As the BSA’s incoming National Chair, Brad Tilden will lead the National Board of the BSA.
But the way he sees it, he’s just another volunteer in a movement we all believe in.
“There are more than 400,000 adults who care about this movement and who are pushing it forward,” says Tilden. “I am just one of that crowd. We’re all here working on the same thing, and I’m honored to be here in the boat with everyone else pushing for something we all believe in.”
Tilden becomes one of three members of the BSA’s National Key 3, joined by National Commissioner W. Scott Sorrels (another volunteer) and Chief Scout Executive/President & CEO Roger C. Mosby (a professional).
The National Chair serves as the volunteer head of the National Council and leads the board in issues like hiring the next CEO and other policy decisions. While the BSA professional team develops the company’s strategy, the National Chair and the board oversee that strategy.
Tilden, the retired chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group, has been involved in Scouting in one way or another for 54 years. As a youth, he earned his Eagle from Troop 392 in the Chief Seattle Council in 1976, and he later worked on summer camp staff for four years.
As an adult, he served on the board — and later as chair — of the Chief Seattle Council before joining the BSA National Board as finance chair in 2014.
He retired as Alaska Airlines CEO in 2021, and as Alaska Air Group board chair last year.
“I’ve been involved with this great organization for a long time,” he says. “Like so many others, I really believe in what we do.”
Tilden recently spoke with us about his newest role in Scouting, his goals for the organization and why he thinks the BSA is as important to our country now as it ever has been. Our conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
Congratulations on taking over as the BSA’s National Chair. What can you share with us about your vision for the organization?
There are a lot of things I think we should be focusing on, but not all of them are hills worth dying on. The hill that I do think we should all die on is this: Can we come together as a national movement and collectively say, “This is our vision; this is something we all buy into and we all want to achieve.” Our organization has been in the news recently for some of the wrong reasons. The simple vision is to be in the news for the right reasons. Let’s get back to a very strong focus on changing the lives of young people.
Our country needs what the BSA does now more than it ever has. When any of us sit down and watch the evening news, we see that almost all of the stories are about people not getting along. The BSA can help change this. We help our kids be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind … all of that. Our movement can teach young people to listen to one another, to respect one another, to get along with one another, to become leaders. Our country needs these things badly.
What’s the first step in doing that?
The biggest thing that’s left for us to do is to really find a way to grow this movement. I really think if we can stay positive and focus on what we do for young people, we’re going to grow. What we do for young people and for our country is inherently good. It’s fundamentally good. My life is so much better and so much richer because of the time I had in Scouts. And I know that’s true for my brothers who were involved. And it’s true for my parents who were involved. It’s even true for my sisters who at that time watched from the sidelines. So, my vision that I have above everything else is that we get back to doing what we do best, and that’s changing lives in a very positive way.
How do you think the BSA can appeal to today’s youth?
I think this next generation of youth really cares about the world they live in. They care a lot about living a good life. About living an ethical life. About taking care of the environment. They’ve got a real mindset around doing the right thing. The values of Scouting should speak to them in spades. We’ve got to do a better job of helping them see that. I think if you asked any of them to look at the Scout Oath and Law and asked, “Is that the life you want to live?” I think they’d say, “Absolutely.” I believe that what we do resonates. It’s more relevant now than it’s ever been.
We are really good at telling our own story in our own Scouting community. But if we really want to change our country, it’s critical that we broaden our appeal. The girls who have joined Scouting have done it extremely well. But we haven’t done it for nearly enough girls. We haven’t done it for nearly enough families. We have done it for certain parts of suburbia really well. For traditional Scouting families, we’ve done it really well. But to have the impact on this country that we are meant to have, it’s essential that we broaden our appeal.
Tilden recently participated in a Q&A with Cascade Pacific Council chair Kaleen Deatherage, during which they talked about the importance of including people from all walks of life in the Scouting movement.
