Monday, August 20, 2018

Before You Begin: 5 Co-Creation Tips

Back in May 2018, I participated in a virtual conference session on co-creation. It was called SURGE Spring 2018, and the organizers just posted a blog summary of some of the points I made in the session. You can read that post here, but I thought I would also re-publish it on my blog.

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Before You Begin: 5 Co-Creation Tips

Co-creation happens when an association and its members work together to create something that is valuable for both the association and the members. Generally speaking, it is important for the association to maintain decision-making control over the use of resources in the co-creative project, whereas the participating members should be given control over design decisions. If too many of the design decisions are made on the staff side, you risk creating something that might be sensitive to the needs of the marketplace, but without having engaged in a co-creative exercise with your members.


Remember that members can and should derive value not just from the finished, co-created product, but from the process of development itself. At my own association, we’ve done a series of roadmapping sessions where we use a facilitated process to identify technological challenges facing our industry. The end product helps us set an agenda for the overall industry, and our members can take the end product back to their own companies and embed it in their own development processes. But members who participated in the roadmapping process have also learned how to roadmap, and this can help them address other challenges within their companies. The Roadmap is useful to them. But the process of roadmapping is even more valuable.


There is too often an unfortunate adversarial relationship in associations between the group that people consider the association and the group that people consider outsiders. Whether that’s staff versus board, or staff and board versus membership, it’s a dangerous way to think about your association. Embracing co-creation is a way of beginning to redefine this relationship between “the association” and “its members.” Co-creation helps bring your members inside your association and helps establish an important duality between the decision makers and the participants in a co-creation experience.


In my association, there is one process that determines our strategic objectives, then another process that develops programs for each of those strategy areas. Both are critically important, but we have to be clear about who is responsible for each so each group succeeds. If people think they’re in charge of strategy, they’re not going to accept the design constraints that you place on their program development process. If they don’t accept that their role is to live within a particular strategic objective, it’s not going to work. Lack of clarity on this essential point creates tension in the co-creation process, and often prevents the organization from delivering the results it seeks.


Co-creative opportunities are practically everywhere, and can help an association address some of its most intractable problems. By way of example, my association, like a lot of manufacturing-based trade associations, is still trying to figure out what we call “the workforce challenge.” Member companies have a hard time finding the engineering talent they need to grow their businesses.

This problem is a wonderful co-creative opportunity for our association and its members. We started by experimenting with a middle school outreach program that’s branded for our technology space. We initially developed it at the association level and pilot-tested it in our local community where we’re headquartered. But very quickly, we shared it with our members and asked them to run it independently in their local communities. Now, we are regularly bringing all these folks together to share the successes and failures they’ve encountered. That keeps the co-creation practice running—slowly iterating a better product and vastly extending its reach.


Finally, remember that if you’re an association, then you’re probably already doing some level of co-creation. It’s endemic to the association environment. But being more intentional about co-creation can expand on the value of member engagement tools already at your disposal.

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This post 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 18, 2018

Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan

The best line in this book comes on page 6, when Sagan is describing his encounter with the disembodied brain of Paul Broca, the scientist for which the Broca’s area of the brain is named.

And then in a still more remote corner of this wing of the museum was revealed a collection of gray, convoluted objects, stored in formalin to retard spoilage -- shelf upon shelf of human brains. There must have been someone whose job it was to perform routine craniotomies on the cadavers of notables and extract their brains for the benefit if science. Here was the cerebrum of a European intellectual who had achieved momentary renown before fading into the obscurity of this dusty shelf. Here a brain of a convicted murderer. Doubtless the savants of earlier days had hoped there might be some anomaly, some telltale sign in the brain anatomy or cranial configuration of murderers. Perhaps they had hoped that murder was a matter of heredity and not society. Phrenology was a graceless nineteenth-century aberration. I could hear my friend Ann Druyan saying, “The people we starve and torture have an unsociable tendency to steal and murder. We think it’s because their brows overhang.” But the brains of murderers and savants -- the remains of Albert Einstein’s brain are floating wanly in a bottle in Wichita -- are indistinguishable. It is, very probably, society and not heredity that makes criminals.

And the best line is, in fact, Druyan’s, not Sagan’s. “The people we starve and torture have an unsociable tendency to steal and murder.” It jumped out at me while reading Broca’s Brain, but it powerfully came back to me some books later, while I was reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There, the context was not murder, but child abuse and how it, apparently inevitably, leads to broken and dysfunctional adults. Much more on that we I get to writing up my post on that book.

The rest of Broca’s Brain I can frankly take or leave. The book is a collection of essays and articles, most published in other places, that don’t, in my opinion, cohere together very well.

The worst of the bunch is “Venus and Dr. Velikovsky,” a skeptical takedown that goes on for an interminable fifty-six pages. In 1950, a scholar named Immanuel Velikovsky published a book called Worlds in Collision, which was apparently a kind of best seller and cultural phenomenon. In Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky proposed that:

The planet Jupiter disgorged a large comet, which made a grazing collision with Earth around 1500 B.C. The various plagues and Pharaonic tribulations of the Book of Exodus all derive directly or indirectly from this cometary encounter. Material which made the river Nile turn to blood drops from the comet. The vermin described in Exodus are produced by the comet -- flies and perhaps scarabs drop out of the comet, while indigenous terrestrial frogs are induced by the heat of the comet to multiply. Earthquakes produced by the comet level Egyptian but not Hebrew dwellings. (The only thing that does not seem to drop from the comet is cholesterol to harden Pharaoh’s heart.)

That last parenthetical sentence gives you an idea of the humor that Sagan can employ and, yet, despite the biting sarcasm, he then goes on the counter scientifically every possible claim that Velikovsky’s fanciful story employs. Here, for the sake of example, is what Sagan writes about the idea that flies could have come out of a comet that was once part of Jupiter and would eventually, according to Velikovsky, become the planet Venus.

Even stranger are Velikovsky’s views on extraterrestrial life. He believes that much of the “vermin,” and particularly the flies referred to in Exodus, really fell from his comet -- although he hedges on the extraterrestrial origin of frogs while approvingly quoting from the Iranian text, The Bundahis (page 183), which seems to admit a rain of cosmic frogs. Let us consider flies only. Shall we expect houseflies or Drosophila melanogaster in forthcoming explorations of the clouds of Venus and Jupiter? He is quite explicit: “Venus -- and therefore also Jupiter -- is populated by vermin” (page 389). Will Velikovsky’s hypothesis fall if no flies are found?

The idea that, of all the organisms on Earth, flies alone are of extraterrestrial origin is curiously reminiscent of Martin Luther’s exasperated conclusion that, while the rest of life was created by God, the fly must have been created by the Devil because there is no conceivable practical use for it. But flies are perfectly respectable insects, closely related in anatomy, physiology and biochemistry to other insecta. The possibility that 4.6 billion years of independent evolution on Jupiter -- even if it were physically identical to Earth -- would produce a creature indistinguishable from other terrestrial organisms is to misread seriously the evolutionary process. Flies have the same enzymes, the same nucleic acids and even the same genetic code (which translates nucleic acid information into protein information) as do all the other organisms on Earth. There are too many intimate associations and identities between flies and other terrestrial organisms for them to have separate origins, as any serious investigation clearly shows.

In Exodus, Chapter 9, it is said that the cattle of Egypt all died, but of the cattle of the Children of Israel there “died not one.” In the same chapter we find a plague that affects flax and barley but not wheat and rye. This fine-tuned host-parasite specificity is very strange for cometary vermin with no prior biological contact with Earth, but is readily explicable in terms of home-grown terrestrial vermin.

