How to Spot a Broken Chain of Command


Have you ever felt overwhelmed with everything there is to teach your Scouts about Leadership? You wish you had weeks to sit down with each Scout individually to coach and train them how to be leaders. Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time. While we can’t clone ourselves into seventeen Scout Leaders (one for each Scout), we can work on the next best thing: a leadership-oriented Troop culture. In this article, I talk about a tool that is indispensable and how to spot when it’s not there.


Good leadership is hard mainly because there are so many nuances to interpersonal communication. A Scout Troop’s maturation will be sluggish at best unless good habits and structures are formed. Don’t be overwhelmed with the complexity of leadership. Instead, build the day-to-day operation of your Scout Troop around these simple structures, and a culture of leadership is sure to begin developing.

You may be familiar with the term “chain of command” by its military connotations. Scouts don’t use this term with the same strictness as found in military protocol, but the basic principle remains the same. As a general rule, directives by the Scoutmaster and/or Senior Patrol Leader should follow down the “chain” to the Patrol Leaders before reaching the individual Scouts in the Troop. In reverse, questions that Scouts have should go up the “chain” to the Patrol Leaders and then on to the appropriate higher levels of leadership.

There are two ways that this chain can be broken. The first is by an absence of clearly defined leadership. Scouts become confused. They will get frustrated because they don’t know who is supposed to be calling the shots.

The second way the chain can be broken is by an overreaching leadership. Once a Patrol Leader’s responsibility has been commandeered by his leader, the reputation of his authority is damaged in the eyes of his Patrol.

It sounds simple enough to follow the chain of command, but implementation is a challenge. If this chain is broken, then the entire group does not run as efficiently or effectively at best and damage can be done to the morale and relationships of the Scouts in the Troop at worst.

In this article, I’d like to share three situations I’ve found to be symptomatic of this chain not being followed.

1. Scout Behavior Dependent on Who’s Watching

Imagine a Troop meeting during which a Patrol is gathered together in one corner of the room. They are lounging and chatting with each other over various non-Scouting related topics with their Scout books and various first aid gear scattered around them. Then, the Scoutmaster walks into the room, keenly surveying the various Patrols and what they’re up to. When the Scouts in the corner become aware of his presence, suddenly the Scout handbooks are picked back up, the Patrol Leader starts demonstrating a certain bandaging technique, the talking subsides, and everything generally looks very productive.

What you just observed is a broken chain of command. The quick reversal of the Scouts’ behavior when the Scoutmaster walked into the room demonstrates that the Scouts were aware of a certain expectation that the Scoutmaster had which they were currently not living up to. The Patrol Leader was not responsibly carrying the authority and desire of the Scoutmaster down to his Patrol and enforcing it there. Although no verbal words were spoken, the Scouts were getting their orders from the Scoutmaster, not from the Patrol Leader. A Scoutmaster can either encourage this disorder of the chain of command by approaching the Patrol and dealing with them as a group, or he can work directly with the Patrol Leader on the root issue. It is not that the Scouts weren’t doing what they should have been doing, but it really is that the Patrol Leader was not leading in that situation.

2. Scouts Reporting Directly to the Senior Leadership

If you are transitioning from a more Scoutmaster-run Troop to one that gives real responsibility and leadership to the Patrol Leaders, you may notice this happening a lot. Old habits die hard. Instead of the individual members of the Patrol holding their Patrol Leader up to expectations of leadership, they instead bypass him when seeking answers and go directly to the Scoutmaster.

Now, our first impulse is to respond to this by providing the answers or giving the necessary instruction. But when you are tempted to do this, you’ve got to remember that even though it would feel like you’re helping the Scout, you are actually undermining the position and responsibility of the Patrol Leader.

It’s true, the Scoutmaster is much more qualified to help the Scouts and answer their questions than the Patrol Leaders. They may not even want this responsibility at times. But unless they are allowed to face this responsibility and work through it, they will never become better at leadership; they won’t form a healthy relationship with the members of their Patrol as Patrol Leader; and your Troop will not function they way it was meant to.

So redirect all questions, comments, complaints, etc. that are within the Patrol Leader’s domain of responsibility to him. If he is unequipped to deal with anything, all he has to do is go up to the next link in the chain of command.

3. Lack of Senior Leadership/Patrol Leader Meetings and Coaching

Some people seem to be born with a certain intuitive understanding of leadership principles. However, for the rest of us leadership comes through hard experience, practical successes and failures, or someone coming alongside and mentoring us. We can’t expect Patrol Leaders to know how to lead unless they are taught. The best way to do this is through dedicated Patrol Leader training meetings at least once a month and continual mentoring in the field. (I created a short, free leadership training course right here that may help you get started.)

Troop meetings and camping trips are dominated by surface-level conversation. The most golden opportunities to teach valuable lessons come when the conversation goes deeper. It is difficult for this to happen in the busy environment usually created by Troop meetings and camping trips. That is why creating a separate environment calculated to be conducive to these conversations is such an important part of Patrol Leader training.

Troop Culture Starts Now

As a Scout Leader, it’s not just the individual Scouts that need your attention. You want the whole Troop culture to make progress and grow into something that fosters leadership and maturity. It’s a hard thing to do over time as Scouts rotate in and out. There are so many different aspects of leadership that must be taught. It would be impossible to teach everything you’d like to every Scout individually. The ONLY way to make a difference for every Scout that puts on your Troop number is through establishing a first-rate Troop culture. Implementing the chain of command is a good way to start going about that. The founders of Scouting have provided us with the principles and structures. It’s up to us to put these tools to work.

The chain of command is just a simple way to follow the principle of giving Patrol Leaders real and free-handed responsibility in their Patrols. It’s easy to remember and easy to explain. Start making it a habit of communication in your Troop right now. It won’t take the Scouts long to understand. And while there will be constant lapses, it will gradually become the norm.

There are many symptoms of a chain of command not being followed in the Troop. The three that I listed in this article are just the most prominent in my own experience. Here’s a quick recap:

  1. When Scouts behave differently in front of different levels of leadership, it shows a discontinuity of standards between those levels.
  2. When Scouts are bypassing the Patrol Leader for basic, day-to-day questions, it shows that the direct leadership of the Patrol Leader is not being understood and enforced.
  3. When Scoutmasters don’t take the initiative in leading regular, proper leadership coaching meetings with the Patrol Leaders, the leadership culture of the Troop more easily becomes stagnant.

Thanks for reading this article! What challenges have you faced with your Troop following the chain of command? Comment below and let me know.

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