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By Dale O. Harris

May 25, 2010 – Spirit Mountain - Duluth

          Good evening, and thank you all for giving me the privilege of saying a few words as we welcome these young men into the ranks of BSA Eagle Scouts.  It doesn’t seem like that long ago that my fellow Scouts and I would roll our eyes whenever we had to behave for the “old guys” coming from the main office.  Yes, we have met the enemy, and it is us—just a few years downstream, and with considerably less hair.

          As I was reflecting on my own Eagle experience, I thought about one such event: the dreaded Personal Growth Conference requirement.  There I was, in a room with several of those “old guys,” and the stakes were high.  I was not sure if anyone had ever earned all the merit badges, held the requisite leadership positions, and completed the Eagle project yet flunked the interview, but I knew I really didn’t want to be the first.  And right out of the gate, the oldest guy—probably around Munger’s age—took aim and fired:  Mr. Harris, when someone sees “Eagle Scout” next to your name, what does that mean?

          Well, crap.  He didn’t ask what I thought it would mean.  He didn’t ask what it might mean.  No, this gentleman clearly required a specific answer.  Which, I quickly deduced, meant anything other than that answer would be wrong.  This is not where I wanted to be.  So I did the only natural thing: I stalled.  “Well,” I said.  “I think it means a lot of things.  It means leadership…”  And the gentleman said, “Stop right there.  That’s what it means.”

          At the time, of course, I was just happy to have found the right answer on my first try.  But I have thought about that exchange many times since then.  Not just what he said, but how forcefully he said it.  And he was right on both counts.

          Tonight, I would like to ask the next generation of Eagle Scouts a slightly different question: What does having the title “Eagle Scout” next to your name mean to you.  I am not asking about whether you think it brings you prestige, or reflects substantive knowledge on all those merit badge topics, or even if it invokes the memories of the friendships you forged through scouting.  Obviously, we know the chicks dig it.  No, I mean how does having that title of Eagle Scout change you?

          The answer—again—is leadership; specifically, how you view it.  As of tonight, gentlemen, leadership for you is not a goal, nor an objective, nor a ticket to punch on your resume.  Leadership is an expectation.  Others will expect it of you; more importantly, you will expect it of yourselves. 

          There are eight judges in the Duluth courthouse where I work.  Six of those judges are men.  Of those six, four are Eagle Scouts.  Maybe that’s a coincidence.  I went through scouting with three other guys, we all made Eagle together.  Today, two of those guys own their own businesses, and the third is a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force, currently serving in Afghanistan.  Maybe that’s a coincidence, too.  My college roommate is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic; he’s another Eagle Scout.  So is the current mayor of New York City, the first man to walk on the moon, a current US Supreme Court Justice, and a former President of the United States.  Maybe that’s all just a coincidence.  But I doubt it. 

          My point with that list is not to boast about the club you gentlemen have joined tonight.  We do lay claim to a couple of people best known for their role in the Watergate scandal as well.  But the common thread among all these people is the trait of leadership. 

You will find for the rest of your lives that people will be drawn to you when they need someone to “chair” something, or “head up” something, or “take the ball and run with” something.  It will happen at your church.  It will happen at your workplace.  It will happen in student organizations, community groups, political operations…you name it.  They all need leaders, and they will find you.  They might not have a clue that you were ever in scouting, but they will sense that you are one of those people who can get something done. 

          They will believe that for one simple reason:  you can get something done.  You have already proven that.  Take a good look at the requirements of an Eagle project.  You identify a need in your community.  You develop a plan to meet that need.  You marshal the resources needed to carry out that plan.  You direct and motivate the people needed to implement that plan.  And you see it through to completion.  None of you would be here tonight if you were unable to do that.  I received a list of all the Eagle projects from the past year:  clearing trails and landscaping, repairing hockey rinks and baseball fields, building wood duck and bat houses.  The list of contributions you have already made is impressive.

And what that means going forward, is when someone asks you to take the lead, you will know that you can do it.  That confidence breeds success, and others will spot it in you.

          Make no mistake about it, we will need leaders in the days ahead.  The challenges we face in our schools, in our communities, and in our world are both difficult and complex.  But unlike those challenges, the essence of leadership really is quite simple.  A few weeks ago I was talking to Joe Fischer, an assistant county attorney and a former colleague of mine, who also served as a Marine officer in combat during Operation Desert Storm.  He was a leader in a time and place where the stakes literally were life and death.  Joe summed things up about as well as I have ever heard anyone on the subject of leadership.  He said, “Leadership isn’t hard.  It really isn’t.  It can be taught.  But you have to care.”

          All of you care about being leaders.  Every time you take a younger Scout aside and share your knowledge and experience, you are leading.  Every time you make a sacrifice for the greater good of your patrol or your troop, you are leading.  Every time you put a team together, combining the strengths of its individual members to become something greater than the sum of its parts, you are leading.  You might have started doing those things because it was a box to check for that next merit badge or to earn a new rank, but as you have advanced within this organization, you have continued doing them because you want to see your fellow Scouts succeed.  You take it personally if one of those younger kids is struggling with a skill.  You have a desire not only to achieve your own goals, but to make sure your fellow Scouts achieve theirs.  And you feel a responsibility to train the next group of leaders who will eventually take your place.

          You might take all that for granted now—it has become part of your internal wiring, going largely unnoticed.  But I promise you that you will come to realize not everyone is like that.  You will see people put in positions of authority and responsibility who just have not figured any of that out.  Many of them are good people, good at their individual jobs, but they haven’t figured out how to lead.  And so they will struggle.  The people that are supposed to follow them will struggle.  The organization they serve will struggle.  Then that organization will look for people who can step up.  And in all likelihood, they will find you.

          Tonight, that all might seem far off in the distance, but it is not.  Right now I am the youngest judge in the Duluth Courthouse, a fact which I will occasionally remind my colleagues.  Yet, if I am able to retire at the age I want to, I am already at or a little past the half-way point of my legal career.  Guys like Johnson and Munger might not make it to next Tuesday.  My grandmother came to Minnesota in a covered wagon.  My parents grew up without indoor plumbing.  I was a teenager before I touched a computer for the first time.  What the world will look like in just another few years is probably well beyond the bounds of my most fertile imagination.  You need to be ready—and soon—to take the lead on the road ahead.  We are all counting on you.

          So let me congratulate each of you again on attaining the rank of Eagle Scout.  But let me also challenge you to take what you have gained from Scouting and apply it.  Lead our industries, lead our governments, lead our churches, our schools, and our communities.  And make our world a better place.  Thank you, and God bless.

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