Monday, September 18, 2017

Hurricanes and Asynchronous Communication

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were on everyone's mind these last few weeks. Even if you weren't directly affected by them through mandatory evacuations, storm damage, or the tragic loss of life, the hurricanes were undoubtedly on your mind and they probably impacted the way you did your job.

My social media feeds were full of examples of associations pitching in to help storm victims or otherwise changing their marketing and communications strategy to give members in the hurricane affected areas a break from what otherwise must be an onslaught of association messages.

My association, however, didn't do any of these things. We have members in Texas and Florida (Houston and Sarasota, to be precise), but everything coming out of our office was, damn the hurricanes, full speed ahead.

I'm not bragging. In fact, I feel a little ashamed. We don't have that many members in the affected areas. A few personal reach-outs would have been easy and probably would have been well received. Hey, how are you guys doing down there? We're thinking about you. We'll lay off for a few days, but please, let us know if there is anything we can do to help.

Perhaps it is the overwhelming asynchronicity of our regular communications that is responsible. Increasingly, real-time communication with our members only happens in person at our live events. My schedule and theirs are so full of meetings and travel commitments that even phone calls have to be scheduled. Hey, there's something I need to talk to you about. What's your schedule look like for the next two weeks?

In this environment both my members and I have become used to and somewhat proficient at asynchronous communications through email. Just this past week my Board chair and I have been discussing topics for our next Board meeting, with his emails coming in at 1:42 AM as he moves from Europe to India.

In this way, the idea of suspending communications to members in hurricane affected areas seemed unnecessary. After all, I'm already not expecting an immediate response. Whether you're in the office and everything is fine, on the road on a planned business trip, or, heaven forbid, forcibly evacuated from the path of a terrible storm, getting back to me sometime in the next couple of days is totally fine.

Was I wrong?

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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, September 16, 2017

Games People Play by Eric Berne, M.D.

Occasionally, I’ll pick up an old psychology book from a used bookstore on the strength of its title. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships is one such book. I knew nothing else about it. One of its preliminary pages says it was copyrighted in 1964 and, at least at the time of the edition I had picked up, it had already gone through forty printings.

And even at no more than 192 pages, it was a tough read.

The premise seems sound. Berne defines his “games” like this:

A game is an on-going series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively it is a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or “gimmick.” Games are clearly differentiated from procedures, rituals, and pastimes by two chief characteristics: (1) their ulterior quality and (2) the payoff. Procedures may be successful, rituals effective, and pastimes profitable, but all of them are by definition candid; they may involve contest, but no conflict, and the ending may be sensational, but it is not dramatic. Every game, on the other hand, is basically dishonest, and the outcome has a dramatic, as distinct from merely exciting, quality.

And, more specifically, he claims his study will focus on one particularly unique set of games.

What we are concerned with here, however, are the unconscious games played by innocent people engaged in duplex transactions of which they are not fully aware, and which form the most important aspect of social life all over the world.

And that all sounds great to me. An analysis of the unconscious games that people play, the social transactions that they unknowingly and repeatedly engage in, in order to achieve the dramatic outcomes they secretly covet, and around which much of our understanding of human psychology can be based? That sounds like a very interesting read.

But things quickly go south.

A large cocktail party often functions as a kind of gallery for the exhibition of pastimes. In one corner of the room a few people are playing “PTA,” another corner is the forum for “Psychiatry,” a third is the theater for “Ever Been” or “What Became,” the fourth is engaged for “General Motors,” and the buffet is reserved for women who want to play “Kitchen” or “Wardrobe.” The proceedings at such a gathering may be almost identical, with a change of names here and there, with the proceedings at a dozen similar parties taking place simultaneously in the area. At another dozen in a different social stratum, a different assortment of pastimes is underway.

Pastimes may be classified in different ways. The external determinants are sociological (sex, age, marital status, cultural, racial or economic). “General Motors” (comparing cars) and “Who Won” (sports) are both “Man Talk.” “Grocery,” “Kitchen,” and “Wardrobe” are all “Lady Talk” -- or, as practised in the South Seas, “Mary Talk.” “Making Out” is adolescent, while the onset of middle age is marked by a shift to “Balance Sheet.” Other species of this class, which are all variations of “Small Talk,” are: “How To” (go about doing something), and easy filler for short airplane trips; “How Much” (does it cost), a favorite in lower middle-class bars; “Ever Been” (to some nostalgic place), a middle-class game for “old hands” such as salesmen; “Do You Know” (so-and-so) for lonely ones; “What Became” (of good old Joe), often played by economic successes and failures; “Morning After” (what a hangover) and “Martini” (I know a better way), typical of a certain kind of ambitious young person.

The structural-transactional classification is a more personal one. Thus “PTA” may be played at three levels. At the Child-Child level it takes the form of “How Do You Deal with Recalcitrant Parents”; its Adult-Adult form, “PTA” proper, is popular among well-read young mothers; with older people it tends to take the dogmatic Parent-Parent form of “Juvenile Delinquency.” Some married couples play “Tell Them Dear,” in which the wife is Parental and the husband comes through like a precocious child. “Look Ma No Hands” is similarly a Child-Parent pastime suitable for people of any age, sometimes diffidently adapted into “Aw Shucks Fellows.”

I know he’s talking about “pastimes” here, and not “games,” but frankly, despite all his protestations to the obvious differences, I can’t really tell the difference. The Child-Child and Child-Parent stuff is part of his overarching theory, that people adopt different roles in different games -- roles that align roughly with our common concepts of Child, Adult and Parent -- and that they do this regardless of their actual age or station in life. But the way he classifies every common human interaction as a game, pastime, ritual, or procedure -- assuming throughout that the distinctions between those terms have either been clearly differentiated in his text or are self-evidently obvious to the reader -- left me questioning and doubting the soundness of his very premise.

And besides, how can anyone read something like that without drowning in the cynical whirlpool that it creates? Perhaps I am just “Complaining,” seeking someone of like mind to “Trash Talk” with, or to play “Gosh, I’m Smart.”

There are some interesting tidbits. For example, it was fun to stumble across the following paragraph, having just read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.

Thus the young man in New Guinea with an old wrist watch dangling from his ear to ensure success, and the young man in America with a new wrist watch wrapped around his arm to ensure success, both feel that they have a “purpose” in life. The big celebration, the wedding or housewarming, takes place not when the debt is discharged, but when it is undertaken. What is emphasized on TV, for example, is not the middle-aged man who has finally paid off his mortgage, but the young man who moves into his new home with his family, proudly waving the papers he has just signed and which will bind him for most of his productive years. After he had paid his debts -- the mortgage, the college expenses for his children and his insurance -- he is regarded as a problem, a “senior citizen” for whom society must provide not only material comforts but a new “purpose.” As in New Guinea, if he is very shrewd, he may become a big creditor instead of a big debtor, but this happens relatively rarely.

Here is Becker’s vital lie, and the function that society plays -- American or New Guinean -- in providing it as an acceptable purpose through which its citizens dedicate themselves. All of it in replacement of the existential terror that people in all times and societies are doomed to face and desperate to avoid.

