I got back from a week at camp with our troop last week and it was, in a word, transformative. So, grab a cup of coffee or a glass of your favorite beverage and settle in for a long read.
Before my son and I joined, the Troop talked the talk on boy-led but it wasnâ€™t very much boy-led in the outdoors. The outdoor program consisted of one nearby campout, two backpacking trips and one cabin camping trip. The adults designed and implemented the program with the boys leading by performing the tasks that they were assigned. I came in at the same time as the new scoutmaster. Together, we reinvigorated the outdoor program - having 9 to 10 trips per year plus summer camp and moved toward being more boy-led in the outdoors. There was still something missing at times in the boy leadership. When the elected senior leadership was on campout, there seemed to be an â€œorder people aroundâ€ type of leadership. The adults learned to back off and give the scouts space to lead. However, summer camp was different. The person who served as Scoutmaster at camp would quickly fill any vacuum left by boy leadership. His intentions were good and very understandable when you are in charge of 25 to 30 boys in the woods (some for the first time).
MY SONâ€™S PROLOGUE
So my son is very active - attending every meeting and every outing racking up more nights camping and more miles hiking / backpacking over the past three years than any other member of the troop. He earned Star in two years (sooner than any other scout in recent history - although another scout equaled his timing last year). He served as an Assistant Patrol Leader (as well as a Den Chief) last year, but the Patrol Leader was ineffective and he became the de-facto patrol leader. Now, we have patrols for our weekly meetings and ad hoc patrols for our outings. The patrols for the weekly meetings are focused on planning an activity for the troop portion of the meeting (each patrol take one week a month). On outings, my son was the PL for his ad hoc patrol based on his rank and experience. He struggled a lot with leading last year â€” at age 13 he was just learning to take care of himself and he found himself charged with taking care of others. He also clashed a bit with the older elected leaders - he became frustrated because they werenâ€™t leading the way that I was trying to teach him to lead. Their leadership consisted of ordering people what to do while my son was being taught servant leadership. He made Life Scout in the spring as he finished up 8th grade. When elections for patrol leaders came up, there were five boys running for four spots (we elect patrol leaders as a Troopâ€¦ I knowâ€¦). He was the only one not elected out of the five. He was devastated. When he recovered, he asked to be the Troop Guide (I had another post on that) and the OA Rep. He asked NOT to have to go to NYLT. His comment was â€œwhy should I bother, I tried to change the Troop but they donâ€™t want to change.â€ He was one of the two most senior scouts - one of which would be tapped to be the SPL at summer camp (the elected SPL was not going). The other scout got the most votes in the Patrol Leader elections (only by a couple of votes). My son was the highest ranking and had the most experience leading in the outdoors. I told him that I could tell the SM that the other boy should be the SPL so that my son wouldnâ€™t be set up for failure by trying to lead other boys that had been elected to a position over him. He said he still wanted the chance to lead, so I told the SM that I didnâ€™t want to be involved in the decision.
My son did go to NYLT with a buddy and came back truly energized and excited. The staff and the other guys in his patrol recognized that he had â€œitâ€ â€” with one staff member telling him he had the most potential of any leader that had come through the program. For the end of the week, his patrol elected him Patrol Leader. On the way home, I asked him and his buddy what one thing they would change in the Troop based on their NYLT experience. They both instantly yelled â€œSERVANT LEADERSHIP.â€ While at NYLT, the SM decided that my son would be SPL for camp. It made sense because the elected patrol leaders would be serving in that capacity. I hoped for the best but prepared myself for a train wreck. I rearranged my schedule so I would be at camp the entire week to cover us being short a leader for the second half of the week, recognizing that would give me a chance to coach him and to run interference with the other adult leaders.
Even before my son was selected as SPL, I had been advocating having a PLC meeting of the camp leadership before we left for camp. Typically, the guys were expected to show up and just figure it out. Going off his enthusiasm from NYLT, my son and I worked together to come up with an agenda for the meeting. He started the meeting by setting out his vision: boy-led, patrol and servant leadership. My son made it clear that his job was to help the patrol leaders succeed. About half way through his presentation, the Camp SM interrupted and started talking about his agenda. After about 10 minutes, I managed to transition the conversation back to my sonâ€™s agenda. Over the next couple of days, my son sent a couple of e-mails out to the leadership team and to the scouts attending camp and their parents. Iâ€™ll admit, I did help him to develop the e-mails (what do you want to say? do you want to mention this? how do you want to say this?). He and the QM came up with a list of gear to pack for camp. He ordered bandanas and patrol flags for his leaders. He planned a junk food night for the Thursday Troop campfire and he even planned to have 1980â€™s music blaring to wake everyone up.
