Want to achieve a youth-led unit? Find the balancing point between helping them succeed and letting them flounder. Here’s how.
What’s the mark of a good Scoutmaster? Based on Dave Prestia’s experience, it’s the question mark.
As Scoutmaster of Troop 736 in Glen Allen, Va., Prestia spends much of his time asking his senior patrol leader questions. Although his SPL is good at running meetings and organizing outings, “You still need the Scoutmaster saying, ‘Did you think this through?’ and ‘What about this?’ Teenagers don’t tend to go micro on the details,” he says.
Recently, Prestia’s patrol leaders’ council has been planning a major trip to the West Coast.
“They know they want to have a trip, and they know they want to have a good time,” he says. “They don’t know how to espouse their vision.” Through the skillful use of questions, Prestia helps them articulate their vision for the trip and develop a practical plan.
With adults, on the other hand, Prestia is much more direct. “You’ve got to pull them aside and say, ‘Let them do it. Unless you see a Scout in imminent danger, you let them figure it out,’” he says.
Prestia’s two-pronged approach — supporting youth leaders while redirecting adults — is the key to achieving a truly Scout-led troop. When adults step in too much, youth leaders can’t practice leadership. When adults step back too far, they doom youth leaders to failure.
The trick is finding the balance between helping Scouts succeed and letting them flounder. When Troop 736 was formed six years ago, adults were, by necessity, more involved. At the time, the troop had just six members — all 11 years old.
“The tallest kid got chosen as senior patrol leader,” Prestia recalls.
As the Scouts aged, the adults handed off more and more responsibility until the troop was completely boy-led.
The balancing point can also change from one month to the next, according to Rich Gargas, Scoutmaster of Troop 514 in Indianapolis, Ind.
Gargas is now working with his fourth senior patrol leader, and he has noticed a consistent pattern.
“The first few meetings the boys do real well,” he says. “Then they’re left more on their own, and it gets shaky. People wonder if this is the right thing. But in every instance, the SPLs have improved by the end of their run.”
That his senior patrol leaders have all improved is a testament to Gargas’ intensive coaching. He estimated that he spends 60 percent of his time as Scoutmaster working with the SPL and 30 percent working with other youth leaders. “That leaves me 10 percent to explain this stuff to parents and watch the flanks and things like that,” he says.
Another challenge for Gargas has been redirecting adult leaders who once had more hands-on roles in the troop. One way he’s done that is by giving them jobs that support, but don’t interfere with, the Scouts’ goals.
For example, Gargas challenges his youth leaders to decide what their legacy will be. When one SPL said he wanted the troop to become better uniformed, the adult leaders created a uniform exchange program and came up with money to subsidize uniform purchases.
Scoutmasters like Gargas and Prestia understand that becoming youth-led is a journey, not a destination. As such, it can sometimes be hard to tell when you’ve arrived.
Gargas knew he’d arrived when his senior patrol leader ended up in the hospital. Before Gargas could call an assistant senior patrol leader to talk about that week’s troop meeting, one of them — a former SPL — called him.
“He just took the meeting and executed it. It was such proof that he had developed so much over the previous six months.”
And that is the mark of a Scout-led troop.
Mark Ray is the author of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook.