Recapturing a Vision for Active Patrols

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Curlews. Bulls. Wolves. Ravens. – These are the very first Scout Patrols that ever existed.

They were the Patrols Baden-Powell formed from the twenty-one boys that had come to Brownsea Island for his famous experiment with the Scouting framework. Baden-Powell could have led the whole camp single-handedly through the respect his reputation had earned and the force of his winsome personality. However, that was not the kind of Scouting he desired. He wanted the boys to learn responsibility and leadership by doing it themselves. He believed Patrols were the only way Scouting would really work.

After the Brownsea camp was over, he had this to say:

“The organization of dividing the boys into patrols of five, with a senior boy in each as patrol leader was the secret of our success. Each patrol leader was given full responsibility for the behavior of his patrol at all times, in camp and in the field. The patrol was the unit for work or play… The boys were put on their honor to carry out orders. Responsibility, discipline, and competitive rivalry were thus at once established and a good standard of development was ensured throughout the troop.”

In the last article of this series, I talked about the basic mechanics of what makes a Patrol. In this article, I want to find out what these Patrols are actually supposed to do.

In some ways, it was easier when Scouting was new… Nobody had bad Troop habits, boring Scouting routines, or bland conceptions of what Scouts and Patrols were. These days, we often have to undo all of these in order to rebuild real Scouting. In this destruction, I have to start with myself. If I want to have the greatest influence for good in the lives of Scouts, I need to sacrifice my tendency to flow downstream with the current. Instead, I need to catch and hold on to the enthusiasm of Scouting’s fathers. I need to see real Scouting and the Patrol System as the exciting adventure it can be!

This article is a brief bird’s-eye glimpse of what active Patrols do in Scouting. I couldn’t possibly cover it all, and every situation will apply the principles in a particular way. My goal is to have you walking away from reading this vividly envisioning all the ways your Patrols can be active in the Troop. It all starts with vision.

Everything possible is done with the Patrol as a unit.

Developing a team attitude doesn’t happen magically. As a Patrol, Scouts need to know that they are to always act as a Patrol when doing Scouting. A Scout doesn’t cook dinner with his Scout Troop. He cooks with his Patrol. He doesn’t go through meetings with his Troop; he goes through meetings as a Patrol member. He doesn’t set up his tent with the rest of the Scouts from his Troop; he sets up his tent with his Patrol.

I’m contrasting these things as if they were somehow incompatible. Of course, by extension he’s doing all of these things with his Troop as well. The point is, that in the grand scope of things a Scout doesn’t relate as an individual to the rest of the Troop. He relates to the Troop as a part of his Patrol team. All of what Scouting is to the individual Scout should be in the context of his identity as a Patrol member.

I learned a “secret” way to expedite Patrol team spirit when I was a Patrol Leader.

Looking back now, it makes sense that if the only time Scouts see the members of their Patrol is when they are in a Troop setting, it’s hard to feel like an independent unit. However, when I was a Patrol Leader, I was simply trying to emulate the Patrols as the early Scout writers described them. So, I set about planning my own separate Patrol meetings.

It was a lot of work; I had no first-hand examples of how to go about it. Each Scout’s parents had to drive them all the way to my parent’s house in the country. The schedules of the Scouts, their parents, and my parents all had to align just right. I would set up poles and ropes for pioneering exercises and procure (or make) props for different games.

I’d like to go into more detail on this at another time (and go into different ways of doing it than I did), but right now I want to focus on the effect those few meetings had on my Patrol. There is something about being out on your own as a Patrol instead feeling tethered to the Troop all the time. There is something freeing about not having the distractions of everything else that might be going on in a Troop setting. Whatever it was, my Patrol spirit grew rapidly during those times in a palpable way. It greatly challenged my leadership skills, and remains one of my favorite memories of being a Scout.

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In addition to separate Patrol activities, competitions are one of the most important things a Patrol does together.

Throughout Scouting for Boys, Baden-Powell gives different games and practices for each of the different skills he ‘yarns’ about. Most of these are competitive. In general, the competitive spirit is particularly strong in boys. That can be a very negative thing in a poor environment. However, Baden-Powell used this trait as a foundational training method in Scouting.

