Strictly for Scoutmasters

At the Philmont Training Center in New Mexico, 50 Scoutmasters get the inside scoop for improving the quality of their hometown troops.

Bob MacKichan is the Scoutmaster of Troop 55 with 60 boys in Great Falls, Va. In Cleves, Ohio, Dr. Dave Tittle is Scoutmaster of Troop 200, a brand-new unit of five boys. And at the Greater Bellevue Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., the Rev. Ronnie L. Mays wears the Scoutmaster’s patch for Troop 551 with 15 boys.

Troops that reserve challenging high adventure activities, such as rock climbing, for older Scouts can keep those boys in the program longer.

Three troops, three leaders—each with his own set of challenges and opportunities. What links these men together is the desire to improve their skills as Scoutmasters so they can deliver the best possible program to Scouts.

And that is why all three attended the “Strictly for Scoutmasters” course last summer at the Philmont Training Center near Cimarron, N.M.

Enrollment was at capacity for a fifth straight year. The course examined the Scoutmaster’s role and presented tried-and-true methods for developing boy-led troops. Those tools include making ethical choices, using the patrol method, program planning, and leadership training.

“Hot topic” discussions on wearing the uniform, Eagle Scout service projects, recruitment, and older-boy retention provided the 50 participants opportunities to share personal experiences and gather new ideas. Many Scoutmasters brought handouts of their favorite games, contests, high adventure outings, and Scoutmaster’s Minutes to exchange with others.

Instructing the course were veteran Scoutmasters Mike Lanning of Los Angeles, Dr. Larry Ashbacher of San Diego, Tim Holmes of Solon, Ohio, and Bob Swartzel of Riverside, Calif.


“The Scoutmaster’s role,” said Mike Lanning, “begins with the BSA Mission Statement:

“‘The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.'”

Using that guide, Scoutmasters help boys grow into great men. They do it by offering responsible fun and adventure, values-based character education, and training in citizenship, service, and leadership.

“Scoutmasters must move beyond the planning of meetings, events, games, and outings,” Lanning insisted. Those jobs are for other people, preferably a troop’s boy leaders. The only job a Scoutmaster can’t delegate, he said, is “keeper of the flame,” a leadership commitment to Scouting’s mission as an integral part of the troop’s program.


Scouting provides a rich environment for teaching ethical choices. The measuring stick is the Scout Oath and Law.

“Before every camp-out, ask your patrols to spend 10 minutes making a list of the ethical choices they think they’ll encounter on that trip,” said Lanning. “You’ll be surprised at the discussions it will trigger.”

Patrol competitions, such as a cooking contest, can build pride and spirit.

He told how an 11-year-old boy came up to him in a campsite and said: “I just made an ethical choice. It was getting late and someone was still trying to put up his tent, so I helped him.”

Ethical choices can be simple (an older boy says “hi” to a new Scout in the troop) or complex (a Scout filches a few cans of soda from another patrol’s cooler, knowing they will never be missed). When a Scout makes a good ethical choice, Lanning urges Scoutmasters to honor the boy and use the example to teach others.

“If you have a behavior challenge in your troop, have the Scouts draw up a list of mature behaviors vs. immature behaviors,” said Lanning. “Then make sure everyone signs that list so they don’t forget what they’ve agreed to. It’s amazing what that can do.”


Lord Baden-Powell, founder of worldwide Scouting, said: “The patrol method is not a way to operate a Boy Scout troop, it is the only way. Unless the patrol method is in operation, you don’t really have a Boy Scout troop.”

Why is the patrol method so important?

“The patrol is the school of leadership,” Lanning explained, noting that it is often a boy’s first opportunity to manage tasks and projects: Who is going on this month’s camp-out? What are we going to eat? Who is going to buy the food? What skit will we perform at the campfire?

“A patrol of eight boys is a manageable size unit. It’s big enough to spread the workload and still function if a couple of boys are missing,” said Lanning.

Encourage patrol members to write a vision statement, a big-picture look at what the patrol wants to accomplish. Examples are: “The Owl Patrol will be pioneering experts.” “We will win the patrol competition.” “We will participate in a high adventure of our choosing.”

Scoutmasters should look for “teachable moments” when they can can discuss ethical choices with Scouts based upon the values of the Scout Oath and Law.

The best troops have patrols that plan and do things on their own. “If a boy never leads an activity outside of a troop meeting or camp-out, he isn’t getting enough leadership opportunities,” Lanning said.


“It takes a boy four or five times longer to plan something than it does an adult,” said course instructor Dr. Larry Ashbacher. Consequently, impatient adults often jump in and wrestle the planning process away from the Scouts, thus robbing a boy of the chance to be a leader.

Dr. Craig Bowen, a Scoutmaster from Sherwood, Ore., told how he approaches planning. “I ask my Scouts, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ The answer is, ‘One bite at a time.'” Breaking the process into bite-size pieces and allocating plenty of time, makes the task more manageable.