But more frequently, the surprises come when Berne’s analysis manages to straddle the dangerous territory between cynicism and sexism. Perhaps you got a sense of that above with his references to “Man Talk” and “Lady Talk.” It gets worse. Here he describes how the game of “Rapo” is played. For clinical purposes, I suppose, he has by now adopted a terminology of “White” and “Black” to “objectively” portray the adversaries in each game.

Third-Degree “Rapo” is a vicious game which ends in murder, suicide or the courtroom. Here White leads Black into compromising physical contact and then claims that he had made a criminal assault or had done her irreparable damage. In its most cynical form White may actually allow him to complete the sexual act so that she gets that enjoyment before confronting him. The confrontation may be immediate, as in the illegitimate cry of rape, or it may be long delayed, as in suicide or homicide following a prolonged love affair. If she choose to play it as a criminal assault, she may have no difficulty in finding mercenary or morbidly interested allies, such as the press, the police, counselors and relatives. Sometimes, however, these outsiders may cynically turn on her, so that she loses the initiative and becomes a tool in their games.

One has to wonder when the vernacular understanding of the word “game” begins to work against Berne’s thesis. “Rapo” is a game? Really? Berne, sexist as his phraseology is, may have been better served by choosing another word to describe such diabolical machinations.

At the end of the book, in a very short, final chapter, Berne seems to recognize what he has spent the previous 183 pages doing.

Chapter Eighteen

After Games, What?

The somber picture presented in Parts I and II of this book, in which human life is mainly a process of filling in time until the arrival of death, or Santa Claus, with very little choice, if any, of what kind of business one is going to transact during the long wait, is a commonplace but not the final answer. For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programming of the past, and that is spontaneity; and something that is more rewarding than games, and that is intimacy. But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as “togetherness.” This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it.

Wow. I think this should have been the first chapter. I might’ve had an easier time with what followed if this had been the context stated up front. He does say early on that games are played unconsciously, but an understanding that awareness, spontaneity and intimacy are the tonic one needs to avoid these patterns of behavior is the most useful piece of information in the entire book.

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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, September 11, 2017

Board Discussions Quiz

As I said last week, another association has invited me to speak at their Annual Leadership Conference on the subject of high-functioning association Boards. I'm going to hit four subjects during my presentation: Board selection, Board discussions, Board decisions, and Board succession. Each one is going to begin with a one-question quiz, with which I hope to take the temperature of the participants in the room.

Here's the question I've drafted for Board discussions.

Which statement most closely describes the perspective that dominates your Board discussions?
(a) Our Board discussions are primarily focused outward – not on the organization, but on the profession or industry it represents.
(b) Our Board discussions are primarily focused inward – on the organization, not on the profession or industry it represents.
(c) Our Board discussions have about equal focus inward and outward – on the organization and on the profession or industry it represents.

The "right" answer, of course, depends on the specifics of your own situation, but I plan to make the case that, for high-functioning Boards, the correct answer is either (a) or (c). Boards interested in increasing their effectiveness should be spending a large portion of their time discussing the profession or industry that the association represents, and not just the activities and structures of the association itself.

For my own association, the answer is (c). We make sure that we engage in what we call Environmental Scanning at each one of our Board meetings. This is where we consciously look outside the organization, into its environment, and discuss the forces and factors that are shaping the future, not of our association, but of the industry we represent.

We have done this in different ways at different meetings. Sometimes we make time for simple Board Member Statements, where we go around the table and have each participant talk for a few minutes about what they see going on in the marketplace. What's the state of their business? What's going well? Where are the pain points? As each additional person speaks, we consciously look for the inevitable themes that will emerge.

Other times we go a little more in depth, conducting Board Member Interviews before the meeting, where I will spend 30 minutes or so on the phone with each Board member, asking each of them the same questions about the state of our industry and where their competitive challenges lay. There are things that they will say one-on-one to me that they won't say with their fellow Board members at the table. Again, I'm listening for common themes, things I can bring to the Board meeting for expansion and discussion.

Sometimes, we theme those interviews around a traditional SWOT Analysis, where the questions are purposely focused both inward and outward. Looking inwardly, what are some of the organization’s greatest strengths and weaknesses? Looking outwardly, what are some of the greatest opportunities and threats facing the organization? Pulling common themes out of those questions always provides for a rich discussion at our Board table -- not just about the environment facing our organization, but also about how we can best leverage our strengths to respond.

But perhaps my favorite environmental scanning technique is something called Scenario Planning. I forget where I picked it up, but we have used it to great effect in my organization. In Scenario Planning, the organization accepts the fact that the future is uncertain, but that by focusing on two of the greatest uncertainties facing the organization, it can create a set of contingency plans so it can respond effectively as the future begins to unfold.

The first step is to identify those uncertainties -- or megatrends, as the technique calls them. A megatrend is an external force acting on the industry or profession the association represents, something everyone agrees will create change in their environment, but about which few understand what that change will be. It could force the industry or profession in two or more different directions. The first, and hardest, part of the process is to identify two of these megatrends, and the two most likely outcomes for each.

For example, the last time my Board did Scenario Planning, we chose the increasing globalization and technological diversification of the industry as our two megatrends. The industry was becoming increasingly globalized, but how would that impact our members? Would they embrace that trend, and globalize their businesses, or would they retreat from the global marketplace and focus their efforts, as they had for decades, on North America? And similarly, the solutions available to our industry's customers were becoming increasingly diversified, but how would that impact our members? Again, would they embrace that trend, and diversify the technologies that they offered, or would they fight back against that competition and focus their efforts, as they had for decades, on the one technology solution that we represented?

Two megatrends with two possible outcomes gives you the ability to set-up a simple quadrant grid, like the one shown below.

Megatrend X could go in direction X1 or X2, and Megatrend Y could go in direction Y1 or Y2. That means four different possible futures that could confront the organization. Based on which direction each megatrend goes, the organization could find itself facing outcome X1/Y2, X2/Y2, X1/Y1, or X2/Y1.

Now comes the elegant part of the process. Take each one of those outcomes, which we have abbreviated above as Outcomes A, B, C, and D, and compare them to the mission, strategic objectives, and programmatic activities of the association. If the association finds itself confronted with Outcome A, in other words, what does that mean for these fundamental elements of the association's existence? Should any changes be made? Any new opportunities to take advantage of or threats to avoid? What about Outcome B? C? And D?

Four possible futures mean four different organizational responses. Scenario Planning gives a Board not just the opportunity to define those futures, but to create organizational contingency plans to implement should any of those futures begin to manifest themselves.

Following the presentation of this material, I plan to ask the participants to discuss some of these concepts at their tables. What are the forces outside their organizations that are important for their Boards to address? How might their organizations start discussing and addressing those outside forces?

Knowing that every association faces a different situation, I fully expect the most practical learning to come out of these table discussions, and the brief report-outs that I will facilitate at their conclusion. I can set the stage and provide some examples, but if their experience is anything like mine, finding their own specific way forward is something only they can do.

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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, September 4, 2017

Board Selection Quiz

Another association has invited me to speak at their Annual Leadership Conference on the subject of high-functioning association Boards.

