Monday, May 22, 2017

Chose Your Dimensions of Diversity and Get Started

Spark Consulting is out with another white paper -- this one on the sometimes challenging topic of diversity and inclusion -- and it's another thought-provoking read for association CEOs. If you're interested, you can download "Include Is A Verb: Moving From Talk to Action on Diversity and Inclusion" here. It's free and you don't even have to register for it.

For me, there were several key concepts. Here's one.

Research demonstrates that millennials think about and define diversity in significantly different ways than members of previous generations. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers tend to think of diversity in terms of protected classes. Millennials are more focused on "cognitive diversity, or diversity of thoughts, ideas, and philosophies."

In either worldview, as Joe Gerstandt points out: "We can be different from each other in many ways, but the key words here are 'from each other.'" This is leading many organizations to try to think about diversity more broadly than protected class. Gerstandt emphasizes that diversity is not -- or not just -- race or gender relations, affirmative action, compliance, or sensitivity. Diversity is contextual. For instance, in a teaching association, diversity in volunteer leadership could mean recruiting K-12 teachers into leadership roles traditionally held by college professors.

First, it's good to see Joe Gerstandt getting some love in the association community. I've been reading his blog for years and, even though he doesn't post as often as I would like, you should too. We've never met, but his 2011 video on flying your freak flag should be required viewing in order to call yourself a member of the human race.

Second, when I was chair of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (WSAE), that Board was wrestling with its own diversity initiative. After a lot of discussion, one of the first things we decided was that we needed to define what diversity meant for WSAE.

There was universal agreement on the returned value of embracing diversity and inclusion in our association and in our association's leadership. What there was less agreement on was what the categories -- or what we would come to call the dimensions -- of diversity should be. If my memory serves, the lines of disagreement that rose to the surface were consistently drawn between camps representing the generational viewpoints described in the above excerpt for the Spark white paper. Some could only view diversity through the lens of protected classes, and others -- not necessarily those of younger generations -- saw added value in viewing diversity through a cognitive lens.

As the discussion progressed, we also recognized that not all the protected and cognitive classes that could be enumerated were necessarily relevant in our association's environment. And, even if they were relevant, there was no way that we could focus on improvements on any more than a handful of dimensions. We needed to be selective -- both about which dimensions of diversity mattered most, and of those, which would be choose to focus on in the short and long term.

One dimension of diversity we selected was gender. Our view was that association management was a profession dominated by women at the manager level, and dominated by men at the executive level. After surveying our membership rolls, we discovered that WSAE clearly reflected that trend. Its membership was 70% female, but the Board, which was dominated by association CEOs, was only 25% female. Getting more women onto the leadership track became a compelling priority for our Nominating Committee, work that clearly continues to this day. The current elected WSAE Board is 55% female.

Gender is one of the protected classes, but many, if not most of our dimensions of diversity fit more squarely in the cognitive class. One unique to our association was the career aspirations of our members. What was the split, essentially, between those who viewed themselves as an association professional, on a career track towards the association executive, and those who viewed themselves as a specialist (a marketing or information technology or accounting professional) who happened to work for an association, on a career track towards a directorship within an association or perhaps another organization? Knowing that (and according to one survey that latter category represented as much as 20% of our members who worked for an association) would, should and did have a consequential impact on the kind of education we offered in our programs.

In summary, while a commitment to diversity and inclusion should be universal among associations as organizations dedicated to representing a specific profession or industry, the dimensions of diversity that define that commitment can and should be as numerous as the number of organizations pursuing them.

One final word. As WSAE chair, I frankly chose to focus less on which dimensions of diversity were chosen and more on the culture and structures that needed to be built in order to understand and embrace them. I suspected that an organization built to on-board diverse populations into its leadership and its activities -- however it defined those diverse populations -- would have the tools necessary to on-board newly identified categories when they inevitably arose in the future. That ability is hopefully one of the legacies I was able to leave behind.

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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, May 15, 2017

Let's Stay the Course

I continue to put the necessary pieces into place for our annual strategic Board retreat. This week it was a discussion with our outgoing and incoming Board chairs about the strategic conversations we want to build an agenda around.

In our annual cadence, this is traditionally the meeting where one Board chair passes the gavel to the next, and as a result, we typically ask the outgoing and incoming chairs to tag-team on the agenda. The outgoing chair leads the business aspects of the meeting (call to order, approval of minutes, review and discussion on progress made to date), while the incoming chair leads the strategic aspects of the meeting (how will we define success in the coming year and how should our resources be allocated). It has worked well for us.

Something that has worked less well, but which is also traditional for us, is some sort of environmental scanning exercise. Our Board meets only three times a year, including this retreat, and the other two meetings are typically of shorter duration, so the retreat is often the only time when we have the freedom and flexibility to pull our heads up out of the business of the organization and take a deliberate look around. And that's how I usually describe it to the Board chairs when we come to this planning discussion. It's an opportunity to momentarily put our association's strategy aside, examine and discuss the external forces that are shaping our industry and our world, and then use the insight gained to return to and, if necessary, reshape our strategy.

And frankly, that's hard. Around the Board table, it requires a shift in thinking. For a moment, we have to stop thinking about steering the ship and we have to start thinking about the winds that are blowing. Over the years we have tried a number of different structured exercises in order to make the need for these mental transitions more apparent. Most recently we have relied on a kind of SWOT survey. Prior to coming to the meeting we ask all the participants to respond to a few short questions about the organization's internal strengths and weaknesses and the environment's external opportunities and threats, and then we comb through the results to identify areas of common response. At the Board table we spend time going through those common responses, discussing if any warrant actions different from the ones we are already taking.

It works, but it is always clunky. I tend to think that the clunkiness is just the nature of the beast. Any environmental scan always reveals things that are difficult to deal with, and there tends to be an unwillingness to admit defeat on any front. If we took the time to bring these things up to the surface, ignoring them or deciding to do nothing with them feels like losing, or worse, like we're wasting time.

Maybe that's why this year, in consultation with my outgoing and incoming Board chairs, we have decided not to formalize any such environmental scanning exercise at all. We've been doing a good job over the last several years, I was told, building a clear and coherent strategy for addressing the issues that matter most to our members, that opening the door to wholesale change would be counterproductive. If there are environmental factors that need to be considered, we'll consider them in the context of implementing the strategy we have already determined.

It was a refreshing perspective to hear from my Board leaders, this acknowledgement that the association is doing the right things, and that rather than contemplating another change in direction, they would prefer to stay the course and give us the time we need to reach our destination.

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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, May 13, 2017

Riven Rock by T. C. Boyle

Soundlessly, the shabby orange creature unfolded itself from the cage, crouching over its bristling arms like a giant spider.

Do I need to tell you that Boyle is describing an orangutan here? I don’t, do I? You can just see it, can’t you? Crouching over its bristling arms like a giant spider.

O’Kane took another step back and the two keepers exchanged a nervous glance -- the thing was nearly as big as they were, and it certainly outweighed them. And, of course, like all the rest of the hominoids, it stank like a boatload of drowned men.

And now you can smell it. A boatload of drowned men. Boyle never forgets to include the other senses in his descriptions of things.

Julius didn’t seem much interested in the oranges, but he folded them into the slot in the middle of his plastic face as if they were horse pills and shambled through the dust to where the monkeys and baboons were affixed to the doors of the cages and shrieking themselves breathless. He exchanged various fluids with them, his face drooping and impassive even as they clawed at the mesh and bared their teeth, then sat in the dirt sniffing luxuriously at his fingers and toes before lazily hoisting himself into the nearest tree like a big dangling bug, where he promptly fell asleep. Or died. It was hard to tell which -- he was so utterly inanimate and featureless, it was as if someone had tossed a wad of wet carpeting up into the crotch of the tree.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The number one reason to read and keep reading Boyle is for prose like this. Each and everyone of his books has been an absolute joy to read for this reason alone.

