Monday, May 27, 2019

Explaining Red Lights Is Good, But That Doesn't Make Them Not Red

This article on caught my eye this week. It's titled Why Companies That Embrace "Red Is Good" Get The Best Results, and it makes that very argument -- that companies that rigidly adhere to an honest and unflinching measure of their success, even if it means putting those dreaded red lights on their color-coded dashboards, do better than those that purposely or otherwise fudge their yardsticks to make sure their dashboards are always covered with those pleasing green lights.

I found it reminiscent of a blog post I wrote almost six years ago. In, When Red Lights Mean Go, I describe how I typically sort the green, yellow and red lights that appear on our program performance dashboard into an "innovation matrix," where the level of risk associated with each program can more easily be taken into visual account. In that post, I made the following observation about this technique, and about red lights in general:

The red lights always scare people. By themselves, they represent failures. They indicate that we failed to meet the identified metric of success of some of our programs--and some people don't like to admit that. But in the context of our innovation matrix, the red lights also become part of our success. After all, innovation doesn't happen without them.

All of this is a timely reminder for me, as my association is beginning to assemble our final assessment of progress that will be reviewed and discussed by our Board at their strategic retreat at the end of our current fiscal year. As the data comes, we're seeing what we typically see, mostly green, a few yellow, and a handful of red lights, reflecting a year of solid success with a few areas where we fell short of the stretch goals we had set for ourselves.

For me, this is always first and foremost an opportunity for exploration. Why? Why did we not reach this goal? Typically, the answer falls into one of three buckets: lack of resources, lack of opportunity, or lack of effort; and usually in that order. Like many associations, ours is one in which our goals often outstrip the time and financial resources that we have at our disposal.

But that reality doesn't protect us from the often subliminal forces described in the article. People have responsibility for achieving the goals we assign to them (or that they accept themselves), and people don't like having red lights associated with their names. There is an attendant loss of prestige and, depending on the goal's connection to our bonus and compensation plan, also the possible loss of financial reward. Often, when explaining the factors that went into missing the goal, the plea will be made to change red to yellow, or sometimes even to green.

The factors are always taken into account when setting goals for the future, but the process of explaining why a light is red should never lead to changing the color of the light or the substance of the goal in question. Doing so risks creating a false level of success for the organization and, most damaging, a false understanding of the organization's execution capability. Because at the end of the day, that's what all these green, yellow, and red lights are actually measuring -- the ability of the organization to first say what it is going to achieve, and then achieve it.

And if you don't have an accurate view of that capability, how can you ever set realistic goals in the future?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, May 25, 2019

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

The version I read was one of those Norton Critical Editions -- which include not just the text of the work, but information on its backgrounds and sources, and an overview of its reviews and critical essays. And I’m glad it was, because all of that extra information helped me pull a lot more meaning out of the text and what it seemed to offer by itself.

Everyone, I think, has read Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which, if memory serves, was only this young author’s second novel. Maggie was his first, and although imperfect, is considered by many critics to be the first work of American literary Naturalism.

Here’s what Crane himself said about the novel, written on a copy of the work sent to his friend and fellow author Hamlin Garland.

It is inevitable that you will be greatly shocked by this book but continue please with all possible courage to the end. For it tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless. If one proves that theory one makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls (notably an occasional street girl) who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people.

Naturalism was a literary movement that sought to show people as they were, not as they had been idealized to be for decades in drama and fiction. Maggie is definitely a novel that embraces that trend. Its characters are raw and unfocused creatures, as susceptible to their own foibles and the cultural snares that surround them as any of us. But in writing Maggie in this style, Crane is attempting something more than just fidelity to an emerging movement. As Eric Solomon says in one of the volume’s pieces of analysis and criticism:

Maggie involves a complete reversal of the sentimental themes of the nineteenth-century best sellers that dealt with the life of a young girl. These novels, from such active pens as those of Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, E. D. E. N. Southworth, and E. P. Roe, displayed a manifest religious bias; Maggie is scorned by a clergyman and Jimmie finds organized religion abhorrent. The conventional novels treated romantic love and the salvation of female honor; Crane’s heroine is sexually betrayed and falls to the lower depths. A key scene in the sentimental novel was the slow, beautiful death of the heroine’s mother; here, Maggie herself dies, off stage, and her drunken, blaspheming mother survives. The villain in the sentimental novel was generally regenerated by the heroine’s good influence; Crane’s Pete the bartender becomes increasingly degraded and ends in a drunken stupor, mocked by thieving streetwalkers. The essential lesson of the sentimental novel was that happiness (and wealth) came from submission to suffering; suffer Maggie does, but the result of her pangs is only further misery, poverty, and death.

It was interesting for me to find out that the tradition of what Solomon calls above the “sentimental novel” was very real -- with he and many other critics providing numerous examples of both authors and titles dedicated to the theme. As shown above, it puts the plot of actions of Maggie into sharp relief, a sharpness that may very well be lost on a modern reader without this background understanding. As, indeed, it seems to have been lost on many of Crane’s literary contemporaries.

Missing the Point

Here, for example, is the first long paragraph from the original review of the novel than ran in the May 31, 1896 issue of the New York Tribune.

Mr. Stephen Crane in “Maggie” studies New-York tenement-house life with the pretence of aggressive realism. He puts on paper the grossness and brutality which are commonly encountered only through actual contact with the most besotted classes. Oaths, drunkenness, rags, stained walls, cut heads, black eyes, broken chairs, delirious howlings, the flat staleness of a police report are his properties. In his finished book they are still raw materials with the edge of their offensiveness in no way taken off; for Mr. Crane entirely lacks the ability which has enabled some other men to deal with sordid, disgusting and vicious themes in a way that made them at least entertaining. He has no charm of style, no touch of humor, no hint of imagination. His story is one of unrelieved dulness in which the characters interest neither by their words nor acts, are depraved without being either thrilling or amusing, are dirty without being picturesque. There is nothing enticing in their lives nor uplifting in the contemplation of their sorrows. There is nothing alluring in the evils they exhibit. They are not even piquantly wicked, and their talk is as dreary as their lives are empty. Mr. Crane has attempted the accurate reproduction of the tenement dialect, but has succeeded in presenting only its brutal side. He has learned its billinsgate. He does not know anything of the quaint idiom and odd inflection which made Mr. Townsend’s slum talk at once alive and pleasing. Nor does he show any knowledge of the interesting human traits, the quick wit, the self conceit, the local sense of the cockney which make the Bowery Boy a character. He sees only dulness and dirt. The book shocks by mere fact of its monotonous and stupid roughness. To read its pages is like standing before a loafer to be sworn at and have one’s face slapped twice a minute for half an hour.

Talk about missing the point. One can well imagine Crane with a crumpled piece of newsprint in his fist, shouting “Exactly!” over and over again. The world, at least the one caretaked by the New York Tribune, was clearly not ready for literary naturalism.

Just as others were not ready for the inversion of the sentimental novel about young girls. Here’s a passage from a longer work by Charles Loring Brace, a theologian famous for his missionary and charity work among the poor children of New York.

