Monday, November 26, 2018

Inside Baseball

I'm not much of a sports fan, but one sports analogy I use pretty consistently is the term "inside baseball." I use it to describe a situation when I'm going into too much jargon and detail in front of an audience that doesn't understand or doesn't need such an in-depth explanation. I'm even self-conscious about doing it, often warning people before plowing deep into the picayune that what I'm about to say may be too much "inside baseball" for them.

Never, however, did I think that the very name of my association's industry would be too much "inside baseball" for some people.

I mean, in a way, I did. As the staff executive of the trade association that represents the fluid power industry I have long gotten used to explaining at cocktail parties not just what an association is but what "fluid power" means. "Does that have something to do with hydro-electric dams?" is the most common inquiry on this front. No, I have to explain, fluid power is an umbrella term that encompasses both hydraulic and pneumatic technologies. They both use a fluid to transmit power through a system. For hydraulics, that fluid is a liquid. For pneumatics, it is air.

It happens so frequently that I knew it was something I had to address when I was recently given the chance to present on career opportunities in the fluid power industry to a group of U.S. Army service men and women who would soon be returning to civilian life.

"How many of you know what fluid power is?"

It was the first sentence out of my mouth. And, as I expected, not a single hand in the room went up. I was ready for that. My presentation began with a basic definition of the term, a schematic of a simple fluid power system, and several examples of the technology at work in the real world. But before advancing the slide, a strange inspiration struck me.

"How many of you know what hydraulics is?"

Every hand in the room went up.

"How many of you have had hydraulic oil on your hands?"

Every hand in the room went up again.

And that's really when it struck me. After all those explanations at all those cocktail parties, it hadn't really sunk in until that moment in front of our nation's soldiers. Fluid Power, the very industry I represent and to which my career is dedicated to strengthening, is too much "inside baseball" for practically everyone on the planet.

The term works well in our industry, but for everyone coming at us from the outside, "hydraulics and pneumatics" is the way to go.

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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, November 24, 2018

Association 4.0 by Sherry Budziak and Kevin Ordonez

This book was handed to me at a recent WSAE event I attended -- handed to me not by the authors (who were also there) but by the WSAE staff executive, and with a specific request.

“Eric, you like to read. Will you please read this book and write a review of it.”

“Sure,” I replied. “But only if I can be brutally honest.”

The WSAE staff executive’s response? “I would expect nothing less.”

So here goes. Brutally honest. The book has a lot of good content but it is poorly organized and it embraces a flawed premise.

Innovation Does Not Necessarily Mean Technology

Let’s start with the flawed premise. Here’s an excerpt from the author’s introduction:

One of the advantages of being a consultant is the opportunity to see how many different organizations approach similar problems. With a finger on the industry’s pulse, we can recommend best practices, identify emerging trends and help our clients stay ahead of the curve. Over the last 25 years, technology has been front and center in our business. We have helped associations of every stripe organize and plan their technology functions and solve the sticky problems that come with the territory.

When we started out, IT was often an after-thought for clients, pushed to the back burner by more important priorities. In the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from bricks and mortar to carrying the world in our pockets. There is an app for everything from grocery shopping to picking stocks. Technology has invaded our lives with speed and rapacious zeal. We are connected to our possessions, our environment and each other in ways we could not have imagined fifteen years ago. IT departments, which once might have been a single misunderstood employee working in isolation, are now the nerve center of the organization.

We are standing at the precipice of an era that has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution -- a time when the line between the physical, digital and biological will disappear. Current assumptions about the meaning of work, culture, and even humanity will be as altered as the world seen through Alice’s looking glass.

I appreciate the literary reference, but allow me to cite another of Lewis Carroll’s famous works in an attempt to tone down the hyperbole.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

What, exactly, are the authors talking about? It’s a big, scary world out there, and you, you associations; you’re just not ready for it.

The question is not whether to take the leap, it’s how to survive the fall and the wildfire change that is certain to be a hallmark of this new era. Associations are whales, not dolphins. Turning on a dime is not in their DNA. Yet agility will be a requirement for the coming years, along with other shifts in attitude and behavior. For many association executives and boards, these new paradigms may feel as uncomfortable as the wrong shoe sizes until they are recognized as a mainstream approach.

Ah yes, the slow-moving and bureaucratic association. Later in the same introduction, the authors will read out the charges against these behemoths even more starkly.

The way associations deliver products and services may have changed, but their organizational structures have not. They continue to be locked into bureaucratic, paternalistic systems that stifle innovation and, in some cases, actually prevent it from occurring. Acceptance of the status quo is entrenched in the culture. The willingness to change is overshadowed by the difficulty and risk involved in building something new.

It’s time for a reality check. Sorry to sound like such an old guy, but I’ve been reading about how broken associations are for twenty-five years now -- and yet they still exist in sometimes surprising numbers and, based on the profiles shared in this very book, a good percentage of them are stronger than ever.

My friend Tom Morrison is one of the voices crying in the wilderness on this point. And it’s helpful that he is one of the association executives profiled in this book.

“Don’t listen to people who say the membership model is dead. There’s no other model that allows you to come together as a group of people or companies and facilitate or fight for a cause.” Morrison believes that the associations that struggle with recruiting members are challenged because they haven’t figured out how to sell the power of that group dynamic.

