SPL of 143-member troop shares 10 tips for leading a troop during the pandemic — and beyond

Ben Buxton in one of his Troop 77 videos. (All screenshots courtesy of Ben Buxton)

He made fun, interactive videos his fellow Scouts could watch from home.

He worked with his patrol leaders’ council to devise fun games, like “Scout Jeopardy,” that would engage all 143 Scouts in his troop.

And he found a way to safely lead 21 in-person troop meetings during his 10-month term. Every meeting was held outdoors while following local and BSA guidelines, and not a single troop member tested positive for COVID during that span.

For that, Ben Buxton deserves some kind of award. But to hear Ben tell it, he was just fulfilling the promises he made when running for senior patrol leader of Troop 77 from the Atlanta Area Council.

“I am most proud to know that the programs that our troop has kept up for the last 10 months have helped our Scouts mentally to cope with being quarantined in their homes during this pandemic,” Ben says. “We became a way for our Scouts to once again feel the relief of being with other kids their age and engaging in fun social activities.”

So how’d he do it? And how can senior patrol leaders of troops big and small chart a similar course?

In talking with Ben, I learned a lot about leadership — lessons that apply both in and out of Scouting. I’m sharing my top 10 takeaways below.

But keep reading after the list, because I also talked to Ben’s Scoutmaster, Clinton Cole, who has his own advice every Scout volunteer will want to read.

“Part of my success came through the trust system that my Scoutmaster and I had,” Ben says. “He was in charge of health and safety, and I was in charge of the program. He granted me the space that I needed to go above and beyond with my ideas and programs. But he was also upfront with me, too. His advice was always well worth listening to — even if it was critical at times.”

1. Focus on fun.

When he was elected senior patrol leader in March 2020, Ben ran on a platform of making troop activities as fun as possible — while still working toward rank and merit badge requirements.

“We were doing a lot of programs from the book, and many older Scouts were becoming disinterested and not attending our weekly troop meetings,” Ben says. “I wanted to bring new ideas and programs to the troop that had never been done before.”

Ben’s favorite activities were a catapult-building competition and a model rocket launch. (In case you’re wondering, catapults are OK as a unit-level activity. Just be sure to follow the guidance on Page 100 of the BSA’s National Shooting Sports Manual.)

“While at times I felt overwhelmed with the responsibility, in the end it all paid off by seeing the joy that these new programs brought to Scouts,” Ben says.

2. Communicate (but keep that fun, too).

Another email? No thank you.

Ben kept in regular communication with his troop not through email or texts or even TikTok. He launched a Troop 77 YouTube channel, where he shared quick updates with Scouts through high-energy videos that show off his personality.

That included:

  • Sunday livestreams during the summer to keep Scouts involved when they couldn’t meet in person
  • Quick videos during the fall and winter to explain the procedure for upcoming events
  • Videos that “advertised” what was happening at the next meeting to get Scouts hyped

Ben created a small studio in his room, with an American flag as his backdrop and a Chromebook as his teleprompter.

“Over the course of my tenure as SPL, I was able to hone my filming skills,” he says. “I tried to make my videos clear to understand and enjoyable to watch.”

To increase the likelihood that Scouts would watch these videos, Ben added incentives. For a video about a rocket launch event, Ben gave a prize to the Scout who could correctly name the number of times he used the word “rocket” in the video.

3. Don’t skip summer.

Scouting doesn’t have to slow down during the summer, and Troop 77 is a perfect example.

Under Ben’s leadership, Troop 77 launched a robust weekly program. From May through July 2020, they packed each week with activities like:

  • Ben’s Sunday video, which was a 10-minute summary of the coming week broadcast live on YouTube
  • Virtual merit badge classes taught by adults in the troop and delivered in one-hour increments over several weeks
  • Virtual troop meetings
  • Virtual boards of review when necessary
  • Occasional Saturday outdoor activities, such as a troop bike ride or Spikeball tournament

“This was the first time that our troop had ever done a summer program before,” Ben says.

4. Play games to check what was learned.

Ben and Duncan Todd, one of his assistant senior patrol leaders, spent hours creating custom Jeopardy and Kahoot games for both in-person and virtual meetings.

Games like these are great because they can involve large numbers of Scouts without leaving anyone out.

But these weren’t just for entertainment. The games were played at the end of the meeting to practice what Scouts had learned during the instructional part of the troop program.

A few notes here:

  • For virtual meetings, the games were played over Zoom.
  • For in-person meetings (held outdoors), the games were projected onto a large outdoor screen.
  • The Scouts used free tools like JeopardyLabs and Kahoot to make the games

5. Start with the end in mind.

Troop meetings don’t have to be one-off events. They can — and probably should — be part of a greater plan that builds toward something special.

For Ben and Troop 77, that meant each meeting imparted skills Scouts would need for an upcoming troop event.

“By doing this, we could focus on one skill at a time and learn it more thoroughly over the course of a couple of weeks — as well as build hype for the final event,” Ben says. “I made all my programs by starting with an event or game and then incorporating a merit badge or useful skill.”

