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Experiments In Leadership July 22, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I recently returned from a week at Boy Scout Summer Camp, at idyllic Camp Raven Knob in the mountains of North Carolina.  I was not alone: camp is best experienced in large groups.  To that end, I was there with Boy Scout Troop 244 with eight other adults and 39 Boy Scouts, including my son.  Overall, the camp was home to 650 Scouts, with perhaps 150 adult leaders and 100 staff members.

The boys spent the week earning merit badges, hiking, swimming, building fires, playing with sharp objects, eating camp food, getting rained on, and fooling around.  The adult leaders focus on ensuring that the boys have fun, don’t get too homesick, and return home with all the eyes, fingers, and limbs they brought to camp at the start of the week.

To the casual observer, Scouting is just another extracurricular activity for boys that involves camping and various outdoor skills.  Those involved in Scouting know better.  Scouting is an outstanding leadership training program for young men that uses outdoor experiences as the venue for boys to try their new skills.  For 100 years, Scouting has been teaching young men how to solve problems, organize teams, develop strategies, and lead people.  When you throw in the opportunity to build fires, use knives, and get dirty, it becomes almost irresistible to most 12-year-old boys.

Most people never get the opportunity to experiment with leadership with no fear of failure.  By the time we are placed in a leadership position, failure carries a huge cost.  Scouting creates leadership opportunities where failure has no downside.  Instead, boys get the opportunity to see their mistakes, learn from them, and try again.  By the time they move into a real leadership role, they have the experience to be successful and avoid previous errors.

I once watched my son try to lead a patrol of eight boys in cooking breakfast.  He struggled as boys wandered off, ignored his plan, and went their own way.  He wound up doing much of the work himself and found the experience frustrating.  Everyone did get to eat, but the process was messy, literally and figuratively.  Afterward, I asked him how it went.  He declared he never wanted to be in charge of cooking again!  I laughed, and we talked about how to motivate a team, delegate tasks, follow up, and finish a project.  Since then, my son has managed patrol meals on many occasions without a problem, and his patrol eats very well.  (Menu highlights have included penne with shrimp in a tomato cream sauce, chicken fajitas, and apple pie, all prepared in various remote locales across North Carolina).

Leadership training is an essential part of any good organization.  Just as Scouting provides a lab environment for future leaders, we need to create training opportunities for our people to test their leadership skills.  Most importantly, we need to give them the ability to fail without fear so that they can learn from their mistakes and get better.  Fear of failure is paralyzing.  Let your people fail, provide structure to contain the potential damage, and give feedback so they can learn from their mistakes.  Although you may not be able to send them camping for a week, they’ll still grow and mature into more effective contributors in your organization.

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