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How to keep your troop out of the ‘death spiral’

Handbook for Patrol LeadersWhat separates a successful Boy Scout troop from a foundering one? The answer hasn’t changed in a century.

It’s the patrol method, and it’s been around since at least 1920 when Scouting founder Lord Baden-Powell explained it in his Aids to Scoutmastership (link opens PDF).

“The Patrol System is the one essential feature in which Scout training differs from that of all other organizations, and where the System is properly applied, it is absolutely bound to bring success,” B-P writes. “It cannot help itself!”

But too often these days, adult leaders are reactionary when it comes to the patrol method. They start with good intentions, but when they see the slightest hiccup, they take the reins from the boys and run the troop themselves.

Clarke Green, who writes the excellent unofficial Scouting blog “Scoutmaster CG,” calls this the “troop program death spiral” in a recent post

He writes: 

When they apply the concepts and practices of the patrol method the first results are almost always disappointing from the adult perspective. Scouts seem to be incapable, incompetent, or lazy. Scouts’ efforts are disjointed, chaotic and fall far short of creating the orderliness and efficiency adults imagined they would. Instead of looking at this state of affairs as a positive indication of growing and developing leaders this ‘disappointment’ is viewed as a failure of the patrol method as an idea.

An adult-run troop works fine for a while, Green writes. There’s less uncertainty and trouble. The Scouts enjoy having their work done for them. But none of this lasts, he says.

Green continues:

Unless the adults are able to come up with more new and even more entertaining experiences the Scouts start to leave. Adults get upset when the Scouts don’t properly appreciate what is being done for them, this turns to frustration, hardens into resentment, and leads to rulemaking.

That attitude drives a lot of Scouts away, and when Scouts leave adults become even more resentful or upset. Adults are already fatigued from trying to hold things together and doing everything so things continue to spiral down.

Read Green’s entire post to see the benefit of sticking to the patrol method, even when the going gets tough. Much of the success of the patrol method relies not just on Scouts getting trained, but Scouters, too. Wood Badge, the phenomenal adult-leader training course, for example, bases its curriculum around a practical application of the patrol method. Scouters don’t just hear about its function, they live it for six days.

In the end, the key is perseverance. Don’t just abandon this time-tested method of Scouting delivery because you have a few bad meetings or campouts. Stick with it.

“It sounds a big order,” B-P writes, “but in practice it works.” He continues:

Then, through emulation and competition between Patrols, you produce a Patrol spirit which is eminently satisfactory, since it raises the tone among the boys and develops a higher standard of efficiency all round. Each boy in the Patrol realizes that he is in himself a responsible unit and that the honor of his group depends in some degree on his own ability in playing the game.

The patrol method in your troop

How do you successfully maintain the patrol method in your troop? How did you overcome those bumps in the road? Help your fellow Scouters by leaving a comment below.


H/T for the post idea to Mike Menninger

34 Comments on How to keep your troop out of the ‘death spiral’

  1. As I also asked on Clarke’s blog page, I’d like to see a discussion on what literature exists to help the adults implement and adhere to this program.

    There are, of course, the “Patrol Leader Handbook” and “Senior Patrol Leader Handbook” from the Scout Store.

    The 1950 edition of the “Handbook for Patrol Leaders” by Hillcourt was noted as being an excellent resource. (Just bought it on ebay for $5.00)

    Clarke also recommended the “A Scout Leader’s Guide to Youth Leadership Training: Working the Patrol Method” by Four Eagle Scouts as a current 21st century non-BSA book for learning and leading in this method.

    What else? Is there a good blog? PDF? Podcast?
    Seems like if this is the THE backbone of a well ordered Troop and THE method for training out boys to be good leaders there should be some sort of good resources out there covering this topic. AND there should be a good place for someone to ask questions about the Patrol Method when it isn’t going well in a troop.

    • H. David Pendleton // June 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm // Reply

      I picked up the 1940, 1950, & 1967 Patrol Leader Handbooks a couple of weekends ago. Read thru all 3 that afternoon. Still some great information in it. As my son moves thru the ranks (he just crossed over), I am going to have him read it also. There were some other great stuff in the box including the last thing B-P wrote because its publication date is after his death & has his wife’s name on it.