Maybe the association model is not only not broken, maybe its slow-moving and bureaucratic structure is one of the unique ingredients of its success. Ask the tortoise. Going slow (but together) when everyone else is racing around you is sometimes the better strategy.

But that’s not the flawed premise that I’m talking about. Be innovative! The authors seem to be saying, concluding their introduction with the following advice for association leaders:

We’ve also identified attitudes that permeate the culture of the most successful associations and help them manage the uncertainty in the outside environment. Effective leaders:

  • Value professional development. They facilitate learning through formal education as well as through experience. They encourage employees to gain insights from one another and to respect their colleagues’ expertise and professionalism.
  • Foster creativity. New ideas are expected and welcomed.
  • Promote a culture of innovation among the staff and the board.
  • Allow the freedom to act. Staff members are supported to make decisions and take risks.
  • Are unafraid to acknowledge failure and learn from it.
  • Invest in the technology they need to be successful and keep ahead of the electronic curve.
The link between the all the items on this list is implied, but I believe it is unsupported with regard to the last item. There’s a category error here. Technology may be an area where one can express innovation, but technology is not a prerequisite for innovation to take place. Valuing professional development, fostering creativity, promoting a innovative culture, allowing the freedom to act, and learning from failure -- do all of those, in whatever domain you choose, and you’re doing innovation. And sometimes, for those slow-moving and bureaucratic association, technology can actually get in the way.

And, given the advice offered by the other association executives in this book, many of them might agree with me.

So that’s the flawed premise. Innovation does not necessarily mean technology. Now, let’s talk about how the book is poorly organized.

Begging For An Index

The book is organized into 18 vignettes, each featuring one association executive and the things they’ve done at their associations to embody the book’s subtitle: “Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption.” The content of these vignettes is generally excellent, and the authors helpfully summarize each one with a tight summary of “What Association Executives Can Learn From” each association example.

These learning points, however, are all over the map. Organizing them by subject area, rather than by the association executive that implemented them, would be a thousand times more helpful, and would additionally help organize the content into several coherent themes.

Let me show you want I mean. Here, in bullet points largely provided by the authors themselves, are the 75 learning points from the 18 vignettes.

  1. Confront disruption creatively.
  2. Question everything.
  3. Seize the UBER mentality.
  4. Create opportunities for leadership.
  5. Be a big tent.
  6. Consider a more fluid organizational structure.
  7. See opportunity over challenge.
  8. Continue to read your customers.
  9. Know when to engage outside help.
  10. Cast a wider net.
  11. Experiment with new models.
  12. Remain a trusted source of information by attracting new intellectual capital.
  13. Maintain your integrity.
  14. Understand and build expertise in related fields.
  15. Collaborate upstream and downstream.
  16. Become a master consensus-builder.
  17. Consider technology to be just another acquired expertise.
  18. Governance is a journey that never ends.
  19. Leverage your chair as a champion of change.
  20. Expect bumps along the road.
  21. Build trust on transparency.
  22. Technology works only when part of a larger strategy.
  23. Leaders can emerge from all backgrounds.
  24. Broad staff leadership, buy-in, and involvement is essential for change to occur.
  25. A risk-taking culture is a must.
  26. Think like a start-up.
  27. CEOs: Run your board right.
  28. Boards: Empower your staff leaders.
  29. There is a world beyond members.
  30. Be fearless taking on the challenge of growth.
  31. A fully integrated organizational structure may not be the best path to growth.
  32. Embrace purpose, run the business.
  33. Give HR a seat at the strategic table.
  34. Recruit the best talent -- people are your organization’s differentiator.
  35. Consider a contingent workforce.
  36. Transform your volunteer labor into volunteer leaders.
  37. Become a conscious leader in diversity and inclusion.
  38. Because times are changing rapidly, it is imperative that associations be run by business-savvy leaders.
  39. Identify three to six things your members can’t do without you, and focus on just those things.
  40. Focus on Gen X, not Millennials.
  41. Make value proposition your number one priority.
  42. Resist the temptation to model the competition.
  43. Focus on only two to three large goals and use everyone’s support in executing them.
  44. Provide “just-in-time” volunteering.
  45. Manage disruption by planning for it.
  46. Show younger members the value of meeting with colleagues in person.
  47. Don’t underestimate customer service and personalization.
  48. Make advocacy a priority if your industry is heavily regulated.
  49. Focus on working smarter, not harder.
  50. Control and trust are the largest barriers to adopting a flexible work environment.
  51. Moving to an agile workplace model boosts productivity, attracts specialized talent, and reduces operating costs.
  52. Team engineering, whether in a traditional sense or with contractors, requires the right people with the right skill sets, strengths, and motivation.
  53. The path to growth is empathy.
  54. Build where you already have residency.
  55. Know your worth.
  56. Engage in philanthropy outside your work.
  57. Learn to collaborate.
  58. Understand your organization’s unique value.
  59. Focus volunteers on where they add value.
  60. Be a learning organization.
  61. Tie digital strategies to your business goals.
  62. Know your audience.
  63. Establish a culture of knowledge management.
  64. Harness big data to continually improve and provide better service.
  65. Break it down.
  66. Embrace a challenge.
  67. Get out of the office … a lot.
  68. Know your type.
  69. Enable dissenters.
  70. Recharge your members.
  71. Be your industry’s data warehouse.
  72. Monopolies kill innovation.
  73. Create a sense of urgency.
  74. Float new ideas early and see if they take hold.
  75. Use consultants to help drive change in both front- and back-office operations.