This one, Riven Rock, is about madness -- and a particular kind of madness at that. There are three main characters (a kind of Boyle novelty in and of itself, who seems more frequently to focus on the juxtaposition of two, not three characters). There are two people evidently taken from the pages of history…

Boyle anchors his unforgettable table with the remarkable and courageous Katherine Dexter. Her husband, Stanley McCormick, thirty-one-year-old son of the millionaire inventor of the Reaper, has become schizophrenic and a sexual maniac. Stanley is locked up in his Santa Barbara mansion and forbidden the mere sight of women -- above all, his wife. Throughout her career as a scientist and suffragette, Katherine’s faith never wavers: that, one day, one of the many psychiatrists she hires to try to cure her husband will free him of his demons.

...but there is also Eddie O’Kane, mentioned in the orangutan excerpt above, and frankly far more Katherine’s antagonist, but evidently not fit to be mentioned on the backflap of my paperback. Stanley McCormick is the madman, suffering from a sexual psychosis so extreme that he can’t be in the presence of women without attacking them…

“Mr. McCormick!” O’Kane heard himself cry out like some schoolyard monitor, and then he was on him, grabbing the taller man’s pumping shoulders, trying to peel him away from his victim like a strip of masking tape and make everything right again, and all the while the lady gasping and fighting under all the inexplicable weight and Mr. McCormick tearing at her clothes. He’d managed to partially expose himself, rip the bodice of her dress and crumple her hat like a wad of furniture stuffing by the time O’Kane was able to force his right arm up behind his back and apply some persuasive pressure to it. “This isn’t right, Mr. McCormick,” he kept saying, “you know it isn’t,” and he kept saying it, over and over, as if it were a prayer, but it had no effect. One-armed, thrashing to and fro like something hauled up out of the sea in a dripping net, Mr. McCormick kept at it, working his left hand into the lady’s most vulnerable spot, and -- this was what mortified O’Kane the most -- taking advantage of the proximity to extend the pale tether of his tongue and lick the base of her throat as if it were an ice in a cone. “Stop it!” O’Kane boomed, tightening his grip and jerking back with everything he had, and still it wasn’t enough.

...and Katherine is his adoring and faithful wife, determined with a progressive and clinical interest far ahead of her time and her gender to heal his affliction, to shape him into the thing she needs him to be…

He was inexperienced, like her, she was sure of it. And that was the beauty of the whole thing. Here he was, a big towering specimen of a male, and yet so docile and sweet, hers to lead and shape and build into something extraordinary, a father like her father. And there was no chance of that with Butler Ames [another potential suitor of Katherine’s] and the rest -- they were smirking and wise, overgrown fraternity boys who tried women on for size, like hats, and went to prostitutes with no more thought or concern than they went to the barber or the tailor. But Stanley, Stanley was malleable, unformed, innocent still -- and that was why everything depended on getting him away from his mother, that crippling combative stultifying monster of a woman who’d made him into a pet and all but emasculated him in the process. He needed to get free, that was all, and then he could grow.

...and Eddie O’Kane is Stanley’s head nurse, a man with motives other than the care and well-being of his wealthy employer, motives driven by a sexual psychosis all his own, one much more in alignment with the repressive conventions of the age.

...and he couldn’t help seeing her as she was half an hour earlier, bleeding and impotent, Mr. McCormick on top of her and her face twisted with fear, and that gave him a strange sensation. He’d rescued her and should have felt charitable and pure, should have remembered Arabella Doane [a female nurse Stanley had previously attacked], but he didn’t -- he wanted to see her nude, nude and spread out like dessert on the thin rolling mat of his berth. There was a thread of crusted blood just under the slash of her cheekbone and a blemish at the corner of her mouth, the flawless bone-white complexion tarnished and discolored, and he looked at that blemish and felt lewd and wanton, felt that way he did when Rosaleen [his wife] rolled over in bed and put her face in his beneath the curtain of her hair and just breathed on him till he awoke in the dark with a jolt of excitement. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t admirable, but there it was.

Fact is, Stanley McCormick and Edward O’Kane are two men with the same obsession, with one socialized to keep it in check on one not. What separates them, what makes Stanley and lunatic, utterly incapable of caring for himself or loving others, and O’Kane caged beast, capable of self-interest, subterfuge and empathy, is a mystery to everyone in the novel, and indeed, I believe the Boyle himself.

It was eerie. Unsettling. No matter how often O’Kane experienced it or how many patients he’d seen like this -- and he’d bathed them one after another at the Boston Lunatic Asylum, twenty at a time, hosing them down afterward like hogs in a pen -- it still affected him. How could anybody live like that? Be like that? And what did it take for the mechanism to break down, for the normal to become abnormal, for a man like Mr. McCormick, who had everything and more, to lose even the faculty of knowing it?

If I have one complaint about Boyle’s work, in fact, it’s that he often doesn’t answer the perplexing questions his fiction is structured to explore. The exploration is entertaining -- thrillingly so, as both a philosophical and rhetorical exercise -- but too often it simply fizzles at the end instead crashing in a satisfying climax.

In Riven Rock, for example, Boyle creates an elaborate and sustaining metaphor around Riven Rock itself, the California house and estate that Stanley first helps construct for Mary Virginia, a mentally-disturbed older sister, and which becomes the prison for his psychosis as well.

Stanley took up the blueprints like a man snatching a life jacket off the rail of a sinking ship. He spread them out on the table and studied them for hours, oblivious to everything, his mother, the servants, the yellow plains of Texas and the distant dusty cowboys on their distant dusty mounts. With a T square and a handful of freshly sharpened pencils, he began a detailed series of modifications, moving walls, drawing elevations where none had been provided, even sketching in shrubbery and the odd shadowy figure of Mary Virginia seated at the piano or strolling across the patio.

What did he think of the plans? That they were all wrong, that they were an insult, a product of nescient minds and ill-conceived motions. What did he think? That Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge should be dismissed for incompetence, that any fool off the street could have come up with a more practical and pleasing design and that the architects’ man in Santa Barbara had damned well better bring his drawing board along. But all he said was to his mother was, “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to suggest some changes…”

Unwittingly, it seems, Stanley is obsessed with designing and building the cloistered estate that will house his sister’s madness -- and by Boyle’s literary extension, the prison that he will come to make of his own madness.

They wound up staying nearly four months, taking rooms at the Arlington (the Potter, with its sea views, six hundred rooms and twenty-one thousand dollars’ worth of custom-made china plate, wouldn’t be completed until 1903), and in that time Stanley altered every least detail of the original plans, from the height of the doorways to the type of molding to be used in the servants’ quarters. And he altered them daily, sometimes hourly, obsessed, fixated, stuck in a perfect groove of concentration.

And it is even Stanley who comes to christen the place Riven Rock.

And then, one afternoon in the final week of their California sojourn, it came to him. He was walking over the grounds with his mother and Dr. Franceschi, the landscape expert, elaborating his feelings regarding caryatids, statuary in general and the function of fountains in a coordinated environment of the artificial and the natural, when they emerged from a rough path into a meadow strewn with oaks all canted in one direction. The trees stood silhouetted against the mountains, heavy with sun, their branches thrust out like the arms of a party of skaters simultaneously losing their balance. It was October, the season of evaporative clarity, the sky receding all the way back to the hinges of the darkness beyond. Butterflies hung palely over the tall yellow grass. Birds called from the branches.

The trees, it is explained, are a product of the region’s prevailing winds.

“What about that one over there?” Stanley said, pointing to a tree that defied the pattern, its trunk vertical and its branches as evenly spaced as the tines of a fork. It was a hundred yards off, but he could see that there was a band of rock round the base of it, a petrified collar that seemed to hold it rigid.

Dr. Franceschi wants to show him that one. It’s a local curiosity.