“Planning is a life skill,” Dr. Ashbacher noted, “and we have to help Scouts learn that skill.”

“Remind your boy leaders to plan for results, not just the event,” added Lanning. When you define an activity’s goal, it is easier to measure success.

Troops should utilize three types of planning: short range, medium range, and long range. Short range focuses on weekly troop meetings, patrol leaders’ council meetings, and monthly camp-outs. Medium range includes the annual planning conference and placing major events on the unit calendar.

“Long-range planning is the heart and soul of where your troop is headed,” Dr. Ashbacher explained. This maps out the big picture for two years and beyond. Activities to be planned might include a national or world jamboree, a trip to a high adventure base, or other long-term camping trip.


Instructor Bob Swartzel ran a group seminar on making troops truly boy-led. Then instructor Tim Holmes guided the class through a session on situational leadership, the same type of management practices taught in corporate America and to Scouters in Wood Badge for the 21st Century.

Standing back and allowing older Scouts the opportunity to lead builds strong troops.

He explained how the four leadership styles—directing, guiding, coaching, and delegating—are balanced depending on the competency, commitment, and motivation of a Scout or a patrol.

In particular, “Delegating is a tough skill for Scoutmasters to learn,” he said. “It took me quite a while before I could keep my hands in my pockets. But it has made me a better Scoutmaster.”

There are multiple approaches to building successful boy-led troops, but Holmes likes this analogy. “An enthusiastic leader is the tender, a spark that ignites a burning fire. Boy leaders are the kindling that build a fire’s blaze. And the patrol method is the wood that keeps a fire roaring.”

When Scouting delivers its promise of fun, friends, adventure, and achievement, it’s because of that sparking tender, a Scoutmaster who is keeper of the flame.

Scott Daniels is the executive editor of Scouting magazine. His article about the Philmont Training Center in the January-February 2003 issue highlighted the facility’s family programs for Scouters, spouses, and children.

Three Sessions of Strictly for Scoutmasters Available in 2004

Due to ongoing demand, Strictly for Scoutmasters will be offered three times this summer and fall at the Philmont Training Center, located near Cimarron, N.M. Course dates are: June 27-July 3, Aug. 15-21, and Sept. 14-18.

The course examines the Scoutmaster’s role in “delivering Scouting’s promise” and as “keeper of the flame.” Subjects include making boy-led troops a reality, strengthening the patrol method, and 21st-century troop junior leader training. Additional topics are: making Scouting available to more boys, new high adventure opportunities, and games and processes for making ethical decisions.

Only adults registered as unit Scoutmasters should attend this conference.

Dr. Dave Tittle, a Scoutmaster from Cleves, Ohio, brought his wife and four children with him to last summer’s conference. While he attended class, his wife, sons, and daughters were riding horses, hiking trails, eating ice cream sundaes, and making handicrafts.

“It was a great family time,” he said. “My wife enjoyed it, and the kids had a blast. To spend a week together anywhere else would cost so many times more.”

Families arrive on Sunday and depart the following Saturday. Meals are served in dining halls; housing is in large, two-person wall tents on platforms, equipped with electricity, bedding, and towels, located near showers and restrooms, medical facilities, and recreation areas.

Fees include meals, lodging, and conference and family program materials: conference participants, $345; spouses and children over 20, $250; children ages 6 to 20, $200; ages 3 to 5, $135; 2 and under, $45; Mountain Trek, $265; and National Junior Leader Instructor Camp (NJLIC), $265.

Participants must have local council approval. For more information, contact your local Scout council service center or the Philmont Training Center, Cimarron, NM 87714, phone (505) 376-2281, fax (505) 376-2629, e-mail More information is also available on the PTC Web site.

Bringing the Lessons Home

Bob MacKichan of Great Falls, Va., began implementing some of the Strictly for Scoutmasters lessons as soon as he returned home from the Philmont Training Center.

“The first thing I did was delegate to the assistant Scoutmaster virtually all of my prior planning and coordination responsibilities. Then I initiated a boy-led program about making ethical decisions.”

MacKichan said his patrol leaders’ council has already presented two programs on making ethical choices, and he was scheduled to make a Boy Scout roundtable presentation about the subject.

Because Dr. Dave Tittle’s troop has only five Scouts, he found the course’s information about sharing Scouting with more boys very helpful.

“At the fall camporee we had eight Webelos Scouts and their dads with us, and they were very excited about it. We have the opportunity to more than double the troop’s size in the spring.

“We’re also planning differently. Instead of going from week-to-week, I sat down with the boys to find out what they wanted to do in the next year.”

Dr. Craig Bowen of Sherwood, Ore., has attended three courses at the Philmont Training Center and says Strictly for Scoutmasters is by far the best. He says the program planning sessions were right on target. With coaching and behind the scenes advance work, a Scoutmaster can provide boy leaders with the opportunity to succeed.

“What other place is a boy going to learn how to run a business meeting at 12 years old?” he asked. “That’s what a PLC meeting is.”

— S.D.

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