Monday, September 29, 2008

The Nature of Politics (part 1)

When I served as a chapter adviser in the Order of the Arrow (a fraternal Boy Scout service organization) I worked hard to get some of the adults to transition some of their authority to the elected youth leaders.

One of the key points of the OA is to develop youth leaders. As a boy, I had served as chapter chief (district level), lodge chief (council level), and section chief (part of an area). No doubt, it’s the adults that have the institutional memory and that provide the continuity for carrying out the program. But the program is mainly designed for the youth. Adults are to serve in support positions.

For the adults involved this can be challenging. Handing over the program to inexperienced youth can both decrease the adult volunteer’s level of enjoyment and increase the amount of work. It is essential to remember that the key purpose for being involved in the first place is to serve others.

The boys in the chapter once elected a young man to serve as chief that was very popular but was less dedicated than others. He expected the position because of his personality, not his performance. In a true example of the Peter Principle, this young man went on to become lodge chief. But I’m not particularly proud of the way it happened.

This boy came to me along with another of my chapter officers. They had decided that they wanted to run for lodge offices. The most powerful positions in our lodge at the time were chief and secretary. Having an understanding of the political lay of the situation, I suggested that they approach two other well liked, hard working young men that were from different parts of the lodge to fill the vice chief and treasurer positions. This would help shore up regional support. I suggested that they run a campaign as a team and I showed them how they could do this.

The two other boys accepted. The lodge had never seen ‘party’ politicking like that during lodge leadership elections before, so it was not difficult for the four boys to beat their opponents. But the results were less than optimal.

My lazy chapter chief became the lodge chief. He was popular (at least at first), but he shunted much of the actual work off to the other officers. Moreover, everything in the lodge became much more political. There was a general increase in contention about getting things done the way different factions wanted them done as opposed to actually accomplishing the mission of the order.

As these boys’ one-year term wore on, members of the lodge increasingly looked forward to a change in leadership. About that time I was approached by a couple of other boys about running an entire team for lodge leadership. I staunchly refused to help and advised against it. Open elections seemed to produce a better overall result.

A couple of years later, I had a chapter chief that was a very pure and genuine soul. Since adults don’t speak at executive meetings, I at first carefully coached him on what to say and how to maneuver to get things done at lodge executive committee meetings. One time, I was particularly proud of gaining some advantage in an executive committee meeting. I don’t even remember what it was.

On the way home from the meeting, my chief taught me an important lesson. When I congratulated him on his performance, he replied that he didn’t feel good about it. While the outcome had been desirable, the method of obtaining it wasn’t. He wasn’t involved to gain power over others or to engage in sly maneuvering. He was involved because he felt the need to serve others. This experience helped change my attitude about politics.

More in the next post.

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