In the first installment in this series I asserted that youth leaders develop when they are doing, not watching. Our best Scout youth leader training is an active process of discovery. In part two I outlined the relationships and environment most conducive to development.
What specific practices aid developing leadership? How do we actually make this happen?
If you are going to wait for your Scouts to actually be leaders before they are trusted with real responsibility you’ll be waiting a long time. We are developing leaders and youth leaders develop by leading.
Back Off and Let Them Lead.
Don’t shadow, don’t hand-hold, don’t dog their tracks. Make your advice and mentoring brief and it will be more effective. Make fewer statements, ask more questions.
Be sure to coördinate your approach with other adults in advisory roles. It’s a good idea, for instance, to agree that only one of you will direct the senior patrol leader when needed. Concerns about what’s going on go to that adult and they decide how it will be addressed. I have seen a group of adults run a senior patrol leader ragged by “being helpful”.
Respond to Initiative
Respond to initiative from youth leaders rather than having youth leaders respond to yours.
Even newly minted youth leaders will show initiative if we learn to look for it. Look for the least sign of initiative; an idea or action that shows promise, and support it. Here’s some typical expressions of initiative that we may miss:
- A patrol leader calls all his Scouts and they show up at that week’s meeting.
- The senior patrol leader leads a patrol leader’s council session on their own for the first time.
- The patrol shops for food, packs it along and prepares it on a camping trip.
- A meeting goes by without any adult involvement in the program.
Things like this seem routine to us but they are new to our youth leaders. When we see these expressions of initiative we ought to praise them. Not only to the Scout but to our fellow adult volunteers and the Scout’s fellow leaders. Even if the initiative failed we ought to recognize it and express our appreciation.
Understand that there will be, at times, a decided lack of initiative. It may take some real digging to find something to praise. In the absence of anything good to say take the bad and contrast it with the worst – ‘you may have missed that but at least the worst did not happen’.
If all else fails remember that your youth leaders are volunteering to be Scouts. They are showing up! Even in the worst of times that’s something to celebrate.
Observe and Reflect
It’s important to reiterate the relationship between the Scoutmaster and the youth leadership; we are not their bosses or commanders. We are in a supporting, facilitating role. We recognize and respect the authority and responsibility of our youth leaders.
Our chief activity is not actively advising, directing and mentoring every moment; our role is observing and reflecting. Put yourself in the role of a coach, stay on the sidelines and off the field. Let the Scouts play the game and then reflect on their performance afterwards. Ask how things went, what they think went well.
Honest, useful reflection with a group of Scout-aged boys may be slow and difficult. Be patient, keep it to a few minutes at the most, Boys are especially sensitive to criticism,even good-natured ribbing may be taken the wrong way.
The point of reflection is guiding youth leaders to discover what’s happening, not told what’s happening.
Respect the Discovery Process
Trial and error will show youth leaders what they don’t know or don’t understand. Experience is a powerful teacher. Five minutes of trying things out beats five hours of instruction.
Developing youth leaders will understand, accept and apply training much more readily when they see a need for it rather than being told that they need it.
Give them the environment to try, observe the action and guide a reflection that discovers what they did well and what needs work.
If we understand how youth leaders develop, create and maintain the conditions that foster this development, understand and maintain a useful relationship between adult volunteers and youth leaders, and develop the skills of observation and reflection, we’ll see our youth leaders grow in competence and effectiveness.
Larry Geiger says
That is the core of our training. That’s my “Lead, Train, and Inspire Scouts to First Class Rank”. It’s not really about advancement. It’s about caring. We ask our leaders over and over again to really care and take care of their Scouts. That’s the core part of leadership and a key training point when we talk about “Inspire”.
That is basically what boy leadership is all about. Helping the new guys feel comfortable and accepted. It works so much better if it’s from the boys and not the adults. We constantly emphasize with the PLC that their job really kicks into gear when the new guys come each February.
I often talk to my guys that it’s important who they elect to SPL in the spring because that’s who is going to be SPL when the new guys come in and who is leading them at Summer Camp.
It’s the Patrol Leader’s job to integrate new Scouts into their patrol and the Troop. Those guys need to know that the SM expects them to create a friendly, open environment for new Scouts. There is no room in a Troop for older Scouts to be picking on the younger guys. The Patrol Leader, not the SPL or the SM, is whose job it is to integrate new guys into the Troop and make them feel welcome and productive. It’s the PLs job to introduce them to the advancement program, camping and his Patrol’s traditions.
