I can get really excited about traditional Scouting, but sometimes it’s difficult to implement all of the principles in real life. It’s especially hard for Scoutmasters, because traditional Scouting isn’t just a system that can be mandated from the top down. A Scout Troop must be boy-led. So how in the world are we supposed to teach this stuff to the Scouts and get them excited about it too?
Well, we know it can’t be done just by lecturing on the topic. There is no such thing as purely academic Scouting. Traditional Scouting is intensely practical and hands-on. Scouts learn by doing things in the real world. The framework of Scouting is built this way. Experience is the best teacher, and it becomes exponentially better when the experience is wisely guided by a mentor. One of the chief reasons the Scoutmaster exists in the Scouting framework is to guide and inform Scouts while coming alongside them to experience Scouting.
One of the ways a Scoutmaster can do this is through more formally training the Patrol Leaders. I’ve put together a blueprint for a Scoutmaster/Patrol Leader training session that will help you teach the basic building blocks of leadership to your Patrol Leaders. This blueprint isn’t a replacement for experience. Rather, it’s a small tool for the Scoutmaster to use as he helps to maximize the experience of his Scouts.
The entire course is contained in this article. However, I also put together a couple of well-designed PDF workbooks that can be easily downloaded and printed for personal use. You can download them by clicking on the button below. I’ve set it up so that you can download them for free, or (if you value this type of resource) you can pay whatever it is worth to you.
I’m going to cover six basic principles of leadership that every Patrol Leader needs to know. These particular principles are found in a little booklet called the “The Patrol System” written in 1958. They were only mentioned briefly, so I’ll be rephrasing them here and elaborating upon them.
To start off, here is a paraphrase from an English Scout Leader whose writings had a big impact on me when I was a Patrol Leader:
“Just about the worst attitude a Patrol Leader can have about his position as Patrol Leader is ‘I couldn’t care less’. Any Patrol Leader who says that and means it about his Patrol doesn’t deserve to be a leader. A Patrol Leader needs the attitude of ‘I couldn’t care more’ for himself, for the Scouts in his Patrol, and for everybody.”
To be a good leader, it is absolutely crucial for you to truly care about those who are following you. You’ve got to want what’s best for your group so bad that you can taste it! All other aspects of leadership; such as motivation, communication, and etc.; will fall into place if you care about your group this much.
I see a lot of young men that I believe would be excellent and effective leaders if only they would care more about others and less about themselves. If someone cares about his group so much that he tries to do everything that he can to help them be better, even if it costs him much, then that person is truly a leader.
Program structure: The main session of this program is designed to last 60 to 90 minutes (although it can be divided up and spread out as needed), with each point being given about 10 minutes of time. I recommend following this program in the setting of a camping trip if possible. Here is the structure this program uses to teach each of these principles:
- Reading of the principle and explanation by the Scoutmaster
- Interactive demonstration/activity by the Scouts under the Scoutmaster’s direction
- Discussion period
- Personalized action plan created by the Scouts.
After a month has elapsed, there should be a follow-up session to discuss the successes and failures of the action plans.
Acting: Throughout Baden-Powell’s writings, he always encouraged acting as a helpful recreation for Scouts. Throughout this program, there are several acting parts as activities. These should be approached in the spirit of fun. It would be even better to take the instructions here and elaborate on them, making up your own dramatic story around the play. Also, make the acting quick. The whole thing should only last a few minutes. This type of acting engages more critical thinking and sensory input. This helps to lock the principle in one’s memory and makes it easier to retrieve and employ when the appropriate moment arrives. It’s analogous to drilling a martial art form or a football play.
The Iceberg Principle: Although I will spend more time talking about the main session, the real meat of this training is in the practice by the Scouts. This session should by no means be looked upon as the training in itself. Like an iceberg, the majority of this program’s substance is in the unseen. While classroom-style instruction has some value, Scouting is about learning while doing. This instruction is merely a springboard into more intentional and well-equipped practice.
In a way, these principles may be intuitive. They certainly can be learned even through raw, unguided experience. But it is a huge advantage to a Scout if he has an adult leader come alongside to personally guide him and teach him these core concepts.
Incentivization: Each principle covered here has an action plan associated with it. Following through with these action plans is where the real value of this program lies. Unfortunately, it’s also going to be the hardest part by far. In addition to checking in regularly with your Patrol Leaders and holding them accountable to follow through, there are also several ways you can help incentivize this as well.
