WASHINGTON — Rex Tillerson commanded the stage and addressed a crowd of thousands of national Boy Scout delegates who were very much on edge, having just made a deeply divisive decision.
Some were angry, others brought to tears. Some pledged to never accept the change that Tillerson, a national leader of the organization, had helped engineer: allowing gays into the Scouts.
Tillerson, an Eagle Scout himself and a longtime booster of the organization, roamed the stage and spoke, unscripted, about the need to accept societal change even while honoring cherished traditions.
“What went on here was a remarkable thing,” Tillerson said, in a deep-voiced Southern drawl. “We’ve got to listen to people. We’ve got to listen to their concerns, we’ve got to listen to their fears. We can’t be dismissive of them.”
This is what secretary of state nominee Tillerson’s art of diplomacy looks like. In this case, during a 2013 gathering in Texas, he took on one of the most fraught issues ever faced by an organization that he deeply loves.
As the most recent president of the Boy Scouts, he had just helped lead the century-old organization into endorsing a historic change. And then he had to help calm the tempest that followed.
The years-long debate over allowing gay Scouts — a seismic shift the group called, euphemistically, the debate over “membership standards” — left deep fissures. Tillerson’s role during that period provides insights into his diplomatic instincts, his pragmatism, and his willingness to accept change.
It illustrated as well how he approached thorny questions without a clear answer — the kind secretaries of state often encounter — and showcased a leadership style centered on consensus building, putting people at ease by absorbing their thoughts before rendering his own judgment.
But while he recognized the need for the change, several close observers at the time said, he seemed to do it more to help the organization survive than out of a moral sense about gay rights. Even while overseeing shifts at the Scouts, the company he’s run since 2006 — Exxon Mobil — maintained policies that were considered far more discriminatory against gays than other Fortune 500 companies.
Those who have worked with him up close say that his style can be more deferential than one might expect of the chief executive of a vast multinational oil company. He doesn’t suck up all the attention in a room, he soaks it in.
As President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee, he is now in line to oversee an especially tumultuous period in American foreign policy, with radical changes in US engagement abroad being contemplated, and shifting relationships with Russia, China, and Europe likely on the near horizon.
Contrast with Trump
Tillerson will also be working for a president whose background in foreign issues is thin and whose style is anything but diplomatic. Trump demands, and tends to win, all the attention in the room.
But Tillerson’s allies say he is up to this complex of challenges and that his handling of the gay issue in the Scouts helps illustrate why they feel confident in saying so.
Those strengths will be tested this week as he undergoes confirmation hearings, with a series of questions over his friendly ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some conservatives, too, have already seized on his role in leading the Boy Scouts into a more accepting policy on gay members as a troubling sign.
“The Exxon Mobil executive may be the greatest ally liberals have in the Cabinet for their abortion and LGBT agendas,” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, wrote after Tillerson emerged as Trump’s likely nominee.
“FRC knows Tillerson all too well, having worked for years to put the brakes on his reckless agenda for a Scouting organization that was already dealing with staggering numbers of sexual abuse cases,” he added. “Unfortunately, the BSA, under Tillerson, ultimately caved to the pressure of the far-left, irreparably splitting the Scouts and destroying a proud and honorable American tradition.”
Gay advocates, too, have criticized Tillerson for not pushing for change, only adapting to it. His approach seems to have been to risk angering both extremes while trying to keep the middle intact.
Those who worked with Tillerson at the Scouts over the years, however, say it is no overstatement to say that he helped save the institution and guide it through a time of head-spinning change.
“We had a very difficult family conversation in the Scouting movement,” Tico Perez, who was one of the top Scout leaders during Tillerson’s tenure.
“A lot of it was religious based, a lot of it was regional: the South versus the North versus the West,’’ Perez said. “A lot of opinions were being expressed, some very, very passionately. Almost to the point where we were going to have a major national crisis in our movement.”
“How do you define the role that Rex played?” he continued. “The best word I have for you is he was the glue. He was the one that kept our movement together. He had the credibility among the rank-and-file, and the board members. When he spoke, people listened.”
Both Tillerson, who remains on the national executive board of the Scouts, and the Boy Scouts declined requests for interviews.