A girl street-rover is to my mind the most painful figure in all the unfortunate crowd of a large city. With a boy, “Arab of the streets,” one always has the consolation that, despite his ragged clothes and bed in a box or hay-barge, he often has a rather good time of it, and enjoys many of the delicious pleasures of a child’s roving life, and that a fortunate turn of events may at any time make an honest, industrious fellow of him. At heart we cannot say that he is much corrupted; his sins belong to his ignorance and his condition, and are often easily corrected by a radical change of circumstances. The oaths, tobacco-spitting, and slang, and even the fighting and stealing of a street-boy, are not so bad as they look. Refined influences, the checks of religion, and a fairer chance for an existence without incessant struggle, will often utterly eradicate these evil habits, and the rough, thieving New York vagrant make an honest, hard-working Western pioneer. It is true that sometimes the habit of vagrancy and idling may be too deeply worked in him for his character to speedily reform; but, if of tender years, a change in circumstances will nearly always bring a change of character.

With a girl-vagrant it is different. She feels homelessness and friendlessness more; she has more of the feminine dependence on affection; the street-trades, too, are harder for her, and the return at night to some lonely cellar or tenement-room, crowded with dirty people of all ages and sexes, is more dreary. She develops body and mind earlier than the boy, and the habits of vagabondism stamped on her in childhood are more difficult to wear off.

The the strange and mysterious subject of sexual vice comes in. It has often seemed to me one of the most dark arrangements of this singular world that a female child of the poor should be permitted to start on its immortal career with almost every influence about it degrading, its inherited tendencies overwhelming toward indulgence of passion, its examples all of crime or lust, its lower nature awake long before its higher, and then that it should be allowed to soil and degrade its soul before the maturity of reason, and beyond all human possibility of cleansing!

On and on it goes like this, layering the cultural zeitgeist of the times over the differential manifestations of sin between young men and young women. Girls are to remain pure, and even one sexual encounter outside the sanctioned socio-religious boundaries will tarnish her forever. It is thought that the longer work may have served as a source or inspiration for Crane’s Maggie. If so, I can only believe that it was Crane’s intention to subvert, not support, this view of the world.

Social Insanity Creating a Moral Madhouse

Here, I think, is the point. Crane’s naturalism and sentimental inversion combine in Maggie to show not just the reality of people in New York’s tenement district, but also the social insanity that traps them there. And it is that combination, not just the naturalism nor just the sentimental inversion, that truly makes Maggie a remarkable novel.

Here’s another critic, Charles Child Walcutt, making the point better than I can.

A dominant idea that grows from this landscape of hysteria is that these people are victimized by their ideas of moral propriety which are so utterly inapplicable to their lives that they constitute a social insanity. Maggie is pounced upon by the first wolf in this jungle and seduced. When she is abandoned and returns home, her mother’s outraged virtue is boundless:

“Ha, ha, ha!” bellowed the mother. “Dere she stands! Ain’t she purty? Look ut her. Ain’t she sweet, deh beast? Look ut her! Ha, ha! Look ut her!” she lurched forward and put her red and seamed hands upon her daughter’s face. She bent down and peered keenly up into the eyes of the girl. “Oh, she’s jes’ dessame as she ever was, ain’t she? She’s her mudder’s putty darlin’ yit, ain’ she? Look ut her, Jimmie. Come her and look ut her.”

Maggie is driven forth with jeers and blows and presently commits suicide. Crane tells how her mother responds to the lugubrious consolations of her neighbors in this classic paragraph:

The mourner essayed to speak, but her voice gave way. She shook her great shoulders frantically, in an agony of grief. The tears seemed to scald her face. Finally, her voice came and arose in a scream of pain. “Oh, yes, I’ll fergive her! I’ll fergive her!”

The impressions that these people are not free agents, and that their freedom is limited as much by the conventional beliefs as by their poverty, are naturalistic concepts completely absorbed into the form of the story. One might object upon sociological grounds that Crane’s ideas of the family are unsound, but his literary technique here is a triumph. It creates a coherent if terrible world, and there are no serious loose ends -- no effect of tension or contradiction between abstract theory and human event. Crane’s hallucinatory inferno is a gift of his style. What he says and what he renders are one. Indeed, he does not comment because the whole work is one grand roar of mockery and outrage. The hysterical distortions symbolize, image, and even dramatize the confusion of values which puts these social waifs in a moral madhouse.

OK. First. In my book, there is no higher praise for a fiction writer than what Walcutt just offered Crane. Essentially, Crane has dramatized abstract truth, and done it without preaching. “Preaching,” as Crane is quoted elsewhere in this volume, “is fatal to art and literature.” The goal, in this case, is not to describe moral outrage, but to depict it -- depict it only in the speech and interactions of dramatic characters. And in this regard, Crane’s Maggie truly is a triumph.

But the more direct point of Walcutt’s essay is that the characters of Maggie, and the real world tenement dwellers that they represent, hold themselves to moral absolutes that no longer serve the grim isolation and harrowness of their existence. Maggie’s mother is cajoled into forgiving her daughter in a naturalistic but still maudlin scene, oblivious to the reality that if she hadn’t shunned Maggie after her “fall from grace,” she very well might still be alive.

And in this sense, Crane’s early and still flawed novel manages to transcend its form. For it is not just Maggie’s mother that is bound to a moralistic farce. The reader, especially the contemporary reader who may be more prone to take sides, is revealed as being equally bound. As critic Frank Bergon helpfully explains:

By the end of the novel, then, the reader is caught in the position of realizing that it is as absurd to forgive Maggie as it is to damn her. Her only transgression is against moral and social codes that are in themselves transgressions or moral and social reality. Yet Maggie shares these codes with other characters whom the reader would never forgive. Like them, she is a victim of self-deception; and, like them, she adopts moral poses so as to appear on a higher social plane. Her errors are so perfectly those of her society that forgiveness of Maggie should be extended to others. The forgiving reader is caught in a moral contradiction, or like Maggie’s mother, becomes bound to noble sentiments that are in themselves self-serving deceptions.

Allegory Lost in Editing

Maggie’s suicide is the last thing I want to comment on. It, like many other gruesome aspects of the novel, happens off-stage. And this, as I came to learn through reading the commentary that accompanies the text, is only partly a result of Crane’s intent. A big part of it is the frustrating influences of Crane’s more traditional publishers.

There are, in a way, two versions of Maggie included in this volume. The presented text follows the author’s original intention, the way the novel was cast and published in its first printing in 1893. But a second version of Maggie was published in 1896, and in that version many mollifying changes were made, each and every one footnoted and explained in this volume.

It’s fascinating to see the changes. The 1893 version was self-published by Crane. The 1896 version was done by a respectable publishing house, who insisted on the changes, believing the original version was too honest. References to “micks” were changed to “mugs,” “hell” was changed to “h--l” or deleted entirely, “Gawd!” was changed to “Gee!” These are all relatively minor, although in the aggregate, they do create a different kind of novel than the one Crane intended.

But the biggest problem comes in Chapter XVII, the one in which Maggie commits suicide. It’s fairly short, so here it is in its 1893 glory.

Upon a wet evening, several months after the last chapter, two interminable rows of cars, pulled by slipping horses, jangled along a prominent side-street. A dozen cabs, with coat-enshrouded drivers, clattered to and fro. Electric lights, whirring softly, shed a blurred radiance. A flower dealer, his feet tapping impatiently, his nose and his wares glistening with rain-drops, stood behind an array of roses and chrysanthemums. Two or three theatres emptied a crowd upon the storm-swept pavements. Men pulled their hats over their eyebrows and raised their collars to their ears. Women shrugged impatient shoulders in their warm cloaks and stopped to arrange their skirts for a walk through the storm. People having been comparatively silent for two hours burst into a roar of conversation, their hearts still kindling from the glowings of the stage.