Competitions should be both between individual Scouts and also between Patrols. This will build both individuality and Patrol spirit. Many, many different competitions on all Scouting topics can be found through a brief search. It also isn’t too hard to come up with your own or have Scouts apply their creative powers devising these types of games. Some will be found dull or unwieldy to execute, but others will be great hits that Scouts will want to do over and over.

The Patrol Leader Council (Court of Honor)

In every part of my life, I find it difficult to keep the big picture in mind. In my work, in my relationships – I’m no exception to the general rule that people are generally reactive (simply dealing with things as they come up) rather than proactive (having a vision, making a plan, and carrying it out). Scouting is no different. A Scout Troop should not forget the big picture.

Like just about everything else in Scouting, this is done through the Patrol system. Patrol Leaders exercise real leadership in the Troop by having the burden of responsibility to shape the Troop’s vision. During the Patrol Leader’s Council (sometimes called the Court of Honor in other countries), the Patrol Leaders, Scoutmaster, and any senior Scout leadership meet to do just that.

Generally, these meetings are held once a month, but there can be many mini-meetings during camping trips or after Troop meetings. It must convene often enough to really be effective. The chairperson of these meetings is a senior Scout leader. If there are none of these, the Scoutmaster takes up the role. Here is one of the most lucid ways a Scoutmaster’s role of guiding the Scouts as they themselves practice leadership shines brightly. He is as much in the background as possible, but he is very much active in discerning when to input.

There are a few main items on the agenda for this leadership body. The first is the planning of activities. Camping trips are decided here. Any specially-themed meetings are brainstormed here. Troop service projects or special outings are thought-through here by the Patrol Leaders. Decisions are made by vote.

The second item on the agenda is more reactive. When problems come up (such as low attendance, poor Patrol spirit, sloppy uniforms, etc), the Patrol Leaders put their heads together to find out what’s causing the problem, how to course-correct, and how to prevent the problem from resurfacing in the future.

The third duty of the Patrol Leaders during this council is to fairly represent the individual members of their Patrols. If a Scout has complaints, concerns, or suggestions that he has voiced to his Patrol Leader, it’s the Patrol Leader’s job to ensure those are fairly heard. Throughout everything the Council does, the Patrol Leader should always be looking out for the good of every single member of his Patrol – even supporting them on matters of preference that might not be his own first choice.

Two things are important to cover before leaving this section. Privacy: What happens inside the Patrol Leader’s Council stays absolutely secret unless it is intended to be announced. This is to give Patrol Leaders responsibility and authority in the realm of information and to protect the confidentiality of anything that is brought up. (Of course, if there is anything personal that needs to be addressed, the Patrol Leader should protect the privacy of his Scouts and talk with the Scoutmaster privately instead of announcing it during the Patrol Leader Council.) Scoutmastership: The Scoutmaster doesn’t vote in these meetings, but he does reserve the right to veto anything. A boy-led Troop doesn’t take away the responsibility the Scoutmaster has. However, there is a fine line between micro-managing and being too hands-off. Wisdom is required to know where to stop.

The Patrol System works, but it’s a process that takes a lot of work.

It’s an exciting work, though! If you’ve read through this whole article I know it’s exciting for you too. If your Patrols are ‘in-name-only’ or if they still seem so far away from the vision you have of a traditional, mature, Scout Troop… don’t get discouraged. This whole vision isn’t something that can be finally ‘arrived at’ in order to have in a perfect Troop. It’s a continual process of growing and learning. If you are consistently following the path to the vision, you will make the biggest difference you possibly can in the lives of each of the young men you care about.


If you enjoyed this article and found it useful, feel free to distribute it to others. You can share it on social media using the buttons below, link to it, print it easily with the green button below-right, or (best of all) just start the dialogue with Scouts and Scouters you know about how to encourage active Patrols.

Do you have any challenges you face in keeping Patrols active? Any success stories? Please take a minute to share them by leaving a comment below; we’d love to hear about it.

Best wishes to you in your Scouting journey!

-Scout On!

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