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February 2023
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The Tie Between Square Knots and Leadership

By Matt Kinsey, DTM


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For the past 27 years, I’ve been a volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America—a group that helps thousands of young people learn important life skills and, more importantly, gain the self-confidence to become effective members of their community as they grow into adults.

Scouting has some great lessons, including leadership ones, that can be applied to almost any organization, including Toastmasters. One of those is a concept called “recognizing lesser degrees of failure.” For those of you who like to use more positive language, another way to say that is “recognizing people for getting close to the goal without accomplishing it.”

The best way to demonstrate this is to tie a square knot—one of the very first skills we teach new Boy Scouts. The square knot is symmetrical and very strong, yet easy to undo.

To tie a square knot, hold two pieces of rope. Cross the left end over the right, and then cross the right end over the left, as if you’re tying your shoes. That’s a square; you can see it. Many new Scouts get the first step right but miss the second, resulting in what’s called a granny knot. It’s not symmetrical, and when I push the two ends together it does not easily come apart, so I have to actually come in and pull it apart.

Scouting has some great lessons ... including a concept called “recognizing lesser degrees of failure.”

And herein lies the lesson. We tell the Scouts, “Hey you got the first step right; you’re really close to the square. Now we need to work on the second step.” We teach them to slow down and show them a different method. We tell them to do the first part and stop. Look down at the rope. One end of the rope is closer to your body, and one end is further away. Whichever end of the rope is closer, you’re going to cross that closer to your body. Once they learn this step, they don’t make the mistake again.

That’s an important distinction, this skill of teaching people to get closer to their goals by encouraging them and showing them the next step. This is something we do all the time in our Toastmasters evaluations. Hopefully, we also do it with those who are developing their leadership skills.

If you can adopt this practice of recognizing people’s efforts to get closer to their goal, or a lesser degree of failure, and encourage them to take the next step, I think it will serve you well.


Matt Kinsey, DTM

International President



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