A handful of these opportunities have come my way since I started blogging, and I frankly relish them. They are much more than a chance for me to showcase my expertise, they do a great deal to help me frame and process my thinking on the subjects I blog about. Pumping out a weekly 300-word blog post in one thing. Getting up and speaking in front of an audience is something else. It forces me like nothing else to get my ducks in a row.

I'm going to hit four subjects during my presentation: Board selection, Board discussions, Board decisions, and Board succession. Each one is going to begin with a one-question quiz, with which I hope to take the temperature of the participants in the room.

Here's the question I've drafted for Board selection.

Which statement most closely describes the process by which candidates are selected for your Board?
(a) Our Board candidates are selected based on their possession of competencies that are deemed valuable to effective Board service.
(b) Our Board candidates are selected based on the stakeholder groups within our organization that they represent.
(c) Our Board candidates are selected based both on their valuable competencies and the stakeholder groups they represent.
(d) Our Board candidates select themselves.

The "right" answer, of course, depends on the specifics of your own situation, but I plan to make the case that, for high-functioning Boards, the correct answer is either (a) or (c). Boards interested in increasing their effectiveness should be defining the competencies that are needed for their organization, and then building ways to screen for those competencies in their Board candidate selection process.

For my own association, the answer is (c). We select candidates based both on their valuable competencies and the stakeholder groups they represent. We, in fact, have a Governance Policy, which is reviewed and approved each year, and which includes, among other things, the competencies that we believe are valuable to effective Board service. Those competencies are listed on the interest form we ask all potential Board candidates to complete, and they are asked to check the ones that they possess and which they believe they can effectively leverage for the organization.

Our Nominating Committee then uses the competencies that are leaving the Board in each cycle as the screen for helping to identify the candidates that will be nominated. In doing so, we understand that not every Board member need possess every competency, but that, as a whole, the Board should always possess that mix of competencies that it has determined are essential for its effective functioning.

Following the presentation of this material, I plan to ask the participants to discuss some of these concepts at their tables. Which competencies are important for their own Boards to possess? How might their organizations begin the process for selecting Board candidates based on those competencies?

Knowing that every association faces a different situation, I fully expect the most practical learning to come out of these table discussions, and the brief report-outs that I will facilitate at their conclusion. I can set the stage and provide some examples, but if their experience is anything like mine, finding their own specific way forward is something only they can do.

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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, September 2, 2017

The Hermit’s Story by Rick Bass

I don’t remember how I stumbled across Rick Bass. Maybe I heard one of his stories read on The New Yorker Fiction podcast that I listen to, and then, liking what I heard, added his name to a growing list of authors I’d like to read more.

I know I picked up The Hermit’s Story at one of my favorite used book stores, a collection of Bass stories that was published in 2002. To be honest, very few of them worked for me. Some of them, in fact, seemed formulaic and not well crafted.

The exception is The Distance, a story about a man named Mason, who returns to Monticello --Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia -- with his family, twenty-five years after he first visited it as a school boy. Jefferson, to Mason, is more of an enigma than a hero -- “a crackpot, quite possibly a loser, or at best a bully -- trying to impose his rigid principles on everybody around him.” And it is with this issue of control, and ultimately its ephemeral nature, that the subtext of the story really shines.

How he had wanted to control his world, and, for a little while, how he had succeeded. Jefferson has kept pet mockingbirds that were trained to fly in and out of his open windows. He had once owned a semidomesticated bull elk that would wander the grounds, not too tame and yet not too wild, either, moving along always in that blurred perimeter between the groomed orchard and the deeper woods, moving gracefully in the last wedge of each day’s waning light and sliding-in dusk: the elk in that manner seeming poised perfectly between the land of dreams and the land of the specific, the knowable.

This elk, Mason imagines, became Jefferson’s enigma, the elusive puzzle that alone could unlock his unique perspective on himself and his place in the world around him.

Historians say that for much of Jefferson’s later life, after the first elk vanished, he kept hoping to train another elk to fill that space, and those crepuscular moments, in the same fashion, but he was never again quite successful; all the other elk either became too tame, wandering up onto the porches even in the broad light of day, hoping for handouts, or were too wild, bolting for the deep woods immediately upon being released, and never being seen again.

How his precisionist’s heart must have raged against this fluidity, this refusal to adhere specifically to his ironclad plans and schemes. He died on the fourth of July, fifty years after he and his peers had penned the Declaration of Independence -- lingering on his deathbed for weeks, it is said, in order to make it to that anniversary -- and yet Mason has to wonder if in his last moments Jefferson was not remembering any declarations scripted, but instead dreaming yet again of that mythic antlered beast, the one whose force he wished to harness and whose dim blue shadow he had been able to glimpse out of his window at that one and perfect hour, each dusk, striding just barely in sight through the trees and the failing light, at the far and outer reaches of reality, less than a bound, a step, away from the land of dreams. A messenger, each evening, between that world and this one.

And it is through these imaginings, these proposed obsessions and symbols of Jefferson’s control, that Mason begins to explore his own motivations, the path his own life has taken as a result, and his own understanding of himself and his place in the larger world.

Doesn’t anyone, everyone, after twenty years of sameness, encounter such crises? Aren’t we all extraordinarily frail and in the end remarkably unimpressive, creatures too often of boring repetition and habit rather than bold imagination?

Who will rescue us, if not ourselves? Who will emancipate us, if not ourselves?

There is no one among us, Mason thinks, who does not dream of that wild elk. There is no one who is not, in some part, to some degree, both the animal itself -- torn between wanting to slip off down farther into the dark wilderness, and back up into the clean lawns and orchards of the tame, the possessed, the cared-for -- and yet also the viewer rather than the elk -- the watcher who waits and watches and hungers for that elk.

Eyes staring, right at dusk, for movement right at the edge of the great woods.

Waiting, right at dusk, for that lift of heart, upon first seeing the great beast take its first step from out of the impenetrable, magnificent wilderness.

It’s a gorgeous story.

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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 28, 2017

Moving the Goal Posts

One of the central challenges we face in our association is determining how we're going to measure success.

Even in a static environment, where our strategic objective and our methods for pursuing it remain unchanged, there are always differences of opinion about which metrics best represent true success and which metrics can actually be measured. Differences of opinion among both Board and staff members, all of whom must agree on a compromise if the organization is to both pursue and measure the effect of a single course of action.

That's hard enough. But when the environment is dynamic, when the association is pursuing an objective that requires frequent changes in both strategy and methods, coming up with a unified agreement of what spells success gets even more challenging.

We're pursuing a few of these "dynamic" initiatives in my association right now. They are marked, I've found, by the need for the association to learn more about the environment it is entering before it can successfully identify the true markers of success. In other words, you leap into an external environment with one understanding of what is needed, necessarily calibrating the program defining/metric tracking piece of your operation with that understanding, only to discover that, once you are in the thick of implementing those plans, that different tactics, and sometimes, a different strategy, are needed in order to achieve success.

What does one do in those circumstances? Ultimately, there is little choice. One has to move the goal posts. We were trying to achieve this. But now we're trying to achieve that.

That can create a lot disruption in the organization. Old programs have to be shut down and new programs have to be started up. Old metrics have to be abandoned and new metrics have to be identified and embraced. The Board and staff-level compromises that were made based on the first understanding have to all be revisited and revised. None of that is for the faint of heart.

