Why President Obama shouldn’t step down from the Boy Scouts


(Susan Walsh/AP)

On Wednesday, the White House said President Obama is against the Boy Scouts of America’s recently reaffirmed policy of excluding gays from its organization. He will not, however, be stepping down from his honorary post as the Scouts’ president.

Should he?

That’s an interesting question being discussed in various outlets, from Politico’s Arena to the Washington Examiner. Some say that in order to truly take a principled stand on the issue, the president should cut his ties from the organization. Others, meanwhile, argue that resigning the post would cost him votes with male voters, become a distraction for his campaign, or keep him from staying in a role where he may be able to accomplish more than if he distanced himself from the Scouts completely.

On the last point, I couldn’t agree more. One thing no one seems to be mentioning in this debate is that it’s not as if everyone in the Boy Scouts’ leadership is on board with the policy. There are actually two very prominent Boy Scouts board members—Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson (who is in line to become the national executive board president of the Scouts)—who have voiced their concerns over the policy.

In a June statement, Turley said “the membership policy is not one I would personally endorse” and “I intend to continue to work from within the BSA Board to actively encourage dialogue and sustainable progress.” AT&T, meanwhile, has issued a statement saying “we don't agree with every policy of every organization we support,” and believes change “must come from within to be successful and sustainable.”

These men haven’t quit, and neither should the president. For one, this is an honorary role, one that every president since William Howard Taft—the Boy Scouts was founded during his term—has held. Taft agreed to do so to “sustain a similar relation to the movement as does King George V to a similar movement in England.” In other words, this honorary presidency thing has a very long tradition, one that Obama would not want to shirk lightly.

Moreover, even if the role is honorary (does anyone really think the president spends much of his time thinking about how the Boy Scouts should be run?), having someone in that position who disagrees with the policy should encourage more people to come forward within the Scouts who also are opposed to it.

Leaders have to stick to their principles, yes. But sometimes, they can do more good as part of an organization than outside of it—especially if they’re outspoken.

More from On Leadership:

What’s next for the Boy Scouts

Three lessons from the Mars landing

How to get to guru


View Photo Gallery: The best and the worst leadership moments of recent U.S. presidents.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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