That was the challenge in 1926 for 40 Brooklyn Scouts. Wearing their uniforms and carrying backpacks, the boys ran from Brooklyn Borough Hall to nearby streets and stuck their thumbs into traffic. The race was on.
Scout officials greeted the boys that evening as they arrived in the nation’s capital. The Scouts slept in a Marine barracks, enjoyed a two-day tour of the city and placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then each Scout hitched back to New York.
Ten hours and 40 minutes after leaving D.C., Scout C. Steffin completed the journey and claimed the watch. He also won $25 for posting the best average travel time for both legs of the trip and another $10 as the first finisher under age 16.
“Most of the boys last night were too tired to talk of their experiences,” The New York Times reported.
1926 was still near the dawn of motoring, and the hazards of riding with strangers were not yet fully recognized. By 1947, the Scoutmaster’s Handbook made it clear that hitchhiking has no place in Scouting.
Ask any council official today about a troop hitchhiking competition, and the answer is sure to be a very loud and incredulous, “No!”
Even so, that race to D.C. 91 years ago must have been full of excitement for those who took part. No doubt they came away full of pride in what they had achieved and confidence to take on even bigger adventures.
The question today is: How can we lead Scouts to experience that kind of freedom and personal accomplishment while staying within the bounds of BSA policy? One answer for Scouters is to lead from a distance by using the Leading EDGE.
Try This at Home
The EDGE progression of Explain, Demonstrate, Guide and Enable can be seen as a way of distancing yourself from your Scouts, both in terms of physical space and in level of responsibility that they’re eager (and able) to accept.
From planning an activity to using a compass, pitching a tent and cooking a meal, Explaining often puts you face to face with Scouts. So can Demonstrating the skills involved. As Scouts begin to take charge, step back to give them room while still remaining close enough to Guide when needed.
At the Enabling stage, Scouts should realize they are acting very much on their own. You can move away from the group and even busy yourself with other tasks. While giving the impression of distance, you will be in a position to keep an eye on how events are unfolding and be ready to provide any materials or support Scouts might still need to succeed. They will also know where to find you if they want further guidance, demonstration or explanation.
Enabling is the stage of EDGE leadership where we most often fall short. It’s not a license to nap under a tree and let chaos rule. Nor is it permission to jump back into doing something ourselves rather than guiding Scouts as they work through challenges on their own.
A Lesson in Leadership
How might those Brooklyn troop leaders have applied the Leading EDGE to their 1926 hitchhiking contest? They certainly could have Explained how to flag down a passing Ford Model T. They could have Demonstrated, too, by standing next to a road and showing how it’s done. Guiding might have been possible right up until the boys caught their first rides.
Once the Scouts were out of sight, though, the Enabling step of the Leading EDGE would have been difficult to fulfill. Leading from a distance is one thing. It would have been next to impossible to provide Enabling support to Scouts bouncing along open roads with drivers they didn’t know. For Scouters organizing the event, that alone should have been plenty of warning to realize their plan was seriously flawed.
Leading from a distance is a powerful technique for empowering others. It can be good for you, too.
Next time you swing a pack onto your shoulders and follow your Scouts down a trail, notice the space you’re giving them to be independent while staying close enough to provide support. Watch them master outdoor skills, laugh together, succeed and grow. See how they come to believe that what they are achieving has been done on their own.
Do that — and steer clear of hitchhiking in your program planning — and you can give yourself a big thumbs up for respecting the distance it takes to be a smart and effective leader.
Robert Birkby is author of three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the Fieldbook and the BSA’s new Conservation Handbook.