But the alternative is to continue pursuing a strategy that increasing evidence shows is not getting your organization to the destination it seeks. If that is allowed to continue, it will wreak even greater havoc on your organization. Yes, moving the goal posts means re-engaging with all of your organization's stakeholders and doing the difficult work of re-educating them on your essential purpose. But keeping the goal posts where they are means turning what might be your organization's greatest endeavor into a make-work exercise.

As an association leader, there shouldn't be much of a choice between those two extremes.

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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 21, 2017

You Must Be Staff Driven

Last week I wrote about a presentation I would be giving at one of my association's major conferences -- a presentation on the work product of one of our technical committees. In that post, I said this:

Why I'm giving this presentation -- instead of say, the chair or other member of the committee -- is an interesting story in and of itself. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I think it is a reflection of a larger trend within my association where we are becoming more and more staff-driven. Or, if I want to be brutally honest, not staff- but CEO-driven. More on that, perhaps, in a future post.

Here's that future post.

I was at another conference not too long ago--a conference of my peers; chief staff executives of manufacturing-based trade associations--and I got into an interesting conversation with two colleagues of mine.

It was a discussion about the role of committees in our respective organizations. I trotted out my usual policy stance. Namely, that there are two different kinds of "committees" in our organization (committees in quotation marks because they go by several different names: committees, councils, task forces, working groups, etc.). Whatever we call them, there are essentially: (1) Governance committees that are appointed by the Board and which help the Board perform its governance function, and (2) Working committees that are appointed by the chief staff executive (i.e., me) and which help me manage the programs of the association. Although none of these working committees are currently chaired by me, I speculated in my discussion with my colleagues that perhaps that was a step worth taking, since one of the biggest challenges I had with our working committees was confusion over what their role in the organization was.

My two colleagues were both appalled by the apparent brazenness of my position. Neither one of them had anything like this in their organizations. For them, committees were always, always appointed by the Board and they always, always reported to the Board.

But aren't your Board agendas cluttered up with a lot of committee reports? Yes, they admitted that they were, and that this kept their Boards from being a strategic as they would like them to be.

And don't you have committee chairs trying to reinvent whatever strategy is determined at your Board table? Don't you find your attempts to execute a clear strategy hampered by a group of committee chairs who, rather than help you drive to the destination determined by the Board are always trying to define their own destinations and to get you to head in those directions? Again, yes, they admitted that these were among the most vexing problems that they faced.

Well, I told them, both of these problems are eliminated with the committee structure that I've described. When working committees report to the chief staff executive, and more pertinently, when the chief staff executive is actually positioned as the chair of those working committees, there's no need for the committee to report in to the Board, and there's no opportunity for the committee to work on things that fall outside the established strategy of the organization.

You must be staff driven, one of the colleagues said to me.

That made me stop and think. Staff driven. It's often a pejorative term in our industry, those using it seeming to imply that the association in question is less ethical than one "driven" by the volunteers. I've shied away from the term myself over the years, preferring to think that whatever control I was exerting over the associations I've worked for was solidly subservient to the strategic and budgetary decisions made by the elected volunteer leadership.

But the discussion with my colleagues helped me realize that it was no longer useful for me to be doing that. Like so many things in our world, the concepts of being staff driven and volunteer driven too often set up a false dichotomy in our minds and attitudes. The best associations, I believe, are neither staff driven nor volunteer driven. They are both. Their governance is volunteer driven and their management is staff driven.

Pretending that the appropriately staff driven parts of your organization are volunteer driven serves neither your volunteers nor the mission of your association. When it comes to executing a clear and coherent strategy, I believe you must be staff driven. And if that means that your working committees report to your staff, then that it what it needs to mean. To be effective, that part of your organization must not only be staff driven, it must be unapologetically so.

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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 19, 2017

Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe

I’ve not read much Tom Wolfe, but he strikes me as the kind of author I should read more of. That’s why I picked up a used copy of Hooking Up at one of the recent book sales hosted by my local public library. I knew nothing about it. I assumed it was a novel, similar in style to the only other Wolfe I have read, A Man in Full.

I was wrong. Hooking Up is a collection of essays (and one novella), some far more interesting than others. The worst of the bunch, in my opinion, is actually the titular Hooking Up, where Wolfe adopts a retrospective satiric lens to “report” on “What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World,” as described in the essay’s subtitle.

By the year 2000, the term “working class” had fallen into disuse in the United States, and “proletariat” was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts. Before dinner he would be out on the terrace of some resort hotel with his third wife, wearing his Ricky Martin cane-cutter shirt open down to the sternum, the better to allow his gold chains to twinkle in his chest hairs. The two of them would have just ordered a round of Quibel sparkling water, from the state of West Virginia, because by 2000 the once-favored European sparkling waters Perrier and San Pellegrino seemed so tacky.

That’s the first paragraph -- and it goes downhill from there, the satire drifting more frequently into condescension than intuitive understanding. It doesn’t date well, frankly. Perhaps it describes the world Wolfe saw when he looked around at the occupants of rent-controlled New York apartments, but the year 2000 that he describes is all-but-unrecognizable to this Midwesterner that has lived now 17 years past that mystical date.

But the essay Hooking Up does introduce and reveal an underlying theme for the rest of the book. Wolfe is clearly both a big thinker and an entertaining writer, combining those two elements together in thoughtful and engaging ways. But in all the various subjects he tackles -- art, science, politics, religion -- his bias is towards the idea that the old ways are the best. Wherever man tries to upend the established order, to Wolfe, he will fail.

For example, he (rightfully, to my way of thinking) dismisses most of the hype over the impact of the Internet on the human animal.

All of our digifuturists, even the best, suffer from what the philosopher Joseph Levine calls “the explanatory gap.” There is never an explanation of just why or how such vast changes, such evolutionary and revolutionary leaps forward, are going to take place. McLuhan at least recognized the problem and went to the trouble of offering a neuroscientific hypothesis, his theory of how various media alter the human nervous system by changing the “sensory balance.” Everyone after him has succumbed to what is known as the “Web-mind fallacy,” the purely magical assumption that as the Web, the Internet, spreads over the globe, the human mind expands with it. Magical beliefs are leaps of logic based on proximity or resemblance. Many primitive tribes have associated the waving of the crops or tall grass in the wind with the rain that follows. During a drought the tribesmen get together and create harmonic waves with their bodies in the belief that it is the waving that brings on the rain. Anthropologists have posited these tribal hulas as the origin of dance. Similarly, we have the current magical Web euphoria. A computer is a computer, and the human brain is a computer. Therefore, a computer is a brain, too, and if we get a sufficient number of them, millions, billions, operating all over the world, in a single seamless Web, we will have a superbrain that converges on a plane far above such old-fashioned concerns as nationalism and racial and ethnic competition.

Wolfe doesn’t buy it. And it is probably only partially because he is a champion of the old-fashioned.

I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information, partially eliminating such chores as going outdoors to the mailbox or the adult bookstore, or having to pick up the phone to get hold of your stockbroker or some buddies to shoot the breeze with. That one thing the Internet does, and only that. All the rest is Digibabble.