As they drew closer, Stanley saw that the massive slab of sandstone girding the tree was split in two, and that the tree seemed to be growing up out of the cleft. “Very curious,” Dr. Franceschi was saying, “one of those anomalies of nature -- you see, there was a time some years ago when an acorn fell from that tree there” -- pointing -- “or that one maybe, who knows, and found a pocket of sustenance atop this blasted lump of stone, and you couldn’t find a less promising environment, believe me --”

But they were there now and Stanley had his amazed hands on the rock itself, a massive thing, chest-high, big as a hearse, rough to the touch and lingeringly warm with the radiation of the sun. It was the very stuff of the earth’s bones, solid rock, impenetrable, impermeable, the symbol of everything that endures, and here it was split in two, riven like a yard of cheap cloth and by a thing so small and insidious as an acorn. …

It is Riven Rock, and it is the metaphor for Stanley’s madness that endures throughout the novel. Something small, defying identification, that, given sustenance and time, can split the solidness of the world in two. Immediately following these words in the novel is a two-page, stream-of-consciousness italicized tirade produced by Stanley’s tortured mind, not from when he was healthy, building and naming Riven Rock for his “crazy bughouse sister,” but in the relative future, when he himself has become its inmate.

I am therefore left with the impression that Stanley has built and named his own madness the same way he built and named his own madhouse. And, that once having completed it, moved into it, and lived within it for years, he eventually loses his way within its familiar walls, no longer knowing where he is or how he came to be there.

Maybe it was his domineering mother that set him on his original course, and maybe it was Katherine’s desire to shape him that affected his trajectory, attempting to re-arrange him just a sure as she took control and re-arranged things at Riven Rock.

In the past months she’s redecorated the house, removing the gloomy Spanish paintings, heavy black furniture and pottery to the attic above the garage and replacing it with seascapes and western scenes, modern chairs and sofas with square edges and low backs, draperies that gave back the light and made the place look less like a West Coast version of McLean and more like the home of an important and consummately sane man with just the slightest, most temporary indisposition. She’s hired a new head gardener, a landscape architect and half a dozen new wops and Mexicans. And though the McCormicks still owned the house and Mr. McCormick paid a monthly rental back to his mother, all decisions, no matter how trivial, went through Katherine. She was in charge. There was no doubt about it.

But, regardless, at the end of the novel, when asked about it, we find that Stanley himself has very little to say.

There was only one point at which he rose to something like coherence, and that was right at the end, when the distinguished doctors had filled their notebooks and begun to shoot glances at one another out of the corners of their eyes. The Lean Doctor said “Riven Rock” and Mr. McCormick looked up alertly.

The Lean Doctor: “Tell us about your home, if you would, Mr. McCormick, about Riven Rock -- how did it get its name?”

Mr. McCormick (sunshine at first, and then increasing clouds): “I -- well -- it’s because of a rock, you see, and I -- well, my mother, she -- and then I came and saw it and it was, well, it was --”

There was a long hiatus, all three doctors leaning forward, the day drawing down, Mart snoring lightly from the vicinity of the couch, Nurse Gleason silently dusting the plants, and then Mr. McCormick, his face finally settling on a broad winning ear-to-ear grin, at last spoke up. “It beats me,” he said.

In the end, Stanley McCormick loses himself in his madness, no longer understanding the construction that he himself oversaw. And, as much as I enjoy Boyle’s fiction, I have to also say that I felt much the same way. At the end of this entertaining story, I’m left with a similar sense of befuddlement. It all seemed important, but what did it all mean, again?

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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, May 8, 2017

Goals Lead to Tactics

I recently had an interesting conversation with my staff that helped reinforce the importance of choosing the right goals.

We were talking about the best ways to measure the success of our association's trade show. Among the many possibilities was the number of potential customers our members could engage with by exhibiting at the show.

For a long time, our way of tracking this was based on counting the number of attendees who registered for the show. Sorting all those registrants by the customer markets and job titles they self-selected on their registration forms gave us the ability to count how many potential buyers we had attending the show.

But we realized something important. Setting a goal associated with increasing the number of buyers attending the show would lead to a set of strategies and tactics focused on pre-show promotions. Given that our show is co-located with another, larger show means that promoting the show to attendees during the show is also important. But a goal focused only on growing pre-show registrations would bias resources against that second objective.

So we needed a second goal. Not only do we want to grow the number of buyers who attend the show, we also want to increase the number of those attendees who spend time in our hall visiting with our exhibitors. Only by adding this second goal would we be likely to focus the time and resources needed to create the necessary promotions during the show.

It was a great example of how important choosing the right goal is. Choose wrong and you may inadvertently focus your tactics in the wrong areas.

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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, May 1, 2017

When Goals Seem Impossible

Kudos to Amanda Kaiser at the Smooth the Path blog for recently voicing typically heretical thoughts in the association community. In a post titled Commonly Used Association Goals Doomed to Failure, she says:

Often we set goals for ourselves that are likely to fail. Failing demoralizes the team and makes us more risk adverse. Over time we become caught in a downward spiral.

What kind of common organizational goals are doomed to failure? Growing revenues in a consolidating industry. Increasing membership when the pool of professionals is decreasing. Or improving member engagement with no strategy for innovation or change.

Instead, she says, we should be developing goals that are achievable while also being helpful to our members and our association. Goals like maintaining the percentage of members from the pool of desirable members. Or goals that employ strategies that involve existing members more. Or goals that increase staff or board engagement.

Let’s dump the goals that are setting us up to fail and instead adopt goals we feel good about that help our members, and ones we can achieve.

As I said, to anyone who has labored for several unproductive years under impossible goals, Kaiser's words might be viewed as a welcome relief. An injection of sanity into an increasingly insane situation.


How does one know that the goals Kaiser describes -- growing revenues, increasing membership, improving member engagement -- are doomed to failure unless one has tried both conventional and unconventional strategies to achieve them?

In my own experience, the perception that these goals are impossible is just that. A perception based on years of trying and failing at the same old strategies and tactics.

Before giving up on these goals, associations would be well served by trying the unconventional, by chucking out the old playbook and finding new frames of reference for examining and tackling them. After all, consolidating industries and decreasing pools of professionals can sometimes better be viewed as stimuli towards organizational re-purposing.

Too often, the well-worn currents of activity and thinking within an organization doom it to believing that difficult goals are doomed to failure. More often, we should be re-framing them to find unconventional methods for success.

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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, April 29, 2017

A Primate’s Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky

I was 128 pages into this one when I realized something horrible, and 183 pages in when I decided to do something about it.

What was the horrible thing? It was that this book, billed to me on NPR and in its jacket copy as “an exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya,” was, in fact, not very much about baboons at all.

And what did I decide to do about it? I decided to go back and count the pages that actually talk about the behavior of baboons. There are 61 out of 304, or 20%. That’s not very much information about baboons in a book that is supposed to be about baboons.

So what else is here? What fills the 243 pages or 80% of the book that is not about baboons? The most prevalent subject, it turns out, is not Sapolsky’s baboons, but Sapolsky himself. Sapolsky and his supposedly wacky adventures in Africa. Evidently the titular primate is not a papio cynocephalus but a homo sapien.

Except his wacky adventures don’t seem exactly wacky to me.

One child does not accompany him, however, as that one got some sort of fever and encephalitis during his first rainy season, so far as I can reconstruct, and was left a hydrocephalic monster with the neurological reflexes of a newborn. Rhoda and her husband spent god knows how many months’ salary to buy an absurd, poignant British perambulator, circa 1940, that now sits in the mud and cow-dung house, the swaddled bug-eyed head of the kid peering out from it, moaning chronically.

Rhoda and her husband are people, and evidently so is their “hydrocephalic monster” child, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Sapolsky’s account of them. He seems so intent on presenting himself as an aloof observer, dispensing snark in equal portion to all comers, that he manages to dehumanize everyone he comes into contact with and himself in the bargain.

