Read this former SPL’s excellent advice for leading younger Scouts

The iPhone 5s, with its 4-inch screen and maximum 64 GB of storage, was Apple’s latest and greatest way back in 2013 when Justine Cole was 11 years old. Iron Man 3 was the year’s top-grossing movie.

Justine is 18 now, and a lot has changed in those seven years. Apple’s newest model sports a 6.7‑inch screen and tops out at 512 GB. And Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark has been in an additional five films.

The difference is stark indeed between the life experiences of someone who was an 11-year-old in 2013 and someone who is 11 now. And yet in Scouts BSA, we ask young people ages 10 to 17 to coexist in the same troop.

Within that safe-but-challenging setting, young people learn how to lead, follow and team up with others with whom they might have little in common. And that’s a wonderful thing indeed.

Justine, who turned 18 last month, just wrapped up a stint as senior patrol leader of Scouts BSA Troop 5074 of Livonia, N.Y. (Iroquois Trail Council).

She passed her Eagle board of review on Nov. 16, 2020, meaning she’ll join the Inaugural Class of Female Eagle Scouts next year. She also plans to continue in Scouts BSA as an adult volunteer, furthering her impact on the next generation of Eagle Scouts.

But before all that, we asked Justine to look back on what it took to lead girls who were a half-decade younger.

“The most difficult thing is connecting with them,” she says. “The world is constantly changing, so how you acted at their age is already completely different from how they act. You have to try to put yourself in their position and alter how you speak to them.”

For her Eagle Scout service project, Justine Cole led a group of Scouts as they repaired and refurbished a vintage wrought-iron fence, which was dismantled and partially destroyed, in front of the town cemetery.

The leader by default

Katie Marr, Justine’s grandmother and the Scoutmaster of Troop 5074, had a feeling that Justine would be selected as the new all-girl troop’s first senior patrol leader last year.

“Being the oldest in her troop, it fell on Justine to not only lead the younger girls,” Marr says, “but to also prepare them for when she aged out.”

That meant Justine’s legacy in Troop 5074 would be more than the new wrought-iron fence built at the town cemetery for Justine’s Eagle Scout service project. It would also be a legacy of leadership.

Learning to lead

Justine, like all Scouts, started her journey toward the Eagle Scout Award with the Scout rank. But she wasn’t really starting from square one.

For years she had watched with envy as her brother enjoyed his Scouting experience.

“It wasn’t hard for me to make the fast transition into the girl troop and into the role of SPL,” Justine says.

Justine deepened her leadership experience as a participant at National Youth Leadership Training, the BSA’s first-rate course for developing young people into confident leaders.

“While I wished there was more female participation, there was something so special and terrifying about being one of the only female participants,” she says.

If she was scared, she certainly didn’t show it — not then and not in front of the Scouts in Troop 5074.

“NYLT was amazing at updating my public speaking skills and making me more comfortable with being an SPL,” she says.

Advice for other senior patrol leaders

Like a sponge, Justine says she has watched adults in her life and how they lead. When she saw something that worked, she mimicked those actions.

She learned to:

  • Design troop meetings that are interesting, advancement-focused and fun
  • Be patient
  • Ask adult leaders for help, especially with Scouts who present extra challenges
  • Lean on and learn from others
  • Stay optimistic but aware
  • Go into any activity or troop meeting with the mindset that it will succeed, but also …
  • Be ready with a backup plan for when something goes wrong

Justine never tried to do any of this alone. She says she relied on the other older Scouts in her troop.

“Scouts who are 11, 12 or 13 still need to be taught, and they need more structure,” she says. “You can lead them more by just supporting them and guiding them to advancement or whatever they’re working on by offering your experience and knowledge.”

About Bryan Wendell 3142 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.