My son also urged everyone to adopt one of the phrases he learned at NYLT - â€œEarly is on time, on time is late and late is unacceptable.â€
THE WEEK AT CAMP
My son backpacked into camp with a group of scouts. That gave him some time to talk to me and his regular SM about being SPL. Unfortunately, he twisted his ankle on the road leading into camp (did 20 miles over rocks and trails but twisted his ankle on a gravel road in the last half mile). He was limping for most of the first two days.
When the others arrived at camp he faced his first challenge. One of the new scouts did not have a tent buddy. It took my son a moment to ask his buddy (who was one of the ASPLs) to move tents so the new guy could tent with him. In an instant, the new guy went from feeling like the last kid picked on the team to sharing a tent with the SPL. As the new kidâ€™s parents went to set up the boyâ€™s bug net frame, my son turned to them and said, â€œIâ€™ll show him how to do it himself when we get back to camp later.â€
The second challenge was the chore charts. My son had already decided that the two ASPLs and three APLs would handle being waiters the first night so the SPL and PLs could be there to make sure everyone lined up in uniform for flags. In the past, there had been contention because the leaders exempted themselves from being waiters. That was quickly solved when the SPL, ASPLs and PLs decided they would serve as waiters for all the lunches. When the chore charts were posted, a younger scout pointed out that the leaders were not listed as waiters. One of the PLs heard that and responded, â€œwe know when we are waitering - weâ€™re doing all of the lunches.â€ The younger scout simply responded â€œcool,â€ but you could tell he was impressed with the leaders doing more than they were asking others to do.
The first in camp PLC meeting was shared between the SPL and Camp SM. For line-up the first night, everyone was on-time and in uniform. The Camp SM did have some comments to the boys based on some tasks not being done (water jugs filled, lanterns set up, etc.) and encouraged the younger scouts to step-up. The rest of the evening went off without a hitch and you could see that everyone pitched in when they got back to camp after dinner. We had another PLC meeting on Sunday night with the Camp SM going over expectations for the week. In the past, those expectations had been conveyed to the Troop as a whole by the Camp SM. This year, they were conveyed to the PLC and the PLs conveyed the information down to the rest of the guys in their patrols.
On Monday morning we played music (two songs) to wake everyone up (weâ€™re the furthest campsite out so hearing reveille is hard). The morning was chaotic due to handing out merit badge cards to the scouts to bring to their classes. The APLs were responsible for making sure all tents were ready for inspection and the ASPLs did a final sweep as everyone was lined up. The APLs did their counts of guys in their patrol and reported to their PLs who reported to the SPL. As they lined up, the Camp SM complimented the guys on how well they did the night before and in the morning.
As the boys came close to the the parade field, they stopped, reformed their patrol lines and took a count. The APLs then took their position as last in line for their patrols (i.e. running sweep to make sure everyone was there). The boys would be early for all of the camp flag ceremonies - a break from the past where they would be late at least twice.
The Camp SM had to leave to deal with some work issues later on Monday morning and would return on Wednesday afternoon. My son set his schedule so that he would be free from 1:00 until 4:00. He had three merit badges in the morning and one from 4:00 to 5:00. The first afternoon, we spent a chunk of time from 2:00 until 4:00 going over the schedule for the week and the division of labor among â€œThe Sixâ€ (SPL, 2 ASPLs and 3 PLs). There were a lot of activities and projects that needed to be completed during the week and my son realized that he couldnâ€™t do it all.
We also had a complaint from the Troop next door about the music in the morning. My son went over and talked to the ASM of that Troop. My son looked for a compromise - can we play it at lower volume? The ASM said he preferred we donâ€™t play it at all. My son replied that we wouldnâ€™t play it because â€œa scout is courteous.â€ He was disappointed but learned a lesson about what courtesy means - doing something you donâ€™t have to do for someone elseâ€™s comfort.
