Monday, July 8, 2013

The Power of Belonging To Something Important

When I was eleven and a half years old, I got the opportunity to go to Boy Scout summer camp with our local troop.  It was a week long experience far from the city and promised to be a wonderful time to work on multiple merit badges.

The first step in going was to gather all of the necessary equipment. With my list in hand, I went up to the attic where all the camping equipment was stored and started pulling things out. First, I needed my old red flannel sleeping bag, tightly rolled which was more an art than practice. Next, I needed my canvas back pack, no hip belts or internal frames on this one, and my mess kit which I just loved because it not only came with its own cloth cover but could be turned into a dish, a frying pan and all sorts of other things. Then, I found my knife, fork and spoon which also could all be connected into one unit and came with it’s own little plastic sheath. Once all the gear on the list was found, I was ready.

Finally, the big day came and our local troop drove to summer camp. There we joined many other scout troops from all over Philadelphia and New Jersey for a week long summer adventure. I have to admit that I was very excited because we were going to be sleeping in canvas tents on raised platforms with real cots for beds. No pup tents on the ground felt like a vast improvement.  

The initial activity for Tenderfoot Scouts that first afternoon a lesson on whittling and carving. I don’t remember which merit bade this was connected to, but I remember knife safety was going to be a part of it. So, we were all told to go back to our tents, dig in our packs for our pocket knives and then bring them back for a lesson on knives and whittling.

Here is where the true fun began.  When I got the initial list back home, I was frustrated because the only knife I had was a very tiny pocket knife with a short little blade.  Now my Dad and my brother had much better knives with multiple blades. Some in the troop even had the early versions of the Swiss Army knife with multiple blades plus all sorts of cool stuff like a saw, spoon etc. on their knives.

When I was in the attic at home pulling all my gear together, I dug through the box and found some old camping stuff from when my Dad was in the army. There I discovered a true Bowie knife. It had a good six inch long blade, big stock handle, and leather sheath. It could even attach to your belt and be strapped to your thigh given the blade was so long.

So, that afternoon at summer camp I went back to my tent, strapped on my impressively large knife and went back to the circle.  Once we all had returned with our knives, the camp counselor gave each of us a stick and told us to whittle one end to a point. I unsnapped my knife from the sheath (it looked like a small machete in my little hand) and with a single flick of my wrist I cut the end of the stick off and created a sharp point. It was one impressive knife.

Of course, the camp counselor freaked out, took away my knife and I got in trouble. I think he was mostly jealous because my knife looked like a sword compared to his and every one else’s knife in the circle. I even had to listen to a lecture on safety and following the camp rules.

Day by day, during my first week of summer camp, we all learned important skills such as morse code - the language of dits and dashes, how to communicate using semaphore flags, and how to lash logs together to make a temporary bridge or raft.  We went hiking, learned about different trees in the forest, and practiced identifying animal prints found in mud. We swam at the pool and one day we even swam in a river. In retrospect, some of these skills seem like ancient history now and slightly comical on one level, but at the time it was all new and all very exciting.

The most impressive part of each day happened just before dinner. The camp bugler would call all the troops together on the parade grounds in front of the mess hall.  From all over the huge camp, every troop would gather in their designated sleeping area, and then march to the parade grounds with the oldest scouts in the front and the youngest ones in the rear.  Each troop would come singing a song, whistling or marching in cadence.  Our troop at times whistled the theme song from the movie, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, or sang out a loud call and response sequence which was very rowdy.  

When all the troops had gathered, the head of the camp asked each troop leader if every member of their troop was present and accounted for.  The answer was always a hearty “Yes, sir!” Then the American flag and the camp flag was lowered and folded for the day, and off we went to the mess hall for dinner.  

As I reflect on these bygone summer experiences, I realize that I experienced something that I have not heard about in many years, namely pride in belonging to something special. Not arrogance or cockiness, but sincere pride in being a member of my local troop.  

Nowadays, I ask many young people if they are proud to be a member of the organization where they work. Often, they respond by saying “it’s just a job.” This saddens me on so many levels, because it means that they have not bonded with the work that they are doing and that they have not experienced the power of feeling connected to the people they are doing it with on a daily basis.

I learned many years ago that it is only work if you want to be some place else. Yet, I believe too many leaders today are not recognizing the importance of creating shared experiences, which bond a group together. They are not recognizing the value of learning new ideas together and seeing how they apply to their current challenges. They do not realize the importance for employees to know that their job matters to someone and that it makes a difference in the world.

In short, too many leaders these days are not creating healthy pride about the work that we are doing. If it is only a job, then only a part of me will show up. Therefore, I suggest we all head back to summer camp, work on a few new merit badges, and take pride in the work we are doing.  Then, when asked if everyone is present and accounted for, we can respond with a hearty “Yes, Sir!”, knowing that another day of meaningful learning and work has taken place.  

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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