Inside the Wood Badge update that makes the program more accessible than ever

At around 3 p.m. on the final day of Wood Badge, the room seems to get blurry.

It happens during a presentation called “Inspire the Heart,” and it’s useless to fight back the tears. It’s not just the impactful scene being presented — a visual reminder of why we volunteered to be Scout leaders in the first place. It’s everything that happened over the previous five days together.

The Wood Badge participants have been immersed in the patrol method, the stages of team development and the right way to manage difficult conversations. They’ve opened up about the struggles of parenting, swapped Dutch oven recipes and laughed about the unpredictability of Cub Scout campouts.

They’ve gone from strangers to friends.

Poignant moments like these have been a part of Wood Badge since its beginnings in England in 1919. Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting and Wood Badge, saw the need to bring together adult volunteers for advanced leadership training. It’s said that he, too, got a bit misty-eyed when saying goodbye after it was done.

We’d try to explain in detail what’s happening in these pictures, but we don’t want to spoil the fun for when you take Wood Badge.

More than a century later, the power of Wood Badge hasn’t lessened even as the course has evolved. Every 15 to 30 years, the BSA updates Wood Badge to incorporate the latest leadership theories and BSA program changes.

The latest update, launched in 2020, makes this essential training course better than ever. There’s a new mission statement, a more streamlined schedule (five days instead of six) and a syllabus packed with takeaways you can use right away.

“The new course creates a warmer, friendlier, more inclusive and welcoming environment for participants,” says Randy Cline, an Eagle Scout, Silver Buffalo recipient (2009), and a nearly 50-year Scouting volunteer from Mechanicsburg, Pa., who chaired the Wood Badge Update Task Force. “It should attract more participants.”

Why take Wood Badge?

It would take years to make your way through the management, leadership and parenting sections of your local bookstore.  Thankfully, the creators of the updated Wood Badge course have done much of that work for you. They’ve examined the latest lessons from corporate America, academia, the military and leadership consultants to learn what makes an effective leader.

Pattie Sauer is a coach with the Ken Blanchard Companies, a global leader in workplace training. She keeps up with the newest leadership theories like it’s her job — because it is.

For her “other” job, Sauer is a 30-year Scouting veteran from Duluth, Minn., mom of an Eagle Scout and stepmom of two more, and member of the Wood Badge Update Task Force.

Take our word for it: You’re in for a treat, whether singing, cheering, hiking or participating in team-development games.

Sauer says the course’s impact reaches well beyond Scouting into participants’ home and work lives. Recognizing this, some employers even give their workers time off to take Wood Badge — no vacation days required.

“Wood Badge changed my life to the point that I made significant changes in order to support my personal vision and Scouting plan,” Sauer says. “I gained self-confidence, realized untapped skills and became a better person.”

Naturally, Wood Badge places its training in a Scouting context. It puts adults into the Scouts’ hiking boots by immersing them in the journey from Cub Scouts through Scouts BSA. Wood Badge participants leave with batteries recharged and notebooks full of ideas.

Growing together

Surveys show the updated Wood Badge course helps volunteers feel better prepared, informed and empowered. Participants at the 10 pilot courses conducted in 2018 had a net promoter score 23.3 percent higher than those who participated in the previous version.

With results that promising, you’d think Scouters would sign up for Wood Badge within their first year or two.

Participants must work together to navigate their way through the “poison web” game.

But that’s not the case, says Mark Nelson, Eagle Scout and head of leadership development at the BSA. Nelson says the average leader attends Wood Badge during their seventh year as a volunteer. That’s like playing golf for seven years before taking a single lesson. It can be done, perhaps even well, but after that first lesson you’ll wish you had gotten trained sooner.

“Scout leaders have missed a huge opportunity to gain leadership skills and use them throughout their Scouting career,” Nelson says.

The Wood Badge Update Task Force was formed to make the course even more indispensable. A group of 28 men and women from across the country, most of them volunteers, gathered in 2015 in Texas to begin a four-year journey.

They started by assuming they didn’t have all the answers and launched a national survey of 6,000 Scouters — a mix of participants, staffers and volunteers who had never attended Wood Badge.

