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

Monday, July 2, 2018

Trade Associations Really Have Organizational Memberships

I have to take issue with Amanda Kaiser of the Smooth the Path blog, who said in a recent post that trade associations don't really have organizational memberships.

Your key contact member understands that some of their colleagues at their organization can be members. But, most often when they think about the value of the association, they are not thinking about the value to their colleagues, or even the value of the membership to their organization, they are thinking about the value of the membership for themselves. This single individual makes the determination to renew based on the value they, themselves get from the association.

It's a decent point -- that an association doesn't first have a relationship with an organization, it first has a relationship with an individual. And if it wants to have a relationship with the organization it had better deliver needed services to that individual.

Because as the CEO of a trade association, I'd have to say that Kaiser is not seeing the whole picture.

In my experience, we are certainly careful to nurture a relationship with one particular person at each of our member companies. That's the person we call the decision-maker, the one who has the authority to decide if the company in question will or will not be a member of our association. It's usually the company president: the person who signs the checks. Whoever it is, we definitely work to ensure that this person sees and receives value for his or her membership in our organization.

But a big part of that value proposition is how other people in the company can grow and develop, or find more business, as part of their engagement with the association. This, in fact, is one of the key pain points we recently identified as part of our membership recruitment strategy. Our members, embodied by that person with check-signing authority, want to develop not just themselves but their team for greater success.

The company president comes to our Annual Conference, for example, where she can network with other executives in our industry, and learn about the trends and challenges facing organizations like hers. But her product manager probably goes to our Economic Conference, where he can get forecasts and analyses on our industry's customer markets so he can set his sales forecasts for the year and try to grab some more market share. And her engineering manager probably serves on one of our standards committees, where he can help set the technical specifications around which the next generation of our industry's products will be based.

My association is by no means unique in this regard. Trade associations of every stripe and kind work hard to offer service packages like these, providing value for multiple individuals across the hierarchy of their member companies. In many ways they have to. It is what makes them successful and keeps that decision-maker signing that dues check year after year.

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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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