Here, he talks about the sights one is likely to see on the streets of war-torn Nairobi.

Around noon, I discovered the current disadvantages of being a naked man in Nairobi. The place had always had a disproportionate share of naked people in the streets--it had always struck me that when people in Nairobi who were not that many generations (or even years) removed from the bush had their occasional psychotic breaks, the first addled thing they would do was toss off all their Western clothes. (Years later, my clinical psychologist wife, in her conversations with Kenyan colleagues, would confirm my impression that this was indeed a common event.) So Nairobi had always had more than its share of ranting and raving naked men and had treated them with a certain aplomb. Now it meant trouble. Many of the air force rebels had taken refuge in Nairobi buildings and alleyways, when their triumph had come up short. The lucky ones would find someone to waylay--kill the guy, steal his civilian clothes, and slip into the crowd with his identity card in their teeth. Those not so fortunate were all independently reaching the same odd conclusion--dump the air force clothes and make a run for it naked. Every few hours an air force desperado would make his nude run and be gunned down by an army unit, and it was around noon that I got to see my first street execution. Army flatbed trucks intermittently rumbled through with naked corpses. They stopped for traffic lights in a way that was both incongruous and calming, leading to an odd air of normalcy.

I really struggled with his tone. I couldn’t figure it out, and eventually came to resent it and him. Does nothing rattle this guy? Did it bother him to see these horrific things? If not in the affected now of his writing desk, then at least at the time when the raw and ruthlessness of it all rubbed up against him? It was impossible to tell, so intent as he seemed to be in maintaining his pose of the smart-aleck American, of Bill Murray playing John Winger in Stripes.

Every once in a great while, the feeling human being that Sapolsky must have been comes peeking through, like in this paragraph at the end of a particularly harrowing experience when he is more or less kidnapped and starved by a group of Somali truckers, and then rescued by a Ugandan with fresh fruit tucked under his seat.

I may live to be a very old man someday, a lifetime filled with thoughts and emotions and sensations. But no matter how many of those experiences pile up, I will always look back with incredible pleasure and gratitude for the next instant. I bit into the mango, tasted the juice, and my eyes filled with tears, as I felt safe for the first time in many days.

But these tastes of humanity are “not earned,” as my college Creative Writing professor would have explained. Sprinkled like fresh ground pepper on the salad of condescension and forced witticism he is otherwise serving, they don’t make a lasting impression on one’s literary palate.

Finally, after a while, it seemed like Sapolsky was deliberately tormenting me.

I was in a real crappy mood. It had started off as a fabulous morning with the baboons. Young Daniel [Sapolsky has given most of the baboons he studied biblical names], prematurely in the alpha position because of the ongoing instability in the troop’s hierarchy, was being pushed around badly by huge Nathanial, and I thought this was the morning that their ranks were going to switch, that Nathanial would finally make his decisive move. This is a big deal to a primatologist, actually seeing the transition from one alpha male to another--witness to history. Daniel had spent the morning ostentatiously repositioning himself each time Nathanial came near, so as not to have to see him, presumably trying to will him out of existence. Nat, meanwhile, was inching in closer and closer, threat-yawning all over the place. Showdown was in the air, and I was avidly waiting to see if Daniel was going to fold and simply give a subordinate gesture, signaling the transition, or if it was going to take a decisive fight in which he’d be trashed.

Right when things were getting pretty exciting I had to leave. It was time to drive to the tourist lodge, to meet the supply lorry from Nairobi, as it was carrying an essential shipment of the dry ice that I needed to keep my blood samples frozen. So I had to miss all the fun.

Sapolsky’s disappointment here had truly become mine. I was much more interested in the baboons than in his endlessly sardonic stories about all the nutjobs that he was meeting in Africa.

Driving out of the lodge through thorn bushes, I get my third puncture of the week. This is always a misery. First you go to the guy who repairs punctures. Instead of being on the job at the lodge’s gas station, he is back in the staff quarters somewhere, sleeping. Head back there, go through the same interchange with the twenty different people you run into, namely first exchanging news with each about the health of their parents and my then reiterating that, no, actually I can’t give you my hiking shoes, as I need them. Tire repair guy is located, and after ninety minutes of easily distracted labor, he has fixed the puncture. He gives me a stub, which I take to the cashier at the other end of the lodge, who fills out a note saying “1 puncture, 40 shillings,” which the other man signs, which allows me to pay the cashier--all a procedure to keep the mechanic from repairing things under the table and pocketing the money. The cashier goes on a search for scrap paper to calculate that I get 10 shillings back from my 50 shilling note, and I’m ready for the next step: taking the tire to the other end of camp, to find the man who operates the air hose. He, naturally, is drunk in the bar at 11:00 A.M. and, with some effort, explains that he would be happy to fill the tire, but his brother has the key to the shed in which the hose is kept, and he is on leave this week. Bad luck. I express profound regret at the apparent need for me to now live in the lodge’s gas station for the next week, and the man, seeing his cue, says maybe, just maybe, he could find another key, but why don’t I sell him my watch at the good American price? We settle for his receiving a button that says “Hollywood Bowl,” and, satisfied, he turns his prodigious energies toward filling my tire, completing the task in a mere half hour. The man with the pressure gauge to determine whether the tire is filled properly is found easily, and quickly does the job, making me feel as if there might be some hope. The tire is underfilled, however. Fed up, I decide to go with that, rather than track down Bwana Airhose again, he no doubt back at the bar trying to flog his Hollywood Bowl button for a drink.

But no, they’re not really nutjobs, are they? They are, I realize at about this point in Sapolsky’s narrative, products of a culture foreign to our author, judged and marginalized by his overtly American and privileged lens, and twisted into stereotypes perpetuated by colonialists since the beginning of time. They are shiftless and lazy, aren’t they, Sapolsky?

Our author comes across as a jerk, and might very well be racist. Frankly, I liked the baboons better.

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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, April 24, 2017

Prioritizing Sends a Message

We're beginning to rev up for our annual strategic board retreat. In our process, this is a major pivot point for the organization, when we bring one operational plan to a close, and revise or refresh the strategy agenda around which the next operational plan will be built.

Not sure what I mean by those terms? Check out these previous posts on our Strategy Agenda and our Operational Plan. As a quick summary, the Strategy Agenda is how the board defines the expected outcomes of the organization, and the Operational Plan is how the staff defines the activities we will pursue in order to achieve them.

Anyway, as part of this "revving up" process, I and my senior staff are looking at the sucess of this year's goals and discussing a proposed set of goals for next year. It's opening up a number of great conversations about what we're here to do and how we should and should not go about accomplishing it.

Here's one.

Choosing where to set stretch goals and where to set maintenance goals can communicate a set of priorities throughout the organization.

Ours is an organization with a large number of goals, existing at multiple strategic and programmatic levels of the organization. There are goals aligned with our high-level success indicators, and goals associated with our tactical program objectives. They all need to be defined at the start of each year, because the rest of the operational plan depends on them.

So, deciding which goals are going to be stretch goals (that is, difficult to achieve) and which goals are going to be maintenance goals (that is, in comparison to the stretch goals, relatively easy to achieve), can actually communicate quite a bit about the priorities of the organization in the year ahead.

It's important to keep that in mind. In an environment like ours, where numerous initiatives have to keep steadily advancing for the year to be considered a success, making a handful of goals much more difficult than the others will help give those few areas the special emphasis you may think they deserve.

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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, April 17, 2017

The Psychology of Trade Shows

I recently attended my association's trade show. It's a major event for our industry, taking place only once every three years and co-located with the much larger trade show of one of our industry's key customer markets.

Our association staffs its own exhibit booth in the middle of the show floor. It's a large island space, designed with plenty of cushioned carpet and comfy chairs to provide a refuge for our members who are staffing their corporate exhibit booths all around us. It's a great set-up for getting into all kinds of conversations with our members.