Your professional background is in the business sector. How can that help you as the BSA’s National Chair?
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that people like to be appreciated. I have a real appreciation for how much talent and passion and care there is amongst the volunteers and professionals in this organization. We need to do a great job of recognizing that, thanking people, and building on that momentum and building on that energy. The other thing I will say is that with the bankruptcy, our muscles have atrophied a bit. We had COVID and we had the bankruptcy. There were things we could not do strategically because of the bankrutpcy. And now we need to get out and get moving. Everybody has a job to do. We need to get out and do those jobs. We need to come out and be proud of what we do and play our roles within the organization and get this thing hopping again. And by the way, none of this is to say that we’re not well down this path. I think the momentum in the last couple of quarters is fantastic.
At Alaska Airlines, we had three things that we needed to be very, very good at: safety, operational integrity and customer service. For the BSA, I think two things we need to focus on are safety and being just really, really good at starting new units. It’s essential that we get better at recruiting kids. Today, we recruit kids pretty well where there’s a successful troop or unit operating. Our challenge going forward is going to be launching new units, and units that have longevity.
Tilden was interviewed in 2016 by Eagles’ Call magazine, during which he discussed the influence of Scouting on his leadership style.
Alaska Airlines was considered an industry leader in sustainability. That’s something we can do at the BSA too, right?
Yes. This subject can start to sound to some like it’s political, but it isn’t. All we’re talking about are actions that the BSA has been taking for a long time — actions like taking care of what we have, investing in what we have and making sure it’s there for future generations. Taking care of our environment — taking care of everything around us — is central to what Scouting does. There’s a way we can do this with integrity and honesty that is not at all political, and that will be good for our kids and good for our world.
You mentioned safety as something else that was a priority at Alaska Airlines. That’s another tenet of the BSA as well.
At Alaska Airlines, we had a horrible accident 23 years ago. 88 people died. 13 of them were employees, and another 22 were either friends or family members of employees. It just rocked our company to the core. I don’t think we were unsafe prior to the accident, but we also weren’t leaders in safety. In the BSA in 2023, we have parents who feel differently about sending their kids off to an overnight campout than the parents of 50 years ago. What we ended up saying at Alaska was that in order to change our customer’s perspective and to get them to fully trust us again, we couldn’t be average in safety and we couldn’t be above average … we needed to be the industry leader. In other words, the best of the best. After what we had been through, we wanted our customers to see us as the gold standard. I think this same opportunity and imperative exist for the BSA.
What’s the most important trait of an organization that’s really trying to lead the way in safety issues?
One really telling sign of a true safety culture is how comfortable are people talking about safety incidents and near misses. In a true safety culture, if something happens that’s not safe, people like to report it (emphasis added). They want to put those issues into the middle of the table so everyone can see them and focus on preventing them from happening again. If you don’t like to talk about safety incidents or report them, you won’t get the opportunity to improve, and they’re very likely to happen again. I don’t think our reporting culture is where it needs to be today. I don’t think we’re seen yet as the gold standard for youth safety, and we need to be. We’re clearly making headway, but there is more to do.
What do you remember the most about your time as a youth in Scouting?
I remember being a little guy when my brothers were going off to summer camp, and they packed this big footlocker to go, and I was just jumping up and down going nuts because I couldn’t go with them. It looked like so much fun. I finally got to go, and it was that much fun. Camping and hiking, and eating in the dining hall, or making our own meals. Canoeing, swimming, swamping canoes — all that stuff. I just loved it. Today, I love the outdoors. I love the mountains, I love hiking and I love cycling. That love for the outdoors was born in Scouting.
As a kid, I loved all of those things. But as an adult, what I appreciate the most — and what has made my life the richest — are the values and lessons I’ve learned and tried to apply from the Scout Oath and Law. This is the magic in what we do, and this is what our country needs us to continue doing. I appreciate everyone who gives so much to this organization and I look forward to working with all of them to continue changing lives for young people.