Lost yet? I was about halfway through, and stopped reading the vignettes as carefully. If you are, in fact, leading one of those slow-moving and bureaucratic associations, where on earth do you begin? Wait. I need to do all seventy-five of these things in order to position my organization for success in this era of disruption? Forget it.

It would be far better, in my mind, to organize this list (and the book) by common subject areas. Perhaps like this:

Determining Your Mission and Sticking To It

  • Confront disruption creatively. See Chapter 2.
  • Embrace purpose, run the business. See Chapter 8.
  • Identify three to six things your members can’t do without you, and focus on just those things. See Chapter 10.
  • Resist the temptation to model the competition. See Chapter 11.
  • Focus on only two to three large goals and use everyone’s support in executing them. See Chapter 11.

Living Your Values

  • Maintain your integrity. See Chapter 3.
  • Understand your organization’s unique value. See Chapter 15.

Getting Governance Right

  • Governance is a journey that never ends. See Chapter 5.
  • Leverage your chair as a champion of change. See Chapter 5.
  • Expect bumps along the road. See Chapter 5.
  • Build trust on transparency. See Chapter 5.
  • CEOs: Run your board right. See Chapter 7.
  • Boards: Empower your staff leaders. See Chapter 7.
  • Transform your volunteer labor into volunteer leaders. See Chapter 9.

Environmental Scanning and Scenario Planning

  • See opportunity over challenge. See Chapter 2.
  • Because times are changing rapidly, it is imperative that associations be run by business-savvy leaders. See Chapter 10.
  • Manage disruption by planning for it. See Chapter 12.

Understanding the Needs of Your Members

  • Continue to read your customers. See Chapter 3.
  • Focus on Gen X, not Millennials. See Chapter 10.
  • Make value proposition your number one priority. See Chapter 11.
  • The path to growth is empathy. See Chapter 14.
  • Know your audience. See Chapter 16.
  • Get out of the office … a lot. See Chapter 17.

Being Agile and Taking Risks

  • A risk-taking culture is a must. See Chapter 6.
  • Think like a start-up. See Chapter 7.
  • There is a world beyond members. See Chapter 8.
  • Be fearless taking on the challenge of growth. See Chapter 8.
  • Build where you already have residency. See Chapter 14.
  • Embrace a challenge. See Chapter 17.
  • Monopolies kill innovation. See Chapter 19.
  • Create a sense of urgency. See Chapter 19.
  • Float new ideas early and see if they take hold. See Chapter 19.

Innovation in Business Models and Practices

  • Question everything. See Chapter 2.
  • Seize the UBER mentality. See Chapter 2.
  • Consider a more fluid organizational structure. See Chapter 2.
  • Experiment with new models. See Chapter 3.
  • A fully integrated organizational structure may not be the best path to growth. See Chapter 8.
  • Provide “just-in-time” volunteering. See Chapter 11.
  • Focus volunteers on where they add value. See Chapter 15.
  • Break it down. See Chapter 17.
  • Enable dissenters. See Chapter 18.
  • Use consultants to help drive change in both front- and back-office operations. See Chapter 19.

Developing Your Team

  • Create opportunities for leadership. See Chapter 2.
  • Leaders can emerge from all backgrounds. See Chapter 6.
  • Give HR a seat at the strategic table. See Chapter 9.
  • Recruit the best talent -- people are your organization’s differentiator. See Chapter 9.
  • Consider a contingent workforce. See Chapter 9.
  • Focus on working smarter, not harder. See Chapter 13.
  • Control and trust are the largest barriers to adopting a flexible work environment. See Chapter 13.
  • Moving to an agile workplace model boosts productivity, attracts specialized talent, and reduces operating costs. See Chapter 13.
  • Team engineering, whether in a traditional sense or with contractors, requires the right people with the right skill sets, strengths, and motivation. See Chapter 13.
  • Be a learning organization. See Chapter 15.
  • Know your type. See Chapter 17.

Harnessing the Power of Diversity

  • Be a big tent. See Chapter 2.
  • Become a conscious leader in diversity and inclusion. See Chapter 9.

Using and Leveraging Technology

  • Consider technology to be just another acquired expertise. See Chapter 4.
  • Technology works only when part of a larger strategy. See Chapter 6.
  • Broad staff leadership, buy-in, and involvement is essential for change to occur. See Chapter 6.
  • Tie digital strategies to your business goals. See Chapter 16.
  • Harness big data to continually improve and provide better service. See Chapter 16.

Program Design and Management

  • Remain a trusted source of information by attracting new intellectual capital. See Chapter 3.
  • Show younger members the value of meeting with colleagues in person. See Chapter 12.
  • Don’t underestimate customer service and personalization. See Chapter 12.
  • Make advocacy a priority if your industry is heavily regulated. See Chapter 12.
  • Establish a culture of knowledge management. See Chapter 16.
  • Recharge your members. See Chapter 18.
  • Be your industry’s data warehouse. See Chapter 18.

Successful Outsourcing and Partnerships

  • Know when to engage outside help. See Chapter 3.
  • Cast a wider net. See Chapter 3.
  • Understand and build expertise in related fields. See Chapter 4.
  • Collaborate upstream and downstream. See Chapter 4.
  • Become a master consensus-builder. See Chapter 4.
  • Learn to collaborate. See Chapter 15.

