation, and strength has the highest priority in the Strict Father model.

In “Crime,” he says:

By Strict Father morality, harsh prison terms for criminals and life imprisonment for repeat offenders are the only moral options. Programs like Minnesota’s Kids First [a program that stresses day care, education, and community involvement over harsh imprisonment, and which operates at a lower cost with better crime prevention results] are social programs and are, as such, immoral to conservatives for reasons given above. The conservative arguments are moral arguments, not practical arguments. Statistics about which policies do or do not actually reduce crimes rates do not count in a morality-based discourse.

In “Education,” he says:

National educational standards are also set by the Department of Education. These standards include things that conservatives would rather not have taught and do not include things that conservatives do want to have taught, such as the recently developed new history curriculum which sets national standards for the teaching of history. Because conservatives have been most effective in changing education at the local level, the elimination of national standards and the leaving of content to local school boards would make it much easier for conservatives to change the curricula in the direction of conservative morality and politics. In other words, the issue seems to be not whether the standards are national or local, but whether they accord with Strict Father morality. Since the promotion of Strict Father morality itself has the highest of values in that moral system, it should follow that conservatives would be happy to have national standards that upheld Strict Father morality.

I think what I find most fascinating about these observations--apart from them being obviously true--is that most conservatives I know would not even deny them. When the question is put to them, “Are facts or moral opinions more important in determining your policy prescriptions?” you can bet that the answer is, “Moral opinions. Damn straight!”

And this is defensible to them for a very key reason. These moral opinions, for them, are not opinions.

Conservatives believe that all of the major ills of our present society come from a failure to abide by their moral system. Moreover, they believe that their moral system is the only true American moral system, as well as the only moral system behind Western civilization.

In addition…

Many religious conservatives believe that teaching both moral systems is itself immoral. Because it promotes discussion about what morality is, it prompts children to think for themselves, rather than merely obeying authority.

For anyone who wants to argue against this worldview, you will find that you have a steep hill to climb. Indeed, most of the time, it feels like a sheer brick wall.

Only with all this analysis as his background does Lakoff finally move onto his second difficult task, deciding which way of thinking is better. And by this point, the deck already feels stacked against conservatism. On top of that, Lakoff explicitly states his own bias.

I am a committed liberal. In the process of writing this book, I have had to examine, and therefore question, every point of my own beliefs. Every day, I have had to compare my liberal beliefs with conservative beliefs and ask myself what, if any, reason I had to hold my beliefs.

But then comes a startling admission.

I have emerged from the process with a great respect for the coherence of the conservative position and for the intelligence and cleverness used by conservatives in articulating their views in a powerful way. Like many other liberals, I once thought of conservatives disparagingly as mean, or insensitive, or selfish, or tools of the rich, or just downright fascists. I have come to realize that conservatives are, for the most part, ordinary people who see themselves as highly moral idealists defending what they deeply believe is right. I now understand why there are so many fervently committed conservatives.

I felt this way, too. Even in the first part of the book, when Lakoff was objectively describing conservatism through the lens of Strict Father morality and liberalism through the lens of Nurturant Parent morality, I could see how attractive the simplicity of the conservative worldview was over the complexity of the liberal.

Here are the two models as Lakoff describes them:


A traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall family policy. He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment. The punishment is typically mild to moderate, but sufficiently painful. It is commonly corporal punishment--say, with a belt or a stick. He also gains their cooperation by showing love and appreciation when they do follow the rules. But children must never be coddled, lest they become spoiled; a spoiled child will be dependent for life and will not learn proper morals.

The mother has day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority. Children must respect and obey their parents, partly for their own safety and partly because by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are a vital part of family life, but they should never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance--tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that a child must learn. A mature adult becomes self-reliant through applying self-discipline in pursuing his self-interest. Only if a child learns self-discipline can he become self-reliant later in life. Survival is a matter of competition, and only through self-discipline can a child learn to compete successfully.