- Turn it into a competition: This is big. The younger you are, the harder it is to see long-term consequences. Competitions move the consequences up to the front and center. If Patrol Leaders know they are being watched and are in a friendly competition with the other Patrol Leaders, this is positive peer pressure. Furthermore, the right rewards give them something to aim for.
- Reward progress: A simple act of appreciation and recognition from a respected figure goes a long way. Coupled with some kind of tangible reward appropriate to the age level, it can make all the difference in successfully following through with this program.
Disclaimer: Throughout my writing, I speak only for myself. I am not a representative of any Scouting organization, and my writing is not aimed at any particular group. I study and learn from the collective history of the Scouting movement. I hope that these resources will be helpful to all who pursue Scouting. If you are a member of an organization, I recommend double-checking the ideas you intend to implement to ensure they are in accordance with the guidelines of your organization. If not, feel free to modify the ideas as needed.
1. Requests are better than orders.
Respect is the basis for proper leadership and a healthy Patrol spirit. The Patrol Leader respects the priority of the members of his Patrol, and the Patrol members respect the authority of the Patrol Leader. Another way of saying this is that the Patrol Leader always put his Patrol before himself, and the Patrol members always cooperate with the Patrol Leader in his directing of the Patrol.
One of the simplest ways this respect is demonstrated by a Patrol Leader is by making requests of the Scouts following him instead of only making orders. By making requests, the Patrol Leader sets an example of showing respect. This attitude of respect by the Patrol Leader has a way of encouraging respect from the Scouts following him. If Scouts have respect for the Patrol Leader and understand what’s going on in the Patrol, most of the time all that is needed is a request.
Explanation: Elaborate on this principle in your own words. Give examples from your own life where good leadership and the two-way respect involved made a difference in morale and productivity.
Activity: Assign one of the Scouts to play the role of the ‘bossy’ leader, another to play the role of the respectful leader, and the rest of the Scouts to be members of the Patrol. Have the ‘bossy’ leader oversee the set-up of a fake Patrol campsite. Then, let the respectful leader take a shot at it. Encourage the Scouts to act this out as if they were demonstrating how good leadership should look to the whole Troop. Prompt the ‘bossy’ leader to be irksomely bossy and the Scouts to begrudgingly follow his orders while cheerfully following the requests of the respectful leader. Make it known beforehand that there will be an acting competition between the bossy leader and the respectful one. The Scout who demonstrates the best acting ability will be chosen democratically by the rest of the Scouts.
Discussion Period: Ask the Scouts for examples from their own experience how being ordered around all the time made them feel. Also ask them how Scouts in their own Patrols have responded when they were respectful towards them. Give them an opportunity to share any thoughts or questions they have about this principle.
Action Plan: Have each of the Patrol Leaders set aside a time during the next Troop meeting or camping trip to teach the Scouts in their Patrol what they’ve learned about this principle. Next, have them create a list of three different regular tasks that will benefit the Patrol (e.g. setting up the Patrol flag, cleaning up the Patrol meeting place, etc.) They will then give (by requesting) these tasks randomly to three different Scouts in their Patrol. They will do the same thing every single meeting for the next month with another random selection of Scouts. Each week, have them write down a recap of the reception they got. Come together at the end of the month to review and compare notes.
2. Orders must be obeyed.
However, there are times when Scouts may not want to do something the Patrol Leader asks or disagrees with the opinion of the Patrol Leader. In cases like these, a Patrol Leader may have to make a clear order for a certain task to be carried out. In order to maintain the proper authority of the Patrol Leader, orders must be obeyed without complaining or grumbling. Being firm in this is the way it has to work. It’s taking the Scout Oath/Law seriously. Otherwise, there would be no practical meaning behind the formal leadership of Patrol Leader in a Scout Troop.
It must also be stated that Patrol Leaders who cannot handle this kind of authority responsibly should not be Patrol Leaders. Every order given should be only for the good of the Patrol. It will be clear by the later principles covered in this course that whimsically and selfishly wielding this authority disqualifies a Patrol Leader. However, that isn’t for the Scouts in the Patrol to decide in the moment. If they have complaints about the leadership of their PL, they should take it up the chain of command after complying. The only exception is if the Scouts are ever ordered to do something contrary to the Scout Oath/Law or something dangerous. In this case, they are to stop and report this to the Scoutmaster as soon as possible.