Personal Growth and Development

  • Know your worth. See Chapter 14.
  • Engage in philanthropy outside your work. See Chapter 14.

There. I even put them in order for you. If you are the executive of one of those slow-moving an bureaucratic associations, and you want to better position yourself for success in this era of disruption, then start at the top of this list and work your way down. Have you clearly identified your mission and are you sticking to it? No? Then look at the cited excerpts in Chapters 2, 8, 10 and 11, and get to work on fixing it. Yes? Great! You can skip this one and move onto living your values.


And, finally, notice how much of this is specifically about technology, and how far down the priority order issues of technology come. By my count, only 5 of the 75 learning points in this book are specifically about using and leveraging technology, and, as a group, I would position that issue as 10th on a list of 13 priorities. The author’s flawed premise of “technology = innovation” really comes through when you look at the book’s content through this lens. Remember, all I did was organize and prioritize it. It is the association executives featured in the book’s vignettes that are actually telling you to focus on things that will have a broader impact on your association’s success that its use of technology.

In closing, here’s two choice quotes to drive that point home:

“Digital transformation isn’t really about technology at all. It’s about the need to anticipate and enhance the customer’s experience. That’s where associations fall short. We say that we are membership based, but are we really making it easier to do business with us? Are our products and services enriching people’s lives?”
Peggy Winton, President and CEO, Association for Intelligent Information Management

Everyone has technology, but not everyone has the right talent to serve its customers and achieve strategic goals. Even the best, most robust systems and the newest technology won’t have the intended impact unless you have the right personalities with the right drive and experience behind the controls. The process of identifying the talent and the attributes of an ideal staff may vary from organization to organization, but HRMAC and its members believe the “people” fit is more important that the technology fit.
From the vignette on M. Bernadette Patton, CAE, Former President and CEO, Human Resources Management Association of Chicago

As I said, all in all, a lot of great content. I just wish it was better organized, and didn’t try to push me towards technology solutions.

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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, November 19, 2018

Member Visits Are the Way

Two unconnected things got connected this week in a fun and interesting way.

First, at the beginning of the week I was in Texas for another one of the conferences I've been talking about. And as I often do when I travel, I built some extra time into my schedule so that I could go visit one of the members of my association that was in the same general vicinity.

It was great. It always is. This particular member has been in and out of our association over the years, is currently in, and is deeply involved in only one of our four main program areas.

The visit was a great opportunity for me to introduce them to the other three, but more importantly, it was an opportunity for me to learn more about them. Learn about their business, their people, their products, and their challenges. When I do these member visits, I'm certainly there to talk, but I am also very much there to listen. To listen and learn. And I learned a lot.

Second, at the end of the week I interviewed another candidate for an open position at my association. This candidate asked a lot of good questions, one of them being: "How does a new employee coming into your association best go about learning more about the members and their businesses?"

I kid you not. "By visiting them," I happily answered. "By sitting across the table from them and asking them about their business and the challenges they are facing. By touring their production facilities and trying to understand how the products they make are created and how they make their way into the marketplace. I have been leading this association for more than eleven years now, and to this day, every time I visit a member I learn something new about them and our industry that helps me do my job better."

Member visits are the way. I couldn't have scripted it any better if I had been given the chance.

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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, November 12, 2018

The Importance of Interviewing for Values

I interviewed a candidate for a position my association is looking to fill this week. I think I've written before about how interviews are one of those places where the values of an organization need to come into play, and my experience this week was a great illustration of why.

First a little background. My hiring process has evolved over the past several years -- in part to make sure an assessment of cultural fit became an important part of the process. When someone looks good on paper, and after confirming that their salary expectations are in line with what we plan to pay for the position, I'll first conduct a phone interview. The focus on this screening interview is almost entirely on career history and skills.

Where did you go to school? What did you study and why? Tell me a little about each position you've held. What did you do at each? What major things did you accomplish? Why did you move from place to place? What do you think your strengths are? What are you looking to do next?

Almost all of this is usually on a candidate's resume, but the point is to get the person talking about themselves, their skills, and their decisions. And all the time I'm listening. Does this person have the skills and experiences they need for success in this position?

If a candidate passes the phone interview, I'll ask them to come in for a face-to-face meeting. I've already decided that their skills are a fit, so in this second interview I turn my focus almost entirely to the culture and values of our organization, and whether or not the candidate is a fit there as well. And this is where I was with the candidate I interviewed this week.

After some ice breaking conversation, the questions in this second interview begin. Sometimes I go over the same ground as the phone interview, but now I'm listening for something entirely different. As the person begins to answer my questions, I try to turn the back and forth into a casual conversation. I'm less interested in the concrete answers to whatever questions I'm asking. I am much more interested in seeing if I can relate to the candidate, if I can envision interacting with them in a staff meeting, on an airplane traveling out to a conference, over a coaching lunch, or in a disciplinary discussion. How would this person, I mentally ask myself, conduct themselves as a member of my staff team, or in front of my board?

One way to turn the interview into a conversation is to invite the candidate to ask questions of their own. Most times, in fact, I find myself encouraging the candidate to ask as many questions as I am. I want dialogue, not just responses to questions. And it was one of the questions that the candidate asked me this week that practically stopped me in my tracks.

"Are there any aspects of my skills or experiences that you think are lacking?"