The pavements became tossing seas of umbrellas. Men stepped forth to hail cabs or cars, raising their fingers in varied forms of polite request or imperative demand. An endless procession wended toward elevated stations. An atmosphere of pleasure and prosperity seemed to hang over the throng, born, perhaps, of good clothes and of having just emerged from a place of forgetfulness.

Crane describes this scene to show the contrast with what is to come next.

In the mingled light and gloom of an adjacent park, a handful of wet wanderers, in attitudes of chronic dejection, was scattered among the benches.

A girl of the painted cohorts of the city went along the street. She threw changing glances at men who passed her, giving smiling invitations to men of rural or untaught pattern and usually seeming sedately unconscious of the men with a metropolitan seal upon their faces.

This girl is Maggie, although Crane will never name her as such. She is both the Maggie of the novel’s title, and an archetype of her class.

Crossing glittering avenues, she went into the throng emerging from the places of forgetfulness. She hurried forward through the crowd as if intent upon reaching a distant home, bending forward in her handsome cloak, daintily lifting her skirts and picking for her well-shod feet the dryer spots upon the pavements.

She is well clothed. She must have found some success in her new line of work.

The restless doors of saloons, clashing to and fro, disclosed animated rows of men before bars and hurrying barkeepers.

A concert hall gave to the street faint sounds of swift, machine-like music, as if a group of phantom musicians were hastening.

A tall young man, smoking a cigarette with sublime air, strolled near the girl. He had on evening dress, a mustache, a chrysanthemum, and a look of ennui, all of which he kept carefully under his eye. Seeing the girl walk on as if such a young man as he was not in existence, he looked back transfixed with interest. He stared glassily for a moment, but gave a slight convulsive start when he discerned that she was neither new, Parisian, nor theatrical. He wheeled about hastily and turned his stare into the air, like a sailor with a searchlight.

Maggie’s first potential customer of the night; a well dressed gentleman; rejecting her.

A stout gentleman, with pompous and philanthropic whiskers, went solidly by, the broad of his back sneering at the girl.

A belated man in business clothes, and in haste to catch a car, bounced against her shoulder. “Hi, there, Mary, I beg your pardon! Brace up, old girl.” He grasped her arm to steady her, and then was away running down the middle of the street.

Two more potential customers in the crowd; both with no time or consideration for her. It seems clear that Maggie no longer belongs in respectable society.

The girl walked on out of the realm of restaurants and saloons. She passed more glittering avenues and went into darker blocks than those where the crowd travelled.

A young man in light overcoat and derby hat received a glance shot keenly from the eyes of the girl. He stopped and looked at her, thrusting his hands in his pockets and making a mocking smile curl his lips. “Come, now, old lady,” he said, “you don’t mean to tell me that you sized me up for a farmer?”

A laboring man marched along with bundles under his arms. To her remarks, he replied: “It’s a fine evenin’, ain’t it?”

She smiled squarely into the face of a boy who was hurrying by with his hands buried in his overcoat, his blonde locks bobbing on his youthful temples, and a cheery smile of unconcern upon his lips. He turned his head and smiled back at her, waving his hands.

“Not this eve -- some other eve!”

A drunken man, reeling in her pathway, began to roar at her. “I ain’ ga no money, dammit,” he shouted, in a dismal voice. He lurched on up the street, wailing to himself, “Dammit, I ain’ ga no money. Damn ba’ luck. Ain’ ga no more money.”

A lower class neighborhood; four more opportunities; four more rejections. Where will she go next?

The girl went into gloomy districts near the river, where the tall black factories shut in the street and only occasional broad beams of light fell across the pavements from saloons. In front of one of these places, from whence came the sound of a violin vigorously scraped, the patter of feet on boards and the ring of loud laughter, there stood a man with blotched features.

“Ah, there,” said the girl.

“I’ve got a date,” said the man.

Further on in the darkness she met a ragged being with shifting blood-shot eyes and grimy hands. “Ah, what deh hell? T’ink I’m a millionaire?”

Are you getting the picture? She is moving through the ranks of society, and each one is rejecting her in turn. The entertainment district, the working classes, the riverfront slums. None will have her. Where will she go next?

She went into the blackness of the final block. The shutters of the tall buildings were closed like grim lips. The structures seemed to have eyes that looked over her, beyond her, at other things. Afar off the lights of the avenue glittered as if from an impossible distance. Street car bells jingled with a sound of merriment.

And now, at this crucial moment, the texts of the 1893 and 1896 versions diverge, the original containing the following amazing paragraph, the subsequent deleting it entirely.

When almost to the river the girl saw a great figure. On going forward she perceived it to be a huge fat man in torn and greasy garments. His grey hair straggled down over his forehead. His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl’s upturned face. He laughed, his brown, disordered teeth gleaming under a grey, grizzled moustache from which beer-drops dripped. His whole body gently quivered and shook like that of a dead jelly fish. Chuckling and leering, he followed the girl of the crimson legions.

At their feet the river appeared a deathly black hue. Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare, that lit for a moment the waters lapping oilily against the timbers. The varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to silence.

Who is this figure, the one Maggie “perceives” to be a huge fat man, the one who escorts her to her death in the black and oily river? Just a dark denizen of the city’s underbelly? Or something more, something allegorical like the journey Maggie makes through the layers of her society? And why, whoever or whatever he is, was he cut from the 1896 version?

The novel is so much richer with him.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, May 20, 2019

I Want the Right Pageviews

This week's blog post is partly inspired by this post on Seth Godin's blog. In it, he makes the case that the idea of "reach" is overrated.

Why do you care if you can, for more money, reach more people? Why wouldn’t it make more sense to reach the right people instead?

I agree entirely. Here's a specific case in point.

My association has a website. There's a lot of good content up there, most of it intended for our members. But there are a few pages that focus on what fluid power (the technology my association represents) is. Those pages aren't really for our members. They already know what fluid power is. We don't have much of a public relations or advocacy focus, but as the trade association representing the fluid power industry, it feels wrong not having some information up there about what it is and what it does in the market.

Here's the problem, though. Every time we go to look at our web analytics, guess what comes up as the page with the most pageviews? That's right. It's our "What Is Fluid Power?" page. There are some in the organization who track and trumpet this. Look at how many pageviews our website got last month! We must be doing a really great job.

I have a different view. Let me phrase it in striking terms so I can underscore how strongly I feel about it.

I don't care about the people visiting the "What Is Fluid Power?" page of our website. They -- whoever they are -- are not our members, and our website is not for them.

Do you know how I know they are not our members? Look at the traffic source for all those pageviews. The vast majority are coming from organic search -- meaning that they are typing "what is fluid power" into Google or Bing or some other search engine and finding our page in the results that come back to them. Our members aren't doing that.

Show me the pageviews of the people coming to our site because they've bookmarked it, or they clicked on one of the links in our member e-newsletter. Those are the right pageviews to watch and pay attention to, because those are much more likely to be our members.