I sympathize with Wolfe’s intolerance of the hype. But at the same time, his indictment above rings a little hollow to me. With the shoe on the other foot, an equivalent faultfinder might complain that the human brain also does only one thing: it moves calcium ions across the synapses between neurons. That is the brain’s basic electrochemical function, just as Wolfe has described the Internet’s basic information retrieval function, but those basic functions are capable of giving rise to so many wonderful abilities and experiences. Citing the elimination of walking to the mailbox or making phone calls as the only benefit of the Internet is akin to citing the ability to walk and make phone calls as the only benefit of our brains.

But I’ll cut him some slack on that one. Because the place where Wolfe really comes across as a curmudgeon is when he tackles Richard Dawkins and his theory of memes.

In 1976, a year after Wilson had lit up the sky with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, a British zoologist and Darwinian fundamentalist, Richard Dawkins, published a book called The Selfish Gene in which he announced the discovery of memes. Memes were viruses in the form of ideas, slogans, tunes, styles, images, doctrines, anything with sufficient attractiveness or catchiness to infect the brain -- “infect,” like “virus,” became part of the subject’s earnest, wannabe-scientific terminology -- after which they operated like genes, passing along what had been naively thought of as the creations of culture.

Wolfe’s bias is really on display in this first paragraph. What he calls a Darwinian fundamentalist, others might call an evolutionary biologist. What he calls wannabe-scientific terminology, others might call a scientific hypothesis.

Dawkins’s memes definitely infected the fundamentalists, in any event. The literature of Memeland began pouring out: Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, William H. Calvin’s How Brains Think, Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works, Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (with a foreword by Richard Dawkins), and on and on.

I hope Wolfe has actually read all these books. I haven’t, but I have read The Selfish Gene, and I think he’s got his facts wrong. But before we go there, let’s serve up this delicious paragraph.

Dawkins has many devout followers precisely because his memes are seen as the missing link in Darwinism as a theory, a theoretical discovery every bit as important as the skull of Peking man. One of Bill Gates’s epigones at Microsoft, Charles Simonyi, was so impressed with Dawkins and his memes and their historic place on the scientific frontier, he endowed a chair at Oxford University titled the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science and installed Dawkins in it. This makes Dawkins the postmodern equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dawkins is now Archbishop of Darwinian Fundamentalism and Hierophant of the Memes.

No, Dawkins is not the Archbishop of Darwinian Fundamentalism, he is a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, an objective that has obviously failed with the segment of the public named Tom Wolfe.

There turns out to be one serious problem with memes, however. They don’t exist. A neurophysiologist can use the most powerful and sophisticated brain imaging now available -- and still not find a meme. The Darwinian fundamentalists, like fundamentalists in any area, are ready for such an obvious objection. They will explain that memes operate in a way analogous to genes, i.e., through natural selection and survival of the fittest memes. But in science, unfortunately, “analogous to” just won’t do. The tribal hula in analogous to the waving of a wheat field in the wind before the rain, too. Here the explanatory gap becomes enormous. Even though some of the fundamentalists have scientific credentials, not one even hazards a guess as to how, in physiological, neural terms, the meme “infection” is supposed to take place.

Now, anyone who has read my reaction to The Selfish Gene may be surprised to find me coming to Dawkins’s defense, but I’m pretty sure that even Dawkins doesn’t believe that memes have a physical existence that can be found nestled among the various lobes of the human brain. Memes, in his description, are an analogy, an attempt to describe a mechanism by which cultural phenomena can be transitioned from generation to generation, some rising in prominence, others falling away into disuse and extinction. Wolfe cries that memes have no explanatory power, yet, to Dawkins, memes are not meant to be an explanation, just a cognitive framework in which the explanation could someday be found.

And besides, let’s not forget that the revolutionary idea in The Selfish Gene is not about memes at all. It’s about genes being selfish.

But, despite these incongruities, Hooking Up is a mostly engaging read, offering up insights that likely only make sense when viewed from Wolfe’s idiosyncratic, half-enlightened, half-luddite perspective.

Insights like..

In the middle of an essay on the navel-gazing distractions of intellectual culture, the perspective that multicultural studies have become the new haven of Marxist ideology, with the chosen minority serving in the role of the proletariat.

Today the humanities faculties are hives of abstruse doctrines such as structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, reader-response theory, commodification theory … The names vary, but the subtext is always the same: Marxism may be dead, and the proletariat has proved to be hopeless. They’re all at sea with their third wives. But we can find new proletariats whose ideological benefactors we can be -- women, non-whites, put-upon white ethnics, homosexuals, transsexuals, the polymorphously perverse, pornographers, prostitutes (sex workers), hardwood trees -- which we can use to express our indignation toward the powers that be and our aloofness to their bourgeois stooges, to keep the flame of skepticism, cynicism, irony, and contempt burning.

And in the middle of an essay on abandonment of journalistic curiosity in halls of serious literature, the view that movies have today replaced literature as repositories of the intense realism the public still seeks.

Today it is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who are themselves excited by the lurid carnival of American life at this moment, in the here and now, in all its varieties. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who can’t wait to head out into that raucous rout, like the Dreisers, Lewises, and Steinbecks of the first half of the twentieth century, and see it for themselves. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who today have the instincts of reporters, the curiosity, the vitality, the joie de vivre, the drive, the energy to tackle any subject, head out onto any terrain, no matter how far it may be removed from their own experience -- often because it is so far removed from their own experience and they can’t wait to see it for themselves. As a result, the movie, not the novel, became the great naturalistic storytelling medium of the late twentieth century. Movies can be other things, but they are inherently naturalistic -- and I suggest that this is precisely what their audiences adore most about them: their intense realism.

Insights like these kept me turning the page, enjoying the perspectives offered, and the prose in which they were composed, whether I agreed with them or not.

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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 14, 2017

Sticking to What You Know

It's hard for me to write about anything this week except the presentations that I'm going to give at one of my association's major conferences next week. Hard, because creating and rehearsing them has occupied an enormous portion of my mental life this week.

Preparation for two of these presentations has been fairly routine. They are the presentations that I will give at the start of each of the conference's two major days. One is a report on the activities of our association. The other is a report on the activities of our affiliated foundation. As I think I have written before, these are typically focused on reinforcing the same strategic messages, and creating a new presentation amounts to little more than calling up last year's and updating the facts and figures. Our strategy hasn't changed much. We've just got another year of success to talk about it.

But the third presentation is quite a different animal. It is essentially a report from one of my association's technical committees. The committee is question is responsible for maintaining something we call our technology roadmap -- a document that represents a consensus in our industry about the pre-competitive research challenges that must be addressed if our industry's technology is to continue to meet or better meet the evolving needs of our industry's customers. The committee updates this document every couple of years, and the presentation next week is where we will unveil the latest update.

Why I'm giving this presentation -- instead of say, the chair or other member of the committee -- is an interesting story in and of itself. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I think it is a reflection of a larger trend within my association where we are becoming more and more staff-driven. Or, if I want to be brutally honest, not staff- but CEO-driven. More on that, perhaps, in a future post.