And those conversations inevitably include eveyone's favorite subject -- the quantity and the quality of exhibit hall traffic. Our exhibitors expect our show to pass both tests. They want leads and plenty of them. A busy exhibit hall adds to the positive buzz everybody wants to feel. But at each booth, a steady and well-spaced stream of people who have come to do business is far preferable to an onslaught that have come to scoop of the pens, bags, and other exhibit giveaways.

However, when it comes to studying human psychology, nothing beats the observations and discussions surrounding the exhibit hours and the length of the show.

Let me go out on a limb in make a prediction about the trade show you are familiar with. It's too long. The last day, or the last afternoon, or the last few hours are absolutely dead. Every attendee who is looking to do business has already been through the hall, and all that are left are a tiny handful of the people who have come to grab souvenirs.

How do I know this? Because human psychology makes it true of every trade show in the world. "Get in early" is a basic human drive, but even more so is "get out early." The show goes through Saturday, but I can get a flight home on Friday and still have my weekend. The show goes to five o'clock, but I can get a flight home at two o'clock and still have dinner with my family. Everyone at these shows front-loads their schedule. No one plans to come only for Saturday, or only for two to five in the afternoon.

Which leads to all the questions in our association booth about why the show is so long. Same thing every cycle, there's no one there on Saturday and most of Friday. Why are we open? Maybe the show should close on Friday? Or even Thursday?

To that, I typically offer caution. Shortening the show won't change the basic human psychology of the situation. If the show closes on Friday, then Friday will be dead. If it closes on Thursday, then Thursday will be dead. People, even those who have come to do business, will still be motivated by the desire to "get out early."

Truth is, you have to scale the length of your show to the number of people who want to do business at the show and how much time they need to conduct that business. And since the goal is always to increase the number of those people, you have to make your show longer than the number of business-oriented attendees you experienced at the last show. In other words, a show with two good days and one slow day is probably the right length for its audience. Trim off that last slow day and you risk packing too many quality leads into too short a time, and your exhibitors will be frustrated that they couldn't get to them all.

Standing around with no one to talk to is part of everyone's trade show experience. It may also be a necessary experience if you are to be sure that you got all the value you could out of the show.

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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, April 15, 2017

Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

I very much enjoyed the warning printed under the copyright notice of my battered copy of what I take to be a first edition of Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper.

Hopefully, what I’m doing on this blog will qualify as a modern-day equivalent.

Let’s start here.

Ever since she could remember, she had seen her mother show shades of kindness and cruelty which seemed to her purely whimsical.

It might be a throwaway line (although one of the things I like best about Cather’s fiction is the disciplined lack of throwaway lines it contains) but it nicely summarizes the main themes of the novel. It comes from late in the narrative. “She” is Rachel Blake and “her mother” is Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert, and the context the slavery. Rachel’s mother, the titular Sapphira, shows shades of kindness and cruelty which seem purely whimsical to Rachel. And in the same respect, slavery is an institution that shows both kindness and cruelty, in ways that are generally indecipherable, even to the people, black and white, whose lives are bound up with it.

This theme comes together powerfully in a scene from much earlier in the novel, one that follows the funeral of an old slave woman named Jezebel.

That night there was a big supper in the kitchen for the Colbert negroes and all the visitors; a first and second sitting at table. The darkies were always gay after a funeral, and this funeral had pleased everyone. “Miss Sapphy sho’ly give Jezebel a beautiful laying away,” they all agreed.

Washington, serving his master and mistress in the big house, noticed that they, too, were more animated than usual, expressing their satisfaction that things had gone so well and that Jezebel’s young kinsmen had been able to come and carry her. The Master sat long at table; had two helpings of pudding and drank four cups of tea. When at last he rose, his wife said persuasively:

“Surely you don’t mean to go back to the mill tonight, Henry, with your good clothes on.”

Henry, we are told in the opening pages of the novel, sleeps not in the house with his wife, but by himself in a small room in his flour mill. Apparently, this situation is related to the seriousness and commitment that he has for his business.

“Yes I think I must. I have been away all day. I want to speak to those boys from town and give them a little money. They will be starting back late tonight. Good night, Sapphira. I expect you are tired, and I hope you sleep well.”

But Sapphira, his wife, has other suspicions.

“The same to you,” she said with a placid smile, which changed to an expression of annoyance while her eyes followed him to the door. As she sat there alone, her face grew hard and bitter. A few hours ago, when she was being carried out of the graveyard after the burial…

Sapphira suffers from dropsy, which has left her mostly crippled.

...she had seen something which greatly disturbed her. Behind the dark cedars just outside the stone wall, her husband and Nancy stood in deep conversation.

Nancy is the “slave girl” of the book’s title. Old Jezebel, who has just died, is Nancy’s grandmother, and her mother, Till, is Sapphira’s body servant. Nancy is about sixteen and very attractive. Who her father is, apart from definitely being a white man, is a matter of household gossip.

The girl was in an attitude of dejection, her head hanging down, her hands clasped together, and the Master, whatever he was saying, was speaking very earnestly, with affectionate solicitude. Sapphira had put her handkerchief to her eyes, afraid that her face might show her indignation. Never before had she seen him expose himself like that. Whatever he was pressing upon that girl, he was not speaking as master to servant; there was nothing to suggest that special sort of kindliness permissible under such circumstances. He was not uttering condolences. It was personal. He had forgotten himself. Now, as she sat at the table, opposite his empty chair, she felt her anger rising. She rang the bell for the old butler.

Sapphira suspects her husband of conducting a sexually-intimate relationship with Nancy, and while that suspected outrage certainly angers her, we see here that it is his impropriety of revealing such a secret that truly infuriates her. Such relationships, after all, are actually quite commonplace in their society--Nancy herself being the product of one. But the same society that allows them is absolutely dependent on them not being publicly acknowledged.

“Washington, you may take me to my room. Send Till to me.”

Till got Mrs. Colbert into her ruffled nightgown, and stood brushing out her heavy hair. She felt there was something wrong. She began to talk soothingly about the old days at Chestnut Hill. The Mistress scarcely heard her. As she walked toward her bed on Till’s arm, she paused at the window, drew aside the long chintz curtains, and looked out toward the mill. There was a red patch in the darkness down there; the lights in the miller’s room were burning.

Cather uses this visual allegory to good effect. It is light in the darkness--by which Sapphira Colbert no doubt thinks her husband is doing evil, but by which he, in fact, typically reads the Good Book, trying his humble best to discern God’s intentions in our fallen world. More on that later.

She let the curtain fall and continued her way to the wide four-post bed. Till said good-night, blew out the candles, and went away.

Left alone, the Mistress could not go to sleep. Her training and her own good sense had schooled her to know that there are very few situations in life worth getting wrought up about. But tonight she was angry. She was hurt -- and remorseful. Because she was hurt, her mind kept going back to Chestnut Hill and her father. She wished she had been kinder to him in the years when he was crippled and often in pain. She wished she had shown him a little tenderness. His eyes used to ask for it sometimes, she remembered. She had been solicitous and resolutely cheerful; kept him up to the mark, saw that his body servant neglected nothing. But she knew there was something he wanted more than he wanted clean linen every morning, or to have his tea just as he liked it. She had never given in to him, never humoured his weakness. In those days she had not known the meaning of illness. To be crippled and incapacitated, not to come and go at will, to be left out of things as if one were in one’s dotage -- she had no realization of what that felt like, none at all. Invalids were to be kept clean and comfortable, greeted cheerily; that was their life.

A sad and lonely portrait, yes, but it also communicates something more. As she treated her father, now is she being treated. It’s a cycle of norms and expectations. Invalids, all of stripes, and in denial of the humanity that lives and pulses within them, are treated just as society determines they are to be treated. No more and no less. Kindness and cruelty.

