Updated, Feb. 1, 2017
Rex Tillerson, a Distinguished Eagle Scout, Silver Buffalo Award recipient and past national president of the Boy Scouts of America, is the nation’s secretary of state.
Tillerson is the latest Distinguished Eagle Scout to reach a cabinet position. That lengthy list includes former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, former Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner and former Veterans Affairs Secretary Togo D. West Jr.
Despite a busy career leading ExxonMobil — with its 80,000 employees and $19 billion in annual earnings — Tillerson has remained a devoted advocate of Scouting throughout his professional life.
In 2015, at the National Order of the Arrow Conference in Michigan, Tillerson spoke in front of what he called “the largest group of Eagle Scouts that I’ve ever had the privilege to stand before.”
He said Scouts are special because they have personal integrity.
“People trust you. They count on you,” he said to the nearly 5,000 Eagle Scouts gathered. “Your personal integrity, once established and earned, people don’t have to think about it. They know. They know you. They know you’ll do the right thing every time.”
Supporting the Main Thing
For the better part of 50 years, Tillerson has been speaking passionately about the transformative power of Scouting.
He carves out time to attend national-, council- and unit-level Scouting events.
And he’s fond of emphasizing what he calls the Main Thing. The Main Thing, he says, has been the same since the start: to serve more youth in Scouting.
“Our objective is to get them captured, get them into this structure that is Scouting,” Tillerson told Eagles’ Call magazine for our Winter 2017 issue. “If we can capture them for three or four years, we’ll change the adults they’ll become; I know that as sure as I live and breathe today.”
Eagles’ Call Winter 2017 cover story
Eagles’ Call, the official magazine of the National Eagle Scout Association, went to press with our Winter 2017 issue in early December. That was nearly two weeks before Tillerson’s name was made public as the choice to lead the Department of State.
The magazine cover story dives into Tillerson’s time in Scouting — beginning as a member of Troop 20 in Stillwater, Okla. It takes readers through his career at ExxonMobil and his time leading the BSA as its top national volunteer.
We’d like to say we planned it this way. In truth, the story is a happy coincidence of timeliness.
You can read the full story in the Winter 2017 issue. Here are some excerpts from Mark Ray’s story:
EXCERPT: Leading With Integrity
By Mark Ray
You could say Rex Tillerson’s path to the corner office began on a portage trail in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario.
As a 14-year-old Scout from Stillwater, Okla., the future ExxonMobil CEO traveled to the Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base for a 10-day paddling adventure. But adventure turned to anxiety the first time he tried to portage a canoe from one lake to another; his 115-pound body was no match for a canoe that weighed upward of 85 pounds.
“I had gone about 15 or 20 yards, and I just couldn’t do it,” he recalls. “I was ready to quit; I was in tears.”
Fortunately, Tillerson’s crewmates, who themselves were struggling with heavy tents and food bags, helped him hoist the canoe onto his shoulders. He survived the portage and improved his technique to the point that he needed no help when his third turn to carry the canoe came around.
Fifty years later, the Distinguished Eagle Scout and Silver Buffalo Award recipient can still recall the confidence boost he got from that experience.
“That has stayed with me all my life,” he says. “There’s never been anything I didn’t feel like I could conquer.”
Self-confidence is far from the only thing Scouting taught him. As a member of Troop 20, he learned the leadership lessons that have helped him excel as a manager and executive.
“ExxonMobil has great training programs, but that’s not where I got it,” says Tillerson, whose college degree is in engineering, not management.
Tillerson’s leadership training began in his Scout patrol, where he first watched older Scouts lead and then became a leader himself — always under the watchful eyes of adults. Sometimes he had to lead his peers, sometimes he had to lead younger Scouts, and occasionally he had to lead Scouts who were older and more experienced.
“If you think about that model, it’s very, very similar to what we encounter in the business world,” he says. “As a leader, you’re always going to have people who are less capable than you; that’s representative of the younger Scouts. You have people who are as capable as you; that’s your peers. And you have people who are maybe more capable than you, but you have been put in a position where you’ve got to lead them. And you’ve got to interface with someone you’re accountable to; that’s the adult leaders.”
A Lifetime in Scouting
Rex Tillerson was born to be a Scout. His maternal grandfather, Ray Patton, had been a Scout in the early days of Scouting and later led the troop in which his father, Bob, became an Eagle Scout. Among his earliest memories are visits to Camp Perkins near Wichita Falls, Texas, where his father had been a staff member and where his parents had met.
After World War II, Tillerson’s father became a Scoutmaster and Order of the Arrow lodge advisor in Wichita Falls. He drove a bread truck, but eventually quit (taking a pay cut) to become a BSA district executive. The family moved to Vernon, Texas, where Tillerson became a Cub Scout and where his mother, Patty, was his den leader.
Tillerson became an Eagle Scout, was inducted into the Order of the Arrow, attended the 1969 National Scout Jamboree, went to Philmont and the Boundary Waters, and joined an Explorer post. Like his dad, he served on camp staff for several years, stopping only when he had to pursue summer jobs that supported his coursework at the University of Texas. When not studying engineering, he was active in Alpha Phi Omega, the Scouting-affiliated service fraternity.
Like many former Scouts, Tillerson stepped away from the program until he had children. He then jumped back in, serving as Cubmaster twice and also as assistant Scoutmaster. His son, Tyler, is an Eagle Scout. When Tillerson moved to Dallas with Exxon, he joined the executive board of the Circle Ten Council and eventually joined the National Executive Board. Before becoming national president, he served as honorary chairman of the Generations Connections program, the facet of the BSA’s 100th anniversary celebration that commended how Scouting values and traditions are shared across generations. Given his own Scouting story, it was an appropriate assignment.