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The Spark of Leadership.

Developing leadership is, and always has been, a key part of being a Scout; all of the sections require an element of being a “Team Leader” to achieve their top awards but what are we trying to achieve? Something akin to a Sandhurst graduate or Lord Sugar's latest apprentice? I really hope not. Baden-Powell once said: "any ass can be a commander, and a trained man may often make an instructor; but a leader is more like the poet – born, not manufactured." All well and good but where does this leave those Scouts who are not "Natural Leaders"

The Campfire Analogy

At a training session I once heard the development of a Scout's leadership skills compared to building a campfire. You put in the groundwork and the essential ingredients before adding the spark of responsibility and watch it blaze into life.


Maybe it works in the idealized world of the training room, like lighting a fire from a pile of nicely split pallet wood, but get out in the woods on a wet November evening and try it! For every campfire I've had blaze into life there's countless others that have had me on my hands and knees, huffing and puffing, mildly cursing before giving me a face full of acrid smoke!

Meet Fred

I've known Fred since he was a Beaver, He's progressed through the movement, gaining his Chief Scout's Bronze and Silver Awards and is now just moving into Explorers. He's had a few challenges along the way, we don't dwell on them or fuss over the labels, but it makes some things difficult. In particular he's struggled with the Team Leader Challenge in Scouts, which he needs to get his Gold Award.
One of the main sticking points was to help a new Scout settle into the Troop, the opportunity has been there but it's fair to say it hasn't gone well. Speaking with both Fred and his mum it is clear that he his beating himself up over this, sure he can put it behind him, press on to his Platinum award and consider it another lesson from “the school of hard knocks”, but what if that experience instils a feeling that he can't do leadership? Far from building this young man's confidence the Scouting awards system could potentially shatter it.

Take a step back and rub the smoke out of your eyes.

There's been times when I've had a fire that just won't catch and I've ended up taking it apart, raking out the damp smouldering embers and starting again. So, this is what we've done with Fred's Team Leader Challenge and I started by asking Fred to contribute to this blog.

So Fred, what is it you find difficult about Leadership?

"I find leadership difficult because I am not very good at being able to describe what we need to do to others who don't know me very well. If this continues to happen then I end up getting angry and frustrated and this prevents me from leading the group and that then prevents the group from moving forward. When leading others my age it gets a bit easier as we all know similar information to each other and that makes it easier to describe what we need to do. However, with others older or younger than me it gets harder as often they won't understand or don't know what we need to do and that leads into getting frustrated. When I am leading a big group, I get anxious and confused when people don't understand what I am saying and that then leads me to try to explain it again and if they still don't understand it then leads me to get more confused and anxious. When leading I like to either lead a small group with one of my friends to help me explain something and to help me not get as frustrated or in a large group helping someone to lead."

Back to the campfire analogy: Look at the wood you've already collected.

So the key points in Fred's reflection are anger, frustration and confusion. More worryingly there's anxiety, we need to be careful here because he's at an age where this poisonous seed can firmly take root and we must do everything we can not to nurture it. Knowing the challenges Fred has I'm not overly surprised but there is a little gem in here that I hadn't spotted:

"When leading others my age it gets a bit easier"

This goes completely against my initial thoughts. I assumed that working with a younger age group would be better for him, because he might find them less challenging to his authority, when in actual fact he finds them frustrating and confusing. It's a bit like looking at that stick you thought was bone dry but is now bubbling steam.
Then something else clicks into to place; My Assistant Leader mentions how she'd seen him leading a group of his peers at Gang Show rehearsals and he'd been brilliant. It's like remembering that conifer plantation a hundred yards down the track that can provide dry resinous wood and we now have another chance to make this thing burn!

Re-lay the fire.

At his last meeting at Scouts Fred tried again to help the newer Scouts, according to his Young Leader he "did a pretty good job". Unfortunately we're in the grip of lockdown and he's now in Explorers which reduces the opportunities to help a new scout. He is however part of a small patrol of new Explorers, so I asked him to organize a virtual forum with them, bring back any questions about Explorers and suggestions for the programme.


The responses he gathered from the forum were simply brilliant. Clear concise questions, and all the usual silly stuff that I'd inevitably expect to find has been filtered out. Exactly what I would have expected from a Patrol Leader. It's that moment when you've been gently poking dry bits of gorse into the fire and something gives a loud pop! It's that moment you realize that this thing might just catch after all, but don't take your eye off the ball just yet.

Fred's leadership skills aren't going to blaze into life; this fire is going to take a lot of tending, not to mention huffing and puffing. Take your eye off it and it will go out. I don't think It'll ever be a blazing beacon, I might be wrong, but I'm happy to settle for a decent fire.

So where does this leave Fred?

Fred can complete his Gold Award during the first term of Explorers. There's a lot to do but we're going to give it our best shot. He may not have been very successful at helping a new scout to settle into the Troop, but the fact that he has been able to reflect on why he struggled shows a great deal of maturity and in view of the challenges he faces I'm prepared to apply the flexibility rules. And now a new opportunity has presented itself, one of his peers who left Scouting has expressed an interest in joining Explorers; Over to you Team Leader, reel him in!

Staring into the glowing embers.

I think it's important to reflect on what the Team Leader Challenge is trying to do. Whilst it's immensely satisfying to sit back and see the Scout who just leads naturally and excels at everything, they are, just like poets, quite a rare thing. It's the ones who need hard work and make your eyes sting who are most rewarding, particularly once the smoke clears and the flames finally start to break through. And then there's a tiny subset who through no fault of their own have particular challenges that are the most rewarding of all. To release their potential I'd suggest ripping some of the pages out of the badge book and using them for tinder; I'll leave you with one more Baden Powell quote to think about:

"If you make listening and observation your occupation you will gain much more than you can by talk"