    • Gary Wilson // June 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm // Reply

      Hook your unit’s SPL election cycle to your Council’s annual NYLT course so that the SPL electee is required to attend it before taking office, typically in September. Have the troop pay for it as part your annual budget. Then stand back when he returns!

    • 3rd Edition Scoutmaster’s Handbook, Volumes 1 and 2. It was William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt’s definitive work on Scoutmaster’s and the role they play in the Patrol Method.

  2. David Elmore // June 24, 2013 at 2:42 pm // Reply

    We all learn much more from failure than from success. Indeed, many times success, although aided by intelligence, skill and talent, is merely luck or being in the right place at the right time. What do you learn from that?

    But failure is all yours and through the introspective process one can backtrack their error (or errors) and determine where the failure first began and more importantly how to avoid it again. And if you are lucky, insight, may allow you to turn right around and build on that failure to a successful conclusion.

    Patrol Method allows the boys their failures and with that their pleasure of success. This is the success that is not given to them by an adult leader but the much more satisfying success earned through trial and error. I might add that many of my fondest memories of my time as a Scout (way long time ago) were the result of magnificent failures.

    Of course, no adult leader should let a Scout fail to the point of injury or worse.

  3. This is exactly what I need. I just “inherited” a troop two weeks ago (Scoutmaster abruptly exited and I was willing to take over) and we are in the beginnings of this I see- adults burnt out, had some disappointing camp outs, things falling through the cracks- we can’t even get anyone to run for SPL. I know something is needed. Against my gut reaction, I guess I need to put it back in the boys hands? How do I do that when few of the boys are willing to step in for leadership roles?

    • Perhaps their reluctance is because they weren’t really leading at all? How about sitting down with a few older Scouts and asking them how they want things to go, how they want to reinvent their troop… explain that you are committed to giving them the opportunity to lead and will let them work things out.
      That could be the beginning of a really good conversation.
      I have been talking with a new Scoutmaster about this very thing on the podcast – look for “The Colorado Experiment”

    • Maybe the best thing to do is sit down and ask the Scouts how their want to change things and make their troop into what they would like it to be.
      Once you open up and start talking about the possibilities they can get pretty energized.

      • I disagree with David on some things but here he is right. Get the adults out of the meeting room and put an open forum in place. Have the Scouts voice their disappointments and expectations. Have them verbalize what “the best troop ever” means to them. A couple of things might be outlandish but you will get several responses that are basically “the promise of Scouting”. At that point, it is up the Scoutmaster to simply inform the boys that the patrol method IS the way to facilitate their expectations. Dont be surprised if 4 or 5 boys decide they want to run for SPL of “the best troop ever”.

        • I wrote David and meant to say Clarke

  4. One of the things I’m interested in is the Patrol method in small units. I work in the LDS Scouting world of things and have a few units that barely have the bodies for 1 patrol. Any thoughts for how to make the Patrol method work in tiny units?

    • In small units (12 or less) consider that you have a patrol rather than a troop. Talk to the Scouts and have them sort out what kind of leadership structure they think will work best. Maybe they share the patrol leader position back and forth every two or three months.
      A small unit like this is a great chance for Scouts to do a lot of Scouting, just work with them to form a youth led approach appropriate to the size of the group.

    • Kelly Horton // June 24, 2013 at 4:47 pm // Reply

      Mike,
      When I was a scout, I wanted to become a patrol leader. We had elections, but I was not elected. I complained about this because I knew the SM fudged the votes so his kid would be the PL. He made a declaration at the end of the meeting that if someone felt that they should have been the elected PL then, they have an option to recruit 7 other boys and form his own patrol.
      So I recruited 7 boys in 3 weeks. He renigged on this since his son was “losing” all of these patrol members. I told him that I earned the POR by doubling the size of the troop and if he did not make me the PL, I would take all of my recruits and go to another troop. One of the other scouts saw what I did and he tried to grow his own patrol. He did not succeed since we were in the same grade and I recruited most of the boys my age. But he did get to be PL at the next election.
      The SM was pulled to the side by the ASM and the CC and was told to make me the PL. So he had to keep his word.

      So send out the “Patrol Leader Challenge” and allow the boys to grow the troop. John Maxwell’s leadership book calls this he “Law of Reproduction”. I hope this can help out some troop.

    • Simple . . . You have one patrol.

