The Mystery & Reward of Pinnacle Awards

Christian Service Brigade has it’s “Herald of Christ” award, BSA has it’s “Eagle” award and Trail Life USA has it’s “Freedom” Award.  Girl Scouts has it’s Gold Award and American Heritage Girls has its “Stars and Stripes” award.

What is the mystery behind these “top of the mountain” (pinnacle) awards — why are they each important to youth development?

They serve several purposes:

  • they teach youth about the value of setting long term goals and sticking to a plan to achieve the recognition of the award
  • they demonstrate the value of “setting the bar high” and pushing one’s self to accomplish more than originally thought feasible
  • they celebrate the values and goals about the organization that sponsors the award
  • they’re a marketing and public relations vehicle to promote the program to potential members
  • perhaps most critically, they’re an incentive to encourage youth members to engage in the process of Self-actualization — that changes the person from within

This last point — the award is a motivator to engage in a personal change, personal growth “process” — can’t be underestimated or glossed over.  Boys (young men) often require a beacon to light the path — to cut through the cluttered background noise of teenage life — so that they are willing to engage and fully focus their attention.

The quest for a pinnacle award typically represents the first time that a boy has “done something, on a sustained basis, over a period of years to achieve something” (Steve Fossett, Eagle, Class of ’57, Distinguished Eagle, Class of ’92)  This sets up the foundation for a sustainable pattern for the rest of their lives.

Many boys grow up being told that they can do anything they put their minds to, but are then hamstrung by the same adults who admonish them to have a “back up plan” for when they fail.  This insecurity becomes an artificial barrier to most boys ever achieving their fullest potential.

However, when a boy realizes (for himself) that he can complete the requirements for his program’s pinnacle award, he forever smashes that perception barrier and the man within himself is fully unleashed to achieve greater things for many years to come.

So we can view videos of grown men reminiscing romantically over their “glory days” on the basketball team that went to the state championship, or having received their Eagle award after long canoe trips on white water rapids, or how they served the needy in their community through their church to complete their Herald of Christ award.  However, the real action is among the youth of today — working on projects right now as they learn to fly on their own.    Yes, they’ll grow up to become the older men in the videos reminiscing over the past, but the key is that they were changed forever because of their motivation and self-discipline to earn the award.

Many people aggressively defend one program’s award over another.  There’s no need to do so.  The award itself is only a “magic feather“.

Dumbo the elephant had enormous ears that could flap like wings.  The only thing preventing him from flying was everyone’s belief that elephants don’t fly.  The circus mouse, together with some local crows, figured a way for Dumbo to “smash through his own doubt”.   So long as Dumbo held onto the “magic feather” he could fly “like an eagle”, but if he let go, he lost his confidence.  Only when the mouse could completely convince Dumbo that the feather was a trick to help him learn to practice flying, did Dumbo really fly without the crutch.

So sometimes organizations use an eagle’s feather to motivate boys to go through a process and complete 250+ requirements, service projects and life experiences.  The difference is that the circus mouse and crows used the feather as a deception to skip over the process of building confidence, while youth programs use it (the process) as a material benefit to the boy.  At least that’s the idea.

What happens when the process gets traded for deception/vanity?

In 1982, seventy years after the first Eagle award was granted, Boy Scouts of America recognized it’s one millionth Eagle award recipient.  During these seventy years, there were two world wars, depression and the peak of BSA membership numbers.  These awards represented perhaps 2% or 3% of all enrolled scouts.  The award was built on tough requirements and was closely linked to demonstrating real leadership in “boy-led” units (before we needed to coin a term like “boy-led” to distinguish from other methods that have recently become popular).  The focus of the scouting program was on experience, learning and leadership – not the garnishment of resumes or holding lavish “black tie” courts of honor with $10,000 multi-tier cakes and such.

Interestingly, Eagle scout number “two-million” was recognized in 2009 — a mere 27 years later, during the longest decline in BSA membership since it’s peak in 1972.

What changed?

