The Boy Scouts of America gets nothing but bad press. And most of it is deserved. Their stance against allowing gays to join the organization is, in my opinion, medieval. And the news this week that their leadership allegedly tried to cover up thousands of complaints of child molestation over a number of years is... well... sickening.
And what's 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 its 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 affect 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 their time playing organized sports and 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 scoutmaster 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 particularly my troop and its leaders. We had meetings in a school gymnasium every week. We went camping every month. We were 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 it 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 who I remain in contact with. 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 Patrol Leader. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was a very big deal for me. Our troop was divided into four "patrols" of about 10-12 kids each. We competed against each other. We had responsibilities. And everyone turned to the Patrol Leader for direction. All activities within the troop were divvied up by the patrols. 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 Hogwart's in Harry Potter. We fought hard to win the award for best patrol each year. I was not about to lead a losing patrol.
The biggest task (and the most points up for grabs) 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 8-14 (yes we had younger kids in our troop, mostly siblings) to prepare pancakes, eggs and fried salami for 50 hungry people using propane stoves at dawn, outside and in the cold. Everyone was required to be kept busy and productive. My inaugural meal was, as you might expect, a disaster and required rescue from the 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 double check the ingredients purchased in advance by the patrol that was responsible for buying the food for the trip, which kids were best at which tasks, what could be prepped the night before, and what had to be left towards 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-twenties. It gave me confidence. It took away the intimidation of dealing with those older than me. By hearing their stories of college and working I was helped to make decisions of my own, like where to go to school and what to study. Even though they were the "senior" members of the troop they were tasked with their own responsibilities: managing the troops' finances, ordering supplies, liaising with the national office, booking our camping sites. They talked about this and I learned about the behind the scenes work that goes on behind 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. From what I can tell, most seem to be doing OK in their lives, even with me as a mentor. Seems like a miracle.
Ultimately I became an Eagle Scout. You have to do this before you're 18. You have to complete a bunch of merit badges (they get more complicated as you get older). You have to exercise leadership positions within your troop. And you have to organize a pre-approved Eagle Scout Project. My project was a swim-a-thon to raise money for breast cancer. You are required not to do this yourself. You have to prove that you've managed others in the project. And by the way, you're doing this in the midst of navigating your 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?
And even more than two decades later I'm proud that I'm an Eagle Scout. Putting "Eagle Scout" on an application for college or for 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 who I otherwise might never have formed relationships. Even today, it 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 their 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. They just need to bring themselves into the present.
A version of this blog appeared on Inc.com.