Author Avatar

Issue 144 – How Scoutmasters Can “Lose It”

The main point Stanford University management professor Robert Sutton makes in his book, The No A**hole Rule, is that although some people are jerks all the time, all of us are capable of turning into insufferable martinets under the right (wrong!) conditions. One of the key initiators of what I’ll call The Jerk Syndrome is, according to professor Sutton, is the belief – real or imagined – that they have power over others. Although in Scouting we teach youth the concept of the servant-leader, sometimes we adults succumb to the bully-leader syndrome, and I’m not using “bully” in the Teddy Roosevelt manner!

This isn’t myth or fable. That power, or the perception of it, can turn folks into jerks has been known by homo sapiens since the first jerk with a bigger club than the rest walked semi-erect.

It’s been documented in academic studies by professors Dachner Keltner and Deborah Gruenfeld at UC-Berkeley and Stanford, respectively, that the primary thing that happens when people are put in positions of power is that they start focusing more on satisfying their own needs than the needs of the group. The other thing that happens is that they begin to act as if “the rules” no longer apply to them.

This sounds like “The Scoutmaster-as-world’s-oldest-Patrol-Leader” to me! The guy’s a great ASM, or a great Dad, or a great committee member, and then the mantle of Scoutmaster is placed on him, and he thinks it’s an Olympian crown of olive or laurel leaves instead of a round piece of cloth with some colored threads on it. And he’s off and running…

All of a sudden, he’ll “decide” whether a Scout as really earned that merit badge or not. He’ll decide whether a Scout is living the Scout Oath and Law, even though he sees the youth for, at the absolute most, ten percent of the boy’s time. He’ll now decide who can earn which merit badge, what kind of contribution now qualifies for “service hours,” who the next round of Patrol Leaders will be, what the troop’s annual program will be, who’s “worthy” of being an Eagle Scout and who’s not, and on and on. It’s as if “Scoutmaster” worked like “Shazam” and instantly gave him super-powers! And brother, is he gonna start usin’ ‘em! Where he once was fun and sensitive, and a helper and guide to youth, he’s now a jerk. Worse, he now sees himself as omnipotent, and the troop committee better do his bidding!

Is there a solution? Actually, there are two. The first and best is that the guy wakes up, takes heed of the problem, and rights his own ship. The second is the troop dumps him. There is no viable third option.

For a parent who finds his or her son in such a troop, with an irredeemable jerk for a Scoutmaster, Professor Sutton’s solution is the same as the one I’ve recommended in these columns time after time: “The best thing to do is leave as quickly as possible.”

Happy Scouting!


Send your questions and comments to:


(August 18, 2008 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2008)

Letters to AskAndy may be published at the discretion of the columnist and the editor. If you prefer to have your name or affiliation withheld from publication, please advise in your letter.


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

Comments are closed.