The longer she lay awake thinking of those things in the far past, the more lonely and wretched and injured she felt herself to be tonight. Her usual fortitude seemed to break up altogether. She reached for it, but it was not there. Strange alarms and suspicions began to race through her mind. How far could she be deceived and mocked by her own servants in her own house? What was the meaning of that intimate conversation which had gone on under her very eyes this afternoon?

In the darkness of her room and her mind, Sapphira contemplates the biggest fear of them all--not just of her but of her whole society. That the illusionary decorum of slavery--the separation between slaves and masters on which everything depends--is understood and mocked by the very people that the institution holds in bondage.

Unable to lie still any longer, she got cautiously out of bed, reaching for her cane and her armchair. Pushing the chair along beside her, she got to the window and again held back the curtain. The ruddy square of light still burned in the dark mill. She sat down in the chair a reflected. Hours ago she had heard Nancy put her straw tick outside the door.

Some time ago, suspicious of the intimacy developing between Nancy and her husband, Sapphira had commanded the slave girl to sleep on a straw mattress placed immediately outside Sapphira’s bedroom door.

But was she there now? Perhaps she did not always sleep there. A substitute? -- There were four young coloured girls, not counting Bluebell, who might easily take Nancy’s place on that pallet. Very likely they did take her place, and everyone knew it. Could Till, even, be trusted? Besides, Till went early to her cabin -- she would be the last to know.

She has succumbed to outright paranoia.

The Mistress sat still, scarcely breathing, overcome by dread. The thought of being befooled, hoodwinked in any way, was unendurable to her. There were candles on her dressing-table, but she had no way to light them. Her throat was dry and seemed closed up. She felt afraid to call aloud, afraid to take a full breath. A faintness was coming over her. She put out her hand and resolutely rang her clapper bell.

The chamber door open, and someone staggered in.

“Yes mam, yes mam! Whassa matter, Missy?”

Nancy’s sleepy, startled voice. Mrs. Colbert dropped back in her chair and drew a long, slow breath. It was over. Her shattered, treacherous house stood safe about her again. She was in her own room, wakened out of a dream of disaster.

The double meaning here is deeply poetic. Her house is shattered and treacherous both in her paranoid fears and, of course, in the savage and inhuman realities of slavery. And only one meaning can be so easily dismissed with the ringing of a clapper bell.

But she must see it through, what he had begun.

The subterfuge, at all costs, must be preserved.

“Nancy, I’m taken bad. Run out to the kitchen and blow up the coals and put the kettle on. Then go for your mother. I must get my feet into hot water.”

Nancy scurried down the long hall and out to the kitchen. She was wide awake now, and alarmed. She wasn’t a girl to hold a grudge.

Till came, sooner than her mistress would have thought possible. Nancy brought the foot-tub and the big iron teakettle. Till sat on the floor rhythmically stroking her mistress’s swollen ankles and knees, murmuring: “It’s all right, Missy. They is no worse than common. It’s just a chill you caught, waitin’ out there by the graveside.”

When the Mistress was again put to bed, Till begged to stay with her. But Mrs. Colbert, comforted by the promptness and sympathy of her servants, thanked them both, said the pain was gone now, and she would sleep better alone. As they helped her from her chair she had looked once more from her window: the miller’s lights were still burning in the west room of the mill.

What are her suspicions now?

Was the man worrying over some lawsuit he had never told her about, she wondered? Or was he, perhaps, reading his religious books? She knew he pondered at times upon how we are saved or lost. That was the disadvantage of having been raised a Lutheran. In her Church all those things had been decided long ago by heads much wiser than Henry’s. She had married the only Colbert who had a conscience, and she sometimes wished he hadn’t quite so much.

No worry any longer about darkly suspected pecadillos with his young and beautiful slave, the veil of propriety and understanding has once again fallen over Sapphira’s eyes. She is even able to conjure up a tinge of condescension for her husband and his imprecise religion.

Sapphira, and the world she represents, is fascinating and expertly drawn, but Henry, and his meaning in the story, is even more compelling.

The metaphor of the miller is not lost on me. Like in the paintings by the old Dutch masters, the mill is the spindle on which the world turns, and the work that goes on within, preoccupied as it is with the provender that makes earthly life possible, makes it a difficult place to decipher divine meaning on a cosmic scale. There are two struggles--a bodily one, necessary to keep the mill stone turning--and a spiritual one, necessary to discern wisdom from the inexorable procession of heavenly justice. The miller in our tale, Henry Colbert, embodies them both.

Behind the square of candlelight down there, the miller, in his mill clothes, was sitting with his Bible open on the table before him, but he was no longer reading. Jezebel’s life, as Mr. Fairhead had summed it up, seemed a strange instance of predestination. For her, certainly, her capture had been a deliverance. Yet he hated the whole system of slavery. His father had never owned a slave. The Quakers who came down from Pennsylvania believed that slavery would one day be abolished. In the North there were many people who called themselves abolishers.

That is the opinion of men, one that Henry and others shared, but its justice was not so obvious, was it?

Henry Colbert knew he had a legal right to manumit any of his wife’s negroes; but that would be an outrage to her feelings, and an injustice to the slaves themselves. Where would they go? How would they live? They had never learned to take care of themselves or to provide for tomorrow. They were a part of the Dodderidge property and the Dodderidge household. Of all the negro men on the place, Sampson, his head millhand, was the only one who might be able to get work and make a living out in the world. He was a tall, straight mulatto with a good countenance, thoughtful, intelligent. His head was full behind the ears, shaped more like a melon lying down than a peanut standing on end. Colbert trusted Sampson’s judgment, and believed he could get a place for him among the Quaker mills in Philadelphia. He had considered buying Sampson from Sapphira and sending him to Pennsylvania a free man.

What could be wrong with that?

Three years ago he had called Sampson into his room one night, and proposed this plan to him. Sampson did not interrupt; he stood in his manly, responsible way, listening intently to his master. But when it was his turn to speak, he broke down. This was his home. Here he knew everybody. He didn’t want to go out among strangers. Besides, Belle, his wife, was a slack worker, and his children were little. He could never keep them in a city as well off as they were here. What ever had put such a notion in Mister Henry’s head? Wasn’t he real smart about his work? Belle, he know, wasn’t much account to help down at the house, but she was good to the chillun, an’ she didn’t do no harm. Anyhow, he’d a’most sooner leave the chillun than leave the mill, when they’d got everything fixed up so nice and could bolt finer white flour than you could buy in town.

“I guess I’d miss you more than you’d miss the mill, Sampson. We’ll say no more about it, if that’s how you feel,” said the miller, rising and putting his hand on Sampson’s shoulder. There it ended. Sampson never afterward referred to this proposal, nor did his master.

What else could he say? A slave who preferred comfortable bondage to hard freedom. So the opinions of man are stymied by the very fellows those opinions seek to help. But what of the opinion of God? Where does divine truth come down in the matter of slavery?

On this night after Jezebel’s burial, Henry Colbert had been reading over certain marked passages in the Book he accepted as a complete guide to human life. He had turned to all the verses marked with a large S. Joseph, Daniel, and the prophets had been slaves in foreign lands, and had brought good out of their captivity. Nowhere in his Bible had he ever been able to find a clear condemnation of slavery. There were injunctions of kindness to slaves, mercy and tolerance. Remember them in bonds as bound with them. Yes, but nowhere did his Bible say that there should be no one in bonds, no one at all. -- And Henry had often asked himself, were we not all in bonds? If Lizzie, the cook, was in bonds to Sapphira, was she not almost equally in bonds to Lizzie?

That’s not so clear either, is it?

