It was the finest management training I ever completed. All the principles taught were taught in a useful, meaningful context. Oh, I had attended multiple management conferences taught by PhDs who had come from afar carrying briefcases. Each came from a top-notch university or from some big-name corporation. But this beat them all. It was, and still is, made available by the Boy Scouts of America.
Lord Baden-Powell was the founder of the world-wide Scouting movement over 100 years ago in England. He was a hero of foreign wars—a man’s man. He was held in esteem as a man of honor, courage and integrity. He was a man to whom boys could look as a positive role model.
During one military campaign, a native chief presented Lord Baden-Powell with a necklace consisting of hand-carved wooden beads strung on a light leather band. At the end of his very first Scout training camp for leaders and young men, he presented each participant with a “wood badge” that he had personally made from that unique necklace. The pinnacle of Boy Scout training programs today is still called “Woodbadge.”
About 30 years ago, I was privileged to attend a week-long Woodbadge camp at Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico. It was an unforgettable experience in a setting rich in history and natural beauty—and fraught with lots of hard work. In fact, we found ourselves working literally from sun up to late in the evening in order to complete our assignments.
We were divided into patrols of six or seven individuals and were given tasks to complete based on Scouting principles and practices. We were evaluated on how well we accomplished each task in the context of management and leadership skills. I thought I was working at maximum RPM—and then they revved it up another notch!
On the first day of the camp, we had each been given a nametag that had a couple of little leather “strings” hanging from it. After a day or two, one of the training staff made a visit to our campfire just before bedtime and handed each of us some instructions on how we could earn brightly colored plastic beads to attach to those little leather strings. I remember thinking, “You have got to be kidding!” We were already overloaded and not getting enough sleep. Our fearless leader told us that each bead represented a Scouting skill that all good Scouts and Scout leaders should already possess and practice. He emphasized that earning the beads was not required as a part of the course.
That being the case, I really didn’t give it much thought. I had no intention of working my tail off doing extra work for a few little plastic beads—until one of my patrol members earned the first bead. Then another earned a bead or two. I looked at their brightly decorated nametags and then at mine. How could I go around with a nametag unadorned by brightly colored plastic beads when my colleagues’ nametags proudly sported them? I reluctantly began to put in the extra time and effort in order to keep up with those other guys. Of course, it was all part of the overall plan designed to teach us another principle of leadership. It was very effective.
I recently came across that nametag with the beads still hanging from it. I earned every one of the beads that had been offered at that camp. As I look at it today and remember the hard work and sleepless nights, I wonder why I did it. Relatively few people go through Woodbadge training. That nametag pretty much has meaning for me and me alone. The beads themselves have little real worth—just a few cents in terms of monetary value.
How many of us give up sleep in order to pursue relatively worthless brightly-colored plastic beads? How many of us give up valuable time with our families and friends in order to climb some corporate or professional ladder or to achieve some recognition in an endeavor that seems to have value at the time but which, in the long-run, will most likely languish in the closets of our memories unremembered, unnoticed and unvalued by others and ultimately even by ourselves.
I think many of us buy into the popular culture of seeking prestige and recognition or in pursuit of the means for conspicuous consumption at the expense of those things that have far greater and longer-lasting value.
Louis L’Amour summed it up when he said “the soul of business is to inspire people to buy that which they neither want nor need.” Can I sell you some pretty, colorful plastic beads?