Solving the Puzzle of Youth Leadership


My toddler grandson loves working puzzles–not 500-piece jigsaw puzzles, of course, but the kind that have six or eight pieces that fit neatly into recesses in a wooden board. Many of these puzzles have an animal theme, but his favorite (shown here) features six colored shapes and three more complex pieces that together make of pictures of a couple of frogs with paintbrushes. (Because why not!)

If you study the picture closely, you’ll see that the colored shapes are same colors as the recesses they fit into, while the recesses the other pieces fit into show the exact same pictures as the pieces themselves. Simple, huh? Not really, if you’re a toddler, because a toddler doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination, analytical ability, or puzzle-solving experience of an adult. And so it takes a lot of trial and error and gentle guidance to get the puzzle completed.

It’s much the same with your youth leaders. Tasks that seem simple to you–planning a troop meeting, for example–are as difficult for them as that puzzle is for my grandson. It’s only when you can see the problem through their eyes that you can help them be successful.

Here are four tips that can help you help your youth leaders be successful:

  • Be patient. A good rule of thumb is to silently sing “Happy BIrthday to You” before you step into any non-emergency situation.
  • Ask questions that will help them find the answer. I like to say that the true mark of a great leader is a question mark.
  • Know when to offer help. Don’t let a youth leader cross the border from frustration and dysfunction. Instead, provide the guidance he or she needs to be successful.
  • Be okay with imperfection. Your youth leaders may never do a job as well as you would, but if they’ve learned something from the process and are ready to take on the next task, then they–and you–have been successful.

Need more great troop program ideas? Check out The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is available in both print and e-book formats at

Better than Badges


In the lead-up to welcoming girls into what is now Scouts BSA, one of the selling points was that girls would be able to work toward the Eagle Scout Award. The BSA even created a special one-time policy allowing older girls to apply for time extensions if they’re unable to complete all the requirements before their 18th birthdays. (The policy also applies to boys who join late this year.)

I’m excited about seeing girls become Eagle Scouts, and I’m fine with the temporary policy. However, it’s important to remember that advancement is not the purpose of Scouting. Too often, I’m afraid, we focus so much on the earning of badges that we forget about the learning that leads to them.

Years ago, I came across a quote in a Cub Scout handicrafts book that I love: “It isn’t what the boy does to the board that counts; it’s what the board does to the boy.” Similarly, it’s not the badge on a Scout’s chest that matters; it’s the heart that beats beneath that chest.

This focus on badges isn’t new. In Aids to Scoutmastership, Robert Baden-Powell wrote:

There is always the danger of badge-hunting supplanting badge-earning. Our aim is to make boys into smiling, sensible, self-effacing, hardworking citizens, instead of showy, self-indulgent boys. The Scoutmaster must be on the alert to check badge-hunting and to realise which is the badge-hunter and which is the keen and earnest worker.

Unfortunately, many Scout leaders have become badge-hunters on behalf of their Scouts, only planning activities that lead directly to advancement. In doing so, they risk robbing Scouts of experiences that really matter, even ones as simple as exploring the world around them.

When I interview prominent Eagle Scouts for Eagles’ Call magazine, I always ask them about their favorite Scouting memories. Recently, I interviewed a man who’s active in promoting conservation and biodiversity, and he described an unusual memory: One time his troop was camping in a farmer’s pasture, and he and a friend used a seine to see what was swimming in the water. They were amazed by the abundance of life they found in ordinary water. He told me he still thinks about that simple activity when he’s working in the field.

Wouldn’t it have been a shame if his Scoutmaster has told him and his friend to quit fooling around because it was time to work on a merit badge?

Need more great troop program ideas? Check out The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is available in both print and e-book formats at