For now, I'd rather focus on how I approached the task of composing this presentation. I did what I always do, what I have been taught to do from very early in my career. When you're going to get up and talk to a room full of people on a subject -- any subject -- it's essential for you to stick to what you know.

So what do I know about this technical report, this technology roadmap? Quite a bit actually. Putting the document together was a long and involved process, spanning many conference calls and a few in-person meetings. The committee first defined the high-level elements of the document, and then divided into several working groups to examine each of those elements in greater detail. This is the third time we have updated the document after it was first published in 2009, and each time, the process that we use to accomplish it is improved and made more inclusive.

And it is me, not the chair of the committee or any of its members, that is in charge of that process. I was there in 2009 when the document was first created, and I have guided every refresh of the document since then. The committee chairs and members that have come and gone over the last eight years have been the voices that have defined the essential content of the roadmap -- the evolving needs of our industry's customers, the challenges we must confront is we are to meet those needs, and the mechanisms that we should employ if we are to tackle those challenges. That is a picture that the technical experts in our industry have to paint, but I am the individual who has built for them the frame in which their painting will be displayed.

And that gives me some unique perspective in giving the presentation. I can certainly describe the painting, as I was a witness to its creation. But the focus of the presentation I will give will really be on the frame. That is, the purpose of the document and how it will be used by my association and the industry it represents.

I'm looking forward to 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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Monday, August 7, 2017

Giving Core Values Teeth

I heard a great way for organizations to give their core values "teeth" at a recent conference I attended.

I've written before about some of the steps my association has taken -- using our core values as a screen during our interview process, and making alignment with our core values a part of our performance evaluation process. These are both important steps and they have helped make our core values something more than just "a plaque on the wall." But what the organization I learned about at the conference has done takes their values a step further.

They are also part of their performance evaluation process, but they are something more than just one performance category among many. They are, in fact, a "pass/fail" assessment that comes at the very front end of the performance evaluation.

If the employee in question passes, meaning that they consistently demonstrate behaviors that align with the core values of the organization, they go on to the other performance categories.

But if the employee in question fails, meaning that they consistently demonstrate behaviors that do not align with the core values of the organization, then they go no further with the performance evaluation. The misalignment issue with the core values must be dealt with -- either through the successful completion of an improvement plan or, in the worst cases, dismissal of the employee -- before the employee can be evaluated in the other categories, and receive any of the rewards and compensation incentives that go along with those categories.

It strikes me as an bold stand, putting real teeth into the core values adopted by the organization. It essentially makes alignment with those values the most important factor in determining both the compensation levels and continued employment of the people who work for it. Importantly, it also gives supervisors a tool for enforcing and rewarding that alignment. The system effectively says either you act in a manner that supports our core values or you leave our organization.

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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 5, 2017

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Life is funny, you know? Six pages into the very next book I pick up after reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth, and I run across the following diagnosis.

The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times.

Yeah. Tell that to the Swede, and he might have a better understanding of why Merry did the things she did.

But The Denial of Death is only partly about the heroic struggle that each generation must define for itself. In its totality, Becker’s work is really about the existential paradox that plagues man’s conscious mind.

Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways -- the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.

Indeed. So terrifying, in fact, that Becker, in this Pulitzer Prize-winning work, will go on to claim and describe how this existential paradox, and our denial of it, forms quite nearly the whole of human psychology.

To deny the reality of our own deaths, to give ourselves the feeling that we control our lives and our deaths, we construct what Becker calls a vital lie.

We called one’s life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation. This revelation is what the Freudian revolution in thought really ends up in and is the basic reason that we still strain against Freud. We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center. All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. Augustine was a master analyst of this, as were Kierkegaard, Scheler, and Tillich in our day. They saw that man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that he really drew his “courage to be” from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat, and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance.

Powerful stuff here. Becker is stripping everything down to its basic essence, and he’s doing a pretty good job of it. Because this lie, as vital as it is, is also something we rebel against, instinctively if not consciously understanding that it is a lie, and that its artificial trappings are exactly that, incapable of helping us truly come to grips with our existential paradox.

The defenses that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity. But he is also drawn precisely toward those things that make him anxious, as a way of skirting them masterfully, testing himself against them, controlling them by defying them. As Kierkegaard taught us, anxiety lures us on, becomes the spur to much of our energetic activity: we flirt with our own growth, but also dishonestly. This explains much of the friction in our lives. We enter symbiotic relationships in order to get the security we need, in order to get relief from our anxieties, our aloneness and helplessness; but these relationships also bind us, they enslave us even further because they support the lie we have fashioned. So we strain against them to be more free. The irony is that we do this straining uncritically, in a struggle within our own armor, as it were; and so we increase our drivenness, the second-hand quality of our struggle for freedom. Even in our flirtations with anxiety we are unconscious of our motives. We seek stress, we push our own limits, but we do it with our screen against despair and not with despair itself. We do it with the stock market, with sports cars, with atomic missiles, with the success ladder in the corporation or the competition in the university. We do it in the prison of a dialogue with our own little family, by marrying against their wishes or choosing a way of life because they frown on it, and so on. Hence the complicated and second-hand quality of our entire drivenness. Even in our passions we are nursery children playing with toys that represent the real world. Even when these toys crash and cost us our lives or our sanity, we are cheated of the consolation that we were in the real world instead of the playpen of our fantasies. We still did not meet our doom on our own manly terms, in contest with objective reality. It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.

This, then, is Becker’s basic thesis. We fear death. We construct a lie that keeps us from facing it. Then we rebel against the lie because it is a lie. And in doing so, we believe we are wrestling with our fear, but we are not. We have lived a life of struggle, not against the death we fear, but against the thing we have put in its place. Becker will go on to use this thesis to explain a variety of psychological phenomena. More interestingly to me, he also uses it to generate several fairly profound ideas.

Freud Shot the Right Gun at the Wrong Target

It is clear to us today, too, that Freud was wrong about the dogma, just as Jung and Adler knew right at the beginning. Man has no innate instincts of sexuality and aggression. Now we are seeing something more, the new Freud emerging in our time, that he was right in his dogged dedication to revealing man’s creatureliness. His emotional involvement was correct. It reflected the true intuitions of genius, even though the particular intellectual counterpart of that emotion -- the sexual theory -- proved to be wrong. Man’s body was “a curse of fate,” and culture was built upon repression -- not because man was a seeker only of sexuality, of pleasure, of life and expansiveness, as Freud thought, but because man was also primarily an avoider of death. Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality. As Rank unfolded in book after book, and as Brown has recently again argued, the new perspective on psychoanalysis is that its critical concept is the repression of death. This is what is creaturely about man, this is the repression on which culture is built, a repression unique to the self-conscious animal. Freud saw the curse and dedicated his life to revealing it with all the power at his command. But he ironically missed the precise scientific reason for the curse.

Two deep things going on here. First, the thought at the very end of this passage. What delicious irony that a thinker and trailblazer such as Sigmund Freud could come so close to true understanding of human psychology (assuming one agrees with Becker’s thesis), only to be foiled by the same kind of vital lie that must have kept all his patients on his couch. He saw that man’s world is built on a scaffolding of repression, but even he missed the thing that was ultimately being repressed.