Then there is the curious fact that flies metabolize molecular oxygen. There is no molecular oxygen on Jupiter, nor can there be, because oxygen is thermodynamically unstable in an excess of hydrogen. Are we to imagine that the entire terminal electron transfer apparatus required for life to deal with molecular oxygen was adventitiously evolved on Jupiter by Jovian organisms hoping someday to be transported to Earth? This would be yet a bigger miracle than Velikovsky’s principal collisional thesis. Velikovsky makes (page 187) a lame aside on the “ability of many small insects … to live in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen,” which misses the point. The question is how an organism evolved on Jupiter could live in and metabolize an atmosphere rich in oxygen.

Next there is the problem of fly ablation. Small flies have just the same mass and dimensions as small meteors, which are burned up at an altitude of about 100 kilometers when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere on cometary trajectories. Ablation accounts for the visibility of such meteors. Not only would cometary vermin be transformed rapidly into fried flies on entrance into the Earth’s atmosphere; they would, as cometary meteors are today, be vaporized into atoms and never “swarm” over Egypt to the consternation of Pharaoh. Likewise, the temperatures attendant to ejection of the comet from Jupiter, referred to above, would fry Velikovsky’s flies. Impossible to begin with, doubly fried and atomized, cometary flies do not well survive critical scrutiny.

And that’s just the flies. On and on the critical analysis goes, page after page, until even I begin to question what it is all about. Is Sagan trying to deal in print with a kind of Gish Gallop? In other words, there are so many things wrong with Velikovsky’s book that the only possible way to conclusively refute them all is through this reasoned and measured approach. Sagan is a scientist after all. He no doubt believes that by putting such a treatise in the scientific literature, the conversation can finally move beyond Velikovsky -- or at least refer back to his rational take down whenever necessary. That would seem to be the case when, near the very end, Sagan says this:

To the extent that scientists have not given Velikovsky the reasoned response his work calls for, we have ourselves been responsible for the propagation of Velikovskian confusion.

I’ve got to admit. This sentence stopped me in my tracks. The reasoned response his work calls for? Are you kidding, Carl? Near as I can tell, the only thing Velikovsky’s “work” calls for is ridicule. That, as a great statesman once said, is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.

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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 13, 2018

Thinking in Four Colors

I attended a conference last week where one of the sessions was on the Hermann Whole Brain Model. Not familiar with it? It's another one of those HR assessments that labels the innate characteristics of individuals in an organization and, primarily by giving people a common language for discussing and understanding these differences, promotes better communication and collaboration.

For the sake of this blog post, let me oversimplify what the Hermann system says. Essentially, there are four ways of thinking: Analytical, Practical, Relational, and Experimental; which the system handily color-codes as Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow, respectively. See the attached graphic. And although everyone employs a subtle mix of all four colors, Hermann says that everyone is dominant in only one of these areas. By understanding your dominant way of thinking and the dominant ways of thinking of others on your team, everyone can learn to better communicate with each other and get more things done more quickly.

As part of the session, we attendees were all asked to self-assess and select the color that corresponded with our dominant way of thinking. Then, by seating us all at tables that intentionally contained a mix of colors -- that is, a group of people with a mixture of the dominant ways of thinking -- the facilitator led us through an exercise that demonstrated how the Hermann system could be practically applied in an organization.

Except there was one problem. The facilitator was a self-described Yellow. The graphic I included above associates the word Experimental with Yellow thinking, but other descriptive words she shared with us for her kind of thinking were Adventurous, Conceptual, Future-Oriented, and Big Picture.

And the exercise she led was exactly that. It was Yellow. Long on concepts and short on details. Its few instructions contained errors that seemed to contradict the very premise she had presented. Everyone around the table I was at were confused by it to one degree or another. But, interestingly, our reactions to it seemed to underscore the very concepts that the system was trying to communicate.

The Yellows, generally speaking, were much more on board with it, really liking the forest and not all that concerned about the trees that comprised it. The Reds were happy to use it as a springboard for talking about their feelings. The Greens worked really hard, first trying to understand and then trying to impose their own process on the exercise. And the Blues, like me, skeptically questioned the utility of the whole thing, not seeing the "bottom line" usefulness of either the system or the exercise.

It was, I realized, a interesting validation of the system itself. Here we were, a group of people with different ways of approaching problems, confronting a problem in each of our different ways, and doing it exactly as our color-coded areas of dominant thinking would have predicted.

So in this way, the exercise was a success. Except the purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate how a mixed group like this could come together, understand and employ each other's dominant strengths, and then solve a problem. And this we absolutely did not do. By the time the session came to a close, the best we had managed to do was simply to understand and acknowledge the colors represented around the table.

Hmmm. Looking at it from the point of view of our Yellow facilitator, maybe that was the point.

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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 6, 2018

We Are Making a Difference

It's not always obvious. In fact, sometimes it feels like you're not making any progress at all. But then, something happens that allows you to see what you've accomplished from an outsider's perspective, and suddenly, you realize that you ARE actually making a difference.

What am I talking about? Eleven years ago the association work for launched an affiliated charitable foundation to help raise money to support outreach, education, and research initiatives in our industry. The goal is to create a better educated workforce. They hired me as the association CEO at about the same time, and I remember being told that I was the CEO of the association AND its foundation after accepting the position. It hadn't even been mentioned during the interview process!

In the early years, the going was extremely tough. No programs to speak of. Not enough donations to fund the experimental programs we were trying to launch. Donors not feeling engaged or appreciated enough for their support. Only slowly, over time were we able to gain an understanding of what needed to be done, construct a strategy designed to provide it, communicate that strategy to our donor base, raise funds, and deploy targeted and effective programs. Any objective measure of our focus and activity today will show a tremendous advance over where we were when we started.

But still, the need is great, and most of the time it feels like we're emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. It's easy to lose perspective on all the good things we've accomplished when the problem we were tasked with solving remains unresolved.

This past week, however, I received a phone call from a colleague. She runs an association like mine and wanted to pick my brain because her association, like mine of eleven years ago, is contemplating the creation of an affiliated foundation to help them better tackle the workforce challenges that exist in their industry.

I'll admit, it was flattering to hear her talk about all the success she could see that we have had. She'd been on our website and had reviewed all of our programs. She had been observing us from afar, reading our newsletters and tapping into our social media feeds. She wanted to get my advice on how they should start and what they should focus on because we obviously knew what we were doing and had driven a lot of success for our industry.

That was good. But even better was the feeling I had when I started answering some of her questions. They forced me to go back in my mind and reconstruct the steps we had taken to build what we had now. And that, more than anything else, helped me see our progress for what is was: substantial and meaningful. Compared to where we were when we started, we -- and the many partners we have worked with along the way -- have made a tremendous impact for our industry.

We ARE making a difference. I don't think I will doubt that 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

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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Best Stories of O. Henry

This was not what I expected.

O. Henry, if you’re not familiar, is the pen name of William Sydney Porter, a bank robber turned author who wrote prolifically in the early 1900s, whose claim to fame is something that was evidently new at the time he was writing -- the surprise or “twist” ending. As this collection’s editors say in their introduction:

To this day writers are striving to surpass him in this type of story, only to prove anew the truth of that old adage of the prize ring: you can’t beat a champion at his own game.

I picked up this volume on the strength of that reputation alone. To the best of my recollection, I had previously only ever read one O. Henry story -- that staple of high school English classes “The Gift of the Magi.” Remembering the reputation far more than the details of even that story, I was prepared to be dazzled by the intricacies and elegance of Henry’s fiction.

I was not. Surprisingly, the editors may convey my reaction best in their introduction.

The bulk of O. Henry’s written work, truth to tell, does not measure up too well against the exacting standards of the present day [the present day in this case being 1945]. Many of his stories were glib and superficial rather than profound, obviously hurried and cut closely to a pattern that had proven serviceable. His characters, like his plots, tended to repeat themselves, and sustained him only because he was a master at contriving every possible variation of a familiar theme.

Despite this judgment, and quite incongruently, the editors go on to heap praise on the bank robber from North Carolina.