Explanation: Elaborate on this principle. All of the Scouts will have different levels of personal exposure to this kind of leadership. Some may be used to disciplined parents or teachers, others may have never seen a good example of this. Spend some time explaining why authority and respect are much better and more realistic reasons to obey an order than being begged or bribed to do something. Explain how it builds character by strengthening the habit of discipline.
Activity: Sometimes the clearest way to tell what is right and wrong is by seeing an example of both first-hand. Appoint one Scout to play the part of Patrol Leader and the rest of the Scouts to play the members of his Patrol. Have them pretend they’re arriving at a camping site and getting ready to set up camp. They’re all tired from hiking and want to rest and eat first. The Patrol Leader tries to beg them to help out and get camp ready. He pleads with them and insists it’s better to set up camp before it gets dark. The Patrol simply doesn’t respect him. Then, have him bribe the Scouts by promising all different kinds of rewards. Finally, have him give clear orders to a Patrol who (though tired and hungry) respects his leadership and gets the job done.
Discussion Period: Ask the Scouts why begging and bribing felt so wrong. Explain, if need be, that the reason is a lack of respect for the Patrol Leader. That kind of disrespect can be subtle sometimes, but it goes against the whole spirit of the Scout Oath and Law. This can be clearly seen when it is acted out in an exaggerated way. Ask the Scouts if they have any questions or thoughts to share.
Action Plan: Pick a time, as the Scoutmaster, to share with all of the Scouts in the Troop how important obedience is in the running of the Patrol. Let them know that you are going to uphold the authority of the Patrol Leaders while simultaneously keeping them accountable. Then, have the Patrol Leader set aside some time to stress to his Patrol that the only time he will give an order is when it is for the good of the Patrol and a request doesn’t work. He’ll encourage them to be open to talking about ways he can improve in his leadership of the Patrol. Over the course of the next month, he will keep track of every time he must make a clear order (hopefully it will be infrequent). Have him analyze whether the order was fair and necessary and how it was responded to. After the month is over, discuss the results in the follow-up meeting.
3. Don’t ignore disobedience.
Be strict when it comes to obedience, but don’t be too strict! Obviously, there is a balance required when it comes to discipline. It is something that the Scoutmaster and the entire Troop will constantly be practicing, learning, and getting better at. In the circles I’ve been in, though, I’ve sometimes seen Scouts and Scoutmasters sacrifice this aspect of leadership in fear of being too hard.
To be fair, finding the right balance is a hard matter that requires wisdom. One thing that must be certain in real Scouting, though, is that the matter of obedience all along the chain of command must be taken seriously. There are a couple of reasons why this is especially important.
First, if the importance of obedience was diminished, that would be diminishing the standard of the Scout Law – the bedrock which Scouting is built on.
Secondly, Scouting is real-world training with real-world consequences. While fun is a core part of Scouting, so is the seriousness of the Scout Oath and way of life. Knowing that the stuff of Scouting is of a real-life importance is what truly makes the Scouting kind of fun rewarding and gratifying.
This means when the time comes that a clear order is disobeyed, the Patrol Leader needs to take the matter up with the Scoutmaster directly (or Patrol Leader Council if systems for handling this kind of thing have been put in place). The leadership higher up should back the Patrol Leader unless he is clearly in the wrong, and work out a conclusion to the matter.
Explanation: Explain this principle in your own words. The game of Scouting isn’t purposeless or arbitrary. It isn’t just a pleasant diversion. Who we are as Scouts shapes our responsibility to the world around us. This means that going about Scouting with a self-centered attitude isn’t an option. This is the foundation of all discipline in Scouting.
Activity: Have Scouts form a simple pyramid with each Scout in a position on hands and knees. It would be ideal for six Patrol Leaders – three on the bottom, two in the middle row, and one on the top. However, variations with three, four, and five will also work for this particular demonstration. The idea is that once the pyramid is formed the middle Scout on the bottom will try to remove himself without knocking over the formation. You can customize this activity to your particular group.
Discussion Period: The above activity is a simple visualization of a Scout Troop. Without strength in the foundation of leadership, the pyramid cannot stand. Ask the Patrol Leaders why they think Scout Troops are designed to have a ‘chain-of-command’/leadership structure. Ask them if they think a leader could get very far if his authority was never enforced. Why or why not?