  1. The growth of the internet made learning easier,
  2. Merit badge curriculum, while initially a self-study program under a tutor called a Merit Badge Counselor (a qualified specialist in his/her field),  were largely incorporated into troop meetings where the program was taught by adults (with no special insights into the topic of the curriculum).  Skill mastery shifted to “showing up in group setting and getting credit for attendance”.
  3. Self-Actualization shifted to “once and done” demonstration of skills to complete a checklist.
  4. the BSA recognized the American “love affair” with success stories so they took to publishing ever increasing statistics of growth in the number of Eagles “created” each year (like McDonald’s proudly proclaiming “billions and billions served”.)

What Really Changed?

  1. The responsibility for planning and accomplishing “the process” shifted from the youth to the adult (like Dumbo, families accepted the deception of a magic feather as an adequate substitute for the “process of self-actualization” (in short, they felt that the award (itself) was the key to success, not the process of earning the award))
  2. The world accepted a young man’s “possession of a magic feather” as equivalent to “a self-actualized young man“, and failed to question the difference in results produced between the two young men. (However, some employers are now instructing HR departments to IGNORE the presence of “Eagle Award” on resumes)
  3. Families started suing the organization if the award was not granted over objections to sub-standard performance of the individual (i.e. the requirements were not mastered, but were “once and done and forgotten forever“)

I apologize to BSA for picking on their Eagle Award.  I’m an Eagle Award recipient (Class of ’79) so I figure I can justifiably exert some critical examination of the process.

I have also grown to learn more about other youth programs and their own pinnacle awards.  Many of them are actually much more impressive in terms of the requirements, the learning that is associated, and the level of service work actually delivered.  Some have mentoring relationships incorporated to boost the “adult association” component of the program, and others incorporate “life experiences” to make the young man demonstrate that he can apply what he’s mastered in the program throughout other areas of his life — like serving in student government, volunteering to be a junior paramedic, etc.


I applaud all young men (and young women) who work hard to achieve their youth program’s pinnacle award — regardless of what it’s called.  The award itself may only be a framed certificate or pin or medal, but the process employed to attain that final outcome is REALLY what it was all about.

It’s OK to use a “magic feather” as an incentive to inspire self-actualization, but we must guard against it being used to deceive the youth, their parents, adult leaders, or future employers into settling for a romantic trinket when no self-actualization was achieved.


  1. But what about scholarships?  There are some scholarships dedicated to specific pinnacle award programs.  Many of these are for very low amounts of money such as $250 to $1000.  These are not “automatic” grants for merely possessing the award, there are additional requirements that must be met and many are also competitive.
  2. But what about automatic “rank” upgrades in the military upon enlisting?  The often cited claim that a boy will receive a higher initial rank in the military with a higher pay grade is overblown as well. There are actually multiple pathways to get to the E-2 rank that are much easier to meet than becoming an Eagle Scout, and the actual economic benefit amounts to about $800 in increased salary at some unforeseen time in the future if a scout actually enters the military at the lower E1 rank.  Participation in Civil Air Patrol (for Air Force duty) may actually be far more beneficial than participating in other youth programs.
  3. But there are so many “famous” people who earned this or that pinnacle award!  Do you realize that there’s a reason no one keeps a list of the famous and successful people who never earned a pinnacle award?  The list would be too long to be practical.
  4. But only 5% of all youth members receive such an award!  Yes, that’s because 95% of youth members don’t receive such an award – what’s the point?  It used to be because of self-motivation, but now it’s due to how persistent your parents may be.  Employers are tiring of recruiting pinnacle award recipients and then later being disappointed.

As a side note, there is a certain philosophy built into the Trail Life USA Freedom Award.  When a boy becomes an Eagle, there is a saying that says, “Once an Eagle, always an Eagle.” The question is, “till when?” And the answer is, “until you die.”

It is TLUSA’s hope that in the process of earning the Freedom Award in the K-12 program, that a boy will also find himself accepting salvation through Jesus Christ. In doing so, he will have found ETERNAL Freedom through Jesus Christ. At Trail Life USA, our focus is not just on this world, but on the soul of the boy and the eternal reward of salvation.  

Walk Worthy.



3 thoughts on “The Mystery & Reward of Pinnacle Awards

  1. Pingback: Grit, Determination and Servant Leadership | Trail Life Troop 113

  2. Pingback: Grit, Determination and the Courage to Fail | Troop 113's Blog

  3. Pingback: Individual Acheivment Awards | Trail Life Troop 113

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