This volume of selected stories is conclusive evidence, in the editors’ opinion, that O. Henry at his best, however, deserves rank with America’s greatest masters of the short story. Such tales as “A Municipal Report,” “An Unfinished Story,” “A Blackjack Bargainer,” “A Lickpenny Lover,” “The Gift of the Magi,” “Mammon and the Archer,” and “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” (by actual count the O. Henry stories most often reprinted in anthologies) are gems of their kind; mellow, humorous, ironic, ingenious, and shot through with that eminently salable quality known as “human interest.”

Okay. Here’s the thing. The stories mentioned above, the ones most frequently anthologized, and not the best stories in this collection. In some cases, far from it. They, more than many, epitomize the “glib and superficial rather than profound” charge leveled at Henry by the editors.

So, in my learned opinion, what are the best stories in this collection?

“Roads of Destiny”

This is the one in which it seems Henry is manipulating his own form the most. In “Roads of Destiny,” there is no twist ending. There are, in fact, three.

A young shepherd and aspiring poet, David Mignot, decides to leave his home village, and the woman he loves, and seek his fortune in the City of Light.

Three leagues across the dim, moonlit champaign ran the road, straight as a plowman’s furrow. It was believed in the village that the road ran to Paris, at least; and this name the poet whispered often to himself as he walked. Never so far from Vernoy had David travelled before.

He comes to an unexpected junction. Three roads lay before him. A left branch, a right branch, and the main road. And here, Henry similarly splits the story into three parts; three stories, told in succession, of what happens to a David who journeys forth on each road.

On the left branch he is plucked from the road by the carriage of the Marquis de Beaupertuys, taken to a pub in the nearest town, and forced to make a difficult decision.

“Then listen, master shepherd and poet, to the fortune you have blundered upon to-night. This lady is my niece, Mademoiselle Lucie de Varennes. She is of noble descent and is possessed of ten thousand francs a year in her own right. As to her charms, you have but to observe for yourself. If the inventory pleases your shepherd’s heart, she becomes your wife at a word. Do not interrupt me. To-night I conveyed her to the chateau of the Comte de Villemaur, to whom her hand had been promised. Guests were present; the priest was waiting; her marriage to one eligible in rank and fortune was ready to be accomplished. At the altar this demoiselle, so meek and dutiful, turned upon me like a leopardess, charged me with cruelty and crimes, and broke, before the gaping priest, the troth I had plighted for her. I swore there and then, by ten thousand devils, that she should marry the first man we met after leaving the chateau, be he prince, charcoal-burner, or thief. You, Shepherd, are the first. Mademoiselle must be wed this night. If not you, then another. You have ten minutes in which to make your decision. Do not vex me with words or questions. Ten minutes, shepherd; and they are speeding.”

After speaking with the Mademoiselle, David agrees to marry her, it is quickly made legal by a traveling priest, and then, based on the accusations of cruelty and crimes that the Marquis had perpetrated against his wife, David challenges his new in-law to a duel. It does not end well for David Mignot.

With a little cry of terror and despair, the widowed maid ran and stooped above him. She found the wound, and then looked up with her old look of pale melancholy. “Through his heart,” she whispered. “Oh, his heart!”

“Come,” boomed the great voice of the marquis, “out with you to the carriage! Daybreak shall not find you on my hands. Wed you shall be again, and to a living husband, this night. The next we come upon, my lady, highwayman or peasant. If the road yields no other, then the churl that opens my gates. Out with you to the carriage!”

The marquis, implacable and huge, the lady wrapped again in the mystery of her cloak, the postilion bearing the weapons -- all moved out to the waiting carriage. The sound of its ponderous wheels rolling away echoed through the slumbering village. In the hall of the Silver Flagon the distracted landlord wrung his hands above the slain poet’s body, while the flames of the four and twenty candles danced and flickered on the table.

On the right branch David makes it to Paris, takes up lodging in a house, and begins to write his poems. There, he meets a woman of incredible beauty who, unbeknownst to David, is part of a group of conspirators seeking to kill the king. She tricks him into taking a secret message to their co-conspirators inside the royal palace, but poor David is caught by the king’s guard. Before the king himself, the plot is exposed.

“First,” said the duke, “I will read you the letter he brought:

“To-night is the anniversary of the dauphin’s death. If he goes, as his custom, to midnight mass to pray for the soul of his son, the falcon will strike, at the corner of the Rue Esplanade. If this be his intention, set a red light in the upper room at the southwest corner of the palace, that the falcon may take heed.

“Peasant,” said the duke, sternly, “you have heard these words. Who gave you this message to bring?”

“My lord duke,” said David sincerely, “I will tell you. A lady gave it to me. She said her mother was ill, and that this writing would fetch her uncle to her bedside. I do not know the meaning of the letter, but I will swear that she is beautiful and good.”

“Describe the woman,” commanded the duke, “and how you came to be her dupe.”

“Describe her!” said David with a tender smile. “You would command words to perform miracles. Well, she is made of sunshine and deep shade. She is slender, like the alders, and moves with their grace. Her eyes change while you gaze into them; now round, and then half shut as the sun peeps between two clouds. When she comes, heaven is all about her; when she leaves, there is chaos and a scent of hawthorn blossoms. She came to me in the Rue Conti, number twenty-nine.”

“It is the house,” said the duke, turning to the king, “that we have been watching. Thanks to the poet’s tongue, we have a picture of the infamous Countess Quebedaux.”

“Sire and my lord duke,” said David, earnestly, “I hope my poor words have done no injustice. I have looked into that lady’s eyes. I will stake my life that she is an angel, letter or no letter.”

The duke looked at him steadily. “I will put you to the proof,” he said, slowly. “Dressed as the king, you shall, yourself, attend mass in his carriage at midnight. Do you accept the test?”

David smiled. “I have looked into her eyes,” he said. “I had my proof there. Take yours how you will.”

And that is exactly what they do. The red light is placed in the appropriate room of the palace, and when David ventures out in the guise of the king, the falcon strikes.

When the royal carriage had reached the Rue Christopher, one square nearer than the Rue Esplanade, forth from it burst Captain Desrolles [one of the conspirators introduced earlier to the reader], with his band of would-be regicides, and assailed the equipage. The guards upon the carriage, though surprised at the premature attack, descended and fought valiantly. The noise of conflict attracted the force of Captain Tetreau [of the King’s guard], and they came pelting down the street to the rescue. But, in the meantime, the desperate Desrolles had torn open the door of the king’s carriage, thrust his weapon against the body of the dark figure inside, and fired.

Now, with loyal reinforcements at hand, the street rang with cries and the rasp of steel, but the frightened horses had dashed away. Upon the cushions lay the dead body of the poor mock king and poet, slain by a ball from the pistol of Monseigneur, the Marquis de Beaupertuys.

Yes, using his trademark twist ending, Henry reveals that the character previously introduced as Captain Desrolles was, in fact, Beaupertuys, the same villain who had killed David in the duel that ended his journey down the left branch. Two roads, in other words, each leading to the same fate. What, the reader would be justified in asking, will happen to David as his journeys down neither the left not right branch, but down the main road?

Well, it turns out David does not journey down the main road at all. When faced with that choice in the story’s third segment, he remembers the devoted love of his home village, a young woman named Yvonne, whose troth he is forsaking by journeying secretly to Paris. Coming to his senses, he returns to his village, marries Yvonne, and enjoys many years as a humble shepherd, writing his pastoral poems in the fields for his own and Yvonne’s amusement.

Eventually, however, he is consumed by nostalgia for the life that might have been, neglecting his sheep and his wife in equal measure, tortured by the desire and uncertainty of his muse. The town notary, Monsieur Papineau, encourages him to seek a professional opinion.