As someone whose job depends on connecting our members to the programs and services of my association, I can't get complacent about this. I simply do not want more pageviews for the sake of having more pageviews. I want more of a certain kind of pageviews -- the ones that reflect our members reading and accessing our programs.

When I talk about the "right" pageviews, those are the ones I'm referring to.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 10 (DRAFT)

Don was the hatchet man in the company. Everyone knew that. Almost from the first day you started working there, you learned through a combination of osmosis and observation that a visit from Don Bascom was something to be dreaded. Remember that he co-owned the company with Mary. He called himself the Chief Operating Officer while Mary called herself the President, but they were equal partners in managing the business and made all the big decisions together. Near as I could tell, Don’s sole day-to-day function was monitoring everyone’s behavior and addressing as needed any deviations from the company’s poorly communicated expectations.

The fact that Mary wanted to consult with Don after hearing Susan’s story told me she thought someone needed to be punished for what had happened. In the idiom of the company’s corporatespeak, that meant someone was to be “placed on a course of progressive discipline”—a best practice strategy the company utilized to address violations of policy. In it, the offending employee was “placed on notice,” and faced a series of “elevating consequences” for continued misconduct, “up to and including termination.” It was all written up very clearly and with the appropriate legal flourishes in one of the policy binders Don kept on his bookshelf, but in practice it usually meant the employee was simply taken a short journey—a journey very much like the one mobsters take stoolies on in the old film noir classics—a journey, in other words, with a predetermined destination. First, Don gave them a tongue lashing; second, he wrote them up and put a black mark in their file; and third, he ended the whole affair by firing them and contesting their ability to collect unemployment insurance.

I’m sure we made an interesting sight, the three of us—Mary, me, and Susan—marching through the office in single file, but most people were smart enough not to look up until after we had passed by. Don lived with all of us office dwellers, his cell more like a cozy warren in the very center of that long windowless wall against the parking structure. His office had been specially configured with a footprint the size of three of our offices, and a door and outer wall made completely of glass. The better to see you with, my dear, was the running joke that explained Don’s Transparent Wall, and it was true. The wall gave Don a commanding view of all the worker bees as they did their little functions in their little workstations. But most of the time the wall wasn’t even necessary, because Don was typically not in his office. He much preferred standing in its doorframe, one shoulder braced against one of the steel supports and an extra large cup of coffee in his hand, looking out self-assuredly on all the pod people and the special habitat he had created for them. That morning was no exception.

“We need to talk,” Mary said bluntly upon our arrival, and Don, giving Susan and me the barest of cursory glances, simply nodded his head and backed into his office to allow the three of us to enter.

Don was a big man, thick more than fat, with a gigantic head and a prizefighter’s nose pushed flat and wide against his face. He wore his wide-collared dress shirts—white, and sometimes blue—with two open buttons at the neck, revealing more of his puffy, pink skin than anyone really wanted to see. There was always a wrinkled sport coat draped around the high-backed chair behind his desk as if it were his personal valet, but he never wore it, and his shirts were chronically untucking themselves as he went through the movements of his day. Indeed, as he moved towards the small conference table that was the centerpiece of his office, I saw that his shirttail had come loose again, a mottled love handle flashing its blotchy rosiness at me as he turned and heavily sat himself down.

“What’s going on?” Don asked.

Mary was taking her seat beside Don. I stepped aside and gave Susan access to a third chair and turned to close Don’s door. Through its glass I saw that all activity had stopped in Don’s amusement park outside. All of the pod people were silently watching us—some simply turned towards us in their chairs, but others standing and clustered together in the spaces between the pods—as if we were about to discuss all of their fates.

“It’s Amy and Caroline,” I heard Mary say. “They’ve really stepped over the line this time.”

Resisting the distraction, I forced myself to turn away from all those blank and frozen faces. Don, Mary, and Susan were huddled around Don’s circular conference table, a fourth chair waiting for me to claim it.

“Who?” Don asked.

“Amy Crawford and Caroline…uh, Caroline…” Mary looked to Susan for help.

“…Abernathy. Car—”

“Caroline Abernathy,” Mary added quickly. “They’re in the Education Department.”

Don seemed to think for a moment, his breath moving loudly in and out of his flat nose, and then perked up as if someone had stuck him with a pin. “Amy Crawford! Goddammit! What’s she done this time? I’ve about had it with her.”

“It’s not Amy—”

“She got drunk at a client meeting,” Mary said quickly, interrupting Susan again. “And she embarrassed the company in front of a hundred VIPs.”

“She did what!?” Don said, almost spilling his coffee as his big hands shot out in surprise. He wore one of those enormous class rings on his finger, and it clanged tellingly on the tabletop. “That’s the last straw! She’s already got the black mark in her file. Let’s fire her.”

Mary looked ready to pounce but this time Susan spoke first and wouldn’t be interrupted.

“Now just a minute, please,” she said. “There’s much more to the story than that. What about Wes Howard and his role in all of this?”

“What?” Don said, blinking his puffy eyes at Susan as if she had just materialized before him. “Who?”

Susan opened her mouth but Mary stopped her with a restraining grip on her wrist. “Wes Howard,” she said purposefully, as if regaining total control of the situation. “One of the VIPs. You remember, Don. You met him at the strategic planning retreat last year. Eleanor thinks we should be considering him for board service.”

“Oh, yeah,” Don said, thoughtfully. “Wes Howard. Nice guy. What’s he got to do with this?”

“Not much that I can see,” Mary said.

“Not much!” Susan suddenly exploded, yanking her arm out of Mary’s grasp and rising reflexively to her feet. Susan had a frenetic energy that could often not be contained, especially when she was worked up about something she felt was Inappropriate. “What are you talking about? He’s responsible for their behavior. They wouldn’t have done it without him providing them cover and egging them on!”

“Susan, please,” Mary said slyly, her voice like a snake moving through the long grass. “Sit down. We need to discuss this rationally.”

Susan turned deliberately towards Mary, her shoulders scrunching up and her elbows drawing back aggressively. I couldn’t see the expression on Susan’s face from my position near the door, but I saw Don’s reaction to it. His thoughts were plainly written on his jowly face and, like me, the split second impression that Susan was going to haul off and hit Mary flashed through his mind. Mary, still not shaken, looked up at Susan passively, like an ancient sea creature waiting for its smaller and swifter prey to swim within reach.

“Rationally?” Susan said bitterly. “How can we discuss this rationally when we’re not even willing to put the blame where it actually belongs?”

“Susan, please,” Mary said again, unperturbed by Susan’s icy tone. “Sit down. We can talk about an appropriate response for everyone involved in this incident. But we must be calm and rational about it. You’re still new to the company, but I know you’ve reviewed the personnel files of all the staff you inherited. This is not the first time Amy has acted inappropriately at a client meeting.”

Susan did not sit down. Instead, she literally threw her hands up and let out a loud harrumph. She turned to look at me with her arms folded tightly across her chest. Her eyes contained a simmering fire, but they also seemed to plead with me. Alan. Please. Do something!

