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Leadership Lessons: A Defense of the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts is embroiled in allegations that it covered up thousands of child molestation complaints. What a shame; the organization taught me to be a leader.

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The Boy Scouts of America gets nothing but bad press.  And most of it is deserved.  The organization's stance against allowing gays to join is, in my opinion, medieval.  And the news this week that its leadership allegedly tried to cover up thousands of complaints of child molestation over a number of years is, well, sickening.

What's also a shame is that these actions hide the fact that the Boy Scouts is a great organization.  Like the Catholic Church, which has received its share of (deserved) criticism over the past few years for its own internal child molestation cover-up, the problems are caused by a relative few number of leaders.  And then they're made worse by the inept, incompetent, and likely criminal management at the very top of both organizations.  It's a shame because these are actions done by a few.  And yet they impact so many people who are doing so much good.

I'm an Eagle Scout.  And yet, I've had nothing to do with the Boy Scouts in 25 years.  It's not because I don't like the organization.  We tried Cub Scouts.  But my kids weren't really into it--they preferred to spend time playing organized sports.  That's fine.  I didn't play organized sports when I was a kid.  For me, the Boy Scouts was a huge part of my life from the age of 12 until a few years after I graduated college.  That was when my 50-person troop disbanded because--true story--our scout master pleaded no contest to, you guessed it, child molestation.  Rats.

I'm not going to go into the details about what happened and I'm not going to defend his actions.  But I will defend the Boy Scouts.  And, in particular, my troop and its leaders.  We had meetings in a school gymnasium every week.  We went camping every month.  We relaxed and loved hanging out together.  Mostly we played sports and listened to Black Sabbath.  We rarely wore official uniforms.  For a kid going through high school in the late 1970s the Boy Scouts was a fun, safe distraction from all the other temptations of a kid that age growing up at that time.  Or any time.  I made friends that I still remember to this day and others with whom I remain in contact.  The Boy Scouts made me a better person.  And the Boy Scouts made me a better business person too.

At the age of 14 I became a Boy Scouts patrol leader.  This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was a very big deal to me.  Our troop was divided into four "patrols" of 10 to 12 kids each.  We competed against each other.  We had responsibilities.  All activities were divvied up.  And everyone turned to the patrol leader for direction.  And if your patrol didn't execute its responsibilities you were subject to the humiliation and abuse that can only be uniquely dispensed by a bunch of other merciless teenagers.  Throughout the course of the year, the patrols were assigned points not unlike the system used at Hogwarts in Harry Potter.  We fought hard to win the award for best patrol each year.  I was not about to lead a losing one.

The biggest task (and the one that offered up the most points) for any patrol leader was organizing a successful meal.  On a camping trip, meals were assigned to each patrol.  I remember frequently losing sleep the night before my patrol was to prepare a key meal like breakfast.  You may think this is not such a big deal, but imagine organizing 12 kids between the ages of 8 and 14 (yes, we had younger kids--mostly siblings--in our troop) to prepare pancakes, eggs, and fried salami for 50 hungry people using propane stoves at dawn, while outside and in the cold.  Everyone was required to be busy and productive.  My inaugural meal was, as you might expect, a disaster and required rescue from older leaders.  But by the end of my first year as patrol leader, I got the hang of it.  After my second year I was a managerial whiz.  I learned to, in advance, double check the ingredients purchased by the patrol responsible for buying food for the trip, which kids were best at which tasks, what could be prepped the night before, and what had to be left toward the end.  Trust me, you do not want to serve cold eggs to the rest of the troop.  I learned about waking up before everyone else to get things rolling and that it was more important for my patrol members to do the tasks while I managed them, instead of me trying to do everything myself.  I learned this at the age of 14.  And I learned this because of the Boy Scouts.

I did this under the watchful eye of the "older" guys.  Our troop was so much fun, and our members so close, that many of us stayed involved even after we graduated college.  There aren't many opportunities for an impressionable 15-year-old to hang out, compete, play, and work together with guys in their early to mid-20s. Doing so gave me confidence.  It took away the intimidation of dealing with those older than me.  By hearing their stories of college and work I got help making decisions of my own, like where to go to school and what to study.  These "senior" members of the troop were also tasked with their own responsibilities: managing the troops' finances, ordering supplies, liaising with the national office, booking our camping sites.  They talked about all this so I learned about the behind-the-scenes work that goes on to run any organization, regardless of the size.  Sadly, whatever I learned and how I conducted myself was likely watched and imitated by those kids younger than me too.  Yet, from what I can tell, most seem to be doing OK in their lives, even with me as a mentor.  It may be a miracle.

Ultimately, I became an Eagle Scout.  You have to do this before you're 18, after completing a bunch of increasingly-complicated merit badges and exercising leadership positions within your troop.  You also have to organize a pre-approved Eagle Scout project that you cannot finish by yourself; you have to prove that you've managed others.  Mine was a swim-a-thon to raise money for breast cancer.  By the way, I did this in the midst of navigating my typical high school work and teenage life.  And yes, I was required to wear the full Boy Scouts regalia when I was called up before the regional board for my Eagle Scout review and was then forced to endure the withering abuse of my friends when a picture of me in said regalia appeared in my local paper.  As an Eagle Scout, I learned how to manage a project.  I proved that I could get things done.  And I learned how to grow a thick skin too!  Sound familiar, business owners?

Even more than two decades later I'm proud that I'm an Eagle Scout.  Putting "Eagle Scout" on an application for college or a job always gets attention.  People always ask me questions about it.  And meeting other Eagle Scouts has opened doors for me and created new conversations with people whom I otherwise might never have formed relationships.  Even today, being an Eagle Scout is recognized as a unique, respected, difficult accomplishment.  It shows discipline and dedication to an objective.  Other Eagle Scouts get this.  It says something about the kind of person you are.

I hope the Boy Scouts survives and prospers.  I hope the organization's current leadership takes steps to ensure that the right people are setting the right examples for kids around the country.  I also hope its current leadership wakes up to realize that a man's sexual orientation does not determine whether or not he can be a good influence on kids, or how silly it is to say that a teenager can't become an Eagle Scout because he's gay.  Organizations like the Boy Scouts can contribute much to the world's future and produce many more great business leaders--if only it brings itself into the present.

Last updated: Sep 19, 2012

GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group

Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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