“Friend Mignot, I affixed the seal upon the marriage certificate of your father. It would distress me to be obliged to attest a paper signifying the bankruptcy of his son. But that is what you are coming to. I speak as an old friend. Now, listen to what I have to say. You have your heart set, I perceive, upon poetry. At Dreux, I have a friend, one Monsieur Bril -- Georges Bril. He lives in a little cleared space in a houseful of books. He is a learned man; he visits Paris each year; he himself has written books. He will tell you when the catacombs were made, how they found out the names of the stars, and why the plover has a long bill. The meaning and the form of poetry is to him as intelligent as the baa of a sheep is to you. I will give you a letter to him and you shall take him your poems and let him read them. Then you will know if you shall write more, or give attention to your wife and business.”

David does exactly this. The judgment of Monsieur Bril is not what he would have hoped.

“I have read all your verses,” continued Monsieur Bril, his eyes wandering about his sea of books as if he conned the horizon for a sail. “Look yonder, through that window, Monsieur Mignot; tell me what you see in that tree.”

“I see a crow,” said David, looking.

“There is a bird,” said Monsieur Bril, “that shall assist me where I am disposed to shirk a duty. You know that bird, Monsieur Mignot; he is the philosopher of the air. He is happy through submission to his lot. None so merry or full-crawed as he with his whimsical eye and rollicking step. The fields yield him what he desires. He never grieves that his plumage is not gay, like the oriole’s. And you have heard, Monsieur MIgnot, the notes that nature has given him? Is the nightingale any happier, do you think?”

David rose to his feet. The crow cawed harshly from his tree.

“I thank you, Monsieur Bril,” he said, slowly. “There was not, then, one nightingale note among all those croaks?”

“I could not have missed it,” said Monsieur Bril, with a sigh. “I read every word. Live your poetry, man; do not try to write it any more.”

On his way back from Dreux, David stops at a merchant and buys a pistol, which the merchant says he recently acquired after purchasing at sale the possessions of lord who had been banished for conspiracy against the king. David says he needs the pistol to protect his sheep from the predation of wolves, but in fact, he uses it immediately upon returning home to end his own life.

David laid his pistol under his coat and walked to his cottage. Yvonne was not there. Of late she had taken to gadding much among the neighbors. But a fire was glowing in the kitchen stove. David opened the door of it and thrust his poems in upon the coals. As they blazed up they made a singing, harsh sound in the flue.

“The song of the crow!” said the poet.

He went up to his attic room and closed the door. So quiet was the village that a score of people heard the roar of the great pistol. They flocked thither, and up the stairs where the smoke, issuing, drew their notice.

The men laid the body of the poet upon his bed, awkwardly arranging it to conceal the torn plumage of the poor black crow. The women chattered in a luxury of zealous pity. Some of them ran to tell Yvonne.

M. Papineau, whose nose had brought him there among the first, picked up the weapon and ran his eye over its silver mountings with a mingled air of connoisseurship and grief.

“The arms,” he explained, aside, to the cure, “and crest of Monseigneur, the Marquis de Beaupertuys.”

It’s not a perfect story, but it is an interesting structure, well told, and the most meaningfully complex story in the collection. Roads of destiny, indeed.

“The Duplicity of Hargraves”

In this story it is the character sketches that seem more accomplished than most.

Major Pendleton Talbot is a old Southern gentleman, relocated to Washington after the American Civil War, ostensibly to finish writing and to publish his book of antebellum remembrances. And Henry Hopkins Hargraves is a young actor living in the same boarding house, who attaches himself to the Major, seemingly attentive to the old Southerner’s anecdotes.

In fact, Hargraves is using the Major as a character study of his own. One night, as Talbot attends the theater, he is shocked to see himself in the character of one Colonel Calhoun -- himself in appearance, dress, mannerisms, and loquacious anecdotes -- on stage.

Major Talbot, sitting quietly, but white with indignation, heard his best stories retold, his pet theories and hobbies advanced and expanded, and the dream of the “Anecdotes and Reminiscences” served, exaggerated and garbled. His favorite narrative -- that of his duel with Rathbone Culbertson -- was not omitted, and it was delivered with more fire, egotism, and gusto than the major himself had put into it.

The monologue concluded with a quaint, delicious, witty little lecture on the art of concocting a julep, illustrated by the act. Here Major Talbot’s delicate but showy science was reproduced to a hair’s breadth -- from his dainty handling of the fragrant weed -- “the one-thousandth part of a grain too much pressure, gentlemen, and you extract the bitterness, instead of the aroma, of this heaven-bestowed plant” -- to his solicitous selection of oaten straws.

It is Hargraves, of course, who has created a theatrical phenomenon by making a farce out of everything the Major is. The next day, Talbot confronts Hargraves, and the scene is, I think, one of the finest Henry has written.

“Mr. Hargraves,” said the major, who had remained standing, “you have put upon me an unpardonable insult. You have burlesqued my person, grossly betrayed my confidence, and misused my hospitality. If I thought you possessed the faintest conception of what is the sign manual of a gentleman, or what is due one, I would call you out, sir, old as I am. I will ask you to leave the room, sir.”

The actor appeared to be slightly bewildered, and seemed hardly to take in the full meaning of the old gentleman’s words.

“I am truly sorry you took offence,” he said, regretfully. “Up here we don’t look at things just as you people do. I know men who would buy out half the house to have their personality put on stage so the public would recognize it.”

“They are not from Alabama, sir,” said the major, haughtily.

“Perhaps not. I have a pretty good memory, major; let me quote a few lines from your book. In response to a toast at a banquet given in -- Milledgeville, I believe -- you uttered, and intend to have printed these words:

“The Northern man is utterly without sentiment or warmth except in so far as the feelings may be turned to his own commercial profit. He will suffer without resentment any imputation cast upon the honor of himself or his loved ones that does not bear with it the consequence of pecuniary loss. In his charity, he gives with a liberal hand; but it must be heralded with the trumpet and chronicled in brass.

“Do you think that picture is fairer than the one you saw of Colonel Calhoun last night?”

“The description,” said the major, frowning, “is -- not without grounds. Some exag-- latitude must be allowed in public speaking.”

“And in public acting,” replied Hargraves.

Touche. The tension is palpable, as it the dichotomy between the Northern and Southern points of view. It’s social commentary dressed up in entertaining fiction, and it works.

“The Cop and the Anthem”

In which Soapy, a tramp in New York City, repeatedly tries and repeatedly fails to get himself arrested so he can spend the coming cold winter months in the Rikers Island jail.

On the opposite side of the street was a restaurant of no great pretensions. It catered to large appetites and modest purses. Its crockery and atmosphere were thick; its soup and napery thin. Into this place Soapy took his accusive shoes and telltale trousers without challenge. At a table he sat and consumed beefsteak, flapjacks, doughnuts and pie. And then to the waiter he betrayed the fact that the minutest coin and himself were strangers.

“Now get busy and call a cop,” said Soapy. “And don’t keep a gentleman waiting.”

“No cop for youse,” said the waiter, with a voice like butter cakes and an eye like the cherry in a Manhattan cocktail. “Hey, Con!”

Neatly upon his left ear on the callous pavement two waiters pitched Soapy. He arose joint by joint, as a carpenter’s rule opens, and beat the dust from his clothes. Arrest seemed but a rosy dream. The Island seemed very far away. A policeman who stood before a drug store two doors away laughed and walked down the street.

The ending is predictable (after a while they all are; just predict the opposite of what seems to be happening and that is certainly where Henry’s is going to take it), but it is told with more grace than most. In others, the twist ending comes like that dog that won’t stop barking is suddenly dropped in your living room. Here, it is gentle, and almost welcome. Exhausted, Soapy returns dejected to his park bench and grows transfixed by the beauty of some organ music floating out a nearby church window.

The conjunction of Soapy’s receptive state of mind and the influences about the old church wrought a sudden and wonderful change in his soul. He viewed with swift horror the pit into which he had tumbled, the degraded days, unworthy desires, dead hopes, wrecked faculties and base motives that made up his existence.