I have to admit, I was torn. I had gotten as far as I had in the company by keeping my nose clean, by not crossing swords unnecessarily with Mary, but this time it did seem like our President was rushing to judgment. But more than that, as Susan stood there glaring at me I couldn’t help but think about the kind of person she was and the way she tried to deal with her staff. Although they had rebuffed her at just about every turn, Susan nobly continued to be their advocate, their champion, their supporter. Even now, knowing full well that Amy Crawford despised her, and had deliberately mocked and embarrassed her in front of a room full of people, Susan was trying to keep her from getting fired. It’s not just that Susan thought Wes was the real culprit to be dealt with. Susan defended Amy because Amy was one of her people, and that’s what a supervisor was supposed to do with the people she managed—at least with the ones she thought were worth keeping in the organization. I knew Susan well enough to know that this was where she was coming from. And by the look in her eyes, I could tell that she expected no less from me. It guilted me into action.

“Mary’s right, Susan,” I said, stepping forward, touching her gently on the elbow and encouraging her to sit back down as I finally took my own seat at the table. “This isn’t the first time Amy has acted inappropriately.” I looked sympathetically into Susan’s angry eyes as she hesitantly reseated herself. “But, Mary,” I said, turning to face her, “Susan’s right, too. Amy isn’t the only one who acted inappropriately here.”

“I know,” Mary said. “We’ll have to discuss an appropriate action against Caroline as well. She’s less experienced, but she should know better.”

“Caroline!” Susan shouted before I could placate her, her thoughts beginning to sputter out of her in incomplete sentences. “Caroline’s the one… She doesn’t deserve… If you had seen her eyes…”

“Mary,” I said as calmly as I could. “Don’t you think that someone should at least have a talk with Wes?”

“About what?”

There was no mistaking Mary’s tone. It was crisp, dismissive, and, worst of all, honest. In three cold syllables, Mary had effectively communicated that there would be no more discussion on this issue. She had taken in all the information Susan had given her, had made the necessary calculations befitting her role as company President, and had decided on a course of action. Case closed. And it wasn’t Amy or Caroline that Mary was worried about. Mary was looking out for her company, and her inexorable logic told her that punishing a couple members of the junior staff for acting inappropriately was by far safer than confronting a well-connected VIP on the circumstantial evidence she had been given.

Susan also heard the finality in Mary’s voice. This time she did not jump up, but rose deliberately from her chair. She turned and gave me a venomous look and then, without a word, unclipped her ID badge from her blouse, tossed it cavalierly on the table, and strode resolutely from the room, leaving the office door hanging open behind her.

Don blinked his eyes. “Did she just quit?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, in shock over what had just happened, my head turned towards the open door, and staring at the wild eyes on all the stunned faces of the pod people as they wordlessly tracked Susan’s progress as she moved away from Don’s office. “But, I think I should go find out.”

Without waiting for permission to leave, I got up and hurried after her.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Are Site Visits an Art or a Science?

This past week I was on the road again -- this time siting a couple of properties for a future Board strategy retreat.

My current association takes the word "retreat" pretty seriously. We're always on the lookout for interesting and exclusive destinations -- places most of our Board members haven't been before, where they can spend some time out of their businesses and in the association, sprinkled with liberal amounts of social activity and outdoor excursions.

It's a pretty successful formula for us, and sometimes it's hard for me not to break it down into an actual formula. In another life, for another association, for example, I was responsible for booking two thousand room nights across half a dozen or more hotels for a large city-wide convention. On those site visits I would see a dozen hotels in a day, spending just enough time in each to get a sense of their quality, amenities, and value.

Back then, probably in order to stay sane, I had a overly simple system for keeping all those properties straight in my head and for picking the best ones. The first hotel I saw, regardless of quality, would get a ranking of "5" on a tally sheet I had already prepared for my visit. The first hotel was always my baseline. Then, after seeing the second one, I would ask myself, "Was that hotel better than the first one I saw?" If yes, it got a "7". If not, it got a "3". Then, onto the third hotel and another question. "How did that one stack up?" It would get a number that reflected its relative position to the first two hotels, say maybe a "4", or perhaps a "9".

I would proceed like this with every new hotel, positioning it in the mix while it was still fresh in my mind, until the day was done and I had a top to bottom list of all the hotels I had seen. Frankly, I would remember almost nothing else about them, but I was certain that the hotel that got a "7" on my tally sheet was better than the one that got a "5". And I would start requesting contracts based entirely on this system, starting with the highest scoring hotel and working my way down until I had all the room nights I needed for the convention.

Now, I live in a much different world. Instead of 12 hotels in one day, on this latest trip I saw only two properties in two days -- and, most importantly, I think, I got to spent a night in each of the properties vying for our business. For most of this time, I am unsupervised by the sales managers that offer the obligatory tour. I want to know what it's like being a random guest in their property -- ordering room service, using the fitness center, sitting in the lounge and seeing how long it takes for someone to come and take my order.

I'm intentionally going for a gut-feel. Will my Board members enjoy staying here? Will they get the kind of attention they expect and we want to deliver? And while I am intentionally trying to make decision based on qualitative factors, I sometimes still find it difficult not to break the process down into a set of quantifiable measures. How much is the room rate? How big is the ballroom? What F&B minimum are they requesting?

It's taken my a long time, but I think I've finally come to understand that while these quantifiable measures are important -- none of them really matter if the property in question has the qualitative factors that one desires. Within a certain range, we can make our retreat work with any set of quantities if it offers the qualities that make the event a memorable one for our Board members and a productive one for our association.

In this way, my site visits of today are much more of an art than a science.

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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

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre by Walter Kaufmann

This was a frustrating read. I am very much an amateur when it comes to formal philosophy, and I am always looking for texts that will provide me with roadmaps to the classical ideas that provide that discipline’s structure, and that’s largely why I picked up this volume. Written, and more properly edited, by a Princeton philosophy professor, it is a collection of works by a variety of authors and thinkers, all of the existentialism tradition.

Except what is the existentialism tradition? That might be a good place to start.

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life -- that is the heart of existentialism.

All right. Now that’s a philosophy I can get behind. So much of what I’ve already read seems remote in the extreme from actual life -- remote not just in the sense that it is inapplicable, but also in the sense that it is undecipherable; filled with its own cryptic and unexplained lexicon.

But the reality is that many of the featured philosophers in this volume are guilty of the same crime, whether Kaufmann wants to call them existentialists or not. The selections from Heidegger, Jaspers, and Kierkegaard, for example, are painfully difficult to get through. Here’s a sample paragraph from Jaspers:

The faith of spirit is the life of the universal Idea, where Thought is Being ultimately is valid. The faith of Existenz, however, is the Absolute in Existenz itself on which everything for it rests, in which spirit, consciousness as such, and empirical existence are all bound together and decided, where for the first time there is both impulse and goal; here Kierkegaard’s proposition, “Faith is Being,” applies.

Uh huh. And here’s a taste of the referenced Kierkegaard:

Innocence is ignorance. In his innocence man is not determined as spirit but is soulishly determined in immediate unity with his natural condition. Spirit is dreaming in man. This view is in perfect accord with that of the Bible, and by refusing to ascribe to man in the state of innocence a knowledge of the difference between good and evil it condemns all the notions of merit Catholicism has imagined.

I’ll be honest. I don’t know which is more frustrating: (1) the word-salad of undefined words and made-up terms; or (2) the presumption that Christianity is true and the verbal gymnastics that are needed to build a philosophy around it. This is existentialism? This is the “refusal to belong to any school of thought”? The “repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs”? The “marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life”? Walter, honestly, if you’re going to clutter up with volume with philosophers like these, then I truly don’t know what you’re talking about.