Tillerson’s involvement with Scouting has been overshadowed recently by the focus on his business ties with Russia and his stewardship of Exxon Mobil. But the Scouts exerted a strong influence on his life, by all accounts, and have provided the prism through which he views even business decisions.
Tillerson grew up in Texas, in a family of Boy Scouts. His parents met through the organization — his mother encountered his father while visiting her brother at a Scouting camp and, according to the Dallas Morning News, “sparks flew over a singalong.’’ As he moved around as a child, the Scouts were a constant.
During his freshman year at the University of Texas, he quickly pledged at Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity that until 1967 admitted only Scouts. As part of an initiation, current members try to find pledges and throw them into a large fountain at the heart of campus.
One day, a group of four or five upperclassmen spotted Tillerson walking by the fountain and immediately descended on him, not realizing he had been a high school wrestler.
“I grabbed him once; he’d already grabbed me twice. I knew then it was going to be a problem,” recalled James Flodine, one of the fraternity brothers. After five or 10 minutes, Tillerson was no closer to the fountain and he was close to tossing some of the upperclassmen in that direction.
“So we gave up,” Flodine said.
“The amazing thing about Rex was, after we gave up, he just kind of said OK, and he left. He wasn’t angry or anything,” he added. “It was a really good insight into his temperament. He has an unbelievably measured temperament. He doesn’t get mad, he doesn’t get flustered.”
Still on Boy Scout board
Throughout his adult life, as he rose in prominence at Exxon Mobil, he remained active in the Boy Scouts. Since 2005, he’s been on the board, a position he still holds.
In 2010, he became the group’s president at a time when it was losing members and criticism was simmering over its ban on gay Scouts. The group had gone to the Supreme Court in 2000, which upheld its right to ban gays from being members.
Many on the board were business leaders, and they were being confronted with some of the changes in the country. Gay rights groups were targeting them for their policies.
Tillerson had quietly taken to heart the mantra of the organization: Be prepared.
In early 2011, he brought in a Republican polling firm to begin helping the Scouts think about change. Should they allow openly gay Scouts? What about Scoutmasters? Should it be a national policy, or one that could be implemented on the local level? Focus groups and polling were conducted on the various options.
Early meetings were held inside the Exxon headquarters, among a small group from the Scouts, before a wider group discussed changes at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
By 2012 – when Tillerson’s formal role as president was concluding – the debate was roiling, with several high-profile incidents bringing further attention to the Scouts and their policy.
A woman in Ohio was no longer able to be a den mother of a local troop because she was a lesbian. A 17-year-old from California who had done all the requirements to earn his Eagle Scout award — including building a “tolerance wall” for victims of bullying — was denied the award because he had recently come out as gay.
The Boy Scouts of America said that his sexual orientation meant that he was not in line with the Scouting principle of “Duty to God.”
Presidential candidates — Mitt Romney and Barack Obama — condemned the Boy Scouts policy of exclusion. A group called Scouts for Equality had also formed to push the issue.
“Mr. Tillerson understood which way the winds were blowing,” said Zach Wahls, a cofounder of Scouts for Equality.
Tillerson’s moves toward changing the policy, Wahls said, did not seem to come from a sense of moral responsibility but instead out of a recognition that it was hurting their membership numbers.
Around the time that the Scouts’ policy changed in 2013, Exxon Mobil was one among only 12 percent of Fortune 500 companies that had not adopted written nondiscrimination policies on the basis of sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
For two years in a row, Exxon had ranked last in the organization’s “corporate equality index” of Fortune 1000 corporations.
“My sense is it comes out of a place of pragmatism,” Wahls said. “He did see that the ban on gay youth and adults was crushing the Boy Scouts, in terms of growth. It was more about the membership effects than some deep commitment to gay rights.”
Religious groups prominent
A major concern for the leadership at the Boy Scouts was how to adapt to societal shifts without alienating the religious institutions that are the backbone of the organization.
If the Mormon Church — the largest single sponsor of Scout units — split off from the Boy Scouts, it would have been crippling.
“Rex was rarely the first person to speak,” said Wayne Brock, a top Scouting official during Tillerson’s tenure. “He would listen intently to what others had to say, and if the group could not come to a consensus, Rex would lead the conversation, analyze the different points of view, and ultimately lead the group to a consensus.”