The miller knew the hour must be getting late. His big silver watch he had left up at the house, on his wife’s dressing-table. But he and the negroes could tell time by the stars. At this season of the year, if the Big Dipper had set under the dark spruce-clad hills behind Rachel’s house, it would be past midnight. He opened his north window and looked out. Yes, the Dipper had gone down. The air of the soft, still, spring night came in at the window. There was no sound but the creek, pouring steadily over its rocky bottom. As he stood there, he repeated to himself some verses of his favourite hymn:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

But that’s okay. God, after all, moves in mysterious ways. And while a miller works to develop an understanding, beside him his mill stone keeps turning, grinding seed into flour, and outside the creek keeps flowing, turning his mill wheel, and above it all the celestial lights keep revolving on their heavenly course. Now and forever.

We must rest, he told himself, on our confidence in His design. Design was clear enough in the stars, the seasons, in the woods and fields. But in human affairs -- ? Perhaps our bewilderment came from a fault in our perceptions; we could never see what was behind the next turn of the road. Whenever he went to Winchester, he called upon a wise old Quaker. This man, though now seventy, firmly believed that in his own lifetime he would see one of those great designs accomplished; that the Lord has already chosen His heralds and His captains, and a morning would break when all the black slaves would be free.

Such musings certainly helped Henry Colbert sleep at night. But Nancy, the slave girl, does not have the luxury of such philosophical repose. In the course of the narrative she is set upon by Henry’s nephew Martin, a Southern blueblood with a rakish reputation, intent on deflowering her, with or without her consent.

Martin had gone to the kitchen to complain that Nancy had not done his room, and Bluebell told him Nancy was out picking cherries. There never was a finer morning for picking cherries or anything else, he was thinking, as he went out to the kitchen garden and round the stables. …

“Good morning, Nancy,” he called up to her as he stood at the foot of the tree. “Cherries are ripe, eh? Do you know that song? Can you sing, like Bluebell?”

“No, sir. I can’t sing. I got not singin’ voice.”

“Neither have I, but I sing anyhow. Can’t help it on a morning like this. Come now, you’re going to give me something, Nancy.”

His tone was coaxing, but careless. She somehow didn’t feel scared of him as he stood down there, with his head thrown back. His eyes were clear this morning, and jolly. He didn’t look wicked. Maybe he only meant to tease her anyhow, and she just didn’t know how young men behaved over in the racing counties.

“Aren’t you going to give me something on such a pretty day? Let’s be friends.” He held up his hand as if to help her down.

She didn’t move, but she laughed a soft darky laugh and dropped a bunch of cherries down to him.

“I don’t want cherries. They’re sour, and I want something sweet.”

“No, Mr. Martin. The sour cherries is all gone. These is blackhearts.”

“Stop talking about cherries. You look awful pretty, sitting up there.”

Nancy giggled nervously. Martin was smiling all the time. Maybe he was just young and foolish like, not bad.

“Who’s your beau, anyhow, Nancy Till?”

“Ain’t got none.”

“You goin’ to be a sour old maid?”

“I reckon I is.”

“Now who in the world is that scarecrow, comin’ on us?”

Nancy followed his eyes and looked back over her shoulder. The instant her head was turned Martin stepped lightly on the chair, caught her bare ankles, and drew her two legs about his cheeks like a frame. Nancy dropped her basket and almost fell out of the tree herself. She caught at the branch above her and clung to it.

“Oh, please get down, Mr. Martin! Do, please! Somebody’ll come along, an’ you’ll git me into trouble.”

Martin laughed. “Get you into trouble? Just this? This is nothin’ but to cure toothache.”

The girl had gone pale. She was frightened now, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t pull herself up with him holding her so hard. Everything had changed in a flash. He had changed, and she couldn’t collect her wits.

“Please, Mr. Martin, please let me git down.”

Martin framed his face closer and shut his eyes. “Pretty soon. -- This is just nice. -- Something smells sweet -- like May apples.” He seemed murmuring to himself, not to her, but all the time his face came closer. Her throat felt tight shut, but she knew she must scream, and she did.

“Pappy! Oh, Pappy! Come quick!”

The menace of this scene is palpable, draped, as it is, in slavery’s horrid and beastly sexual intimidation. And what happens next is even more horrific, as Nancy’s would-be protectors, Sampson and Old Jeff (Till’s husband, who had adopted Nancy as his own child, even though she wasn’t), and Nancy herself, are forced by convention to excuse and cover-up Martin’s crime.

The moment she screamed, Martin stepped down from the chair. Old Jeff came running round the end of the smokehouse, up to the foot of the tree where Nancy sat, still holding on to the limb above her. “Whassa matter, chile? Whassa matter?”

Sampson followed more deliberately, looking about him, -- looking at Martin Colbert, which it was not his place to do.

Nancy said she was “took giddy like” in the tree, and was afraid she would faint and fall. Sampson got on the chair and lifted her down, but before he did so he took it in that there were already wet boot tracks on the seat. Martin, standing by, remarked that if the girl had had any sense, he would have helped her get out of the tree.

“Co’se you would, Mr. Martin,” Jeff jabbered. “Young girls has dese sick spells come on ‘em, an’ den dey ain’t got no haid. Come along, honey, you kin walk, Pappy’ll he’p you.”

Sampson picked up the chair and carried it back to the smokehouse. Martin strolled down the path, muttering to himself. “God, I’d rather it had been any other nigger on the place! That mill-hand don’t know where he belongs. If ever he looks me in the face like that again, I’ll break his head for him. The niggers here don’t know their place, not one of ‘em.”

Sampson does more than just look Martin Colbert in the face. He reports the instance to Martin’s uncle, Henry. And when confronted with these ugly facts about his relative, which are not wholly unknown to him, it awakens in him a deeper and uglier understanding of the world, which, apparently, has been.

The miller closed his book and began to move slowly about the room. In a flash he realized that from the first he had distrusted his nephew, though he had never thought of him in connection with Nancy. To him Nancy was scarcely more than a child. It was his habit to refer to her in that way. In reality, of course, she was a young woman. His three daughters had married when they were younger than Nancy was now. Wrath flamed up in him as he paced the floor; against his nephew and the father who begot him, against all his brothers and the Colbert blood. His own father he could hold in reverence; he was an honest man, and the woman who shared his laborious and thrifty life was a good woman, but there must have been bad blood in the Colberts back on the other side of the water, and it had come to light in his three brothers and their sons. He knew the family inheritance well enough. He had his share of it. But since his marriage he had never let it get the better of him. He had kept his marriage vows as he would keep any other contract.

The miller got very little sleep that night. When the first blush of the early summer dawn showed above the mountain, he rose, put on his long white cotton milling coat, and went to bathe in the shallow pool that always lay under the big mill-wheel. This was his custom, after the hot, close nights which often made sleep unrefreshing in summer. The chill of the water, and the rays of gold which soon touched the distant hills before the sun appeared, restored his feeling of physical vigour. He came back to his room, leaving wet footprints on the floury floor behind him. Having dressed and shaved, he put on his hat and walked down along the mill-race toward the dam. He did not know why, but he felt strongly disinclined to see Nancy this morning. He did not wish to be there when she came to the mill; it would not be the same as yesterday. Something disturbing had come between them since then.

For years, ever since she was a child, Nancy had seemed to him more like an influence than a person. She came in and out of the mill like a soft spring breeze; a shy, devoted creature who touched everything so lightly. Never before had anyone divined all his little whims and preferences, and been eager to gratify them. And it was for love, from dutiful affection. She had nothing to gain beyond the pleasure of seeing him pleased.

Now that he must see her as a woman, enticing to men, he shrank from seeing her at all. Something was lost out of that sweet companionship; for companionship it has been, though it was but a smile and a glance, a greeting in the fresh morning hours.

The paternal relationship of master to slave that Henry has teased out his Bible simply cannot survive this sexual awakening. It is revealed as a sham, a dressing draped over a more urgent reality--something the miller is all his studies was not able to see, but which had been inflaming everyone else in his household.

One person who wants to help Nancy is the Colberts’s daughter Rachel Blake. Let’s return to the passage I started this post with.