And also in a moment his heart responded thrillingly to this novel mood. An instantaneous and strong impulse moved him to battle with his desperate fate. He would pull himself out of the mire; he would make a man of himself again; he would conquer the evil that had taken possession of him. There was time; he was comparatively young yet: he would resurrect his old eager ambitions and pursue them without faltering. Those solemn but sweet organ notes had set up a revolution in him. To-morrow he would go into the roaring downtown district and find work. A fur importer had once offered him a place as driver. He would find him to-morrow and ask for the position. He would be somebody in the world. He would--

Soapy felt a hand laid on his arm. He looked quickly around into the broad face of a policeman.

“What are you doin’ here?” asked the officer.

“Nothin’,” said Soapy.

“Then come along,” said the policeman.

“Three months on the Island,” said the Magistrate in the Police Court the next morning.

But the real genius is the voice. As advertised, it is “mellow, humorous, ironic, ingenious.” There are only a few other voices like it in the fiction I’m familiar with, and it was a delightful moment when I discovered an unmistakable connection with one of them.


There are hints in many of the stories.

From “The Cop and the Anthem”: He arose joint by joint, as a carpenter’s rule opens, and beat the dust from his clothes.

And from “The Ransom of Red Chief”: That boy put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon bear.

But it wasn’t until I got to this line in “Shoes” that the connection clicked home for me: In some houses the thrumming of lugubrious guitars added to the depression of the triste night.

looking or sounding sad and dismal.
synonyms: mournful, gloomy, sad, unhappy, doleful, glum, melancholy, woeful, miserable, woebegone, forlorn, somber, solemn, serious, sorrowful, morose, dour, cheerless, joyless, dismal; funereal, sepulchral; informal down in/at the mouth; literary dolorous "lugubrious hymns"

It was not the first time I had stumbled across this word in the collection. But this was the time that the telling thought popped unsolicited into my mind.

Lugubrious. The only author I know that uses lugubrious as much as O. Henry is T. C. Boyle. And once that connection was made, another came effortlessly.

He arose joint by joint, as a carpenter’s rule opens, and beat the dust from his clothes.

O. Henry. T. C. Boyle. Authors of different generations but of the same wicked stripe.

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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 30, 2018

Recruiting Members Face-to-Face

I was on the road again this past week. As has become my habit, whenever I find myself going somewhere, I check our database to see if there are any members in the area and, if so, I try to reserve some time to go visit them. That worked for one of our most engaged members this week, but on this particular trip there was another kind of opportunity that presented itself.

A non-member, a company similar to many that are already in the membership, was in the same general neighborhood and was willing to meet with me to discuss the possibility of becoming a member.

I jumped at the opportunity. In examining the company and its position in the marketplace, I frankly thought the company was conspicuous by its absence from our membership. And when I found myself across a conference room table from its president, listening to him describe his company, its products and services, the markets it served, and the workforce development challenges it faced, I felt even more confident in that assessment.

All of the company's suppliers, partners, and competitors were already in the membership, and they were all using the association and its services to heighten their competitive advantages in the same spaces in which the prospect company operated. In fact, many of the people who served in our association's leadership ranks were close partners or associates with the prospect company president. Why, I wondered had he not yet decided to become a member? What was holding him back?

When the answer to that question emerged in the course of our conversation, it practically floored me. He had attended one of our conferences as a non-member two years ago, and one of the members of the association had given him the impression that he was not welcome there. This association is not for you, the member reportedly told him. That is, the kind of company you run, it is not welcome in our association.

At first, I didn't know how to react to this anecdote. Frankly, my instinct was to reject it. The prospect company was exactly the kind of company that belonged in our membership. There must have been some kind of miscommunication. Why would a member push such an obviously qualified prospect out of consideration like that?

But there was no respectable way for me to refute the prospect's reported experience, so I didn't attempt to. Rather, I did everything I could to describe and demonstrate the opposite sentiment. Look at all the other companies like yours that are already in our membership, many of them represented in our leadership. Look at the programs we offer, many of the designed with companies like yours in mind. This association is your association, and you can gain a lot of opportunity and advantage by becoming a member and getting involved.

It worked. The prospect company now plans to join our association. But in reflecting upon the experience, I don't chalk that decision up to my masterful rhetorical devices. (Truth is, I don't have any of those; the association's value proposition either sells itself or it doesn't.) In other words, I don't think I talked the prospect into anything he didn't already want to do. What I did do was show up, show interest, and respond in-person to the questions and concerns that he had.

And sometimes, that is the only way to give a prospect what he is looking for. If someone had been unwelcoming in the past, I had to correct that impression by being as welcoming as possible.

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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 23, 2018

Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 6

Four weeks ago, in Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 5, I continued a description of a Scenario Planning exercise my Board chair and I decided to conduct at our two most recently completed Board meetings. I ended the previous post with a comment that, in the process of defining the external factors that will most dramatically affect the course of our industry, and of identifying the strategies and tactics that our association should employ in order to help those things happen, we sometimes discovered factors that were clearly going to affect our industry's future but for which, given the association's resource pool and existing strategic focus, we had a difficult time defining strategies or tactics for our organization to productively employ.

This will likely be the last post in this series. If you've read this far, then you've seen me describe one attempt to bring a disciplined process to our Board discussions, and the frequent and necessary adjustments that we had to make to the process, typically in the name of either expediency or engagement. Scripted processes are often like that. What worked for one association in one situation is not necessarily going to work for another association in another situation. Sticking unreasonably to a process for the sake of the process puts the emphasis in the wrong place, and risks serving a set of interests different from those that typically brings Boards together for effective action.

And this, clearly, was one of those situations. Forcing the issue -- in other words saying, no, it doesn't matter that none of us can see an honest and realistic tactic here for our association to pursue, we still have to write something down in this box, we have to complete this process -- was likely to jeopardize support for all the work and discussion that had come before. It risked turning forward-thinking strategy development into a make-work exercise.

So what did we do? I mean, after all, here we were, at the end of several months of discussion, something that had taken up the majority of two Board meetings. We had identified the megatrends that are shaping the future of our industry, defined a future scenario that we wanted to help our industry move towards, and were now trying to identify the strategies that would get us there. Were we supposed to back away now? Were we supposed to admit defeat and say that there were some things that our association was simply not well positioned or resourced to achieve?

Yes. Because, that's exactly what we did.

But I'm loathe, of course, to call it a defeat. Someone once said that the hardest part of strategy development was not deciding what TO do, it was deciding what NOT to do. I view the situation we found ourselves in as a place where my association and its leadership were put to that very test. Can our association do everything? No, obviously it can't. So, instead of adding ten impossible things to our list, let's instead find five that, because of our position and our resources, we are most likely to tackle and achieve successfully.

If that's not leadership, I don't know what 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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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Resonate by Nancy Duarte

I heard about this one at a conference I attended and it survived the resistance I intentionally place in the path of any “must-read” business book that is flung my way.

Let me explain.

I go to a lot of conferences. I listen to a lot of speakers. I’m an active blogger. There is no shortage of “must-read” business books that get recommended to me through those channels. And for a time, I gobbled them up. I love to read, after all. What could be better than earning an informal MBA by reading all these wonderful books?

Well, the reality is that not many of these books are truly wonderful. Most of them are kind of average, and some of them are downright dangerous. A friend of mine once said that the useful ideas in most business books can typically fit into no more than a 10-page white paper. In other words, every business book on the planet is really a 10-page white paper blown up to fill the 250 pages that makes its printing scalable and profitable for the publisher. And the best of those business books will actually give you the 10-pager as its executive summary.

So I built some intentional resistance to the excitement I still feel when a “must-read” business book is recommended to me. Wow. That sounds great. That sounds like exactly what I need. I got the get that one. When those thoughts start flowing through my brain I force myself to put on the brakes. Wait. Am I really going to read it? Or is it going to sit on my shelf getting dusty because I have 200 other books ahead of it that I would probably prefer to read? Is this one likely to have something specific within it that I can actually leverage in the real world?