I quickly recognized it as one of those savvy questions that coaches tell candidates to ask of their interviewers. I'm supposed to answer it in one of two ways. I can either tell the candidate where their skills are lacking (which gives them crucial information about how to position the rest of the conversation) or I can admit that the candidate has no skills gaps relative to the position (which is supposed to implant the suggestion in my mind that I should really be hiring this person).

But, as with many things in life, there is a third path.

"No," I told the candidate flatly. "Your skills are a great match for the position. We wouldn't be having this second conversation if they weren't. But I'm no longer interviewing you for skills. I'm trying to figure out if your a good cultural fit for our organization."

In other words, you've passed the skills test, but there more to this process than just skills. And what was amazing to me was how much this admission threw the candidate off their game. I think the candidate thought they had the position locked up, and only suddenly realized that there was another series of tests that they needed to pass.

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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, November 10, 2018

Yankee from Olympus by Catherine Drinker Bowen

In Bowen’s introduction to this volume she says:

The story of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is the story of his country. The narrative cannot begin with the flat date of his birth -- 1841. This was a man whose presence carried tradition. Everyone who met him felt it, and it was not oppressive but inspiring. Over his shoulder one glimpsed somehow his ancestors. His roots reached deep into American earth; it was the strength of these roots that permitted so splendid a flowering.

And Bowen evidently means it, because this is not just a biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, but also a biography of his father and his grandfather. His father was a doctor and his grandfather was a reverend, and together the lives of these three men described in this book begin in 1800 and end in 1935.

Personal and Social History

As such, Bowen is writing a kind of social as well as a personal history. The story, not just of three men, but of the society in which they lived, and the transitions -- sometimes painful ones -- that it went through.

Holmes’s grandfather was named Abiel, and, like any true reverend, early on he is worried about the very soul of the American nation. Here is he, shortly after the death of his own father, encasing that national worry in concern for his son, also named Oliver.

Oliver missed his grandfather. Abiel Holmes, observing his son, whose customary chatter was stilled, wondered if he had been seeing too little of the boy. He began inviting Oliver to drive with him to Dorchester or Lexington to hear him preach; the two would jog off together in the two-wheeled chaise behind a quiet horse, and the boy loved it. They would leave on Saturday and come home on Monday. Abiel, on these trips, talked religion to his son. Oliver listened vaguely. By the time he was ten the Westminster Catechism had lost its bite not only for Oliver Holmes but for most of New England. Oliver was still afraid of the Devil, but the doctrine of transmitted sinfulness, justification, sanctification, meant no more to him than the mystic syllables by which his friends counted each other out in their games.

But to Abiel Holmes the old doctrines had become more important than ever. It seemed to him that New England was rushing toward Unitarianism like the Gadarene swine to destruction. Theologically, Unitarianism meant God as One, rather than God as Three in One. As long as the movement had been confined to theology, Abiel had paid little heed. Any good historian knew such quarrels were forgotten in a generation and the true doctrine prevailed. But Unitarianism had obviously gone far beyond doctrinal matters. The old morality was disappearing with the old religion. Abiel, who had cautioned his congregation against singing Watts’s hymns with levity, saw crowds go to church gayly, in their best bonnets, as if they were going to a show. Pipe organs and mummery took the place of solemnity and the Long Prayer; if men still loved God they most certainly did not fear Him. And fear of the Lord, Abiel told himself passionately, was the beginning of wisdom.

Were drifting away from personal and towards social history -- something Bowen does regularly with grace and skill.

The truth was that the Unitarian movement was a natural concomitant to events that were not churchly but sociological, not local but nation-wide. The Jeffersonian ideal of individualism, opportunity for all, refused to jibe with the notion that man was born wicked, doomed forever. Federal or Democratic-Republican -- no matter what one’s politics, the ideas of Jefferson and of Rousseau before him had penetrated too far to be revoked. The Rights of Man -- was this consistent with a doctrine of total depravity and everlasting damnation? If you could get ahead on earth, said Yankee common sense, you could get ahead in heaven. And to this notion the new applied science was a potent ally. A man who had seen his mother die of the smallpox and who now saw his son saved by vaccination could no longer believe that prayer was the only salvation against present danger. Lavoisier had said that matter was indestructible; even smoke was but another form of the wood it rose from. John Dalton advanced his atomic theory. Down in Monticello, Thomas Jefferson was experimenting with the rotation of crops, using calculus as well as common sense on his farm, and at the same time planning a university that was to embrace all creeds.

And now, back to the personal -- connecting and encompassing the social in the lives of her subjects.

With every step that science took, Abiel was in keen accord, setting it down in the Annals whether it was a mere tally of the number of spindles in Baltimore’s cotton factories or the founding, in 1818, of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. But to the new spirit that went along with science, the new agnosticism, Unitarianism -- whatever name man called it -- Abiel was deeply opposed. When a man invented a cotton loom, a water-driven spindle, let him dedicate it to the glory of God! Let him go down on his knees and thank the Father who had put this invention into the mind of His humble servant. Life was becoming easy, conditions of daily living much softer. And man, Abiel Holmes observed, no longer feared his Maker. His house warmed by stoves, man looked out at the raging blizzard and smiled, forgetting to propitiate his God.

