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Issue 196 – Some Thoughts on Leadership Development

“Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This famous line, spoken by Malvolio in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” packs a punch. It can also very well be spoken of the Scouts we serve, with most exemplifying the third phrase and then growing into the second, with a mere handful destined for the first.

“The Scoutmaster’s most important responsibility is to train the youth leaders…” “The Scoutmaster is the guide and mentor to the troop’s youth leaders…” Affirmations like these abound in the Scoutmaster Handbook.

Boys begin to get a small taste of leadership and its responsibilities as Cub Scouts, when they become, however briefly, Denners, and learn from their Den Leaders how to do such simple things as leading opening ceremonies for meetings and such. Later, perhaps in their Webelos years, they gain more experience in explaining, demonstrating, and even guiding their fellow den members. But it’s truly not until Boy Scouting that the opportunity to learn and grow into solid leaders happens. How we, their Scoutmasters, go about this is vital to their growth and critical to their ultimate success.

I attended a faculty workshop for a seminar on “teaching leadership skills” to professionals and business people a couple of weeks ago. The emphasis of the course was on facilitating, to make everything engaging and interactive. The instructor’s method for communicating this? A four-hour lecture.

Sometimes, we forget what we’re about. Happens in Scouting, sometimes, too. We may get it in our heads that “Scoutmaster” means master of the Scouts, or that “adult leaders” are supposed to be leading the Scouts. Or that “Scouts will learn by observing us.” Unfortunately, this sort of thinking does lead to something, but that something just isn’t Scouting.

Baden-Powell figured out, over a hundred years ago, that boys will naturally form into small groups (we’d call them “gangs” in another era—but not now because of the inner-city gang connotations that have ruined that word) and within these groups, if left to themselves, a leader will naturally emerge. That leader won’t necessarily be the biggest or strongest or most aggressive guy—but he will be the leader, and the others in the group will be willing to follow his lead. This became The Patrol Method, and it’s this singular aspect that sets Scouting apart from every other type of youth organization. The Patrol Method, observed B-P, isn’t “a” way to deliver the Scouting program; it’s the only way.

But just what is The Patrol Method? Is it complicated and intricate? Do we need an advanced degree to put it in place and make it work? Do we need to “engineer” it?


What we need to do, mostly, is get out of the way. The second thing we need to do, as Scoutmasters, is watch the natural leaders and help them when they need to do a little course-correcting.

Do we “ease into” The Patrol Method? Do we start the Scouts out with an “assigned” Patrol Leader, so they can see what one does? Do we put a Troop Guide “in charge” of the patrol, till the Scouts figure out how to lead themselves? Do we appoint a “temporary” Patrol Leader, just to get them started?


What we need to do, mostly, is allow group interaction and dynamics to run their natural courses. The second thing we need to do, as Scoutmasters, is see who emerges as the natural Patrol Leader and then quietly support him as he leads his own patrol.

But what if the Scouts make a mistake? What if they’ve picked the wrong boy to be Patrol Leader? What if they haven’t figured out how to cooperate with one another? Isn’t this where we step in and teach them all how to be a patrol?


They’ll naturally self-correct. Yes, although it’s actually highly unlikely, they might pick the wrong Scout among them to be Patrol Leader, or he might choose his assistant (the APL) unwisely. And this is how all of them will learn, because they’ll have to fix this themselves or they’ll keep losing inter-patrol competitions or not have enough food when they camp, or other things that just aren’t going very well. Stand back while they correct themselves; if we try to impose our own “infinite wisdom” on the situation, it won’t work as well, because we’re not part of the patrol’s internal dynamics.

Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Management at USC and founding chair of the Leadership Institute, observed, “Most leaders acquire greatness when the role requiring it is thrust upon them.”

This is true of the Patrol Leaders, Senior Patrol Leader, and the other youth leaders of the troop we serve. So step back, take a deep breath, and allow nature to run true… Then be there to guide, mentor, coach, all from behind.

If the youth leaders of our troops are the flags flying in the breezes of life, then we’re the flagpoles that help them stay aloft. Make sure the flags are flying as high as possible and saluted; no one ever saluted an empty flagpole.

Happy Scouting!



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(November 5, 2009 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2009)

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

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