Well, obviously Resonate made it through this filter. Its subtitle is “Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences,” and it was recommended for any professional who wants to improve the impact of their presentations. That certainly describes me.

Now, there is no 10-page executive summary in Resonate, but there were some useful ideas that I think I can actually do something with. Here’s my own recap.

The Audience Is The Hero

The objective of any presentation is to evoke a specific action by the members of the audience. That objective is undermined by any presentation that focuses too much on the presenter or the organization that the presenter represents.

When you’re presenting, instead of showing up with an arrogant attitude that “it’s all about me,” your stance should be a humble “it’s all about them.” Remember, the success of you and your firm is dependent on them, not the other way around. You need them.

So what’s your role then? You are the mentor. You’re Yoda, not Luke Skywalker. The audience is the one who’ll do all the heavy lifting to help you reach your objectives. You’re simply one voice helping them get unstuck in their journey.

The book goes into a lot of unnecessary detail about what a Hero is (thematically and, yes, mythologically speaking), including several pages on the 12-step “Hero’s Journey” that dramatists from Homer to George Lucas have used to structure their compelling stories.

That’s neat, but a little much for my needs. There is one core idea buried in that journey, however, that is worth focusing on, and which Duarte summarizes next.

The Presentation Form

Presentations should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Two clear turning points in a presentation’s structure guide the audience through the content and distinctively separate the beginning from the middle and the middle from the end. The first is the call to adventure -- this should show the audience a gap between what is and what could be -- jolting the audience from complacency. When effectively constructed -- an imbalance is created -- the audience will want your presentation to resolve this imbalance. The second turning point is the call to action, which identifies what the audience needs to do or how they need to change. This second turning point signifies that you’re coming to the presentation’s conclusion.

Notice how the middle moves up and down as if something new is happening continually. This back and forth structural motion pushes and pulls the audience to feel as if events are constantly unfolding. An audience will stay engaged as you unwrap ideas and perspectives frequently.

Each presentation concludes with a vivid description of the new bliss that’s created when your audience adopts your proposed idea. But notice that the presentation form doesn’t stop at the end of the presentation. Presentations are meant to persuade so there is also a subsequent action (or crossing the threshold) the audience is to do once they leave the presentation.

Call to adventure, call to action, and crossing the threshold are all terms from the larger Hero’s Journey that Duarte presented, but to me the core idea resides in the “back and forth structural motion” of the presentation form. Start with what is. The challenge we’re all facing. Then paint a picture of the future where that challenge is resolved. Show how great that world is. Then alternate back and forth between the barriers that are keeping us from realizing that vision, and the actions that are needed to overcome each one. Then end on a high note, reiterating the “new bliss” that we’ll achieve if the actions described are taken.

A lot of pages follow this simple dissection of the presentation form, with most of them feeling like the “business book” padding my friend warned me about. Durate provides descriptions and methodologies for getting to know your audience, segmenting them, creating common ground with them, defining and planning their journey, acknowledging their risk, addressing their resistance, communicating their reward -- even appealing to them with the classic rhetorical triangle of logos, ethos, and pathos.

It’s all okay, I guess, but most of it reads like a bunch of good individual, but largely unconnected instructions. Do this. No wait, do that. I really felt like I was in trouble when I got to the section on Randy Olson’s Four Organs of Communication. It unfortunately comes right after the instruction to employ the three rhetorical appeals. Wait. Which is it? Aristotle’s three appeals (logical, ethical, and emotional) or Olson’s four organs of communication (the head, the heart, the gut, and the groin)? It can’t be both, can it?

Turn Information into Stories

The meat comes back, in my opinion, only when Durate starts talking about storytelling again, and about how a presenter can transform the information she has into stories in order to better sustain the audience’s interest and to show them the “new bliss” that they will receive if they take up the same challenge as the people in her stories.

The template is actually a simple one.

  • Point You Want to Make
  • When, Who, Where
  • Context
  • Conflict
  • Proposed Resolution
  • Complication
  • Actual Resolution
  • Most Important Point

It’s the Hero’s Journey in miniature. Here’s an example from the book, framed around a software sales presentation.

  • Point You Want to Make: Midsized companies would save money if they bought this software.
  • When, Who, Where: Last year I met with Susan, the CEO from a company very similar to yours.
  • Context: She was strategically wicked-smart, and, just like you, she was curious whether our software could help her business.
  • Conflict: She knew her organization wouldn’t scale if she didn’t have software that worked in a global environment.
  • Proposed Resolution: We installed a trial version for the employees in the Dallas office only.
  • Complication: She was concerned that the employees would have a dip in productivity while leaning a new program.
  • Actual Resolution: Instead, employee productivity increased, and Susan received numerous e-mails about how the software will help them gain market advantage. It took her less than a week to agree to an organization-wide installation.
  • Most Important Point: Your company has the same challenges and would benefit, too.

You see how the story takes the audience from what it is to what could be, from what is to what could be, and ends on the “new bliss” that awaits them if they follow the same path?

It’s great and I, for one, don’t need any more details. I can take these ideas and work with them, apply them to my own situations and my own presentations. But what follows is another hundred pages or so of more instructions -- instructions for how to move from data to meaning, form ideas into messages, establish structure, order messages for impact, create emotional contrast, create a STAR (Something They’ll Always Remember) moment, and on and on an on.

So many rules for doing so many things that in the end, one has to actually laugh at Durate’s “Coda”, dedicated, as it is, to the idea that to be truly successful, a presenter has to break all the rules. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Alfred Hitchcock, E. E. Cummings -- they were all geniuses that wrote their own rules, and so, the implication evidently is, should I.

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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 16, 2018

What Goes Around Comes Around

I had another lesson in the value of networking this past week.

A nearby neighbor of mine is looking to make a job change. He reached out to me, not because I had any position to offer him, but to catch-up over a coffee or an after-work drink, and see who I might know who might be a position to help him.

I readily agreed. Truth be told, this neighbor and I are not close friends. Our kids go to the same school, and we know each other's names, and we say hi and make small talk when we're at event together -- but we don't hang out. I've never been inside his house and he's never been inside mine.

But that's all beside the point. I readily agreed because that's generally what I do. When I'm in a position to do a favor for someone I do it. And not because I'm necessarily expecting something in return, but certainly because I've been in the position to need a favor in the past, and I've always deeply appreciated anyone willing to do one for me.

We even recognized this during our conversation. After I had identified a few people in my network that might be able to help him and agreed to reach out to them on his behalf, and after our conversation had turned to more social aspects, and after he thanked me for meeting with him and offering to help.

"It's no problem," I said. "What goes around comes around."

He knew exactly what I meant, and agreed. Life is too uncertain not to keep your options open and not to keep and regularly connect with a network of professional contacts. When you do, hopefully they'll approach your request in the same way I generally 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, July 9, 2018

Vacations Should Mean No Phone Calls

I've been on vacation this past week, doing my best to disconnect from the day-to-day schedule of my organization and relax with a day-after-day schedule of family fun and leisure activities.

It's been great. I think I've written before about my philosophy on vacations -- which is that they are meant to be enjoyed by even the busiest working professional. It is literally the only time I ever put one of the automated "out of the office" replies on my email. I'll be back next Monday. If you need a reply sooner, please call the office and ask someone there to help you. No kidding.

But not everyone, it seems, agrees with me. Sitting in the screened-in porch of our rented condo, reading a book, I couldn't help but notice a fellow vacationer in the condo two doors down, stepping out onto his back deck every ten minutes or so to take what could only be described as a business call.

"No, not this Tuesday. Next Tuesday. You and Pam have to get the plans together so we can make the presentation."

"Fifteen is not enough. We have to get seventeen fifty or the deal isn't worth doing."

"He hasn't shown enough initiative. I would speak to Bill about it. He's his supervisor. You need to keep doing what's best for you."

It's not like I was eavesdropping. I was trying to lose myself in my book, but I kept getting interrupted by one side of this guy's conversations -- all obviously focused on putting out a fire back in the home office.