Generational Divides

In part because Bowen is telling the story of three lives -- a man, his son, and his grandson -- and in part because of her helpful bent towards social history, generational differences grow into a major theme in her overall work. The defining generational event for the grandson was clearly the American Civil War -- in which he fought and was wounded several times. Bowen expertly uses those experiences to illuminate the generational divides that were already then beginning to shape changes in the American experiment.

In the excerpt below, the grandson, the future Supreme Court justice, is called Wendell to distinguish him from his father of the same name.

To Wendell it seemed incredible that people would ask for stories of the battlefield as for tales of a circus, or of a boat race on the river Charles. He had forgotten his own eager garrulousness after Ball’s Bluff -- a battle in which he had not seen ten minutes of fighting before being carried unconscious from the field. What he knew now of battlefield was better forgotten, but Wendell could not forget. Dead men sprawled among the corn, naked, stripped of trousers and boots, eyes staring, limbs flung out in awful abandon. For those boots and trousers the Rebels had fought like tigers. If the North fought for “victory,” for “Union,” “freedom,” the South fought for shoes to put on its bleeding feet, pants for its legs, and fought no less bravely. Here on the streets they called the Rebels cowards. They were not cowards.

Cowardice, gallantry, chivalry -- how wearily a soldier, returned from the field, met such words! At home they thought of battle as if it were fought on Boston Common. As if a man came down the steps of his house pulling on his gloves, smoking a cigar -- then got on his horse and charged a battery up Beacon Street while the ladies waved handkerchiefs from a balcony. What really happened was that you spent the night on the wet ground with your bowels open and fought on a breakfast of salt meat and dirty water.

There is much of the weary soldier in this, the clash between the swelling patriotism of the homefront and bitter vigilance and desperation of the front lines. But there is also something generational going on here.

Wendell had heard his father talk of Antietam battlefield; apparently he had gone out there while waiting for the evening train from Frederick. He had brought home souvenirs -- a Rebel canteen, a note that said, “tell John that nancy’s folks are all well and has a verry good Little Crop of corn a growing.” Half a dozen times, Wendell had heard his father tell the story; he strongly suspected it had been written down in some kind of memoir his father made of the trip.

The visitors who came to Charles Street to pay their respects to the wounded hero were charmed with this story. But when they turned to the hero himself they were offended by what he said. “War?” Captain Holmes repeated coldly, his gray eyes remote. “War is an organized bore.”

The visitors went down the steps shaking their heads. “Captain Holmes used to be so agreeable. How changed he is! Is it possible,” they asked one another doubtfully, “that he is going over to the radicals? How hard for his dear father and mother!”

How changed he is, indeed. And not just him, but an entire generation. And the worry over “the radicals” is also telling, conjuring, as it does, the great and unremitting battle of ideology that is the very essence of the American experiment. More on that in a minute. For now let’s dwell a little longer on the generational divide that the Civil War so clearly illuminates, with Captain Wendell Holmes as far from his father and the world he would make for his son as the non-intersecting orbits of two planets going around the same sun.

The most disagreeable episode of his stay at home had not been a national matter at all, but something highly personal. Proof sheets of the Atlantic had arrived; Wendell’s father with a pleased smile had turned them over to his son. Carrying the story upstairs to his room after the family was in bed, Wendell read them, his flesh crawling. He tried to skip, tried to stop reading, but continued in horrid fascination to the end … “for this our son and brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found … Lay him in his own bed, and let him sleep off his aches and weariness …”

Oh my God! thought Captain Holmes, blushing to the roots of his hair. What if Company A should get hold of this?

“In the first car, on the fourth seat to the right, I saw my Captain; there I saw him, even my first-born, whom I had sought through many cities.

“‘How are you, Boy?’

“‘How are you, Dad?’”

Boy? … His father had never called him “Boy” in his life. What would the Twentieth Regiment think of that for a salutation? And the details of the battlefield. That gimlet eye had missed nothing. How could a man be so infernally curious about every stick and stone, every sound and sight? … “tell John that nancy’s folks has a verry good Little Crop of corn a growing.” Those notes his father made on the train must have been calculated straight to this article. As far as description went it was all true, too. Those army wagons, bearing down the road, changing their course for no man. …

It was extraordinary how fast the Atlantic Monthly traveled. From Sharpsburg, Virginia, with the Forty-first Massachusetts, John Gray wrote home to his mother: --

“I was much obliged for the Atlantic Monthly. The little doctor’s conceit and pertness appears more fully than in anything else of his I ever read (though I should make such a statement with hesitation) and I should think his “Hunt” would be considered too long by those who take no personal interest in the persons and things described, and he certainly talks more freely about the appearance and character of those he meets than he had any right to do; but I was very much interested in it and his description of the people and country is wonderfully correct and graphic, considering what a cursory view of them he must have had.”

Captain Holmes is referring here to a piece his father had written for the Atlantic Monthly, “My Hunt After the Captain,” in which the elder Holmes describes his frantic search through Civil War-torn landscapes for his wounded son. It was wildly popular, but it embarrassed the Captain, illustrating like little else the generational divides that existed even then.

But if the young disapproved the “Hunt,” the old loved it. New England read it aloud to the family, read it from the school desk and the lecture platform. It told people what they wanted to know about Antietam battlefield and told them in a tone they were familiar with -- a kindly tone, filled with sentiment. A father’s tone, with none of the nonchalance of youth, so baffling to middle age in the face of danger and horror. There was no need for Wendell Holmes to tell his father what he thought of this latest performance of the literary mind. Dr. Holmes knew what his son thought -- and ignored it cheerfully. If Wendell did not like the Atlantic he could read Hobbes’s Leviathan. The young were ridiculously sensitive; why should not a man desire to share his experiences with a waiting world?