Action Plan: This principle is more reactive than proactive. However, the idea behind it is immediately applicable. Patrol Leaders can not only set good examples for the members of their Patrols, but they can also instill the discipline of obedience in their own lives in the way they respond to those in authority over them. Ask them to write down five instances next week that they will make a point of being obedient to authority figures in their lives (Parent, Scoutmaster, etc.) Talk about these during the next meeting.
4. Lead in tasks rather than simply ordering them.
Whenever possible, Patrol Leaders should be the first to begin any task, job, or bit of work that needs to be done. They should take the old “lead by example” adage literally. There is little use for ‘bosses’ in Scouting. However, there is a desperate need for real leaders. The reason is because Scouting isn’t about some kind of external productivity; it’s about the hearts and minds of the individual Scouts. If all you have are bosses, all you will have are hands. Hearts, on the other hand, need leaders.
It is true, though, that Patrol Leaders shouldn’t be trying to do all the work themselves. One way that a Patrol Leader can still lead by example without taking over is to start a task, recruit some other Scouts to help him, and then leave them in charge of completing that task while he goes to see about another task that needs doing. In this way, he is still physically leading by example, but he’s not micro-managing or personally trying to do all of the Patrol’s work.
Explanation: Explain this principle in your own words. In addition, try to give the Scouts in your Troop an example of this in your own leadership. No one likes to feel that their leader is simply getting out of doing the hard work by delegating it to them. Some Scouts may even have the impression that this is all leadership is. One of the most damaging attitudes toward leadership that I experienced first-hand in Scouting was verbalized by a Scoutmaster’s favorite catch-phrase: “Rank has it’s privileges.” Stress that the attitude of using leadership to get off hard work is a disgrace to any Patrol Leader.
Activity: Set up a competition between the Patrol Leaders. Give each of them a task that they need to carry out which can be done right away (e.g. stacking all the chairs and folding the tables, setting up flags for a small flag ceremony, etc.). Have each of them act the part of a Patrol Leader and the rest of the Patrol Leaders act the parts of the Patrol members. The goal is for each Patrol Leader (when it comes his time to be the leader), to be the most winsome and honest at leading his “Patrol” in the work. After each Patrol Leader has had a chance to lead in his particular task, give each of them a word of praise and a word of critique. Pick a winner as best you can, and give the reasons why you chose him.
Discussion Period: Ask them all what they think will be the most challenging part of exercising this principle (leading by example) in their own Patrol. Brainstorm on different ways to lead by example.
Action Plan: Have each of the Scouts come up with three tasks they can lead their Patrol in during the next few meetings or camping trips. These can overlap with the tasks in the first principle’s action plan. Have the Scouts elaborate briefly on how they intend to exercise this principle for each of those tasks.
5. Never ask a Scout to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.
In keeping with the spirit of the last point, a Patrol Leader must never give an order that he wouldn’t be prepared and willing to carry out himself. Scouts need to know that their leader would never push off work onto them that he wouldn’t want to do himself. That would completely destroy Patrol morale.
A Patrol must know that their leader’s first thought is for the good of the Patrol – that he would sacrifice his wants and comforts any time for those of the guys under his leadership. It is only with that kind of understanding from his Patrol that a Patrol Leader can have the respect of a true leader.
It can be easy to get lost in lofty descriptions of leadership. But what does this really look like for the Patrol Leader in a practical way? This principle is like a tape measure you can use against everything you ask the members of your Patrol to do. There are two things you should ask yourself each time: “Is this something that is really necessary and beneficial to the Patrol? Is this also a fair work-load for the Scout(s) I’m assigning it to?”
A lot of this has to do with the work-load distribution. Some tasks may be completely necessary (e.g. cleaning the camp latrine), but to ask one Scout to do this by himself without help would be unfair. To ask two younger Scouts to do something more suitable for two older Scouts (and vice versa) would also not be right.
Explanation: Teach the Scouts this principle in your own words. Tell them examples from your own life of times you were the recipient of unnecessary orders and how that felt. Explain how they can put this into practice in their particular Patrols. It might help to give personalized examples to help them visualize what this looks like.
Activity: Gather the Scouts around for a quick game of “would you give this order?”. Have a list of many different orders. They should range from clearly necessary and helpful to unnecessary and dishonest and everywhere in-between. (e.g. Scout cleans latrine by himself, two kitchen-duty Scouts cook for the Patrol scratch biscuits with fruit jam for breakfast, one older and one younger Scout chop firewood, etc…) Have the Scouts call out whether they would give it or not. Have them explain their answer.