  5. carole berglund // June 24, 2013 at 3:01 pm // Reply

    I think the notion that if the patrol method is being followed you can expect chaos and disjointedness. The boys need to be taught to lead and what is expected out of a patrol meeting. They are capable of coming up with an agenda at their PLC and implement it without the expected “chaos.” I have seen this chaos in action and we have lost scouts because of it. Why? Who wants to go to a meeting that is out of control and accomplishes nothing? Especially when these boys have homework, video games or sports to do in the meeting’s stead. The patrol leaders need to be taught what being a leader is, it’s not inherent. If they aren’t taught, they tend to fall back on yelling at boys who are misbehaving or just shutting down and throwing their hands up. If they have an agenda, they have something to fall back on. A simple template is best and can be reused every month. An opening, rank advancement project, game, food plan for the next camp out, maybe work on a requirement for a merit badge the troop is working on and then a closing. That’s a lot for one meeting but the boys can pick and choose. The patrol method should be a chance for patrol leaders to learn about leadership and implement it with their patrols. The chaos thing shouldn’t be a result.

    • Talking about chaos isn’t encouraging purposeless mayhem, I use the term because that’s what the whole thing looks like to adults sometimes.
      Naturally you are always moving from chaos to order, but don’t be put off by the initial difficulties.
      The patrol method does need a framework and I talk about that on the blog in another post -”The Patrol Leader’s Council and Planning”

    • Troops using the patrol method don’t work on merit badges. Scouts work on merit badges.

      • H. David Pendleton // June 25, 2013 at 11:54 am // Reply

        I disagree. About 2 weeks ago, I found copies of the 1940, 1950, & 1967 Patrol Leaders Guides. I read them all. In them was a Guide to a Patrol Meeting as up to the 1967 edition it was expected that the patrol was to meet on their own either weekly or twice a month. This was in addition to the Troop meetings. In the 1940 & 1950 HBs, there was an agenda for the Patrol Meetings that listed among other things “Help Johnny with knots” & “Help Bobby with Mapreading” for Advancement along with a period on Scoutcraft for everyone or working on a MB requirement. Since I know of no Troop that has its Patrols meet weekly (or bi-monthly) in addition to the Troop meetings, there is no reason why 15 minutes cannot be devoted to working on some facet of a Merit Badge.

        I don’t have it with me, but there are also some outlines for Troop Meetings in the back of one of the publications I got at the Scout Shop. They are set up for 4 meetings working on various Merit Badges as part of the meeting. Much of the actual work is done outside of the Troop Meeting, but planning/coordinating is done during the meeting.

        • Right, you haven’t contradicted me, and we’re in agreement. Carole thinks that the “troop” should be working on a merit badge as part of its meeting. You and I are talking about Bobby and Johnny having an open part of the meeting to work on whatever they personally need to work on to advance. Troop meetings are not Merit Badge School, and Merit Badge School is one hallmark of troops that aren’t using the Patrol Method. Merit badges are an individual pursuit.

        • Bob Basement // July 1, 2013 at 10:31 am //

          Well you know of one now….My scouts patrol are close knit friends and on many a friday night or saturday afternoon I have his patrol at my house.

        • If there is no opportunity for the individual Scout to exercise initiative in earning the badge or engage the counselor individually, then the merit badge program is being misused.

          Very simply, a counselor for an interesting merit badge CAN and SHOULD by brought in as a guest speaker by the PLC. He can discuss, demonstrate, and teach. At the end of his presentation, he can give the Scouts his contact info and encourage them to pick up a blue card from the SM so they can complete the actual requirements later for the badge.

          Nothing drags a meeting down faster than having a force-fed merit badge supersede the meeting plan and then come to a grinding halt as one or two Scouts struggle to complete a requirement (like Orienteering Reg 4f or something). The reaction to that is usually to have the MB counselor simply begin to read through and explain the requirements so the meeting can be completed on time, which doesnt help anyone either.

          Can MB subjects and counselors be part of a meeting program? Of course. But, there are some significant pitfalls out there for larger troops and pragmatic adults.

  6. Gary Wilson // June 24, 2013 at 3:40 pm // Reply

    “But too often these days, adult leaders are reactionary when it comes to the patrol method. They start with good intentions, but when they see the slightest hiccup, they take the reins from the boys and run the troop themselves.”