Art Not Philosophy

Except there is one lonely candle of clarity in the darkness of Kaufmann’s editorial choices. And to be fair to the good professor, it is he, himself, who lights it.

In the end, Rilke, Kafka, and Camus pose a question, seconded by Dostoevsky and by Sartre’s plays and fiction: could it be that at least some part of what the existentialists attempt to do is best done in art and not philosophy? [It sometimes happens, though this is assuredly no rule, that at some given time and place one of the arts, perhaps a single man, towers above the rest and says more adequately what the others say less well. In Italy around the time of 1300 Dante was that man, and two hundred years later it was, if not Michelangelo, in any case sculpture and painting. In Dostoevsky’s Russia it was the novel. In Denmark around 1850 it was a new and peculiar kind of prose: we think of Kierkegaard and Andersen. In Nietzsche’s Germany there was no poet and no novelist to rival him.] It is conceivable that Rilke and Kafka, Sartre and Camus have in their imaginative works reached heights of which the so-called existentialist philosophers, including Sartre, not to speak of Camus’ essays, have for all their efforts fallen short, if they have not altogether missed their footing in their bold attempts to scale the peaks and fallen into frequent error and confusion. Whether this is so or not, that is a crucial question which no student of this movement can avoid.

Is existentialism best done in art and not in philosophy? This part-time student of the movement would certainly think so, at least based on the selections that Kaufmann has included in this collection. Consider, for example, the section from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, in which the free agent of the individual chooses to rebel against the seeming determinism of the universe.

I will continue calmly concerning persons with strong nerves who do not understand a certain refinement of enjoyment. Though in certain circumstances these gentlemen bellow their loudest like bulls, though this, let us suppose, does them the greatest credit, yet, as I have said already, confronted with the impossible they subside at once. The impossible means the stone wall! What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact. When they prove to you that in reality one drop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow-creatures, and that this conclusion is the final solution of all so-called virtues and duties and all such prejudices and fancies, then you have just to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just try refuting it.

“Upon my word,” they will shout at you, “it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she had nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall … and so on, and so on.”

Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason, I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply, because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.

As though such a stone wall really were a consolation, and really did contain some word of conciliation, simply because it is as true as twice two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! How much better it is to understand it all, to recognize it all, all the impossibilities and the stone wall; not to be reconciled to one of those impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to be reconciled to it; by the way of the most inevitable, logical combinations to reach the most revolting conclusions on the everlasting theme, that even for the stone wall you are yourself somehow to blame, though again it is as clear as day you are not to blame in the least, and therefore grinding your teeth in silent impotence to sink into luxurious inertia, brooding on the fact that there is no one even for you to feel vindictive against, that you have not, and perhaps never will have, an object for your spite, that it is a sleight of hand, a bit of juggling, a card-sharper's trick, that it is simply a mess, no knowing what and no knowing who, but in spite of all these uncertainties and jugglings, still there is an ache in you, and the more you do not know, the worse the ache.

That ache. The ache of the feeling individual against the unrelenting determinism of the universe. If that isn’t existentialism, I don’t know what is. And all of its described without any word salad or verbal gymnastics.

It is a theme that Dostoevsky will develop in the next several pages, as the narrator continues an imaginary conversation with a skeptical multitude.

What man wants is simply an independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows that choice.

“Ha! ha! ha! But you know there is no such thing as choice in reality, say what you like,” you will interpose with a chuckle. “Science has succeeded in so far analysing man that we know already that choice and what is called freedom of will is nothing else than---”

Stay, gentlemen, I meant to begin with that myself. I confess, I was rather frightened. I was just going to say that the devil only knows what choice depends on, and that perhaps that was a very good thing, but I remembered the teaching of science … and pulled myself up. And here you have begun upon it. Indeed, if there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices -- that is, an explanation of what they depend upon, by what laws they arise, how they develop, what they are aiming at in one case and in another and so on, that is a real mathematical formula -- then, most likely, man will at once cease to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to. For who would want to choose by rule? Besides, he will at once be transformed from a human being into an organ-stop or something of the sort; for what is a man without desires, without freewill and without choice, if not a stop in an organ? What do you think? Let us reckon the chances -- can such a thing happen or not?

Now we seem to be getting to the meat of it -- to the unresolvable muddle that is man. For here, Dostoevsky is clearly saying that the knowledge that man is controlled by forces beyond his control, that he is an automaton or an “organ-stop,” means that he will stop being a man. This I question, uncertain what the impact of awareness would be on such a system, a system in which awareness itself is a vital part. Whether he “knows” it or not, after all, man is operating on the same deterministic principles.

And this is the place that Dostoevsky himself soon gets to -- switching his organ-stop metaphor to one of the piano-key.

And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object -- that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated -- chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all before hand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key! It may be at the cost of his skin, it may be by cannibalism! And this being so, can one help being tempted to rejoice that it had not yet come off, and that desire still depends on something we don’t know?

Man is determined to act as though he was not determined. That’s the tidy little paradox that lives at the center of this discussion. I’m not sure Dostoevsky ever really gets there. He seems to preserve a tiny shred of freewill at the core of man’s rebellious actions, but he may be right in that a true understanding of his determined existence may very well drive man mad -- just as he was programmed to do.

Fascinating and fun. And let’s not lose sight of the larger point here. Right or wrong, I find myself able to engage in my own philosophical discussion based on the words in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, just as I am not able to do with anything presented in this volume as written by Heidegger, Jaspers, and Kierkegaard. In this revelation, its seems not just that existentialism is better revealed in art than in philosophy -- existentialism may, in fact, be art and not philosophy.

Let’s look at a second example. Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story, “The Wall.”

“It’s like a nightmare, Tom was saying. “You want to think something, you always have the impression that it’s all right, that you’re going to understand and then it slips, it escapes you and fades away. I tell myself there will be nothing afterwards. But I don’t understand what it means. Sometimes I almost can … and then it fades away and I start thinking about the pains again, bullets, explosions. I’m a materialist, I swear it to you; I’m not going crazy. But something’s the matter. I see my corpse; that’s not hard but I’m the one who sees it, with my eyes. I’ve got to think … think that I won’t see anything anymore and the world will go on for the others. We aren’t made to think that, Pablo. Believe me: I’ve already stayed up a whole night waiting for something. But this isn’t the same: this will creep up behind us, Pablo, and we won’t be able to prepare for it.”

In “The Wall,” a group of political prisoners have been condemned to death by firing squad, and the story is largely each of them wrestling with the difficulty of their own deaths. In the excerpt above, Tom expresses the universal inability to truly comprehend non-existence. As he succinctly says, even the act of comprehension requires his existence. How can he understand something that he can never witness?

Later, Pablo, the protagonist, reflects on his situation.

A crowd of memories came back to me pell-mell. There were good and bad ones -- or at least I called them that before. There were faces and incidents. I saw the face of a little novillero who was gored in Valencia during the Feria, the face of one of my uncles, the face of Ramon Gris. I remembered my whole life: how I was out of work for three months in 1926, how I almost starved to death. I remembered a night I spent on a bench in Granada: I hadn’t eaten for three days. I was angry, I didn’t want to die. That made me smile. How madly I ran after happiness, after women, after liberty. Why? I wanted to free Spain, I admired Pi y Margall, I joined the anarchist movement, I spoke at public meetings: I took everything as seriously as if I were immortal.