Ever since she could remember, she had seen her mother show shades of kindness and cruelty which seemed to her purely whimsical. At this moment Mrs. Blake could not for the life of her say whether Mrs. Colbert had invited this scapegrace to her house with the deliberate purpose of bringing harm to Nancy, or whether she had asked him merely for the sake of his company, and was now ready to tolerate anything that might amuse him and thus prolong his stay. This was quite possible, since Mrs. Colbert, though often generous, was entirely self-centered and thought of other people only in their relation to herself. She was born that way, and had been brought up that way.

Rachel is a counterbalancing character in Cather’s story. Grown and widowed with two young girls, she is a kind of self-taught country doctor, tending to the sick and injured in her parents’s household as well as throughout the county. She is traveled and educated in her way, and brings a skeptical analysis and piercing understanding to everything she does. She the daughter of her mother and her father, but she is not like them, almost opposite them in many important ways.

Having posed to herself this question--is her mother being intentional vicious to Nancy or forlornly hospitable to Martin--she must analyze whatever evidence she can bring to bear.

Yet one must admit inconsistencies. There was her singular indulgence with Tansy Dave, her real affection for Till and old Jezebel, her patience with Sampson’s lazy wife. Even now, from her chair, she took some part in all the celebrations that darkies love. She liked to see them happy. On Christmas morning she sat in the long hall and had all the men on the place come in to get their presents and their Christmas drink. She served each man a strong toddy in one of the big glass tumblers that had been her father’s. When Tap, the mill boy, smacked his lips and said: “Miss Sapphy, if my mammy’s titty had a-tasted like that, I never would a-got weaned,” she laughed as if she had never heard the old joke before.

When the darkies were sick, she doctored them, sent linen for the new babies and had them brought for her to see as soon as the mother was up and about.

And her conclusion?

Recalling these things and trying to be fair to her mother, Mrs. Blake suddenly rose from her chair and said aloud:

“No, it ain’t put on; she believes in it, and they believe in it. But it ain’t right.”

Spot on--as usual. Both about her mother and the institutional that shaped her. It is believed in. But it ain’t right.

And is it significant, therefore, that it is Rachel who can see what is wrong and what must be done when neither her gentrified mother nor her biblical father cannot.

Once at the mill, she went to the north window of her father’s room. He was within, sitting at his table; not reading, but gazing moodily at the floor.

“Can I come in, Father?” she asked quietly.

“Is that you, Rachel? Wait a minute.” He came out to the platform where the wagons were unloaded, took her hand, and led her through the dark passage to his room. When he closed to door he shot the bolt.

Mrs. Blake sat down and drew a long breath. “Well, Father, I’ve come over to have a talk with you. I blame myself I didn’t come before this. I reckon you know what it’s about.”

She looked to him for recognition, but he sat frowning at the floor. It tried her that he gave her no encouragement, when he certainly must know what was on her mind. She was tired, and the road round by the creek had seemed long.

“Father,” she broke out indignantly, “are you going to stand by and see a good girl brought to ruin without lifting a finger?”

The miller crossed the room and shut down the open window. His face had flushed red, and so had Mrs. Blake’s. She went on with some heat.

“You surely know that rake Mart Colbert is after Nancy day and night. He’ll have her, in the end. She’s a good girl, but the Colbert men never let anything get away. He’ll catch her somewhere, and force her.”

Her father clenched his two powerful fists. “No he won’t! It’s only by the mercy of God I haven’t strangled the life out of him before now.”

“Then why don’t you do something to save her?”

He made no reply. His daughter sat watching him in astonishment. His darkly flushed face, his clenched hands gave her no clue to what was going on in his mind; struggle of some sort. Certainly. She had always known him quick to act, had never seen him like this before.

“I may be overstepping my duty,” she said at last, “but I couldn’t sit with my hands folded and see what’s going on here. She’s come to me for help, and I couldn’t hold back. I’m a-going to get Nancy away from her and on the road to freedom.”

The mercy of God. Sitting with folded hands. The allusions are clear. I believe Cather is saying, here and throughout the novel, that, as often lauded as it is, religion would not and could not end slavery. Like Henry Colbert, it clouds the minds of its followers with conflicting aphorisms and a morality that seems to exclude some people from the common humanity we all share. In the end, it is Rachel who gets Nancy to safety, and it is her mother and father who do nothing but comfort and reassure themselves that they did all that they could.

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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, April 10, 2017

Changing Strategy and Member Engagement

A few weeks ago I wrote about the presentation I gave at my association's Annual Conference, communicating our overall strategy and the progress we're making on it to our membership. I said then that I was pleased with how little our strategy had changed in the year since my presentation at the previous Annual Conference. I also said that showed how good we were getting at reaching a strategic consensus at our Board table and at steadily investing our resources into multi-year action plans to achieve our goals.

That's still all true, but there is one area of our strategy agenda that underwent a fairly major change in direction at the Board meeting held in conjunction with that Annual Conference those weeks ago. The course we were on was proving to be unsustainable, given the resources we have at our disposal, and it was necessary to make a course correction, trying to reach the same destination by a different path.

I've spent the weeks since that decision in communications mode, trading emails and talking on the phone with a sizable number of our association members who are directly impacted by the change in direction. Depending on the member company's level of involvement in the old direction, some of these conversations have been easy (the member supporting the change in direction) and some of these conversations have been difficult (the member supporting the existing way of doing things).

But whether easy or difficult, it occurred to me this week that all of these conversations have been beneficial. In each I have had the opportunity to discuss the high-level strategy of my association with our most engaged and supportive members.

Increasingly, I realized, those opportunities are becoming few and far between. No matter the time it takes out of my already busy schedule, the chance to discuss what the association is doing and why with these members is invaluable. For those that support the direction, that support is solidified. For those that don't, the dialogue and feedback received helps strengthen future strategy decisions and keep the member engaged in the broader picture of membership and leadership.

Changing your strategy can sometimes be a challenging time. But the opportunity it presents for member engagement is not to be missed.

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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, April 3, 2017

The Glamourous Life

Those of you who are seasoned travelers, you might want to skip this one.

I've been traveling on business since I started my career in association management -- twenty-four years now. In fact, my first flight on an airplane was the first time I traveled on business. It was Atlanta, if memory serves. The purpose of the trip? That was long ago lost in the fog.

My most recent trip was to Nashville. I found out I needed to go there about two weeks ahead of the travel date. There was an hour-long meeting in a hotel there that I needed to be at. Getting back and forth between Milwaukee and Nashville on the same day was a challenge given the meeting time and flight schedules, so I booked it as an overnight. Fly down, attend the meeting, work out of the hotel room, grab dinner, get some sleep, fly back. Thay was my plan. I've done it a dozen or more times before.

Then I found out that a friend of mine was going to be in Nashville over the same dates for an entirely different reason. We thought that was great. I had a free night, and he might be able to break away from the event he was attending. We'd get dinner. Find a honkey tonk. Sample the local brews.

It didn't work out that way. Through a stream of texts we figured out that he couldn't break away from his commitments as easily as he thought. He was there on business. There were functions he had to be present at. I understood. I've been in his position more times than I can count.

Here's the thing. Being alone in another city is not a strange experience for me. But being alone in another city, knowing that a friend from my hometown was six blocks away; that was a strange experience. The displacement felt more surreal than normal.

Even with all my experience, there's part of me that still marvels at the idea that I so frequently wake up in one city and go to sleep in another. One morning I'm having a room service breakfast and that evening I'm having a home cooked dinner with my family. And the most remarkable thing is how normal it all seems. It’s not anything to crow about. It's just the way our crazy world works.

I know people who don't travel much who frequently comment on how glamourous my life must be, always jetting off to another destination, staying in all these fancy hotels. But the reality is that it's not glamourous at all. Some of the perks and places are certainly nice, but the whole adventure isn't glamourous. It's normal. It's expected. It's just the way the work gets done.

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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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