    Totally agree. One of the primary reasons we go camping is to create a venue where the boys face challenges that they then have to overcome themselves. If the adults solve the problems for them, then we’re just a “camping club”, and not the character and leadership development educational organization that we’re supposed to be.

    Just as we dislike “helicopter parents” who make sure their children never have to solve a problem on their own, we also need to similarly avoid becoming “Helicopter Scoutmasters” ourselves.

    • carole berglund // June 25, 2013 at 7:13 pm // Reply

      Ummmm… Carole mentioned working a merit badge as one part of a meeting. First Aid, Orienteering, Cooking etc all have components that would be appropriate for a troop meeting.

      • Gary Wilson // June 27, 2013 at 1:01 pm // Reply

        I’m not sure what this reply has to do to my post, which was unrelated to Carole’s.

  7. B. Williams // June 24, 2013 at 3:47 pm // Reply

    Our Troop prides itself as being boy lead and has been successful troop because we follow this standard. The hardest part of maintaining the Troop Boy lead is keeping new leaders/cross-overs from trying to take over when they see the disorganization and general havoc that sometimes occurs. We find this most prevalent with Scout Mom’s, wanting to protect their son, so they do the tasks for them. No disrespect to the many fine Mom’s in scouting.
    What has been most gratifying is when the SPL, an ASPL or Patrol Leader find they have the authority to take responsibility and respectfully say no to a Leader; and the Leadership supports the Scout in their discussion. At that point the Boy Scout grows 10 fold in confidence. This creates a leader.

  8. Kelly Horton // June 24, 2013 at 4:37 pm // Reply

    A good way to NOT become an adult lead troop is to have incoming adults join the “Adult Patrol”. In my old troop, the adult patrol functioned the same as a boy patrol. They make their own menus, cook their own food, clean up after themselves, and ect.

    We ran (back in the mid 1980′s) about 50 scouts on a camp out. We would also get 1-15 adults attending as well. We would separate the A.P. about 50 feet from the scouts. Just enough to keep eyes and ears on them, but far enough away so they could run themselves.

    Running a A.P. worked very well for us. We would get cross-overs into the patrol and told them if the boys see us adults acting like a patrol, then they will see the example to become and will follow our example. I good example of this was meals. When the adults saw what kind of meals that could be cooked on a camp out, we seldom had anybody going away hungry. My dad, the SM, knew that you can speak to a man through his stomach. If you had a happy camper, you would not have a problem with the dads supporting the troop.

    It also worked out well when a parent found out that their little angel was really a devil.

  9. While I am sure the same thing has always kept troops running, I don’t believe it is the “Patrol Method.” What keeps boys coming is a good program where they are being engages where they are while being pushed to a better place.

    The patrol method is but one component of making this happen. It is not the most needed method. There are great troops without s strong patrol method. And there are other troops that are on the rocks following the method.

    The most important thing is intentional leadership. This drove me to complete Eagle. My leaders worked at providing me the opportunities I needed. They looked at each of us and tried to make the opportunities that each needed. Sometimes it meant pushing older boys to mentor younger ones. Other times it was stepping in to protect younger boys from the choices of older ones.

  10. Patrick Provart // June 25, 2013 at 9:25 pm // Reply

    When moving into using the Patrol Method, expect LOTS of mistakes. Be prepared for them. I carried a couple of envelopes of Lipton instant noodles in my pack for years. So that if a patrol leader neglected to buy enough food, or a patrol fouled up a meal, they at least wouldn’t starve. We used to regularly reassure the junior leaders they were expected to make, and learn from, mistakes. We ALSO reassured them that our job was to keep them from making a mistake that endangered someone. And then we let them make their mistakes. . .

    • Gary Wilson // June 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm // Reply

      LOL, Patrick. My solution for a patrol forgetting food for car camping was a sack of potatoes. For one weekend, they’re not going to die if all they had were potatoes, and teached them to be creative: baked, mashed, fried, potato pancakes, hash browns, etc.