And second, go back on read that sentence about this repression of death being unique to man as a self-conscious animal. If true, and if it is true that culture is built on the same repression, it certainly explains the abundance of human culture compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Becker’s work is like this. He’s offering a concept that keeps turning in on itself, and only expanding its application in the process.

Culture as a Handy Frame for Self-Actualization

As we saw in the previous chapter, people need a “beyond,” but they reach for the nearest one; this gives them the fulfillment they need but at the same time limits and enslaves them. You can look at the whole problem of a human life in this way. You can ask the question: What kind of beyond does this person try to expand in; and how much individuation does he achieve in it? Most people play it safe: they choose the beyond of standard transference objects like parents, the boss, or the leader; they accept the cultural definition of heroism and try to be a “good provider” or a “solid” citizen. In this way they earn their species immortality as an agent of procreation, or a collective or cultural immortality as part of a social group of some kind. Most people live this way, and I am hardly implying that there is anything false or unheroic about the standard cultural solution to the problems of men. It represents both the truth and the tragedy of man’s condition: the problem of the consecration of one’s life, the meaning of it, the natural surrender to something larger -- these driving needs that inevitably are resolved by what is nearest at hand.

There’s a lot of jargon in that one, but hopefully the point is clear. Culture, built on the scaffolding of man’s own repression, provides him with handy frames to imbue his short and brutish life with meaning and a kind of immortality -- species, collective, or cultural.

Society: The Double-Edged Sword That Keeps Madness At Bay

Sometimes, those cultural frames don’t just provide man with the narrative he needs to be his own hero. In many cases, they, and the societal imperatives that are built around them, are the things that keeps him from going stark, raving mad.

… the proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going crazy. I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent’s office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are “right” for us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality. All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?

I found this utterly fascinating to contemplate. The job of a well-functioning society is to provide its citizens with the “obsessive denials of reality” that keep them from going mad, from turning in on themselves and fatalistically revealing the repressed idea that they are going to die. Becker’s last question, about the challenges that any utopian society -- that is, any society without a multitude of activities that mimic the absurdities of the human condition -- is telling. It certainly explains the failure of most of the utopian attempts that we have witnessed in our history. And it also encapsulates a warning about the kind of absurdities that well-functioning societies should strive for.

… we have to ask who this average man is. He may avoid the psychiatric clinic, but somebody around him has to pay for it. We are reminded of those Roman portrait-busts that stuff our museums: to live in this tight-lipped style as an average good citizen must have created some daily hell. Of course we are not talking only about daily pettinesses and the small sadisms that are practised on family and friends. Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death. His anality may protect him, but all through history it is the “normal, average men” who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.

This is the challenge of our time, and perhaps of all time. Can our culture and society provide us with the obsessive denials of reality that we need, but do it in a way that causes no harm to others? In this simple narrative frame, it may be worthwhile to thank the often crass consumerism and consumption that seems all-encompassing. The heroes of those stories clearly make better global citizens than those whose stories are built on outgroup aggression and war.

But some people, of course, rebel against these cultural narratives.

The Artist and the Madman

Becker borrows heavily, with proper attribution, from a work by Otto Rank called Art and Artist, which seems to be some kind of psychological treatise on my favorite subject in fiction: the existential struggle of the artist. I immediately put in on my “to-read” list. Let’s dig in.

The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take in the world as a problem; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it. This holds true for all creative people to a greater or lesser extent, but it is especially obvious with the artist. Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, the you must fashion your own. The work of art is, then, the ideal answer of the creative type to the problem of existence as he takes it in -- not only the existence of the external world, but especially his own: who he is as a painfully separate person with nothing shared to lean on. He has to answer the burden of his extreme individuation, his so painful isolation. He wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his “private religion” -- as Rank put it. Its uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his own “beyond” and not that of others.

But the challenge facing the artist is more subtle and complex than simply fashioning a heroic gift outside the bounds of the collective ones determined by the society in which he is enmeshed.

No sooner have we said this than we can see the immense problem that it poses. How can one justify his own heroism? He would have to be as God. Now we see even further how guilt is inevitable for man: even as a creator he is a creature overwhelmed by the creative process itself. If you stick out of nature so much that you yourself have to create your own heroic justification, it is too much. This is how we understand something that seems illogical: that the more you develop as a distinctive free and critical human being, the more guilt you have. Your very work accuses you; it makes you feel inferior. What right do you have to play God? Especially if your work is great, absolutely new and different. You wonder where to get authority for introducing new meanings into the world, the strength to bear it. It all boils down to this: the work of art is the artist’s attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation. It is the testimonial to his absolute uniqueness and heroic transcendence. But the artist is still a creature and he can feel it more intensely than anyone else. In other words, he knows that the work is he, therefore “bad,” ephemeral, potentially meaningless -- unless justified from outside himself and outside itself.

It is this dilemma -- this starkly existential one -- that is unique to the artist, and which so often leads to madness. It is not just their inability to come to grips with the cultural soup in which they were born. It is their inability to create anything that truly transcends it.

In Jung’s terms -- that we noted previously -- the work is the artist’s own transference projection, and he knows that consciously and critically. Whatever he does he is stuck with himself, can’t get securely outside and beyond himself. He is also stuck with the work of art itself. Like any material achievement it is visible, earthly, impermanent. No matter how great it is, it still pales in some ways next to the transcending majesty of nature; and so it is ambiguous, hardly a solid immortality symbol. In his greatest genius man is still mocked. No wonder that historically art and psychosis have had such an intimate relationship, that the road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there. The artist and the madman are trapped by their own fabrications; they wallow in their own anality, in their protest that they really are something special in creation.

To me, this all seems to beg the ultimate question -- fraught with existential terror on both sides. Which are you? The average man or the artist? And what will be the heroic gift that gives meaning to your dualistic existence?

The whole thing boils down to this paradox: if you are going to be a hero then you must give a gift. If you are the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance. If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men. After all, they can’t grant the immortality of your personal soul. As Rank argued in the breathtaking closing chapters of Art and Artist, there is no way for the artist to be at peace with his work or with the society that accepts it. The artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God. We should not be surprised that Rank was brought to exactly the same conclusion as Kierkegaard: that the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers. Absolution has to come from the absolute beyond. As Kierkegaard, Rank showed that this rule applied to the strongest, most heroic types -- not to trembling and empty weaklings. To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve -- and so it is fitting that this task should fall to the strongest personality type, the one with the largest ego. The great scientific world-shaker Newton was the same man who always carried the Bible under his arm.

The price of being an average man is ultimate anonymity. The price of being an artist is ultimate failure. Either way, one should make the choice with great care.

So What?

But how much of this choice is conscious? What happens when the artist -- or the average man, for that matter -- becomes self-aware of this psychology? Of his need to find a heroic gift in either the cultural patterns of his society or the cross-cultural currents of his own creativity? Does that remove any of the existential terror, or only serve to heighten it? Are we better off oblivious to the psychologies that we use to assuage our fear of our own deaths, or is there any solace to be found in understanding them?