It made me reflect on the pace of business today. I've heard his side of those conversations a thousand times in my travels. In airports, in hotel lobbies, in restaurants, at poolside, on beaches. Everywhere I go, whether I'm traveling for business or for pleasure, the person next to me is forever talking into their phone, trying to cut a deal, to make someone do the things they're supposed to do, to get their work done. No one, it seems, except me, is ever wiling or able to take a break.

It made me think that there shouldn't be any phone calls allowed when you're on vacation. That a vacation where you remain constantly tethered to the office through your phone is no vacation at all.

Then I went back to reading my 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

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Saturday, July 7, 2018

Going to Tehran by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

I know next to nothing about Iran specifically and about the Middle East more generally. I believe that I’m not alone among Americans on this score; that many Americans, in fact, are as uninformed about the culture, politics, and ambitions of the Middle Eastern states as I am. Addressing this ignorance was my primary motivation in picking up this volume. And it’s probably fair for me to admit that I was attracted by the provocativeness of its title and subtitle.

“Going to Tehran” is a intentional parallel reference to Nixon’s famous trip to Beijing in 1972, where he sought to construct a new and less antagonist relationship for the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The authors of Going to Tehran are advocates for something similar with regard to Iran, as exemplified by their subtitle “Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Although I’m going to reserve judgment on the book’s main recommendation, it’s safe to say I learned a lot by reading this book.

A Charged Issue

Truth be told, the nature of the relationship between the United States and Iran is a politically charged issue. Strong voices with significant political power stand in stark opposition to any softening of relations between the two countries, and speaking out in favor of that softening has real consequences in the real world. The Leveretts, in fact, break editorial convention by speaking in their own voices to address the specifics of this issue.

Speaking personally, the two of us, like the China hands, have no political agenda -- other than presenting the most objective analysis of Iranian politics, Iranian foreign policy, and American-Iranian relations that we possibly can and drawing from that analysis the correct prescription for American foreign policy. As we have tried to tell the truth about important but vehemently politicized issues of American policy towards the Islamic Republic, we, too, have experienced sharp backlash from elements in the American body politic opposed to a more rational and constructive Iran policy. The George W. Bush administration censored an op-ed we wrote in December 2006 that documented Iranian cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan; the New York Times published it with the redacted passages blacked out because we demonstrated to the newspaper that all of the material that the White House excised was publicly available elsewhere, a fact that clearly suggested that the Bush administration was out to silence us for political reasons. We know what it means to have to leave careers in government service because of unpopular analytic and policy views and -- in Flynt’s case -- to be forced out of a prominent Washington think tank because of those views. By 2010, we had become such a lightning rod in the Iran debate that, according to the Economist, much of it was about “what we should think of Hillary and Flynt Leverett.” With the experience of the China hands in mind, we take these criticisms as confirmation that we are looking at reality straight on.

Despite the backlash, I find their words about the true nature of U.S. Iranian policy to have persuasive power. The mention above to Iranian cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan is one of several counterfactuals presented by the Leveretts in this book that serve to undercut the standard narrative that Iran is a nation led by crazy people irrevocably opposed to the United States.

Iran Is an Islamic Republic

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is learning more about Iran’s actual form of government. It is a democratic republic, with a constitution, an elected “Congress,” and independent courts. It is like the United States in many ways, with one very important distinction.

Alongside these institutions and offices, which seem familiar to Westerners, the constitution creates another set, which Westerners find more bewildering (and, in many cases, off-putting). These reflect the clerical dimensions of [First Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khomeini’s political thought, culminating in velayat-e faqih [clerical guardianship]. In keeping with the Imam’s advocacy of a supervisory council of mujtahids, the constitution creates the Council of Guardians, with a mandate “to protect the ordinances of Islam and the constitution by assuring that legislation passed by the Majles [the Iranian “Congress”] does not conflict with them” -- meaning that the guardians are there not just to protect Shari’a but also (like the U.S. Supreme Court) to protect the constitution itself.

How is this Council of Guardians constructed?

The council has twelve members, including “six just fuqaha [jurists schooled in the philosophy and theory of Islamic law], conscious of current needs and the issues of the day,” selected by the supreme leader, and six other jurists, “specializing in different areas of the law, to be elected by the Majles from among the Muslim jurists presented to it” by the leadership of the judiciary.

And what responsibilities does it have?

The council reviews “all legislation passed by the Majles” for “compatibility with the criteria of Islam and the constitution.” It also supervises national elections; this responsibility includes the vetting of potential candidates by evaluating their faithfulness to Islam and their loyalty to the Islamic Republic.

Now, all of that sounds foreign to Americans, and it probably sounds dangerous to many of them. What about the rights of the people? The Leveretts provide what I think is an interesting perspective.

To Westerners, Iranians seem remarkably tolerant of the Guardian Council’s role in their elections. Through a liberal lens, the council appears to be an unelected body engaged in the arbitrary exclusion of potential candidates from electoral contests. But that is not necessarily how Iranians see it. Every political system, a number of our Iranian interlocutors point out, has some way to vet aspirants for high office. The United States has its primary system, in which the principal criterion for moving forward has become the ability to raise money. In the United States and some European countries, parties also filter candidates, placing informal but real ideological restrictions on them. In Turkey, candidates must demonstrate their loyalty to the strictly secular constitutional order; even today, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, cannot display its Islamic inclinations too overtly without risking disqualification from political activity by Turkish courts, backed by the military. In postrevolutionary Iran, the winnowing is done through the Guardian Council’s evaluation of aspirants according to criteria laid out in the constitution, including support for “the Islamic character of the political system,” endorsement of “all the rules and regulations according to Islamic criteria,” recognition of Shi’a Islam as “the official religion of Iran,” and acceptance of several accompanying principles -- the “democratic character of the government,” the doctrine of “the imamate of the umma” -- as “unalterable.” Political competition is limited to those who accept these parameters. But Iranians say such adherence is required in any genuinely constitutional order -- including the United States, where every president, senator, and congressional representative must swear to defend the U.S. Constitution before taking office.

The point is well taken. Every society must have a way of ensuring that its leaders come from inside, not outside, its foundational rules. And indeed, when the Leveretts report that in their 2005 election more than a thousand Iranians registered to run as presidential candidates, and that the Guardian Council approved only eight of them for the first-round ballot, I felt like offering the tongue-in-cheek comment that perhaps something similar should have been put in place during the 2016 Republican primaries.

But the larger point is, I think, that Iran has its own system of government, and it is one that is widely accepted by the vast majority of its citizens. It is not the American system, but Iran is not the United States, and just as it has a distinct system of government, it also has a distinct foreign policy.

Iran Is Pro-Iran, Not Anti-United States

And that foreign policy, summarized by its original Supreme Leader as “neither East or West,” has much less to do with hostility towards the United States (or any other nation) and much more to do with establishing itself as an independent and regional power in the Middle East. This is one of the book’s big ideas, something absolutely essential for the reader to get his head around if he is going to understand the Leveretts’s argument.

But they seem to know that they might be swimming upstream on this one.

The proposition that the Islamic Republic is implacably and unreasoningly hostile to the United States is, of course, a staple of neoconservatism. A related argument -- that the Iranian government is too dependent on anti-Americanism for its domestic legitimacy ever to contemplate improved relations with the United States -- is peddled by more mainstream analysts. In both versions, this conviction that the Islamic Republic is inalterably antagonistic strongly, and wrongly, conditions Western discourse about Iran, prompting the belief that when Iran does negotiate with the United States, it does so only to buy time, not to work toward a resolution of differences.

Yet, despite this view, it seems to be a fact that Iran has legitimately sought rapprochement with the United States since its very founding.