It is very much like Roth’s American Pastoral -- with Dr. Holmes as Swede Levov and the Captain as Merry -- two people and two generations that love but do not understand each other.

The Great and Unremitting Battle of Ideology

Although three generations of the Holmes family come on and off the stage in Bowen’s work, the bulk of the spotlight is reserved for the grandson in this story -- the Civil War Captain who would one day be a United States Supreme Court Justice. And just as it seems that the Captain’s service in the War Between the States exemplified a period of great generational transformation for the still young nation, his service on the bench would come to exemplify another of the great class struggles in our history -- the never ending fight between collectivism and individualism.

When Holmes came to the Bench, the burning issues of the day were labor’s grievance against the employer, and the people’s grievance against the corporations: two manifestations of the individual’s battle for survival in a collectivist world. The battle was just beginning; it would rage all during Holmes’s lifetime and beyond. And in court the fight hinged always around two clauses of the Constitution: the Commerce Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment that declared “no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” There was no way for the lawmakers of 1866 to foresee this, to foresee the emergence of a huge corporate ownership that would seek to construe “due process of law” to its own ends.

Things get pretty dense in this section, but I think Bowen does an excellent job keeping the currents of thought and perspective separate from one another, much the way she claims Justice Holmes was able to do. It takes some explaining, but it’s worth it.

After the Civil War, America found a new symbol. Once she had looked to the Declaration of Independence. But the Declaration was a trifle vague -- to a Massachusetts businessman, almost transcendental. By 1880, there was more than a suspicion that in spite of the hopes of the Fathers, political liberty would never result in economic equality. Men became less interested in being born free and equal, more interested in regulating commerce. If the Declaration had been a profession of faith, the Constitution was its working instrument, and America looked now to the Constitution.

The trouble was that the courts gave this working instrument no elasticity; they regarded it as immutable, written in stone on Sinai. Desperately, the people needed judges who possessed historical as well as judicial awareness, judges whose social prejudices were levelled by the long view of the scholar. Only such men, fearing neither socialism, capitalism, nor any other ism, could construe the Constitution according to the needs of the times.

Holmes was such a man. “A constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory,” he said, “whether of paternalism … or of laissez faire. It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States. … Constitutional law, like other mortal contrivances, has to take some chances. … The Constitution is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”

It’s a refreshing perspective, this idea that the Constitution is neither a socialist nor a capitalist manifesto, that neither of those economic theories should find a natural home within its articles and sections. The Constitution, in other words, is a document that can be used to govern a nation comprised of those and many other economic theories.

It is a perspective that not everyone holds -- indeed, today, as well as in Justice Holmes’s time. And in the great battle between capital and labor, many a demagogue on both sides of the fight have tried to bend Holmes’s neutral Constitution to their own partisan ends.

One such demagogue, the trustbuster himself, Theodore Roosevelt, did not understand where Justice Holmes was coming from, even after appointing him to the Supreme Court. The case in point was Northern Securities Company v. the United States, in which Roosevelt’s government accused James J. Hill’s railroad company of growing too large and violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. After the case was heard and before a decision came down, the President thought he had it in the bag.

Theodore Roosevelt himself, counting over his nine Justices, was well satisfied. He would win by a seven-two decision, or at worst a six-three. A righteously aroused public opinion would surely react upon what T. R. might have called the conscience of the Court. Let the Justices look to their conscience and settle this case as it should be settled! The atmosphere was auspicious for victory. Concerning his new judicial appointee from Massachusetts, the President had no doubts. Holmes’s labor decisions in Boston, notably Vegelahn v. Guntner and the later case of Plant v. Woods, showed clearly where his sympathies lay.

The President could not have been more mistaken. To Holmes, the Supreme Court existed for the purpose of interpreting the statutes according to the Constitution of the United States -- not as a whipping post for malefactors of great or little wealth. If the Northern Securities Company was proved, under the Sherman Act, to be in restraint of trade, it should be dissolved. If not, it should stand. All this pressure of public opinion served merely to cloud the issue.

Holmes, it was true, had said again and again that judges must bear in mind the economic changes in society, the “felt necessities of the time.” But that was a very different matter from being stampeded by a public opinion which the exigencies of the moment dubbed “righteous.” If the public would come out frankly and say it desired to sock the rich, it would be, Holmes thought, far more admirable than this pretense of using the courts to call the rich illegal simply because they were rich. As for the conscience of the Court, a court that ruled according to its “conscience” would be no court at all. Law was neither morality nor politics nor expediency nor art. Theodore Roosevelt, obviously, chose whichever definition suited the moment.

Justice Holmes, in other words, thought it was his job to be a referee, not on the team of the President that appointed him.

This perspective often got him in trouble.

Theodore Roosevelt heard the decision of the Court and was jubilant. The suit, he said, was one of the greatest achievements of his administration. The Knight case had been overruled, the Northern Securities Company was dissolved, the power of the government against the monopolies was established. The government -- Roosevelt called it “we” -- had gained the power.

