Is this leadership or a major lack thereof? The Boy Scouts of America is considering lifting its national ban on gay members and leaders, leaving that choice to local troops. Yet the decision from headquarters, which was expected Wednesday, has now been delayed until the organization’s annual meeting in May.
Whether you support the ban or oppose it, this is not an effective way to implement change.
In their forthcoming book “Decisive,” authors Chip and Dan Heath write that, while organizations benefit from gaining distance on big decisions, “getting distance doesn’t require delay.” Instead what it requires is a willingness to strip away all but your core values, deciding essentially from the gut of the organization.
But it seems the BSA has confused delay and distance. Why? Perhaps because the very question up for debate is, “What are our core values?” If you no longer know what you believe, ethics can’t guide your decision-making.
That is why the leadership problem here isn’t just the delay, it’s the debate itself.
In 2000, the BSA won a Supreme Court case upholding its national ban on gays, the organization’s reason for exclusion being that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values it seeks to instill.” And instilling values, the court confirmed, is the BSA’s main mission. That is what binds a troop in Indiana with a troop in Hawaii. That is what it means to be a Boy Scout.
By decentralizing the decision about gays, the BSA would dismantle the idea that values—whether of inclusion or exclusion—are a central and unifying part of the organization. If the BSA wishes to hold onto its core mission, which is precisely to instill common values, then it needs to decide on those values at a national level. Right now, what it is actually debating is whether to abdicate that responsibility.
As Michael Useem, the head of leadership studies at the Wharton School of Business, put it to me, “In the context of an organization that has put a huge emphasis on what it means to be a responsible young person, this can look like a very weak measure at most.”
What’s driving the consideration to decentralize, it seems, is the BSA’s desire to retain the most money possible and the most people possible. Between 2000 and 2011, the BSA saw the number of traditional scouts drop from 3.3 million to 2.7 million. The organization has also seen several high-profile companies—including Intel, Verizon, UPS and some local United Way chapters—step back their donations in the past year because of the controversy.
Now the BSA finds itself doing triage to stop those numbers from bleeding further. Rather than take a stand on one of the most important values questions in America today, the organization appears to be orchestrating “a complex compromise to all the conflicting demands and pressures,” as Useem says. That is, the conflicting demands of religious conservatives, liberal activists, corporate donors and troops themselves.
The BSA is using a logic that wouldn’t hold around a campfire—keeping up numbers for the sake of keeping up numbers. Is that the core Boy Scout value? Bigger? More? The organization has fallen prey to the tyranny of spreadsheets.
It is forgetting a key point: In the long run, no one will want to invest in or be part of a values-based organization that won’t take a stand on values.
There is a common adage that you can’t have leadership without followers. Unfortunately this has too often prompted leaders to ask, “So then how do we make a change while keeping our followers marching in line behind us?”
But the better question is not “How do we keep those followers?” It’s “Do we still want those followers?”
The BSA has focused too much on its followers of the moment, not its followers of the future. This holds whether you believe they should keep or lift the ban on gays. Do you want followers who are anti-gay? Then keep the national ban, and be willing to give up money from companies that don’t share your view. But do you want followers who are inclusive? Then you need to have a national policy of tolerance and be brave enough to let those people and organizations walk away who don’t want the future you want.
In the short term, the BSA may have found a way to duck out of a complicated situation, but at what cost? This lack of leadership, whether by delaying the decision or pushing the decision down the organization, says the BSA is willing to cut out its own heart.
And what is that heart? It’s the belief that we should teach America’s youth that there are, indeed, some common values that define good citizens, good leaders and good human beings.
Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership at the Washington Post.