Saturday, May 08, 2010

Everything I Need to Know About Leadership I Learned as a Patrol Leader

This post is outside the digital security realm, but I know a lot of my readers are team members and team leaders in their technical shops. I thought it might be useful to share a few thoughts on leadership. I don't claim to be the world's best leader but I've been thinking about the topic recently.

I've participated in a lot of "leadership training" over the years, in and out of classrooms. A few examples: I've attended classes at GE's Crotonville, earned a master's degree from Harvard Kennedy School (supposed home to future political leaders), led a flight in the AFCERT, served as a cadet flight commander at USAFA, and captained my high school track team. As the years have progressed I find fewer of these experiences, especially formal training, to be novel or particularly helpful. For example, I believe the approaches I brought to my USAFA experience had less to do with USAFA and more to do with what I already knew. Tonight I decided to think back to where I first learned my "leadership style."

I realized that everything I needed to know about leadership I learned as a Patrol Leader, as a Boy Scout. Patrols are the core unit of the troop; they are the unit within a troop that can conduct independent activities, although they collaborate with other patrols during troop-wide events. I spent about 10 years as a Scout (starting as a Cub) and finished (barely) with my Eagle award a few months before I turned 18. My troop first nominated me to become a Patrol Leader when I was about 12.

I distinctly remember being a Patrol Leader twice. I led one patrol for my normal troop when I was younger, and then I was nominated to be a Patrol Leader for a regional troop from Massachusetts that attended the 1989 Scout Jamboree when I was 17. I cherished this second experience, because I was basically inactive during the ages of 15 and 16, due to high school. In both cases my patrol probably consisted of no more than 12 kids, usually younger but not always.

So what did I learn as a Patrol Leader? Check out these Ten Tips for Being a Patrol Leader from

  1. Keep Your Word. Don't make promises you can't keep.

  2. Be Fair to All. A good leader shows no favorites. Don't allow friendships to keep you from being fair to all members of your patrol. Know who likes to do what, and assign duties to patrol members by what they like to do.

  3. Be a Good Communicator. You don't need a commanding voice to be a good leader, but you must be willing to step out front with an effective "Let's go." A good leader knows how to get and give information so that everyone understands what's going on.

  4. Be Flexible. Everything doesn't always go as planned. Be prepared to shift to "plan B" when "plan A" doesn't work.

  5. Be Organized. The time you spend planning will be repaid many times over. At patrol meetings, record who agrees to do each task, and fill out the duty roster before going camping.

  6. Delegate. Some leaders assume that the job will not get done unless they do it themselves. Most people like to be challenged with a task. Empower your patrol members to do things they have never tried.

  7. Set an Example. The most important thing you can do is lead by example. Whatever you do, your patrol members are likely to do the same. A cheerful attitude can keep everyone's spirits up.

  8. Be Consistent. Nothing is more confusing than a leader who is one way one moment and another way a short time later. If your patrol knows what to expect from you, they will more likely respond positively to your leadership.

  9. Give Praise. The best way to get credit is to give it away. Often a "Nice job" is all the praise necessary to make a Scout feel he is contributing to the efforts of the patrol.

  10. Ask for Help. Don't be embarrassed to ask for help. You have many resources at your disposal. When confronted with a situation you don't know how to handle, ask someone with more experience for some advice and direction.

You don't need a MBA now, aside from some classes on financial statements. I'd also venture that many MBA classes don't cover these 10 points.

I remember being particularly keen on patrol spirit:

Patrol spirit is the glue that holds the patrol together and keeps it going. Building patrol spirit takes time, because it is shaped by a patrol's experiences—good and bad. Often misadventures such as enduring a thunderstorm or getting lost in the woods will contribute much in pulling a patrol together. Many other elements also will help build patrol spirit. Creating a patrol identity and traditions will help build each patrol member's sense of belonging.

I remember working on our patrol flag and being proud of our new identity. Never mind that we were "Wolverines" (yes, straight out of Red Dawn) but our flag had a panther or cougar on it. (Blame the T-shirt shop for not having a "wolverine" transfer.) We put our patches and name on that thing and that's all that mattered.

When I was about 14 my troop nominated me to become Senior Patrol Leader, which is the top boy leader. Unfortunately, it's like a management position, because while you lead the troop most of the activities happen at the patrol level. You end up being more of an intermediary between the adult leaders and the Patrol Leaders. It's an important job but I remember missing having my own patrol. That's one reason I was glad to get a Patrol Leader job with the regional troop attending the Jamboree in 1989.

My take-away from this post is to remember the 10 points outlined above when I work with my current team. It's been over 20 years since I left Scouting, but the lessons I learned there have proven to be timeless and enduring.


Anonymous said...

going beyond your "team" or patrol, do you have any obligation to society or the world at large, any ethical standards?

Lalit said...

Great reminder of Scouting way to lead. Timeless indeed.

Jack Crook said...

I 100% agree with the statement "The most important thing you can do is lead by example". As a young infantry squad leader I learned that it is very difficult to motivate anybody if they don't respect you and the best way to gain that respect is to lead by example.

Today I see too many managers that hide their inadequacies behind corporate policies and procedures which ultimately leads to an unmotivated team.

john schlichting said...

My Scouting experiences very much mirror yours, with the exception of having been accomplished a full decade before you :-).

During my tenure as a scout I was invited to participate(and later return as a trainer) in an event called Brownsea22, a scouting leadership retreat for SPLs. It was designed to be the capstone of leadership training for scouts...

I sometimes wonder if it is still part of scouting.

gih said...

That's a heroic task. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Hey thank you for that! I am the Senior Patrol Leader of Troop 412, Fountain Valley, Ca. I agree with what you said. Boy Scouts has completely changed since my election to this post and I am running for another 6 month term to have a year of service! Thank you for your piece I really enjoyed reading it!

shivlu jain said...

I really like your article and the points covered by you are self explaining. These are the points which could be used in daily life to become a good leader.

Shivlu Jain

MIster said...


I must say that this is one of the best posts that I have read in a long time. I normally don't comment on posts however in this instance I just wanted to let you know that you "hit the nail on the head". There is hope for those who do not aspire to attain such prestigious academic accolades. Thanks for the inspiration.


ManOfManyInterests said...

Scouting is indeed a fantastic way for young men and women to get a head start on developing their leadership skills. It certainly helped me, I can see it helping my son now, and I would hardly be exaggerating if I said that it defined my father's very successful career. However, we should never think that we have learned "everything we need to know about leadership." Good leaders never stop learning!