Professionalism, resilience and teamwork

Commonplace words … but recent events have added a depth of meaning to each of them.

Midafternoon on August 23rd, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck Virginia. Earthquakes in this region are rare. Earthquakes of that size are unheard of. Much of the Washington DC area was able to shake it off and move on.  The little end of Courthouse Road in Vienna, where the National Court Reporters Association is located, was hit harder than most.

Despite being such a new and utterly unexpected experience, NCRA staff reacted with professionalism and calm, evacuating the building and there were no injuries.

But NCRA’s headquarter building took heavy damage: ceiling and light fixtures fell, windows shattered, book cases and cabinets were toppled, there were visible and alarming cracks to interior walls and exterior masonry. For a few, nail-biting days, it appeared the property would need to be condemned.

Then the amazing part begins. For the next week, staff worked round the clock on two fronts: working to restore the building to conditions that would allow for re-occupancy; and maintaining membership services and operations remotely.

Everyone chipped in and contributed above and beyond any reasonable expectations. 18 hour plus days were the norm. They did such a good job sustaining operations, I would bet that none of our members were even aware at the time of the difficult circumstances staff faced and didn’t notice any interruption in member service.

And I am not sure what was more impressive: the staff’s diligence, professionalism and dedication. Or their inexhaustible good humor, optimism and positive outlook. G. K. Chesterton once said that “an inconvenience is an adventure misperceived.” That week, the NCRA staff made me understand the meaning of real teamwork and the truth in Chesterton’s observation.

On receiving the Key Award

I am often asked why I have spent my entire career, and how I have maintained my calm demeanor, in a profession where success requires making people you can’t directly control work effectively together. “People are irrational, self-centered and unreasonable – why would you put yourself through it?” My answer is simple: because when people form associations – the improbable, even the impossible is made possible. It is a blessing and a privilege to be allowed to be part of that.

I am humbled by this recognition, and have too many mentors and colleagues to even begin to thank. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my current association, NCRA, represented here today by its President, R. Douglas Friend. And my wife, Annette, who doesn’t travel, but is always very much present to me.

Thank you.

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7 August 2011
St. Louis, Missouri

Have we lost the ability to argue?

“It is extraordinary to notice how few people in the modern world can argue. That is why there are so many quarrels breaking out again and again, and never coming to any natural end.”  How true.  Just switch on any cable TV “news” show or go to any online forum.  Or visit an association board meeting.

Unfortunately, the quoted obsertvation is not new.  It was made almost a century ago (1929 to be exact), by British author G. K. Chesterton.

“Today, we tend to think of arguing as synonymous with quarreling, with anger as the chief ingredient,” a January-February 2008 editorial in the Gilbert Magazine noted.  But true argument has nothing to do with anger.  Unless you are in a debating contest, the purpose of argument isn’t to beat your opponent; it is to get to the truth.

There is the tricky part!  If argument is in service of the truth, not personal victory, that demands being open to the possibility that the opposition might be right. Which requires also being open to the possibility that one’s own sincere and intensely held beliefs might be wrong.  Or at least incomplete.

“Participants in a discussion who are unwilling to listen are not having an argument.  They are having a fruitless exchange of assertions.”

As Chesterton himself liked to point out, true argument is only possible when the participants share more in common than they differ over.  That is, as he often observed, we have to agree about something before we can argue about anything.  Otherwise, we are just disagreeing for the purpose of being disagreeable.  Or merely to appear clever.

We’ve all seen (or perhaps been in) arguments where the protagonists seem to be talking past each other.  Think of the current political debates on the debt ceiling.  The opposing sides agree it is important, even vital that something be done. But somehow, they end up arguing about whether taxes are too high or government spending too wasteful.  It becomes more important to be viewed as right about taxes or right about spending.  They forget that the energy behind the argument had it roots in something important that they both agree about: the need to avoid default.

So maybe the real reason we tend to argue is because we care so deeply and the subject matters are of such importance.  That’s a good reason to argue, Chesterton would assert.  But it doesn’t excuse you of the obligation to argue fairly and argue well, argue with respect for your opponent, and argue in service of the truth.

ASAE Key Award

I am thrilled and humbled to learn of my selection to receive the American Society of Association Executive’s 2011 Key Award, the highest honor ASAE offers.  “The Key Award honors the association CEO who demonstrates exceptional qualities of leadership in his or her own association, and displays a deep commitment to voluntary membership organizations as a whole.”

Words cannot adequately express how much this recognition means to me.   Of course, any CEO’s achievements are a function of their entire staff team’s collective performance and reflect the contributions of countless mentors, colleagues and associates.  So my heartfelt thanks to the village it took to earn this honor.

See ASAE’s press release here.  Additional press coverage of this award can be found in the “Press Clippings” section of this website.

What opera has taught me about association management …

Conflict!  Treachery! Betrayal!  Passion!  No, I am not talking about your last board of directors meeting.  I am talking about opera.

And before you start rolling your eyes and dismissing opera based on the parodies or send ups you’ve seen (Marx Brothers’ “Night at the Opera,” anyone?), allow me to provide a short, painless and mostly lighthearted introduction to my number two passion in life (after association work, of course!).

I was recently invited by the Fellows of the American Society of Association Executives to do a presentation on “What Opera has Taught Me About Association Management.”  In response to many requests, I am happy to make it available here.

To view the presentation click here.

To read the text of the presentation click Script – What Opera ….


I recently suffered a very sudden and very significant loss of vision.  Happily, the condition was fully correctible. Nonetheless, during the period of impairment I learned some very interesting things about how the brain works and we perceive the world.

I discovered that when I was in familiar surroundings, my brain could reach back to stored memories of how things were supposed to look.  In the familiar confines of my office or home, I hardly noticed the lack of clarity in my vision.  My brain was able to easily recognize the settings and the people I encountered and adjusted things to make it feel like I could see better than I actually did.

When I went on a period of extended travel, however, and found myself in unfamiliar surroundings, the visual impairment felt like it became more severe.  Everything was a total blur.  I felt disoriented and at a loss. 

Scientists talk about the concept of paradigms: the frame of reference that causes the human brain to routinely “fill in the blanks” and add information to what we are actually, sensually perceiving.  When that additional information is accurate, it actually improves our grasp of reality, as was the case when I was navigating my office and home with my fading eyesight. 

But sometimes the information that our governing paradigms add to our perceptive abilities can be misleading.  We can essentially see what we are expecting to see, not what is actually before us. 

And paradigms don’t just have the power to change — and distort — visual perceptions. I have seen paradigms at work within human interactions as well.    

When that happens, at a board meeting, or a staff meeting, or a legislative meeting, it can start an argument where there is no disagreement.  The conversation never gets to the available, mutually beneficial solution because the parties are too distracted arguing over perceived differences that exist only in their conflicting paradigms.

Or, put another way, if we remain at loggerheads, locked inflexibly into opposing positions even where there is no real impediment to a satisfactory solution, we will never get to a position of strength, from which we can successfully negotiate an acceptable outcome on the issues that truly do matter to us. 

Sometimes, you just have to let go of your paradigm.