Since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has viewed the United States as by far the leading threat to its political and territorial integrity. At the same time, decision makers in Tehran have recognized that Iran has basic national security and foreign policy needs that can only be met -- or at any rate only optimally met -- through rapprochement with Washington. Since the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian policy makers have also understood that improved relations would advance postwar reconstruction, economic modernization, and the realization of Iran’s enormous potential as an exporter of oil and natural gas. Consequently, all four men who have held Iran’s presidency since 1981 have explored the possibility of normalizing ties. Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei did so with the explicit backing of Khomeini, the first supreme leader; since Khomeini’s death, in 1989, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Seyed Mohammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have pursued it with the clear assent of Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor.

The Leveretts detail several specific episodes in which Iran sought to assist the United States in it geopolitical goals in exchange for recognition of their own, with each eventually being foiled, not by Iranian perfidy, but by American leaders getting cold feet from the rising political price that must be paid for dealing with Iran as an equal partner. Here’s one example:

...Rafsanjani believed that cooperation with Washington should be pursued only under appropriate conditions. Shortly after his election to the presidency in 1989, he said, “Iran will be ready to work with Western countries, but only if they approach us in the right way. That means on equal terms, and without colonial attitudes.”

George H. W. Bush became president of the United States that same year. In his inaugural address, Bush referred to American hostages still held captive in Lebanon with an oblique plea to Iran that could have been crafted by Rafsanjani himself: “Assistance can be shown here, and will be long remembered. Goodwill begets goodwill. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on.” Based on this representation and subsequent ones from Washington, U.N. envoy Giandomenico Picco spoke directly to Rafsanjani and worked with senior Iranian officials to secure the hostages’ freedom. Tehran spent several million dollars and exerted considerable pressure on Shi’a militias in Lebanon for this purpose. Mohsen Rezae, then the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, has said that Iranian officers in Lebanon were attacked by some Lebanese militias over Iran’s efforts to extract the hostages. None of these actions would have happened without Khamenei’s assent.

But Iranian cooperation did not elicit the response Rafsanjani had expected. The Bush administration excluded the Islamic Republic from the October 1991 Madrid conference intended to ratify what Bush called the “new world order” in the Middle East, including the stationing of tens of thousands of American troops in countries neighboring Iran. In April 1992, Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, informed Rafsanjani through Picco that there would be no reciprocal steps by the United States -- even though Iran had succeeded in freeing the last American hostages -- and no breakthrough in relations. Iran had been stiffed, and its leaders were furious. When Picco flew to Tehran to tell Rafsanjani personally that Washington has changed its mind about goodwill begetting goodwill, the Iranian president warned him, “I think it is best if you leave Tehran very, very quickly. The news of what you have told me will travel fast to other quarters, and they may decide not to let you go.”

There are others. The Leveretts paint a picture of an Iran trying to establish itself as an independent nation of regional significance, of repeatedly trying to establish a positive working relationship with the United States as a necessary part of that goal, and repeatedly being snubbed by the United States in return. Why? Perhaps Bill Clinton’s experience is the most illustrative of the underlying reason.

Rafsanjani’s efforts to build a bridge to the United States by working together in areas of mutual interest were further damaged when the Clinton administration beat a highly public retreat from cooperation with Tehran on providing arms to the Bosnian Muslims. In April 1996, seven months before the coming American election, the Los Angeles Times broke the story: “President Clinton secretly gave a green light to covert Iranian arms shipments into Bosnia in 1994 despite a United Nations arms embargo that the United States was pledged to uphold and the administration’s own policy of isolating Tehran globally as a supporter or terrorism.” Two days later, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee -- with Clinton’s presumptive GOP challenger in the 1996 presidential election, Senator Robert Dole, weighing in -- launched its inquiry. Because it was so close to the election and Iran was such a potentially devastating issue, the Clinton administration publicly condemned Tehran for trying to establish an Islamist beachhead in Europe’s backyard -- even though Iran had done exactly what Washington wanted and, in fact, had proven essential to its plan to bring the Bosnian conflict to an end.

Helping Iran, or receiving help from Iran, is toxic in American politics. From the Leveretts’s point of view, this toxicity is based on errors and mistrust and it is, in essence, why they are calling for a new approach to the Islamic Republic.

The United States Seeks Alignment, Not Democracy

Another big idea put forward is that, despite all the rhetoric coming out of Washington, the United States, in fact, has no true vested interest in creating democracies in the Middle East. The U.S. objective, first and foremost, is alignment with its geopolitical interests.

American discourse about the region has updated the old orientalist dichotomy between the traditional (or backward) and the modernized (or Westernized) into a strategic distinction between “moderates” and “radicals.” Washington’s post-World War II strategy in the Middle East had little interest in democratization. Western Europe and Japan were different; there, Washington calculated, democracy was a path into the American-led political and security order. But, in the Middle East, American policy makers recognized (at least until they were blinded by neoconservative ideology) that democratization would empower Islamists and other groups resistant to the American imperial project. That is why, for Washington, a Middle Eastern political order’s status as moderate or radical has been largely divorced from its domestic governance. The standard of moderation is, first and foremost, receptivity to an American-led regional order and, second, an openness to peace with Israel, at least theoretically. Conversely, radicals have been those who challenged American ambitions in the region and rejected peace with Israel, at least on American-specified terms. Thus, in Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq’s government may have been democratically elected, but with a platform that urged the nationalization of Western oil interests and an independent (even if not anti-American) foreign policy, Mossadeq was unacceptably radical. In comparison, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi -- an autocrat so unpopular that he was ultimately deposed by one of the most broadly based revolutions in modern history -- was a moderate.

And make no mistake. The pro-democracy rhetoric coming out of Washington is relentless. Writing about the U.S.’s response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Leveretts briefly describe its long tradition in American history.

To counter this dire threat, Bush invoked basic features of American political culture to mobilize his compatriots behind a campaign to remake the Middle East in line with American preferences. Updating a century-old view that the United States’ security requires transforming states (especially unfriendly ones) into democracies, he tapped into the old mix of liberalism and exceptionalism that American presidents and other elites have long drawn on. The rhetorical formulas are well known: “manifest destiny” (devised by proponents of westward expansion to justify the Mexican War), the “imperialism of righteousness” (deployed by proponents of American colonial power to legitimize the Spanish-American War), and the call to make the world “safe for democracy” (issued by President Woodrow Wilson in his 1917 war message). The constant references to the United States during the Cold War as the “leader of the free world” and in the post-Cold War period as “the indispensable nation” extended the pattern.

Getting your head around these two big ideas is absolutely essential if you are going to understand the Leveretts’s view of things. One, Iran aspires to be an independent country with an independent foreign policy. And two, a Middle Eastern political order (like that in Iran) is not radical if it is opposed to democracy and moderate if it is aligned with it. It is radical if it is opposed to U.S. interests in the region and moderate if it is aligned with it.

And, of course, these two concepts are in conflict with one another. An Iran pursuing its own interests is, by definition, going to be, at least at times, opposed to U.S. interests in the region (regardless of the any democratic or quasi-democratic process it may use to pursue those interests). And if it is opposed to U.S. interests, it will be defined as radical in the language of U.S. foreign policy towards it.

The Shanghai Communique

Perhaps the most remarkable thing in the whole book is something called the Shanghai Communique. It’s essentially a memorandum of understanding that was negotiated by American and Chinese diplomats and which provided the platform on which the new relationship between those two powers could be built. As an example of what could be newly structured between the United States and Iran, the Leveretts cite one of its core paragraphs.

There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. International disputes should be settled on this basis, without resorting to the use or threat of force. The United States and the People’s Republic of China are prepared to apply these principles to their mutual relations.

This strikes me as eminently reasonable, and far preferable to “the use or threat of force”, acknowledging both that such an agreement requires humility on the part of both parties, and that such humility is painfully absent in the relationship that currently exists between the United States and Iran.

And that is essentially the Leveretts’s main point. If the United States is going to “Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” leaders on both sides are going to have to humbly seek some form of common ground. Who is that American leader? If only Nixon could go to China, who is the individual with the credibility to “Go to Tehran”?

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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