The Boy Scouts of America strongly supports youth leadership within its units. In fact, “Leadership Development” is one of the traits Scouting is based on. So, how do you as a leader, let your youth lead?
Learn to Let Go
First, you must understand that a young man or woman will never wrestle a leadership position from an adult. Naturally, youth will let an adult take over. It’s basic instincts. The very first step in the process is learning to let go and step away. Not just physically but mentally as well. Leaders should set their minds to “youth are the leaders; this is a youth-led program.”
Set Them Up for Success
Leaders can’t expect a young man or woman to immediately assume responsibility for their new leadership position. One best practice is giving the position meaning by holding a “swearing-in.” By doing this, it gives youth a sense of purpose when taking on the new responsibilities. They will feel as though they accepted the leadership role instead of being obligated to do it.
The next step in setting them up for success is giving them a list of their new responsibilities. That way they will know exactly what is expected and needed of them.
- Senior Patrol Leaders Handbook
- Patrol Leaders Handbook
- Introduction to Leadership Skills for Troops
- National Youth Leadership Training (NYLT)
Use the Methods of Scouting
Another key factor to being a successful youth leader is to assist the troop in accomplishing the purpose of Scouting by using its methods.
Think of Scouting as a ladder. The steps are the methods and at the top is the purpose. In order to reach the purpose of Scouting, one must climb the steps (aka methods) of the ladder.
Youth leaders don’t have to worry about brainstorming what the troop should be focusing on. Using the “ladder” idea simply spells out exactly what the troop needs to be doing. The youth leader just enforces it.
As the adult, you will let the youth determine how they climb the ladder. Youth leadership doesn’t mean that they create their own ladders or climb to a different purpose. The youth get choices but they don’t get to create a new program. In other words, they pick the style, not the substance.
Example: An appropriate activity to be planned by the youth leader is deciding that the troop will work on the First Aid Merit Badge in the month of June, NOT let’s go sky-diving.
Empowering the Youth Leader – Let Them Fail
The biggest hurdle you may encounter is changing the mindset of the troop. They’ll need to learn how to look to the youth leader for direction, not the adult. It is crucial for you to take a step back and empower them to lead the troop.
One way to do this is to not step on the youth leader’s toes. For example, when the youth leader is presenting the activity for the week and they relay to the group that they will be meeting on Wednesday at 7:00 pm when you know they are really meeting at 6:00 pm, don’t jump in and say they are wrong. Approach the youth leader afterward and ask them if they changed the plans. If they realized they announced the time wrong, then ask them what we can do to fix it. If you do jump in and say the time is wrong, the troop will unknowingly continue to seek information from you, the adult, and not the youth leader. Keep in mind, if you’re always the source of truth then how can you possibly have a youth-led program?
There will be times when the youth leader looks to you for direction and that’s ok! You can continue to guide them by answering their questions with questions. Such as, “Is it ok if we do this activity?” you can answer back with, “What do you think? Does it follow the methods of Scouting? Does it follow the Guide to Safe Scouting?” Answering back with questions will open their minds to think about points they may have never thought of on their own.
Your youth are going to fail. Let them! But, let them fail in a controlled, safe manner. A controlled failure is forgetting the eggs or the toilet paper on the campout. Not detrimental, but definitely uncomfortable and a learning experience. Do not let them forget to clip the carabiner correctly and have them “learn their lesson” by falling down the cliff and breaking their arm. As the adult, be their lookout.
Direct NOT Coach
A lot of times in Scouting the word coach is used, which is really the wrong symbolism. Coaching is shouting from the sidelines. Use “Director” instead. The youth are your actors. You’ll have rehearsals, you’ll prepare months before the big show, you’ll discuss each part of the play. During the “show” if something goes wrong, the director doesn’t run on the stage (like a coach would call a time-out), they’ll let the scene play out and afterward talk to the actor about what happened and direct them for next time. It is not your role to run onto the stage. A director guides off-stage!
Once again, it is your obligation to develop youth leaders. Learn to let go and let them lead. Provide the appropriate training materials and encourage them to use the methods of Scouting. Don’t forget to empower the youth leaders by taking a step back and even letting them fail at times. And lastly, direct them in being a successful leader for their unit.
Remember, we win at youth leadership when we mentally change our mindset and inspire them to fulfill and magnify their roles.
(Article based off Mat Greenfield’s 2018 University of Scouting Class, “Developing Youth Leaders.”)