The mature children of the Strict Father have to sink or swim by themselves. They are on their own and have to prove their responsibility and self-reliance. They have attained, through discipline, authority over themselves. They have to, and are competent to, make their own decisions. They have to protect themselves and their families. They know what is good for them better than their parents, who are distant from them. Good parents do not meddle or interfere in their lives. Any parental meddling or interference is strongly resented.

Simple and straightforward and with, whether you agree with it or not, clear implications for political opinions through the extension of the Nation As Family metaphor. Now, here’s the other model:


A family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one. If two, the parents share household responsibilities.

The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care.

Children develop best through their positive relationships to others, through their contribution to their community, and through the ways in which they realize their potential and find joy in life. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being cared for and respected, and through caring for others. Support and protection are part of nurturance, and they require strength and courage on the part of parents. The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents, not out of the fear of punishment.

Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial. If parents’ authority is to be legitimate, they must tell children why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance. The questioning of parents by children is positive, since children need to learn why their parents do what they do, since children often have good ideas that should be taken seriously, and since all family members should participate in important decisions. Responsible parents, of course, have to make the ultimate decisions and that must be clear.

Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes up a significant part of the nurturant parent’s attention. The world is filled with evils that can harm a child, and it is the nurturant parent’s duty to ward them off. Crime and drugs are, of course, significant, but so are less obvious dangers: cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous toys, inflammable clothing, pollution, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases, unscrupulous businessmen, and so on. Protection of innocent and helpless children from such evils is a major part of a nurturant parent’s job.

The principal goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives and to become nurturant themselves. A fulfilling life is assumed to be, in significant part, a nurturant life, one committed to family and community responsibility. Self-fulfillment and the nurturance of others are seen as inseparable. What children need to learn most is empathy for others, the capacity for nurturance, cooperation, and the maintenance of social ties, which cannot be done without the strength, respect, self-discipline, and self-reliance that comes through being cared for and caring. Raising a child to be fulfilled also requires helping that child develop his or her potential for achievement and enjoyment. That requires respecting the child’s own values and allowing the child to explore the range of ideas and options that the world offers.

When children are respected, nurtured, and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring with their parents.

Apart from just being longer (478 vs. 323 words) this description of the Nurturant Parent model of childrearing, is more complicated and nuanced than the Strict Father model, with more varied and more interconnected expectations and responsibilities of both parents and children. It is this nuance, I think, that causes additional problems when, comparatively, when the two models are mapped onto conservative and liberal political opinions. The apparent succinctness and simplicity of conservative opinions stem directly from the succinctness and simplicity of their family-based moral system.

And this is why, ideologically, conservatives always seem to beat the pants off liberals. In his analysis, Lakoff clearly spells out this political phenomenon.

Because conservatives understand the moral dimension of our politics better than liberals do, they have been able not only to gain political victories but to use politics in the service of a much larger moral and cultural agenda for America, an agenda that if carried out would, I believe, destroy much of the moral progress made in the twentieth century. Liberals have been helpless to stop them, largely, I think, because they don’t understand the conservative worldview and the role of moral idealism and the family within it.

This book was written in 1996, when political conservatism was on the rise, not just in its ideological corners, but seemingly, across broad swaths of middle America. That may be less true today, but Lakoff’s general point survives. Conservatives are better moral ideaologues than liberals. And they bring that “A” game to their politics.

Conservatives know that politics is not just about policy and interest groups and issue-by-issue debate. They have learned that politics is about family and morality, about myth and metaphor and emotional identification. They have, over twenty-five years, managed to forge conceptual links in the voters’ minds between morality and public policy. They have done this by carefully working out their values, comprehending their myths, and designing a language to fit those values and myths so that they can evoke them with powerful slogans, repeated over and over again, that reinforce those family-morality-policy links, until the connections have come to seem natural to many Americans, including many in the media. As long as liberals ignore the moral, mythic, and emotional dimension of politics, as long as they stick to policy and interest groups and issue-by-issue debate, they will have no hope of understanding the nature of the political transformation that has overtaken this country and they will have no hope of changing it.