Discussion Period: Extend the Demonstration section above to fill this space as the Scouts explain why they chose what they chose.
Action Plan: Have the Patrol Leaders go back to all the orders they wrote down in the previous principles.
6. Hold yourself to the highest standard.
As discussed in the fourth point, one way that a Patrol Leader can literally lead by example is by physically being the first to start the task. Another way, though, that a Patrol Leader can lead by example is simply through the character he demonstrates. Every time a Patrol Leader expects some standard of behavior from the members of his Patrol, he should pause and examine his own standards. He should always try to make his own standard twice that of what he expects of the Scouts he is leading.
This principle really just flows from points four and five. I’ve always found it helpful for me to think about two different aspects of leadership: formal leadership and character (informal) leadership. Formal Leadership is all about the title, the authority that comes with that title, and the task of delegating duties to others you are leading. Character leadership, on the other hand, is something that all Scouts should strive for, especially Patrol Leaders. It is the leading by example; it is the relational guiding of another; it is the sacrificial servant leadership that really matters long after everything else fades away.
Explanation: Explain this principle in your own words. Scouts will make many mistakes when trying to be a leader. When I was a youth leader in my Troop, I cannot count how many times I’ve messed up in my communication or even went in the entirely wrong direction with my leadership. At the end of the day, though, what really lasted was the example I tried to set of doing the right thing no matter what. If your Patrol Leaders care deeply about the Scouts in their Patrol, then they cannot help but grow in their leadership skills. Impress this upon them. This is the heart of a true leader.
Activity: Have the Scouts tell an impromptu, collaborative story. Each Scout gets to tell a part of the story in three to five sentences during their turn. After they finish, it’s the next Scout’s turn and so on until the circle is complete, and the first Scout then starts a second turn. Give them the setting of the story. For example: [A Scout Patrol is on the return trip of a hike through the grand Canyons when a rock slide cuts off their way back. They must figure out how to get back, but nothing seems to be going right. The story is told in the first person from the perspective of the Patrol Leader who tries to hold himself to a high standard and do the right thing even though everything is going wrong, it’s starting to get dark, and his Patrol is starting to become panicked. He must make some tough decisions.] A collaborative story can easily get derailed, so encourage the Scouts to focus on quality of story-telling. Perhaps even make it a competition. If need be, step in and rein things back to a reasonable point. Have fun with it.
Discussion Period: Ask the Patrol Leaders what kind of Scouts would be the ideal members to have in their Patrol. What qualities would the members have to make leadership easiest for the Patrol Leader? Then, ask them how they’re doing in holding themselves to that standard. Get feedback. Ask them what roadblocks they’ve been facing. Answer questions.
Action Plan: Have the Scouts write down a short affirmation statement of the high standard they want to hold themselves to as leaders. Encourage them to be specific. Throughout the following weeks and at the follow-up meeting ask them how they are doing in striving for that standard.
One of the most influential Scouters in the history of the BSA was a man named William Hillcourt. In his 1950 “Handbook for Patrol Leaders” he said:
“Get all the fun you can out of being a Patrol Leader! But remember that there’s much more to it than fun. Your greatest thrill as a leader will be your chance to turn an ordinary gang of boys into a real Patrol, to help five or six or seven fellows become good Scouts.
Every one of your boys will have a part to play in making the Patrol whatever it turns out to be. But the biggest responsibility is yours. Your leadership, your friendliness, your example will count the most.”
I hope you learned a lot from the Patrol Leader training program. But it won’t do any good unless you put it into practice. When talking about how a Scout should act, Baden-Powell said: “A Scout is active in doing good, not passive in being good.” This is one of my favorite Baden-Powell quotes because it captures the spirit of the Scout. A Scout isn’t content with just staying out of trouble or not making bad grades in school – this is simply ‘being’ good. A Scout wants to do things. A Scout wants to actively contribute to making the world a better place. A Scout is active!
It’s not achieving a perfect looking Patrol that makes Scouting a success – it’s actively working toward being the best Patrol possible! If you only remember one thing from this course, remember to try your very best to make your Patrol the greatest it can possibly be! I’ll tell you right now it won’t be easy; there will be a lot of difficulties and disappointments. But if you give it your all, you will get so much more out of Scouting than you would’ve otherwise, and you will impact the members of your Patrol in ways that can last a lifetime!