Americans take the Scouting programme in general and the rank Eagle Scout very seriously. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert relates how his son demonstrated his commitment to the moral principles of the programme by deliberately annoying all of his troop’s adult volunteers half to death.
My youngest son received his Eagle Scout rank last night in a ceremony held at the National (U.S.) Scouting Museum. Austin has been involved in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) since he was wee little tot and followed his big brother into the programme. 11 years on, and he’s reached the highest rank that the BSA has to offer. He’s about to turn 18, graduate high school, become eligible to vote and start his adult life. All told, it’s a big deal. He’s going to spend the rest of his life making his own decisions and living with the consequences of his mistakes. Hopefully, his mother and I have raised him to be able to make good decisions, to demonstrate moral courage and to take personal responsibility for his role in the community. Based on how much Austin managed to infuriate the adults around him over the years, I think we’ve probably succeeded…
To put that last statement in context, I have to confess that Our Austin is a natural foil. He loves taking the opposition role to whatever authority figure happens to be in charge. He’s not malicious – instead, he’s a mischievous trickster who loves to flummox people who take themselves too seriously. That’s partially an inborn gift, and partially attributed to how we raised him. We taught him that it’s his responsibility as an informed citizen to fix the problems that he discovers. Sometimes, the act of bringing a problem to light can… let’s be honest… upset some folks.
What follows is the story that I shared at Austin’s Eagle Court of Honour ceremony about this exact issue. It’s customary for a parent to relate how the Scouting programme has influenced the boy. My story wasn’t traditional, but it did shed some light on how Austin has internalized the BSA’s values.
About two years ago, Austin decided to compete for a leadership position… but not for the usual reasons. For context’s sake, his troop has the boys elect their own patrol leaders and the troop’s assistant senior patrol leader (ASPL) for six-month terms twice each year. Whichever boy last served as the Troop’s ASPL gets automatically promoted to be the new senior patrol leader for the next six months. It’s a good system: the boys put themselves forward for the leadership experience that they need in order to make rank when they feel that they’re ready. The boys that volunteer to take on the more demanding ASPL job know that they’re committing to a year-long senior leadership assignment. Only the boys that are truly interested step forward to be considered.
The thing was, Austin put his hat in the ring for the ASPL job, but he didn’t actually want the job. He wanted to campaign for the role in order to draw attention to a glaring oversight in how the troop managed its elections process. At the time, there weren’t any official rules governing how elections were conducted (leaving the process open to all sorts of shenanigans). Austin realized that this needed to be fixed. He’d brought the issue up with the adult volunteers before, but no one seemed to appreciate the danger of running a completely informal (and easily exploitable) system. So Austin chose to force the adult volunteers to confront the obvious problem.
As part of his plan, Austin asked me to pick up a package of peppermints for him at our grocer right before the elections. When it came time for Austin to give his one-minute speech to the Scouts on why they should elect him instead of the other guy, Austin plucked the of sweets out of his pocket and cheerfully tossed them into the cheering crowd with shouts of, ‘Vote for me! Vote for me!’
The adults who were watching the speeches from side-lines reacted as soon as the first peppermint was tossed. Several of the adults were incensed. One parent grew quite cross, and demanded that Austin be disqualified from competition. ‘That’s not allowed!’ the fellow seethed, and ‘He can’t do that!’… to which Austin dryly responded, ‘Show me in the BSA regulations where it says that I can’t.’
Several of the adult volunteers were incandescently furious over Austin’s election stunt. I pointed out that they had absolutely no leg to stand on: Austin’s quip about the lack of written rules had been dead-on. All of the troop’s ‘rules’ concerning elections were actually unspoken assumptions. There weren’t any written rules. I reminded a few of the assistant Scoutmasters that their personal beliefs were not enforceable behavioural standards. If you want people to follow a rule, you have to publish that rule and thereafter enforce it consistently. Anything else constituted rule by fiat, capricious and arbitrary. Was that what they wanted? To run the unit like a whimsical tyrant? Of course not.
Nothing in the troop’s election rules prohibited competitors from bribing the voters because none of the people running the elections process had ever thought to prohibit it. Should there be such a rule? Absolutely. If the intent of the process was to teach the boys how to conduct fair and transparent elections, then everyone needed to compete on a level playing field. There wasn’t any such rule in force at the time, though, which meant that Austin’s stunt was 100 per cent legal. If the shocked adults didn’t like that fact, too darned bad! Austin took cynical advantage of a ridiculous loophole in order to illustrate beyond any doubt that the loophole existed. Once it was acknowledged, the adults would finally have to address it. In that respect, he accomplished his objective with élan.
Fortunately, the Scoutmaster had earned the Eagle Scout rank himself as a boy, so he recognized what needed to be corrected. He calmed the upset parents and made some substantive changes to the elections programme that included setting actual, formal, written rules of conduct for future elections. We shared a good chuckle about it afterwards. The Scoutmaster appreciated the need to embrace a problem as the first step in making things right. 