I think that the use of “fail” might be misleading in this context. Leaders who “fail” by having three hour breakfasts are fine. Leaders who make it to 3 out of 4 camporee activities are fine. Leaders who “fail” by picking on their Scouts, failing to help them and creating unhealthy environments for their Scouts are candidates for immediate remedial activity of some type, up to and including being voted out of office by their Scouts.
Now sometimes a leader will annoy his followers, just like his followers will annoy him. That’s different from a leader (PL or SPL) who is creating an unhealthy environment around him. This is exactly where SPLs and SMs do their work by recognizing these issues and dealing with them. Not interfering every time something is 10 minutes late. This is an issue of discernment and judgement, especially on the adult leaders part. Most of the time it’s just fine to let your leaders “fail”. They will learn.
Tom Tom says
Always learning something new each day!
Mike Rossander says
I also am enjoying this series of articles but I think there is a perspective still missing from your story. This is all excellent advice for developing young leaders. The Patrol Leaders (and immediate support team) who are allowed to fail will learn from their experience and become better leaders over time. The perspective missing is that of “the led”. In this model, who is watching out for the interests of the boys who are not yet in a leadership position – the boys who are new to scouting and don’t know what is normal?
You’ve said several times that as long as it’s not unsafe, let the boys fail. Now put yourself in the sneakers of a brand new scout who barely knows what to expect and who, following his patrol leader’s inexperienced leadership, goes out and has a miserable time. None of the activities were unsafe – you supervised to prevent that – but the boys’ time was wasted. Or they were colder than they needed to be because no one brought a fire starter. Or any of a thousand other mistakes that we let youth leaders make. That new scout doesn’t know any better. To him, this first impression of chaos and disorder is what scouting is all about. To him, this isn’t fun. He gets home and not only drops out of Scouting but tells his friends what an awful, disorganized organization Scouting is.
Getting back to your core theme, you can’t just tell the new scouts that this disorder is normal. 1) They won’t listen to you and 2) even if you tried, just saying it would undercut the existing Troop leadership. So what are the counter-balancing techniques? How do we balance the needs of the leaders to have room to fail against the needs of the led to be reasonably well-led? You’ve told us how to help manage the expectations of the new adults. How do we manage the expectations of the new boys? How do we keep them from dropping out before they get their chance to learn how hard leadership really is?
Clarke Green says
“The perspective missing is, in this model, who is watching out for the interests of the boys who are not yet in a leadership position – the boys who are new to scouting and don’t know what is normal? How do we balance the needs of the leaders to have room to fail against the needs of the led to be reasonably well-led? How do we manage the expectations of the new boys? How do we keep them from dropping out before they get their chance to learn how hard leadership really is?”
The scenario is reasonable but, I think, relatively rare in practice. Boys are pretty resilient – if they get to go camping with their friends they are pretty happy.
While we give our youth leaders plenty of room to fail we are not simply letting them fail over and over again with no coaching or feedback. Youth leader development is not just throwing them out there and seeing what happens as we quietly let things fall apart.
When theres a failure or a problem we respond by helping them discover what caused it. We don’t manage the problem or totally insulate Scouts from the consequences. We help them work through it and sharpen their skill.
If Scouts being led are bored or miserable or disinterested that’s a problem, that’s a failure. So we talk to our youth leaders and see if they can figure out what is wrong and how to fix it.
Does that help?
Enoch Heise says
I know the question wasn’t directed at me, but I wanted to share my thoughts on this.
First, although sometimes Troop activities will be complete chaos, especially when running a new Troop, this should not be the norm. This is because not all of the Scouts in a Troop are brand new at leadership. Older Scouts with more experience who are involved in the Troop will help set a higher standard.
As time progresses, a Troop will continue to get better as the culture of leadership is passed down from older Scouts down to the younger. The Scoutmaster can help foster this by communicating a lot with the S.P.L. and P.L.s. Just because a Scoutmaster doesn’t lead the Scouts himself, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have any job other than making sure the Scouts don’t get into trouble.
A Scoutmaster is a kind of half father figure/half older brother. It is amazing what consistent skilled communication and mentoring can accomplish.
Even when things do go chaotic, if the Troop is faithfully taking part in traditional Scouting activities, this has an irresistible appeal to a boy even if he is somewhat disillusioned about there being a ‘perfect’ environment.
Clarke Green says
Well said Enoch- thanks!