Take the catapult-launching competition as an example. Ben started with an irresistibly fun activity — who doesn’t love catapults? — and worked backward. That meant teaching knots and lashings on the way to completing requirements for the Pioneering merit badge. By the time the “Catapult Siege” arrived, the Scouts were prepared.

6. Use surveys.

Great leaders listen. Ben made frequent use of online surveys to get near-instant feedback from the Scouts in his troop.

“I used these in May to see what my troop wanted out of a summer program — would they want merit badge classes or would they want more outdoor activities?” Ben says. “In the end, they wanted merit badge classes, so that’s what we incorporated into our weekly meetings over the summer.”

He used surveys again when Troop 77 decided to return to in-person meetings. In early August, Ben sent out two surveys — one to the parents and the other to the Scouts, asking them if they felt comfortable meeting in person.

“Overall, our troop was on board with meeting back in person from both the adult and Scout perspective, so we moved forward with our plans,” Ben says.

7. Know your boundaries.

As a new SPL, you’ll want to know your limits. That means knowing what your job entails and understanding which activities Scout troops should and shouldn’t do.

Ben studied for his new role by reading the Senior Patrol Leader Handbook and Guide to Safe Scouting.

“Reading both will help you to better plan your meetings and know what your restrictions are,” Ben says.

8. Take notes.

Using the notes app on his phone, Ben kept a running list of ideas he might want to implement in his troop.

“Thinking of ideas is easy,” Ben says. “Remembering them is a challenge.”

No matter what Ben was doing when inspiration struck — reading his SPL Handbook, doing schoolwork, watching TV or brushing his teeth — he could easily record that thought for later.

Ben used satellite images from Google Maps to outline the plan for a Troop 77 court of honor. (Courtesy of Ben Buxton)

9. ‘Making your program bulletproof.’

Ben’s favorite quote from Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell goes like this: “The secret of getting successful work out of your trained men lies in one nutshell: in the clearness of the instructions they receive.”

When Ben created YouTube videos explaining the plan for an upcoming meeting or event, he added visual diagrams designed to ensure people understood exactly what the plan was.

“I call it ‘making your program bulletproof,’” Ben says. “Better to have too much information than not enough.”

When preparing for Troop 77’s court of honor in December, for example, Ben needed to explain that the event would take place in a different part of the church parking lot from where the troop normally meets.

Instead of using words to explain this, he used pictures — taking screenshots of Google Maps satellite images and annotating them with symbols and shapes in Google Slides.

10. Stay safe.

Troop 77’s success during the pandemic didn’t come from luck. It came from the willingness of everyone to follow the guidelines. For that, Ben says the credit goes to Troop 77’s leaders — including some parents who work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“Our adults were relentless in making sure that everyone had their masks on and stayed apart from each other both at our campouts and meetings,” Ben says. “The success of our troop over the last 10 months was forged through trust. We trusted that our parents would keep their child from being exposed to the virus, and as the troop, we were trusted to keep Scouts distanced and masked up during the meetings and on campouts.”

What the Scoutmaster says

Clinton Cole is Troop 77’s Scoutmaster and an Eagle Scout himself. He has two sons in Troop 77 and a daughter in Troop 177.

Before COVID, Cole says his role as Scoutmaster was to “guide, mentor, educate and lead by example.”

During the pandemic, those roles remained, but Cole suddenly had a new job: keeping Scouts safe from the virus.

“In the end, I tried to leave it up to the SPL to figure out what the plan should be and lead the troop accordingly,” Cole says, “but the adults had to play a more active role in terms of health and safety concerns, especially when it came time to get back to in-person meetings and camping.”

Cole was impressed with Ben’s term as SPL, which ended in February 2021.

“Ben did a great job as SPL, especially when engaging the Scouts in ways to have fun at meetings,” Cole says. “He had to make difficult decisions, and he made them, including the importance and practical restrictions of having safe in-person Scout meetings versus virtual Scouting. He did this under the lenses of scrutiny and pressures that come with being SPL in a troop of 100-plus Scouts with a large and active corps of adult leaders and parents.”

I asked Cole for the advice he gives to youth leaders, and he shared some great thoughts.

  • Don’t be afraid to try something new.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or fail. “However, I follow that with: if you do make a mistake or fail, then you need to get back on that horse, tweak what you are doing, and try again as soon as possible.”
  • Be Prepared for as many eventualities as possible. “I ask our youth leaders to plan ahead for what they want and think will happen but to make sure they also have a plan in their back pocket if things go sideways.”
  • Be ready to receive feedback.

To that last point, Cole was honest with Ben about the times that he could’ve done better.

“As a practicing attorney, I find it difficult to look at a situation or individual’s progress from a totally one-sided position — as much as I want to do that when touting the successes of one of my troop’s SPLs,” Cole says. “There are always mistakes made. There are always ways things can be done better, but oftentimes, we don’t see those things unless we do meaningful post-mortems on how things went, what could have gone better, how might you make changes before the next activity.”

About Bryan Wendell 3143 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.