“We learned a lot, and the survey helped us to focus on areas to improve,” Cline says.

From those who already had their Wood Badge beads, the task force learned which course elements Scouters liked and which needed to be updated. From those who had never attended, they identified three primary roadblocks:

  1. I don’t have enough time.
  2. It’s too expensive.
  3. I’ve never heard of Wood Badge.
Unlike your office’s awkward team-building outings, everyone at Wood Badge actually wants to be there.

Making the course a day shorter addresses Nos. 1 and 2. For No. 3, the task force devised recommendations for promoting Wood Badge to busy parents: a new brochure, in-person invitations at council events, scholarships for participants and a robust social media plan.

But the best promotional tool comes from Wood Badge participants themselves. Once you’ve attended, you get it. And you’re eager to share a strange-but-true contradiction: a week away from your Scouts can improve your pack, troop, ship or crew in unimaginable ways.

“When immersed in the trenches with our youth, a leader places the needs and wants of the youth first,” Sauer says. “What I love about Wood Badge is that it provides participants an opportunity to think about what matters most to them as a person and as a Scout leader.”

One more thing: What’s inside the update?

A lot has changed — in the world and in Scouting — since the last major Wood Badge update was rolled out in 2002. Here’s an overview of the updated course.

One fewer day

The most obvious change for 2020 is to the length of the course — now five days instead of six. In addition to being less time-consuming for volunteers, the change lowers food and facility use costs. Councils can choose one of two formats:

  • A three-day weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) followed a week or two later by a two-day weekend (Saturday and Sunday), requiring just a single vacation day for most leaders.
  • Five days straight (Monday to Friday, Wednesday to Sunday or Thursday to Monday)
For a vacation that tests your limits, gives meaning to your time spent in Scouting and makes your job as a leader easier, just say yes to Scouting’s pre-eminent training course for adults.

A new mission statement

“The mission of Wood Badge is to inspire and train adults to achieve the mission and aims of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) through world class leadership training that sets an example for youth empowerment to impact the world.”

Five new themes

The five-sided pentagon that symbolizes Wood Badge remains, but the significance of each of the sides has changed. The new themes:

  1. Living the Values: Personifying the Scouting values and setting an example for youth
  2. Growing: Knowing and growing yourself first and committing to continuous improvement and lifelong learning
  3. Connecting: Establishing personal relationships
  4. Guiding: Enabling and developing others
  5. Empowering: Helping other people to become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves “to serve and to lead”

Answers to your FAQs

  1. Who can take Wood Badge?
    Any registered BSA adult volunteer or professional staff member.
  2. How can I sign up to take Wood Badge?
    Contact your local council. Wood Badge is a national course delivered at the council level.
  3. Do I have to retake Wood Badge if I’ve already completed the previous version, known as Wood Badge for the 21st Century?
    No. Once you have your beads, you’ll never have to take the course again.
  4. But can I retake it if I want to experience the new course?
    Yes. If you’ve completed an earlier version of Wood Badge or started but did not complete the course for some reason, you may attend again if (1) you agree to write and work a new Wood Badge ticket (a series of five goals designed to help your Scouts), and (2) you agree not to wear your Wood Badge beads while attending the course.
  5. Can I serve on staff if I’ve only taken Wood Badge for the 21st Century?Yes. You’d just need to learn and embrace the new course material.

Photos by W. Garth Dowling

1 Comment

  1. Yeah. The real key appears in the first set of quotes. To paraphrase, more should attend.

    Let’s be honest, units have survives]d, thousands of them, without a wood badge trained leader. Having taken the course twice, there is no real reason for some to attend, especially at the cub level. Not training for a specific program is detracting from the training. And putting in less time means less of a good training experience.

    I got 100 times more out of my all scout leaders course in the 1970’s than I got from the rolled into one course in 2012. And the MBO skills from that first course work better than the current “improved” course and can be applied as a cub leader, a scout leader, an exploring or venturing advisor, a commissioner, and even a professional.

    In fact,inermost leaders would better relate to the jltc course from the 90’s…which was a kids version of mbo.

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