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Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Chairman Dances*

First, to all my readers, I wish you a happy and prosperous New Year.

This post has more to do with my work with charitable and other non-profit groups outside the library from where I'm typing this.  Over the course of my adulthood, I've had opportunity to do a lot of paid and volunteer work for non-profit organizations, from Protestant and Catholic churches I've attended to the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, from the Chester County Library System to the Boy Scouts of America.  I even taught  the SCRABBLE badge to a bunch of giggly Girl Scouts at one of my daughter's troop meetings.  I still can't understand why 10-year-old girls giggled when I made them say the last name of SCRABBLE's inventor--good and loud (google it).

Until recently, though, I've never been in a position to be in charge of a group, try though I might.  Within the last month, I became what Rachel Singer Gordon refers to as an "accidental" manager--in this case, the acting committee chairman of my son's Boy Scout troop. (I'm also acting principal trombone of a local orchestra and its acting librarian--but I've never been much of an actor ;-)). The circumstances were to say the least, delicate.  The health of the last chairman had been declining to the point where it became clear to all involved that his continued participation was going to be impossible. Papers needed to be signed, and the work of the troop needed to go on.  In that spirit I offered to be the "co-chair" so that the boys could get their Eagle badges, and my offer was accepted.  So far I've led two meetings, and while things have gone relatively smoothly at the meetings, there has been a palpable uneasiness on the part of some of our group.

I only made 2nd Class when I was a Scout nearly 40 years ago, and (for a variety of reasons) I have not taken what most would consider an active role in either my son's Cub Scout Pack or Boy Scout Troop. I  helped out where I could--as a merit badge counselor, and on the annual Scouting for Food drive--but I left the weekly 'heavy lifting" to the uniformed leadership.  I make no apologies for that.  My son needs to get the perspective (if not wisdom) of adults other than his parents.  I'm not an expert in everything--no parent is--but I'm appreciative of those folks who are in areas I lack knowledge.

Nonetheless, there are those who wear the uniform who are suspicious of those who haven't worn it, and I imagine that out loud, the questions might sound something like this:

"I've been a Scout leader for (years/decades/my whole adult life/Lord Baden Powell was in my troop) and now he's going to tell ME what to do?"
"What training does he have?"
"Why doesn't he wear the uniform?"
"Why is he just stepping up NOW?"
"He doesn't act/sound/look like his predecessor--why not?"

Answering these questions may shed some light on how this came to pass.

1) "I've been a Scout leader for (years/decades/my whole adult life/Lord Baden Powell was in my troop) and now he's going to tell ME what to do?"

Well, no.  If you're doing your job the best it can be done and everyone who needs to be served is being served, then I may just give you an "attaboy" and be done with it.  If I perceive that you're falling down in some aspect of your position or role within the troop, and I can do something about it or can pass on some knowledge, I will. I've been a firm believer in not fixing what isn't broken--but if something can be done differently that will benefit the organization I will explore it.

2) "What training does he have?"

While my BSA training is limited to "safe Scout" training that all adult leaders are required to have, I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Music (from the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University, respectively) and am  in the process of completing a second graduate degree in Library and Information Science from Clarion University of Pennsylvania.  Part of the MSLS degree coursework involves management of nonprofit organizations, knowledge that I find immensely helpful in working with the Boy Scouts.

3)  "Why doesn't he wear the uniform?"

No good reason.  If enough people feel that it gives me added credence, then I'll wear it.  Until then, I'll continue to do the work dressed in business wear.

4)  "Why is he just stepping up NOW?"

This assumes that 1) there was no need up until now, and 2) that I had no previous experience.  Wrong and wrong.

First, there is always a need for effective leadership in any organization.  Life happens.  People move, kids age out of the organization or quit, and in our case, our committee chair passed away after a long illness.  Just because you're not in charge of the whole shebang doesn't mean that you aren't responsible for the good of the organization.

Second, nearly eighteen years of my life were spent teaching in some of America's poorest school districts.  I have taught students who lived in the colonias on the Texas-Mexico border, in homes with dirt floors; many of my students in Plainfield NJ and Philadelphia PA were in similar straits.  They sought nothing from me save a shot at a better life, and for me to come to work the next day/week/year.  I made a point of telling my students on the first day of school that I would learn more from them than they did me.  What I took from that experience was the knowledge that people mean well, people want to succeed, but that good intentions don't guarantee success. Love what you do, but do it (or learn how to do it) competently.

5) "Why doesn't he look/sound/act like his predecessor?"

Because I'm not my predecessor. I like a cartoon show called Camp Lazlo.  The Scoutmaster (in this show about a fictionalized "Bean Scout" camp, Camp Kidney) is named Lumpus, an older, skinny moose (!) who reminds me (and numerous other Scouts and leaders) of people we've known in the organization. We recognize him as a stereotype (albeit a loving one) because we're not all like that.

In the 1980's, E.L Doctorow wrote a novel called Billy Bathgate which was a fictionalized account of the last days of the Dutch Schultz gang.  In it, the title character recalled a conversation where he was asked who was a better shot--the gangster who sprayed every corner of the target, or the marksman who aimed carefully and hit precise marks on the target.  The implication was that there was room in the organization for both--that both styles were vital to the success of the organization.  He went on to say that the nature of the business was changing, that they would need "smart, quiet boys who had been to college" (rather than hardcore gangsters who learned on the job).  We understand and appreciate and will certainly learn from the history of (and the hard work and dedication put in by)  our predecessors, but while the organization's standards may not have changed, the method by which they are carried out may need to.

With that in mind, we move forward.  Cheers.
(Obscure composer reference alert)
And I wasn't, wasn't, wasn't repetitive, repetitive, repetitive...



*--John Adams, Nixon In China, 1987.
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