On Monday night, my son took the new scouts to the First Year campfire with one of his ASPLs (his buddy who was new to the Troop and was his first time at camp) and had the other ASPL take the remainder of the Troop to the â€œSecond Year (and up) Gamesâ€ which is typically some sort of scavenger hunt. From what I heard, the Troop appeared completely disorganized but they somehow managed to win the contest. The ASPL and PLs had a sense of ownership of the activity and stepped up. A scout had asked me what they should wear to the games and I told him to ask a boy. The ASPL told him to wear his troop Class B t-shirt. Those are usually saved for the Camp-wide games on Thursday, but I resisted the urge to overrule the ASPL repeating to myself that â€œnobody ever died from wearing a shirt twice.â€
Tuesday morning went like clockwork. I only said four words, â€œDo we have everyone?â€ I didnâ€™t police the campsite like the leaders usually do, I just trusted the boys. My trust was not misplaced. I started to notice the ASPLs working in concert with the SPL - each supporting the other. I saw the PLs and APLs working in tandem. I saw some guys who werenâ€™t named leaders stepping up guiding younger scouts. It seems that servant leadership is contagious. I was concerned because most of our leaders (SPL, ASPL, PLs) had just finished 8th grade (one of the ASPLs had just finished 9th). It seemed that those guys did better because they wanted to lead. In the past, the older boys thought that being a leader interfered with their having fun and that they were â€œtoo coolâ€ to be excited about leading.
On Tuesday night, the boy leaders were supposed to talk about he build it project between dinner and our Troop boating event. They did and three guys volunteered to work on the project. They were supposed to set up the roster and brief their patrol members for participation in the Camp Wide Games. I suggested that they do it right when they get back from boating. A couple of guys wanted to take a shower, a couple of guys had things they had to do and a couple of guys needed to rest. I reminded my son that they needed to have the meeting because there wouldnâ€™t be time to do it in the morning. That was around 8:00. Around 9:30 nothing had happened. I was ready to let them fail. I got distracted helping a couple of the guys with their e-prep requirements (they were putting together an emergency kit from the items I had in camp). I came out to check on the leaders to see if they had even started yet, and was told that they had finished and were about to call everyone in and explain to them what they were doing. Another note to myself - although they donâ€™t do it the way I would do it, they still manage to get it done. There was a couple of guys who didnâ€™t like what they were being asked to do â€” luckily, those two guys happily switched roles.
Wednesday morning went like clockwork. We actually were the first troop to flags. There was some joking that we were turning into one of â€œthoseâ€ troops rather than our typical rag tag bunch of misfits. I assured them they still had a long way to go. Somehow, they ended up dominating the Wednesday games, placing in all but two events. Their cheers were louder than I remember it. They became the troop to beat despite being one of the youngest groups (our 13 and 14 yar olds beat other troops 16 and 17 year olds) and despite having every scout participate. They sealed their victory with a well run rope and sled race and several well played games of tic tac toe. It seems that they really thought about who would be the best for each game and then had the older guys teach the younger guys any skills they needed. This is the first time the troop had won the camp games in everyoneâ€™s memory (which goes back more than 10 years).
The guys split up into patrols to do service projects with the PLs leading (the SPL and ASPLs added themselves to patrols and did what the PLs asked). The Camp SM came back in the afternoon, saw how things were running and stepped back. I did have to intervene when a group of younger scouts were not ignoring their PL despite repeated attempts by the PL to encourage them to help. I simply explained to them that boy-led means they have follow other boys for the good of the patrol / troop and that the alternative was adult-led which sounds a lot like me yelling at them. It was enough to get their attention and I noticed that they put in extra effort the rest of the week. Wednesday night saw the boy leaders working with younger boys on MB requirements.
Our campsite commissioner had a talk with my son about him wanting to to be a counselor next year. The commissioner mentioned the conversation to me and said that there were boys who wanted to be a counselor because they liked the idea of being a counselor and boys who wanted to be a counselor because they loved being a boy scout. He then said, â€œYour son is one of the ones who loves being a boy scout.â€ The commissioner told me he put a good word in for my son for next year.
One of the older scouts who had been disengaged in prior years told me that he was having a great time this year because â€œpeople are actually listening to me and I actually matter.â€ He explained that in the past, everyone was expected to do as they were told by the leadership rather than really asked to lead.
I heard stories of the PLs taking care of their guys who were homesick or struggling with MB. When a scout became upset, one of the boy leaders was there to comfort them. When a scout decided it was their turn to be a brat, one of the boy leaders was there to get them back on the path. There wasnâ€™t the expected â€œordering aroundâ€ of scouts to behave but there was advice given out of caring for the welfare of the scouts and others.
On Thursday, things seems to be running well until I got back from the First Year hike. The build-it project remained unfinished. Actually, it had been started but what was done was not according to the plan that I thought the boys had agreed upon. I found out that one of the boys who wasnâ€™t supposed to be working on it, started part of it and an adult did the rest. I tracked down SPL and asked what happened. He thought it was under control. To his credit, he said, â€œit doesnâ€™t matter what anyone else did, Iâ€™m ultimately in charge and it is my responsibility.â€ He went back to camp, took apart what had been done (incorrectly) and began working on the project. He had one of his ASPLs go down to take his place in setting up for the patrol carnival and asked the other ASPL to handle rounding up the troop and doing flags. He was ready to miss dinner in order to get the project completed. He pretty much single handedly built the project in an hour and a half. I helped by holding wood that he sawed and by drilling two holes with a power drill. He made it down in time to grab some dinner and well in time for the competition. The project ended up finishing third in the competition - again, the best in recent memory. It was a great lesson is leadership for my son in both what went wrong and what he did as a leader to fix it.