After reading this illuminating study, I’d have to say I’m still unsure of how to answer that question. Becker, however, seems to say that it is an error to even ask it. Near the end of the book, he questions the very utility of this understanding, this “liberation through therapy,” certainly for the world, but even for the individual.

Even with numerous groups of really liberated people, at their best, we can’t imagine that the world will be any pleasanter or less tragic a place. It may even be worse in still unknown ways. As Tillich warned us, New Being, under the conditions and limitations of existence, will only bring into play new and sharper paradoxes, new tensions, and more painful disharmonies -- a “more intense demonism.” Reality is remorseless because gods do not walk upon the earth; and if men could become noble repositories of great gulfs of nonbeing, they would have even less peace than we oblivious and driven madmen have today.

Pessimistic enough for you? Wait. It gets worse.

Besides, can any ideal of therapeutic revolution touch the vast masses of this globe, the modern mechanical men in Russia, the near-billion sheeplike followers in China, the brutalized and ignorant populations of almost every continent? When one lives in the liberation atmosphere of Berkeley, California, or in the intoxications of small doses of unconstriction in a therapeutic group in one’s home town, one is living in a hothouse atmosphere that shuts out the reality of the rest of the planet, the way things really are in this world. It is this therapeutic megalomania that must quickly be seen through if we are not to be perfect fools. The empirical facts of the world will not fade away because one has analyzed his Oedipus complex, as Freud so well knew, or because one can make love with tenderness, as so many now believe. Forget it. In this sense again it is Freud’s somber pessimism, especially of his later writings such as Civilization and Its Discontents, that keeps him so contemporary. Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world.

And so, it seems, we have come full circle. Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world. Meaning, if any is to be found, comes in our heroic, but ultimately futile struggle against this painful fact. And awareness of the psychology behind the struggle only seems to heighten our sense of its futility.

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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, July 31, 2017

Leaving Your Family at Disneyland

I think I've mentioned Corner Office before -- an on-going series of interviews with CEOs of different companies and organizations that appears in The New York Times. I'm not a subscriber, but for some reason the RSS feed to the series just keeps working, plopping a new interview in my inbox every Monday morning.

I like them. They tend to reinforce things I already know about leadership, and sometimes they contain real nuggets of new-found wisdom. But every once in a while, I read something that makes my jaw drop practically to the floor.

So what are your best [interview] questions?

To understand their work ethic, I do ask this question: Would you be willing to leave your family at Disneyland to do something that was really important for the company?

Some people have said no, and I haven’t hired them.

This from an interview with Don Mal, the chief executive of Vena Solutions, a software firm, and my first reaction was one of horror. You refused to hire someone because they told you in an interview that they wouldn't leave their family at Disneyland to do something important for the company?

But then I read on...

It’s interesting because I did leave my wife and kids at Disneyland once. It was to close the biggest deal of our company’s history. I left for two days. It wasn’t like I was leaving them there for the whole vacation.

To me, it’s not so much a loyalty question. It’s more of just trying to understand their work ethic.

But I can imagine someone saying: “That’s outrageous. Vacations should be vacations.”

To which I would say: “Well, here’s the deal. I did it. I felt it was important, and I’ll tell you why. It advanced my career. It helped the company, and my wife was actually O.K. with it because I got a pretty big check to pay for our entire vacation because we closed the deal.”

And as I read on I realized, much to my own chagrin, that I had once done exactly the same kind of thing -- leaving a family vacation (not at Disneyland, but in Gatlinburg, Tennessee) for a few days to see to a work commitment in another city. And, unlike Don Mal, my reason for leaving was much less critical than the biggest deal in my company's history.

How do I explain such cognitive dissonance? Horrified at the prospect of actions I myself had taken?

I remember my wife driving me through the Tennessee countryside to the Knoxville airport, the kids back at the rental house with their aunts, uncles and cousins. Neither one of us were exactly happy about the circumstances, but neither of us were angry about it either. This, after all, is what I did for a living. Getting on airplanes and working for a few days in another city is what the job frequently required of me, and we both had come to understand and expect it. It was a little unusual to be leaving in the middle of a family vacation, but we had even rolled with that punch, simply packing a separate suitcase with business clothes and a second set of toiletries for the side trip.

Is it because I expect more of myself than I expect of the people who work for me? Or, if not more, than at least something different?

I'm the CEO. That's a different position with a different set of responsibilities. If I look at the state of play around something, and I decide that my presence is required, then I'd better figure out a way to get myself there, even if there is a long-planned family vacation that overlaps the same set of dates. That's the weird set of privileges/responsibilities that come with being the CEO. You can decide which meetings you do and do not attend -- no one is going to tell you otherwise, or compel you to attend something against your will -- but failing to show up at certain meetings can jeopardize the strategic objectives of your organization.

Does this same dynamic not apply to other positions in my organization? Not with regard to the same set of stakes, but within the context of each person's responsibility there are undoubtedly places they need to be and meetings they need to attend to see their responsibilities to their successful fulfillment. Should they not be just as committed to those objectives as I am to those of my organization? If there is a conflict between a family vacation and one of those responsibilities, is not the right answer the difficult reality of laving your family behind at Disneyland?

Yes. I think it is.

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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, July 24, 2017

Getting New Voices Heard at the Board Table

The Board of my association uses a structure we call Strategic Task Forces. I think I've written about them before on this blog. They are task forces of the Board, but we invite a number of non-Board members to serve on them as well.

Their role is to help the Board examine our key areas of strategy, work to define what success “looks like,” codify that description into a set of metrics, and track our progress over time. We have found it especially helpful to have important stakeholders from outside the demographics of the Board serve on these task forces, as those voices help us shape and define strategy in ways that serve a constituency broader than the Board itself.

The other nice trick about our Strategic Task Forces is that they meet at the Board meetings themselves. Our Board meets three times a year, roughly for a day and half at each meeting, and the segment that is the Strategic Task Force meetings is a couple of hours at most. We err on the side inclusion by inviting the non-Board task force members to not just attend their task force meeting, but instead to attend the length of the Board meeting itself, essentially participating as non-voting Board members in all the other sessions and social functions. Since many of the folks that we ask to serve on the task forces are candidates that we are considering for future Board service, this tactic gives the existing Board an opportunity to meet and interact with the candidates, and gives the candidates a great orientation to the Board and its operations.

This past week I reached out to one of these candidates and asked him to serve on one of these task forces during our upcoming fiscal year. His company represents one of those stakeholder groups whose voice we want to hear more from. When I spoke to him on the phone I could tell that he was surprised by the invitation. His company just joined our association in the past year, and he has been in his position at the company for about the same amount of time. He didn't ask this question directly, but his tone of voice seemed to question why we would want to bring such a newbie into our Board discussions.

And that made me realize that inviting fresh voices into Board discussions like we do with our Strategic Task Forces is still something relatively rare in the association community. Lots of associations still view Board access as something to be earned, not to be given away so cavalierly. Yes. You just joined the association and are still relatively new to our industry. Not only would we like to hear what you think of the strategy we have built -- the ends we want to achieve on your behalf and the methods by which we are pursuing them -- but we'd like to give you a hand in shaping them for the future. That, for many associations, is still a fairly scary proposition.

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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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