But it was a crime that the decision had not been more nearly unanimous. Justice Holmes’s dissent in particular was outrageous. What did the man mean, turning against him that way? Obviously, Holmes had simply lost his nerve. “I could carve out of a banana,” shouted T. R., “a judge with more backbone than that!”

It’s no surprise to this reader that Theodore Roosevelt saw Holmes’s decision as a “turn against him.” Indeed, from that titan’s point of view, what else could it have been?

But Holmes would have none of it.

Holmes himself cared nothing whatever about the Presidential reactions. He was, in fact, as angry as the President. Years later, he wrote to Pollock about it. “[The affair] broke up our incipient friendship, however, as [Roosevelt] looked on my dissent … as a political departure (or, I suspect, more truly, couldn’t forgive anyone who stood in his way). We talked freely later but it was never the same after that, and if he had not been restrained by his friends, I am told that he would have made a fool of himself and would have excluded me from the White House. … I never cared a damn whether I went there or not. He was very likable, a big figure, a rather ordinary intellect, with extraordinary gifts, a shrewd and I think pretty unscrupulous politician. He played all his cards -- if not more.”

It’s fascinating. A struggle between two men and two philosophies -- one focused on calling balls and strikes, the other on swinging for the fences. When Holmes “opposed” Roosevelt, the political animal could interpret no other way. So how confused must he have been when Holmes swung the other way in the next major case to come before the Court?

In Lochner v. New York, the Court ruled that a state placing legal limits on the amount of time a company could ask its employees to work was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. At the time, it was a landmark case in the battle between capital and labor. And Justice Holmes, like in the Northern Securities case, was in the dissent.

To Justice Holmes, combination on the one side was as lawful, within limits, as on the other. In the Northern Securities dissent he had upheld the side of capital -- although he would have disliked to hear it called a “side.” Now, a year later, he was to uphold the other -- the right of a state to regulate the hours of labor. Holmes’s dissent in the Lochner case was among his most significant utterances in Court. It heralded a long a noble list of such dissents, opinions which were to prove him, old though he was, far younger in spirit than his brethren, at once prophetic in vision and tough-minded in the law.

It is all evidence that Holmes did the best he could to rule in the absence of political or economic philosophy -- and in an age when the foundations of collectivism and labor were being laid. Many viewed collectivism as the fundamental right of the underclass, while others viewed individualism (and its close cousin the ownership of property) as just a fundamental right guaranteed by the republic. Each side had its political champions who sought to bend the Court to its perspective, believing that stakes high enough to warrant the meddling. Holmes disagreed.

Whether these theories, these economic experiments, resulted in disaster was not, Holmes thought, a judge’s business. Just now, in 1905, the experiments tended all towards combination, collectivism. And whether the combination was of capital, as in the Northern Securities case, or of labor wishing to protect itself by state laws, as in the Lochner case -- at all events let the experiments be made. Those men who, fearing experiment, desire to preserve the status quo, let those men -- be they judges, capitalists, or laboring men -- not hide behind the Sherman Act or the vague phrases of the due process clause.

To the partisan, Holmes was trying to have it both ways. He “lacked a backbone.” But Holmes was trying to avoid partisanship and focus solely on what he believed was required in his role as judge. The question was never what do we wish the law said? It was always what does the law actually say?

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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, November 5, 2018

We're Number Two!

Something interesting happened this week. The office building where our association is located had a Halloween door decorating contest. For some of my staff people, Halloween is their favorite holiday so, with my full blessing and support, a small group came together and decorated our office door, intent on bringing home the prize.

And they did a great job. I should've taken a picture of it, but it showed a lot of creativity and fun. A giant grim reaper stood menacingly next to our office door, a zombie badged as our HR Director sat in a chair opposite, while plenty of signs, dripping with fake blood, were attached to the door, advertising available positions and proudly proclaiming our "death" benefits and the number of days since our last fatal accident (zero, in case you're wondering).

They had fun putting it together and we all had fun answering the door whenever the guy from UPS or Aramark Refreshment Services came calling.

Shortly after the decorations were in place, the building announced what the prizes would be for first, second, and third place, and, universally among our staff, it was decided that the prize for second place -- free bagels for the office -- was the most desirable. It was better than the third place prize, of course, but, strangely, it was also better than the first place prize -- at least in the eyes of my staff.

What happened next was predictable. Everyone started rooting for second place. They started checking out the competition, not hoping that none were better, but hoping, strangely, that one and only one was better. After putting out all that energy and creativity, people began hedging their expectations. Our office door looked great, but perhaps, and hopefully, it wasn't that good. Surely that one down the hall is better than ours. Don't you think?

From my point of view, these hedged expectations told an interesting story. My team came together with a shared purpose, they brainstormed and executed a coherent and creative plan, and knocked-it out of the park with the finished product. They had every right to expect to take home the top prize, yet, when informed what the prizes would be, and deciding that they'd rather have second place, they began to talk as if they had tried too hard. No one said these words out loud, but the feeling in the office was very much in line with regret that they had tried so hard in the first place.

That really hit home for me. When trying to incentivize behaviors, you need to make sure that the prizes offered match the effort folks are putting in. Offer a lackluster prize for coming out on top and you risk people calibrated their efforts for second place.

The story, however, has a happy ending. When the prizes were announced, we learned that our office had, in fact, come in second place. When this news broke, the sense of elation and joy was palpable within the office. We did it! We came in second! We're going to get the FREE BAGELS!!!

There's a lesson in there as well.

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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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