Thursday night was the troop campfire. One PL built the fire before dinner. As it go dark, they started the campfire. It started slow but became huge. One of the scouts organized a campfire as part of his communications merit badge. Everyone sat around the fire to watch as opposed to their typical going off and hanging out in groups of two and three. After the campfire program, there was music playing and food. One PL cut up watermelon. SPL broke out the chips, pretzels, Doritos and soda. One PL started making Jiffy Pop and another PL made two dump cakes in dutch ovens. Around 10 staff members stopped by camp â€” apparently the SPL and PLs had been inviting staff to stop by.
By Friday, the leadership was able to coast. For SPL son, he had to play catch-up to finish a couple of merit badges. He knew a couple of other guys needed requirements, so he pulled them along with him across the finish line. Son spent much of his free time hanging out with the counselors. After the closing campfire, the SPL got overwhelmed by one of the stories that an adult told about leadership (using his first campout where an older scout invited him to share his tent as an example). All the pressure, stress, exhaustion, emotions and sense of accomplishment hit at once. We took a walk under the clear night sky and for the first time that week, he just became my 13 year-old son.
When I woke him up Saturday morning, he was exhausted and had the start of a cold. I told him that sometimes, leadership means digging deep inside yourself and finding the strength to go on when you think you have nothing else inside. I told him that he needed to be energetic and engaged so that his boys would take a cue from him. After breakfast, the troop returned to the campsite to take our flag down one last time. Typically, the Camp SM and I would say something to the boys or the parents, but we both decided that boy-led meant that a boy should do the wrap up. So before taking down the flag, SPL did a quick recap of all the boys had accomplished during the week, ending his talk by saying, â€œYou guys were awesome this week.â€
REFLECTION ON LEADERSHIP
Last week was the most boy-led Iâ€™ve seen our Troop at camp. I heard the same sentiment from the other adults at camp and from many of the boys. In past years, the boy leaders ended the week feeling frustrated and aggravated because they felt that they were being bossed around by adults all week. This year, the boys left feeling exhausted but with a sense of accomplishment. On Saturday, I realized that the key is not a singular boy in boy-led but that it takes all the boys leading. My son realized that without his ASPLs and PLs, he would have failed. In talking on the way home, my son said that leadership is hard. He felt that the leaders in the past saw leadership as a privilege â€” the ability to make the rules, order people around and to do less than others. He told me that being a leader really means you have to do twice as much as everyone else.
I know that we werenâ€™t completely and entirely boy-led. I spent a lot of time working with my son to prepare him for his role as SPL before camp and a good amount of time working with him at camp. He would get up early in the morning and we would go over what to expect for the day. In the beginning of the week, it was me telling him. By the end of the week, it was him telling me. We talked about objectives and discussed what he and others had to do to accomplish those objectives - or using the terms we used - â€œwhat do you guys have to do and how are you going to get it done.â€ I did provide him with reminders at times. I also coached the ASPLs and PLs through a lot of quiet talks as we walked to and from activities. I joked with the other leaders that I was the â€œscout whisperer.â€
I think that boy-led is a continuum depending in part on the complexity of the task at hand, the experience of the leaders and the size of the group being led. For a patrol of 8 guys my sonâ€™s age going on a campout, there is nothing I really need to do or say. The boys have done it at least a dozen times before and know what needs to be done. For a week at camp that is jammed packed with activities that need to be coordinated, a troop of 25 boys and youth leaders that have just finished 8th grade it seemed that my being involved in the up front planning and the daily discussions of what needs to be done and how to do it was a good level of being boy-led. Even over the course of the week, I noticed my discussions went from telling â€œyou need to do thisâ€ to asking â€œwhat do you need to do?â€
Finally, the most important part is that the adults have to make a conscious decision not to undermine scout leadership. The first three days, I must have told younger scouts to â€œgo ask one of the boy leadersâ€ at least 50 times. It is better to talk to the SPL and PLs privately, than to overshadow them and talk to the troop directly. It is better to let the scouts run things the best they can and have them ask if the adults have anything to add, than the other way around. Scouts can sense when they are really being permitted to lead.
To quote my son, â€œYou guys WERE awesome this week.â€