At that moment I felt that I had my whole life in front of me and I thought, “It’s a damned lie.” It was worth nothing because it was finished. I wondered how I’d been able to walk, to laugh with the girls: I wouldn’t have moved so much as my little finger if I had only imagined I would die like this. My life was in front of me, shut, closed, like a bag and yet everything inside of it was unfinished. For an instant I tried to judge it. I wanted to tell myself, this is a beautiful life. But I couldn’t pass judgment on it; it was only a sketch; I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity, I had understood nothing. I missed nothing: there were so many things I could have missed, the taste of manzanilla or the baths I took in summer in a little creek near Cadiz; but death had disenchanted everything.

This is different from Dostoevsky’s philosophical musings on determinism and freewill. This is the raw emotion of a man wrestling with the limitations of his existence. There are no answers here, no wisdom for finding peace with the inevitable, just a tragic anger. But even then, it is more compelling, and more useful, than a treatise than uses unfamiliar terms in an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Reading these words, I feel Pablo’s despair and can recognize it as my own. Philosophically, this awareness has more utility than understanding.

The Cave of Inwardness

Despite the judgment I have previously rendered, there are a handful of useful tidbits in the many pages of straight philosophical treatise that comprises the bulk of this volume. Here’s a few that jumped out at me.

Nietzsche wrote in “Live Dangerously”:

Wherever there have been powerful societies, governments, religions, or public opinions -- in short, wherever there was any kind of tyranny, it has hated the lonely philosopher; for philosophy opens up a refuge for man where no tyranny can reach: the cave of inwardness, the labyrinth of the breast; and that annoys all tyrants. That is where the lonely hide; but there too they encounter their greatest danger.

Danger of isolation, yes, but Nietzsche will go on to explain that the greater danger is that of despair -- despair when his philosophical musings reveal the truth of the human condition.

Jaspers also speaks of danger of isolation within the Nietzschean Cave of Inwardness in his “Existenzphilosophie”:

The community of masses of human beings has produced an order of life in regulated channels which connects individuals is a technically functioning organization, but not inwardly from the historicity of their souls. The emptiness caused by dissatisfaction with mere achievement and the helplessness that results when the channels of relation break down have brought forth a loneliness of soul such as never existed before, a loneliness that hides itself, that seeks relief in vain in the erotic or the irrational until it leads eventually to a deep comprehension of the importance of establishing communication between man and man.

An existential paradox? A harbor safe from the tyrannies of mind and body, but also a trap from which no discovered truths can escape? I don’t know if Nietzsche chose the phrase with this allusion in mind, but it is very reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, except here the cave is the place where the philosopher goes to find the truth, not that place that frames the tyrannical reality of everyone else.

Man Is Freedom

I’ll end with this from Sartre’s “Existentialism”:

The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism -- man is free, man is freedom.

We’re back where we started -- exploring determinism and freedom, but this time framing them against the philosophical existence of God rather than the materialistic universe. And how interesting is it that, despite the reference to Dostoevsky, Sartre seems to say that God has to be killed in order for man to be free. Dostoevsky, I think, saw a little more clearly through that philosophical lens. Just losing God is probably not enough to let man off the deterministic hook.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, May 6, 2019

Phone Interviews Are No Longer Just a Skills Check

My association is hiring again, and this week I spent a lot of time doing a series of phone interviews.

The phone interview has always been a key part of my screening process. If anyone were to ask me, I would have said that I use the phone interview to screen for the skills I'm looking for, and then use the in-person interview to screen for values and cultural fit.

And this time, things started very much on that footing. My questions were very much about skills. The job I'm hiring for requires someone who can plan meetings, write good copy, organize fundraising campaigns, etc. Can you describe specific events in your job history that would demonstrate to me that you have those capabilities? My goal is always to get the person talking. Having done most of these tasks myself, I can usually tell when someone is speaking from real experience and when they are faking it. There are tell-tale words and phrases that reassure me that, despite what it may say on a person's resume, they've actually done the kind of work I would be asking them to do in my association.

But something new happened during this series of phone interviews. As I listened to each candidate give each response, I found myself listening for more than just the magic words about their skills. I started paying attention to the way they delivered their response as well: listening to their diction, their level of confidence, their level of ease in discussing themselves and their skills.

And I realized halfway through my series of calls that I should really be taking these elements into account as well. Usually, after speaking with a candidate, I would score them in each of the skills areas that I'm hiring for, total up their numbers, and bring the top scorers in for the in-person interviews. But now it seemed that these softer skills were relevant as well, and should be taken into consideration. Maybe the person with the perfect skill set but who sounded weak and vacillating on the phone shouldn't be called in. And the person with a less than perfect skill set but who sounded confident and capable on the phone should be.

My phone interviews are purposely held to no more than 30 minutes. But even in that short amount of time, you can get clues as to the things that make a person tick, how they approach challenges, and what it might be like to work with them in the office. From now on, I'm going to be thinking about these elements as candidates respond to my questions about their skills sets. And the ones that impress me, the ones that I think I might actually want to meet in person, and much more likely to get the nod even if their skills match is less than perfect.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, May 4, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 9 (DRAFT)

Every time I entered Mary’s office, for as long as I’d worked there, I couldn’t help marveling at the way all the rules that bound the rest us—silly rules like the office d├ęcor and accessories policy and the ban on hanging things on their virgin white walls—were utterly and completely disregarded. Yeah, I know, she was the president of the company and she was entitled to a few more perks than the rest of us, but seriously, the contrast between her world and ours was so stark it was like she was trying to rub our noses in it. Walking into her office it was hard not to feel like Dorothy in that scene in The Wizard of Oz when she first steps out of her black and white reality of dustbowl farming and limited opportunities and into the rich and colorful wonderland of her dreams.

As I walked in that morning with Susan, I was again struck by just how large the room actually was. Mary’s office was so large that it couldn’t be brought together into a single, cohesive space, no matter how creative the interior decorator they hired. It felt less like an office and more like one of those upscale studio loft apartments only millionaires could afford. Front and center was Mary’s desk, a modern-styled behemoth with an executive credenza behind and two uncomfortable visitor chairs in front; and over there to the left was a conference table, a cut piece of beveled glass exactly fitting over the oval-shaped tabletop and a speaker phone crouching like a venomous spider in its very center; and on the opposite side was a kind of sitting area, two low, leather chairs and a matching loveseat trying to surround a glass-topped coffee table, a spread of business and news magazines pushed across it like a winning hand; and farther on was the library, two enormous bookshelves filled with books featured in the Harvard Business Review and not a one of them with a cracked spine or a dog-eared page. They were all in the same room, but they were also rooms in and of themselves, making up a kind of posh apartment in the sky with no walls necessary to mark the transitions between spaces.

Mary was standing there behind her desk, her reading glasses held absently in one hand and her other hand planted impatiently on her hip. Ruthie hadn’t shared the details of Mary’s schedule that day, but I figured she must have had some kind of power lunch planned with clients or with local business leaders because she was wearing one of her best suits—gray Italian wool over a red silk blouse. Mary dressed well, but whatever she wore in the office it always looked more like an affectation than something she was comfortable with—almost like something she had rented for the occasion. And the designer reading glasses really struck me as out of place. I don’t know what she could have been reading with those glasses before we came in. There was not a scrap of paper anywhere to be found on her desk and her computer monitor obliquely but clearly showed us nothing but the company’s familiar sign-in screen.