      • H. David Pendleton // July 9, 2013 at 10:44 am // Reply

        Due to an issue with adult coverage (our SM/ASMs are active in several roles) issue, our troop had to move our June campout from the 2nd weekend to the last weekend of the month. Due to the change & other factors, our small troop (20 or so) had only a small number of Scouts that could attend. My son was Grubmaster or as the Scouts call it, “Food Dude” for the 1st time. My son got the headcount at the last meeting before the campout & the menu so we went to the store to pick up the stuff to keep it between $10-$12 a Scout for 4 meals (2 B, 1 L, 1 D). When we got to there for Friday’s departure, there were two more Scouts than we accounted for. One was the Scout who had prepared the food list & forgot to put his own name on the list of those going & the other was a Scout who was not at the meeting. I was worried that they would run out of food, but they didn’t. In fact, my son brought home some stuff that was not eaten.

    • Kelly Horton // July 9, 2013 at 11:50 am // Reply

      Patrick,

      I was working with some boys and their first camp out as boy lead, they forgot half of the food. I was running the camp out and had left two days earlier to set up everything. The other adult leader knew I wanted the outpost to be “boy-lead” and he forgot about the other cooler, so it was left behind. The boys had a checklist as well for loading the vehicles and it was checked off. Anyways, come Sat. morning and no eggs, no bacon, no sausage. The SPG came to me and asked me what I was going to do about it. I patted him on the back and “Your Outpost, your boy lead program, your problem to work through.” I added that I was running the event and to talk with the other adult leader. He refused to drive a 20 mile trip for eggs and told them to see what they could come up with.

      They came up with a few eggs from other outposts, diluted them with milk and made french toast. One kid had caught a few fish, so they grilled them. They also made some bannock and had peanut butter on it. They survived and learned to check off items as they were “loaded into the vehicles” not just set on the floor.

      When we got home, some of the parents complained about the situation. I explained the boy lead program to them. I also asked them if they saw the cooler chest in the church and they said “Yes”. My reply was, “Why didn’t you drive it to camp?” Their reply was, “It was a 2 hour drive one way.” I guess my time was not worth as much as theirs. I think I am preaching to the choir on this one.

      Next camp out, the boys made sure everything was there. Oh, half of the tents did not have flies or poles to them. So on that camp out, there was a rain in the middle of the night. There was 8 boys in one 4 man tent. It worked out. When they got back to the church ALL of the tents were set up and repacked with poles, stakes, and flies. The figured it out – it was up to them to be responsible and they stepped up. One boy actually thought that they should shake down the grub box as well!

      So let the boys learn by mistake. The school of “Hard Knocks” is sometimes the best school.

  11. A good friend of mine has a good way to tell if the troop is following the patrol method. He says, “If it looks like it’s being run by a bunch of old farts, it probably is; if it looks like it’s being run by a bunch of 14-year-olds, it probably is.” Simple and to the point, I think!

    • I use that same phrase Jim! I attended a COH for a fairly large troop last year. I noticed the Scouts were all perfectly uniformed and then I saw why: the Scoutmaster had posted himself at the entrance and was inspecting each Scout as he came in. One was being castigated for wearing sneakers with an otherwise perfect uniform. The Scoutmaster then went to the front of the room and conducted the entire COH himself. I dont think a Scout spoke the whole time. Then I noticed that this large troop was almost entirely composed of 11 and 12 year olds. There was only a handful of older Scouts and all seemed to be the son of a uniformed leader.

      It all comes down to what kind of measurement we use to determine “good troop”. I have no doubt this chap worked very hard to produce what he thought was a “good troop”. Unfortunately, that concept had very little to do with offering boys a chance to learn leadership from a hands on perspective.

    • Kelly Horton // July 9, 2013 at 12:01 pm // Reply

      Hah, I saw troops being lead by 14 years that looked better than an adult lead troop. Once a boy lead troop is established it does not take much to maintain it. Boys training boys works very well. If you retain the older boys, you always have your experienced “Leadership Corp”. That is why you have “Trainer” POR positions. If us adults learned a new skill, we would teach the Trainer Scout and he would hand it down to the patrols and members. We encouraged our older boys to take the adult training with us. They did not pay anything either. We also encouraged the boys to learn new skills and teach us old fart leaders a new trick. They did quite well I do add.

      We had the boys leading the troop so well, that they would actually kick the adults out of their campsite. “Beat it and go to the adult campsite, Sir.” New adults would at first get offended, we we told them to drink their coffee, relax, and forget about it.

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