What Makes a Patrol and Why? (TS101)

Scout Leaders, is your Scout Troop on autopilot?

You’re busy. I know I sure am! Most likely, the ‘Scout Leader’ hat isn’t the only hat you wear. Between work, family, and social responsibilities, you probably have a crazy schedule. Because life has so many ups and downs, it’s tempting for all of us to put as much as we can on autopilot.

Scouting cannot be put on autopilot. There are too many different variables. It’s got a fairly simple surface, but there is so much depth to it. We who teach Scouts are dealing not with tasks or systems – we’re dealing with the living, beating hearts that are the next generation. I can’t thank you enough for undertaking this mission for whatever length of time you’ve given it. Scouting exists today and affects millions of young men because of you!

There is no one-size-fits-all way of running a Scout Troop. That’s why we’ve got to know the reason behind each basic principle in order to best apply them to our particular situations. In the last article in the “Traditional Scouting 101” series, I gave a brief overview of what the Patrol System is: it’s a structure that’s specifically designed to cultivate “Patrol spirit” which is demonstrated through the relationships that develop. In this article, I’m going to talk about the basic structure of the Patrol system by focusing on the history behind it and why it was set up in the way that it was.

I hope this will help you (as it helped me) develop a deeper understanding of all the principles and help you apply them in the best way to your own situation. As Scout Leaders, we can’t be satisfied with simply knowing the basics. Not only is the health of each individual Troop at stake, but in a very real way the future of Scouting depends on how well we truly understand the principles of Scouting. If we don’t take the initiative to rediscover Scouting, no one will. It’s up to us to spread the word!

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The Patrol

I tried to focus on the Scoutmaster sitting across from me. I was supposed to be learning how to tie a clove hitch. However, from my chair in that corner of the hall my eyes drifted to the chaos that descended upon the room. Scouts were everywhere! A little group was playing with some unidentified flying object in one corner. Three other Scouts were enthusiastically chasing a fourth. The sound of laughter erupted from another bunch that was seated around one of the other white folding tables that were scattered around the room.

These Scouts didn’t know what Patrols were (other than the order they were supposed to line up in at the beginning meeting). Conspicuously, though, they always seemed to coalesce into groups of four to seven when undirected. It’s almost always that way. Boys naturally group. Baden-Powell knew that, and in the language of his time he liked to call these groups gangs. He saw that some were bent on mischief, others on simple diversion. But Baden-Powell knew they could be so much more.

You see, back in India he was stationed as a regimental commander. He took everything he learned about scouting and reconnaissance from his intense field experience in South Africa and started to teach these skills to the fresh recruits now under his command. He found, after trial and error, that the training, field-work, and morale of the group was always of highest quality in small groups of around 5-8 men with one of their own leading the group.

When Baden-Powell’s focus shifted from military reconnaissance to peace Scouting for the boys of England, he found this system equally vital. The only way to go about Scouting is to build it around these small groups of 5-8 boys. It’s based off of a natural grouping; it is the best way of accomplishing the objectives of Scouting; and it is simply the most efficient way to run a Scout Troop.

When Patrols are first formed, it’s generally best to have them group together as naturally as possible. The Scouts should be given enough time to know each other fairly if they don’t already. Then, have them separate into their preferred groups. Or, you could have them each write down the names of the Scouts they would most want in their Patrol and divide them all up accordingly. This uncontrived approach to grouping is the best way to find good personality combinations. It’s much better than arranging them by guessing, by age, or simply arbitrarily. It keeps interpersonal conflict down to a minimum. Although personality conflicts are good opportunities for growth (and will always exist), too many of these hinder the growth of the Patrol.

As new Scouts join the Troop (if they don’t already have friends in a certain Patrol), the same principle applies. It would also be best if they were given a chance to become familiar with everyone before choosing which Patrol they want to join. Some Troops have a ‘new Scout Patrol’ where a group of new arrivals are led by an older Scout for a period of time before joining the different existing Patrols.

This Scout-chosen approach to Patrol arrangements does not mean there is a fluidity of Patrol membership. Once the Scouts are in a Patrol, they should stay there unless there is a really good reason for transference. Otherwise, Scouts could easily learn to run away from interpersonal conflict. Also, the Patrol spirit simply cannot develop if there are too many changes. Patrols should be as permanent as possible for this reason.

The Patrol Leader

“Each Patrol has a Patrol Leader selected from the Scouts in the Patrol.” Everybody knows that! But it’s very important to have the right Scout as Patrol Leader. The better the Patrol is led, the more every single Scout will get through Scouting. For this reason, there has been debate throughout the history of Scouting as to whether it’s best for the Scoutmaster to select the Patrol Leader or whether he should be elected democratically by the Patrol. If he’s Scoutmaster-chosen, the advantage is that the Scoutmaster has more wisdom to tell which Scout would be the best leader. However, if the PL is elected, there is a sense of ownership and accountability created inside the Patrol.

I personally think that election is best. The robust sense of responsibility and mutual accountability is worth it. It’s important, though, that Scouts be given the chance to know each other well before being asked to make this decision. If it’s a new group of guys, they should go on some hikes, plan a camping trip, or something before election time. Usually it doesn’t take long before the Scouts can make a good decision.

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Leadership Inside the Patrol

The Patrol Leader is rightly given a lot of focus, but the responsibilities of the individual Scouts in the Patrol are often overlooked. One of the most important and difficult jobs the Patrol Leader has is to fit each Scout in his Patrol to an area of responsibility. Each Scout will have both long-term roles (Patrol Quartermaster, Patrol Scribe, etc.) and short-term roles (Campfire Leader, Chief Chef, etc.). These different positions allow every individual member of the Patrol to gain some experience in leadership, allow them to have a real ownership in the running of the Patrol, and allow the Patrol Leader to truly lead his Patrol.

Every member of the Patrol is equally important, but not every one of them should be expected to have identical Scouting experiences. Some Scouts will be talented in things other than leadership, and that’s okay. Trying to artificially construct the different leadership positions hinders the growth of the Troop. If, for instance, each member of the Patrol took turns being Patrol Leader, the Patrol would never develop the synergy that comes from a single Patrol Leader learning how to lead a group that is learning how to follow him. If another Scout has aspirations for Patrol Leader, he always has the opportunity to show himself worthy and be elected for the next term. If he doesn’t make it, he can learn to exercise quality, informal leadership in the Patrol – a very beneficial situation to everyone.

What can you do?

I hope this article didn’t sound too basic. In the beginning, I said that the reason I’m covering some of the more foundational principles is to spread a more in-depth understanding of why Scouting’s founders set things up the way they did. That’s the only way to best apply these principles in real life, and that’s the only way Scouting will survive long-term. If substantial understanding is replaced with mere surface-level formulas, Scouting cannot survive very long.

In the next article, I’ll cover what it is that these Patrols are actually for – what they do in and out of Scouting.

If you care about this, please teach this stuff to others in any way you can. Bring it up in conversation with other Scout leaders, share this article (or others) with friends, teach it formally to your Scouts, teach it casually whenever there is is a good moment. The rediscovery of traditional Scouting depends upon you!

Thank you again for reading and supporting this website. But above all, thank you for caring about the young men in your life and your dedication to bringing the life-changing Scouting program to each of them.

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