“Alan, Susan,” Mary said quickly. She made eye contact with me and with Susan in turn. “What’s going on?”

I led Susan deeper into Mary’s office, coming to a position right behind one of her visitor chairs. Susan came up beside me, and made a move as if she intended to sit down, but checked herself when it became clear that I had no intention of doing so. I waited for Ruthie to shut the door completely behind us. Knowing that Ruthie would be hanging on every word I had to say, and still angry at Susan for revealing too much too soon, I decided to start slowly, and to hedge my own bets as best I could.

“Something happened at Susan’s meeting,” I said. “She just told me about it, and I think you’d better hear it directly.”

Mary turned her attention away from me. “Susan?”

I don’t know if Susan knew she was being maneuvered into doing all the talking, and therefore take all the risks, but she didn’t seem to mind. I think she might have even relished the opportunity, because she launched into it with Mary just as she’d launched into it with me fifteen minutes before. She told the whole story again from top to bottom, her anger and frustration overriding any sense of embarrassment she had felt over how Wes and her staff people had mocked and belittled her.

I intended to pay close attention to Mary’s reactions while Susan spoke, but first my eyes were irresistibly drawn over Mary’s shoulder and out into the city beyond. I was like that then, you see, often getting distracted at the most critical of moments, and Mary’s office had the greatest of all distractions. Unlike every other office in our space, Mary’s office had windows—two entire walls of floor-to-ceiling windows—accentuating not just the office’s position in the corner of our building, but also its commanding view of the city we all called home.

“He’s a predator, Mary. Wes Howard is a predator and the young women of this company are his prey.”

It was this dramatic and somewhat practiced opening salvo of Susan’s that pulled my eyes away from the intoxicating daylight and reminded me that I should be studying Mary—and I forced myself to do exactly that, watching for signs of shock or concern as Susan went on with her story, piling on the details surrounding Amy and Caroline’s poor judgment and Wes’s boorishness. But throughout all I saw was the typical Mary Walton poker face—a stoic and impenetrable expression I had seen her adopt in countless board meetings and negotiations. It was the face she showed the world and it was meant to mask her emotions and the wheels of number-crunching thought that were always spinning in her head. It was so effective that I’d heard people say they didn’t think Mary had any emotions or, worse yet, that she was incapable of higher thought—but I knew better. I knew it was a mask because I had seen what Mary looked like underneath. Mary didn’t let the mask slip very often, but when she did it was something to see.

I saw Mary’s true face the day Ryan left the company, when I had gone looking for him in his old office and had found Mary and Don there, Mary looking for all the world like the basement walls had just caved in on her family. It was such an unbelievable and oddly captivating sight—Mary Walton completely thrown off her game—that there was always part of me that longed to see it again.

But this would not be one of those times. Even as Susan finished and started to make her demands, I could tell that Mary had a full grip on her faculties.

“Something needs to be done, Mary,” Susan said. “That man can’t be allowed to victimize members of our staff this way.”

Mary nodded her head as if she agreed with Susan. “Did you actually see Wes touching either one of them inappropriately?”

Susan seemed surprised by the directness of Mary’s question, and she stumbled on her response. “I was—well, I was sitting right next to them.”

“Yes,” Mary said. “But did you see him actually touching them?”

Susan stood and looked dumbly at Mary for a moment. “Mary, it was pretty clear what was going on.”

“Is that a no, Susan?” Mary said sharply. “Did you or didn’t you—”

“Did I actually see his grimy hands on their thighs?” Susan said suddenly, her voice loud and hostile. “Is that what you want to know, Mary? No, I guess I didn’t, and I don’t have any photographic evidence, either, but his hands were under the table and they certainly weren’t in his own lap. What are you trying to do here?”

I was surprised by Susan’s outburst, knowing it was more impassioned than what was typically seen in the company, especially inside Mary’s office. Mary had this thing about women showing too much emotion in the workplace. She was from the school that taught women professionals had to be even more cutthroat than their male counterparts because of the widespread sexism that expected them to be more emotional and—by Mary’s estimation—less trustworthy. The surest way for a female staff person to get onto Mary’s blacklist was to be too emotional. And if she ever cried—forget it. Her career was over. Susan wasn’t anywhere near tears, but she was upset, and I wasn’t the only one who thought she might be stepping over Mary’s line. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ruthie start moving forward, the riot police about to swoop in and arrest the perpetrators, but Mary held her at bay with a raised finger.

“Susan,” Mary said calmly, “the only thing I’m trying to do here is determine an appropriate course of action. In order to do that, I need to know the facts. Now, if you didn’t witness inappropriate contact between them, then I need to have either Amy or Caroline make a complaint against Wes. Would either one of them be willing to do that?”

Susan turned her eyes down towards the floor. “I don’t know,” she said bitterly. “I don’t think so. You’d have to ask them.”

While Susan’s eyes were averted, Mary turned and looked at me, asking me with just her expression what I thought about Amy or Caroline ratting out on Wes. I responded in equal silence, communicating with a shake of my head and a skeptical wrinkle in my cheek that I didn’t think so, either. Amy and Caroline didn’t like Susan—none of her staff did—and it sounded like they had had a rollicking good time making fun of her while someone with greater authority provided them cover. Unless Wes had done something actually abusive to one of them—and I wasn’t convinced he had—I couldn’t see either of them turning on Wes in a situation like this. Rather, they were likely looking forward to the next opportunity to get out of their little workstations and drink expensive wine at a fancy hotel while ridiculing their supervisor.

Mary nodded her head slightly, making it clear that she also agreed with this assessment. And that made sense. Mary, as much as anyone, understood the inequities of Amy and Caroline’s positions in the company, and how little people acted when they got a taste of the big time.

Susan looked up just as Mary turned away from me. “Mary,” she said plaintively. “Something needs to be done. I saw the look in Caroline’s eyes yesterday morning. He did something to hurt her. I don’t know what it—”

“Something will be done,” Mary said suddenly, her resolution interrupting Susan in mid-sentence. “You can be assured of that, Susan. Their conduct was extremely unprofessional. I’m especially troubled by the way they called attention to themselves. You said the entire room was aware of how much they were drinking?”

Susan looked at Mary blankly.

“Yes, you did,” Mary said, not waiting for Susan to respond. “And they treated you with great disrespect. I know you’re new to the company, but you are their supervisor. They owe you a greater courtesy.”

I saw what was happening. At the time I probably couldn’t have predicted it, but looking back on it now, I see this is why I didn’t want to jump too quickly to the sexual harassment accusation the way Susan had. I had sensed from the very beginning that Mary was going to have a different perspective on the situation. Simply stated, if you were going to accuse someone like Wes Howard of sexual harassment, you had better make sure you had him dead to rights. Susan didn’t, and Mary wasn’t going to risk a move against him without something a lot more substantial. Susan was having a hard time processing the cold reality of it all, but it was clear to me. And I suddenly knew what was coming next.

“Let’s go talk to Don,” Mary said.

+ + +
“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

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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