Austin didn’t win the election with his buy-the-vote technique. The boys all laughed (and ate his sweets), then voted for the more reasonable contender. Austin cheerfully admitted that he never intended to seriously compete. Instead, he wanted to spur the people in charge to fix their oversight. Why? Because that’s what the entire US Scouting programme is supposed to be about.
We spend years inculcating the boys in the principles of citizenship. A boy can’t make Eagle without completing hundreds of hours of lessons on the topic. We teach the principles of citizenship in one’s community, in one’s country and in the world. We teach the boys that it’s going to be their responsibility as adults to pay attention to what’s going wrong in the world and how their elected representatives are addressing things. When a good citizen discovers a problem that isn’t being addressed (or is not being addressed well), it’s the citizen’s duty to raise awareness of the problem and to hold those in power responsible for fixing it. We drill Eagle Scout candidates at their advancement boards on how well they’ve internalized these core ideals. This is the heart of the entire programme – without this understanding of one’s responsibilities, a lad cannot become an Eagle Scout.
So… if this is what we (that is, all of us adults volunteering in the BSA programme) have been deliberately teaching our boys to do, then why did some of the adults get irate when Austin demonstrated his willingness to comply with our fundamental doctrine of responsible citizenship? How do you spend years teaching a boy to act in a certain way, and then get angry with him when he lives up to your stated expectations by doing exactly what you taught him to do? That seems insane.
The answer is a fundamental lesson on leadership that all parents (and business leaders) need to embrace: when you teach your children (or your employees) to call out misbehaviour, they’re just as likely to call out your misbehaviour as they are some hypothetical third party’s. Put another way, when all problems need to be fixed, then your problems are fair game for correction too.
Think about when you taught your child to drive: once your new driver learns about using turn signals or coming to a full stop at a red light, your protégé suddenly becomes gleefully shrill about every single one of the lazy mistakes that you make when you’re driving. Once your kid knows the rules, they also know when they see you breaking them. Any kid worth his or her salt will then needle you mercilessly over your transgressions. The same principle applies in every social group, from the office to the factory floor to the military parade ground.
How a person reacts to such deserved chastisement defines them as either a good or a bad parent (or manager, or shop steward, or drill sergeant, etc.). Should you acknowledge your misdeed and strive to make things right? Or lash out at that person who called you out? In an ideal world, a person caught in a mistake strives to make things right because doing right is more important than protecting one’s fragile pride. In the real world, that rarely happens. In fact, many people wield their parental (or managerial, etc.) authority like a prison guard wields a truncheon: brutally, in order to suppress distressing dissent. They’d rather protect their dignity than own their failures. It’s human nature.
People hate being embarrassed, especially in public. I understand that. After Austin pulled his voter-bribing stunt, one parent asked me why he didn’t take the polite approach and quietly report the issue to the adults so that no one had to lose face. I pointed out that he had tried the polite approach, and the problem didn’t get addressed – let alone fixed. When that didn’t get the job done, he escalated… because that’s what we’d taught him and all of the other Scouts in the troop to do.
I’m serious: this is exactly what we teach our Scouts. We train them to be active, engaged and responsible citizens. We tell them that that it’s the moral duty of every member in a community or an organisation to highlight whatever might be going wrong so that what’s wrong can be corrected. This duty requires attentiveness, a sense of personal responsibility, the moral courage to speak out and the endurance to doggedly pursue what’s right in the face of all opposition. ALL opposition.
At the start of every BSA event, the attendees recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which ends with the words ‘with liberty and justice for all’. If we truly want that statement to be factual (rather than just aspirational), then we need to encourage brave citizens to relentlessly challenge whatever weakens those principles. We relentlessly drive this message home with our boys so that they’ll be prepared to act accordingly once they join the adult world. We want our young men to help all of us live up to our obligations and to realize our collective potential.
The thing is… the inevitable cost of encouraging our children to call out wrongdoing is that they’ll call out our wrongdoing. That stings. It also takes us adults off the pedestals that our kids placed us on before they learned that we’re not superheroes. I understand that it can be tough falling from grace in our children’s’ eyes… but it’s also a necessary transition if we want our kids to grow up to be good and decent people. They need to perceive everyone and everything accurately, dispassionately and without sentimentality if they’re going to make practical, rational decisions.
So, Our Austin made some grownups uncomfortable, embarrassed and even a bit mad. Good man. An Eagle Scout can’t be a coward. He can’t ‘go along to get along’. An Eagle Scout has to face squarely into the wind and take on the problems that he discovers. He’s expected to be a champion of all that’s right and proper, and a steadfast enemy of complacency, corruption and ignorance. His snarky election stunt proved to me that Austin’s got the right mind-set to wear the Eagle rank.
 We also pointed out that some of the older boys had pulled the exact same sweet-pitching stunt four years earlier – before most of the then-current adult volunteers had joined the unit – and none of the adults in charge at the time had objected to the stunt at the time. So an informal precedent had already been set.
Title Allusion: Alistair MacLean, Where Eagles Dare (1968 Film)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.