Is that spot-on, or what? We live in a time where the moral, mythic, and emotional dimension of politics has trumped all (no pun intended).

But as morally powerful as conservatism is, for Lakoff, in terms of which way of thinking is best, there is no contest. He is squarely against conservatism, primarily because he is so dead set against Strict Father morality.

Strict Father morality is not just unhealthy for children. It is unhealthy for any society. It sets up good vs. evil, us vs. them dichotomies and recommends aggressive punitive action against “them.” It divides society into groups that “deserve” reward and punishment, where the grounds on which “they” “deserve” to have pain inflicted on them are essentially subjective and ultimately untenable. … Strict Father morality thereby breeds a divisive culture of exclusion and blame. It appeals to the worst of human instincts, leading people to stereotype, demonize, and punish the Other--just for being the Other.

And he pulls out all the stops to back these assertions up. One of the more impactful sections for me was where he dissects the information available in childrearing manuals written by and for a conservative Christian audience. These are directly relevant, Lakoff argues, because of how closely people in general, and conservatives especially, align their beliefs about childrearing with their beliefs about politics, embedded, as we all seem to be in the Nation As Family metaphor. And the stuff in these childrearing manuals, to say nothing of the proudly ignorant thinking from which it spawns, is downright scary.

The conservative Christians who set the conservative family values agenda are not particularly interested in empirical research or the wisdom of the extensive community of mainstream experts on childrearing. As James Dobson puts it,

“I don’t believe the scientific community is the best source of information on proper parenting techniques. There have been some worthwhile studies to be sure. But the subject of parent-child interaction is incredibly complex and subtle. The only way to investigate it scientifically is to reduce the relationship to its simplest common denominators, so it can be examined. But in doing so, the overall tone is missed. Some things in life are so complicated that they defy rigorous scrutiny, and parental discipline (in my view) appears to be one of them.

“The best source of guidance for parents can be found in the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which originated with the Creator and has been handed down generation after generation from the time of Christ.”

Let’s turn Lakoff loose on that nonsense.

I simply do not agree that research about childrearing is irrelevant. There are important things to know. What are the effects of punishing children, especially beating them with sticks, belts, and paddles? Are there physical effects? Long-term psychological effects? Is there any correlation between punishment by beating and humiliation and violent behavior later in life? Do most delinquent children have a history of strict parenting, nurturant parenting, or is it fifty-fifty? What is the effect of first whipping a child and then hugging her? What is the effect of breaking down a child’s will by hitting her with a stick? What is the effect of demanding absolute obedience to a father’s authority?

Good, discoverable questions all. But the real indictment comes when Lakoff summarizes what the conservative Christian guide to childrearing actually stands for.

To see more clearly what is at stake in knowing about research on such matters, let us look closely at what some conservative Christian childrearing manuals have to say about how children should be raised. These manuals are clear on many points.

1. Children are inherently sinful and defiant.
2. Only punishment and reward will train children away from defiance and pursuing their sinful desires.
3. The only way a child can be raised properly is for a father to demand absolute obedience to his authority. Any questioning of authority requires swift and painful punishment.
4. Obedience can be taught only through painful corporal punishment--by whipping with belts or beating with switches or paddles.
5. Continued disobedience requires greater beating.
6. Punishment for disobedience is a form of love.
7. Parental authority is a proper model for all authority, and children must learn to obey authority so that they can wield it properly in later life.

I think it would be difficult to write seven successive statements like this, each one even more wrong than the one before it. And what follows is even more scary. Pages and pages of quotes from these childrearing manuals, taking one or all of these seven false statements to their logical conclusions. Here’s my “favorite.”

Obedience is the most necessary ingredient to be required from the child. This is especially true for a girl, for she must be obedient all her life. The boy who is obedient to his mother and father will some day become the head of the home; not so for the girl. Whereas the boy is being trained to be a leader, the girl is being trained to be a follower. Hence, obedience is far more important to her, for she must some day transfer it from her parents to her husband. … This means that she should never be allowed to argue at all. She should become submissive and obedient. She must obey immediately, without question, and without argument. The parents who require this have done a big favor for their future son-in-law.