Bob Mazzuca, a former chief Scout executive who also worked closely with Tillerson, said he was the most impressive person he came across in his 41-year career with the Scouts.
“Rex has a unique talent of calming even the choppiest of waters,” he said.
Policy leaked to media
The waters were certainly choppy when executive board members of the Boy Scouts were holed up at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport Marriott. Leading up to the meetings, some draft documents had leaked to the news media, suggesting a major policy shift was imminent. It riled up the opposition and sowed suspicion among the board members.
“When everyone came to our February board meeting, there was an inordinate amount of distrust and anger,” Perez said. “But Rex stepped in. He just owned the process and by sheer credibility, will, and passion was able to put in place the process that brought everyone together.”
Tillerson, who by now was the past president, came up with a proposal, one that would change the rules in a way that involved a seeming technicality but one with profound implications.
Rather than having the executive board of around 70 people vote on the change, Tillerson wanted to have the entire annual meeting of about 1,400 people weigh in.
“Rex said, ‘You know what? We’re going to change the rules. The delegates need to decide this,’ ” Perez said. “If people are going to believe, and understand, and we keep them engaged, everyone has to be involved in this process.”
As a result, top organizers crossed the country to have discussions with local Scouting groups. It meant that Tillerson, the head of one of the largest companies in the world, was spending a great deal of time flying around rural America to discuss one of the burning social issues of the day.
There was no easy solution.
“Smart, passionate people coming from different directions reached difference conclusions about what we should do,” Perez said. “Everyone had a valid position.”
Support for the policy of excluding gay Scouts was rapidly eroding. A majority of Boy Scouts themselves opposed it.
Parents three years earlier had supported it — 58 percent to 29 percent — but by 2013, some 45 percent of parents opposed it, compared with 42 percent who supported it.
Opposition remained over allowing openly gay leaders in the Scouts, so the leadership decided not to pursue any changes just then.
Passions high at meeting
In a ballroom outside of Dallas, three months after the executive committee decided to open up the debate over gay Scouts, passions were extraordinarily high.
An outside firm tallied the votes. Some 61 percent voted in favor of changing the policy, while 39 percent wanted to keep in place the ability to ban youth because of sexual orientation.
In the room, some were deeply disappointed. The debate was civil, but there were still some divisions. The top leadership got together and wanted someone to deliver a unifying message. The group needed a shot in the arm as they left the conference. And they knew where it would have to come from.
“We all said it at the same time: Rex,” Perez said.
“He had the credibility in the movement, he had the integrity and the passion. Everybody believed that Rex wanted what was best. And it was time to put our differences aside.”
When Tillerson got on stage, he had no notes and wandered around the stage like an evangelical preacher, waving his hands and speaking with feeling.
“So we’ve made the decision,” he said at the start. “We’re going to change. Now what? Now what?”
He spoke to a room that was nervous about the future of an organization that had come to define many of them.
“You really do get swamped by what is changing, it just overwhelms you,” Tillerson said. “It’s really, really useful to step back, look at everything, and also recognize what’s not changing. Because more often than not, most things are not changing.”
Troops would still be heading out for weekend campouts. Parents would drop off sons for their first night away. Kids would still learn to tie square knots.
“None of that’s changing,” he said. “And none of it will change unless you do something that changes that.”
Toward the end, he grew emotional. “We’re going to save lives. We’re going to reach in there and save children from their poor conditions. We’re going to serve kids and make the leaders of tomorrow, millions of them,” he said. “The main thing to remember is to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is to serve more youth.”
Gates among backers
Two years after Tillerson’s tenure as Scouts president, Bob Gates took over. As defense secretary, Gates had overseen the dismantling of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred members of the military from being openly gay. Like Tillerson, he was a longtime Scouting advocate.
When he came on board, he oversaw the next change in its policy on gays: allowing openly gay leaders. The change was not as controversial as the first step had been, and Gates is said to have consulted with Tillerson.
Their bond over Scouting is something that would become vital later on. Gates became a consultant for Exxon, and, in December, he was meeting with Trump at a time when the new president-elect was trying to figure out whom to nominate as secretary of state.
Gates was the first one to bring Tillerson to Trump’s attention.
“If you want to understand Rex Tillerson, and it may be a corny thing to say,” Gates told The Washington Post in December, “but you’ve got to understand that he’s an Eagle Scout.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.