Perverse, isn’t it?

Lakoff is clearly expecting that these explorations will convince the reader that Strict Father morality is the wrong way to raise children, with Nurturant Parent morality being the far preferred, and far more effective, way of achieving those goals. And, in this regard, Lakoff presents a compelling case.

But since I believe in the fundamental fallacy of the Nation As Family metaphor, a premise on which much of Lakoff’s condemnation of conservatism is based, there is one additional question that only seems fair to ask. Strict Father morality is a horrible way to raise children. But is it a horrible way of running a country?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, August 1, 2016

Bonuses Should Reward High Organizational Performance

I've written a few times here about my experiment with The Four Disciplines of Execution, or 4DX, as it is often abbreviated. The last time I wrote about it, I was dissecting the experiment I've run to date, and offered up the three factors that caused us the most difficulty.

If you're interested, go here for the full blog post. When talking about the second factor, an admission that it was unclear that all of the "Wildly Important Goals," or "WIGs," that we had chosen truly mattered for our organization's overall success, I shared the following information:

Partly in response to that dynamic, and partly to give the best WIGs more focus in our whirlwind of activity, I decided mid-year to attach financial bonuses to some of the metrics. Ten metrics made this cut, and the message was that if the goals associated with them are achieved, the entire staff would receive a designated bonus at year-end. The proposal was met with enthusiasm when first rolled out, but as time wore on, and some of the goals fell unachieved by the wayside, the remainder have been sucked back into the whirlwind. A certain kind of fatalism appears to have taken over, and more than one staff person has told me that they don't believe the metrics actually are things they have the ability to affect.

Ever since I wrote that, I've been meaning to come back and talk about it more expansively. Our fiscal year has since ended, and I can report that of the ten metrics I identified for bonus consideration, only two were achieved by me and my staff. And what I said about a kind of fatalism setting in stayed with us to the very end. It's as though, collectively, we said, "Well, we might achieve some of these goals, and we might not achieve others. If we knock a few of them off, we'll get a little more money out of the deal, and that will be nice. But is it really worth doing something different? Or putting in more time? After all, it's not like we really have control over these things anyway."

As a supervisor, it was a frustrating experience. But now I'm in the process of formulating this year's bonus plan, and I have to figure out a way to take a productive step forward. And based on last year's experience, I'm thinking of moving in two distinct directions.

1. There will be fewer bonus goals next year, and they will more obviously be connected to the overall success of the organization. This one seems obvious. If I want to use our bonus structure to focus our attention on the things that matter most, giving us too many targets to shoot at is probably counterproductive. Three, or perhaps four (not ten!) goals seem about right, and not only do all of them have to be things that are unquestionably part of the organization's overall ability to grow and improve its execution on core programs, they have to be the kind of things that no one person can achieve on their own. Individual achievement is great, but our bonuses are meant to reward team achievement, so let's make sure the targets are things that require people to come together and work productively across departments.

2. They will be more, not less, difficult to achieve. This one I feel pretty strongly about. Just because only two of ten goals were achieved last year does not mean that the targets were set too high. Because the targets are not meant to be indicative of our ability to achieve them, but indicative of the level of success that is necessary to grow and improve the organization. That's why I am justified in attaching bonus incentives to them. If they were easily within our reach, they wouldn't be bonuses at all. I'd just add them to someone's job description and expect their successful completion. Paying out bonuses is not something I have to do, and if it's going to happen, it should be in response to things that elevate the overall performance of the organization.

I doubt either of these decisions will make me very popular. They may, in fact, breed more of the fatalism that I saw last year. If they are too difficult, after all, why should long-tenured and well-compensated staff members even try?

I can't answer that question. At the end of the day, I think, I can only decide what it is I want to reward in our organization, and set up an appropriate system for rewarding it.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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