Leadership? Maybe When I Grow Up.

In July my 15-year old son and I went on a Northern Tier Boy Scout wilderness canoeing trip in Atikokan, Ontario. Our crew consisted of five boys and three adult leaders. It was a great time, very challenging, with many adventures along the way. For the first time since I can remember we were also “ off the grid” totally for ten days, miles from civilization, with no connection to iIPods, iPhones, iPads and other electronic devices.

With outside assistance several days away, crew teamwork was essential, not only for mutual survival, but also for efficiency.  Everyone had to pitch in and carry their weight (sometimes literally as in the case of portaging an aluminum canoe for up to a mile) As ours is a boy-led troop, the scouts assigned a crew leader, who made all the daily work assignments like who would cook, gather water, build the fire, set up tents, make on the spot decisions and deal with other issues that came up unexpectedly. The adults could “advise” but the scouts themselves had to ultimately decide.  Now keep in mind that all these 14 and 15 year olds are peers in every way in school, sports, etc. – but here in wilderness they had to follow the hierarchy that was set up.  It was no easy thing, for example for my own son, to defer and take orders from one of his best friends, with no room for push back, or even utter the ubiquitous teenage boy insult (“You are such a loser”).

It was a new world, this one of structure, respect, obedience for peer leaders.  Being a leader in a Boy Scout troop is like being a leader anywhere else. Every leader deals with two major things- the job to do and the group. On our trip the jobs were easy, they were clear cut and easy to define — We needed to paddle this far, not tip over the canoe, purify the water, camp here, cook the food, etc.

Managing the group was more difficult for the crew leader, as he had to incur the wrath (or distaste) of his fellow scouts several times a day. Really just because he was telling them what to do. We could tell he was struggling with it, and finally some of the simmering issues boiled over into a confrontation that left several with hurt feelings. It was a no-win situation, he had to perform his duties as a crew leader, and in doing so he almost without doubt was going to alienate his friends. Midway through our journey we relieved the boy,) from some of his leadership duties and the rest of the trip went smoothly. The scouts had no problem taking orders from the adults, as that was more normal for them. 

The decisions you make as a leader in the working world are always not so easy either. Sometimes it is hard to choose a path that others are willing to follow. And sometimes it is difficult to follow orders you don’t understand or agree with. But we learn to follow them anyway. Or have a very, very good reason not to.

Hopefully the leadership lessons learned will be ones with stick with the boys. I’m not so sure however. Without the structure of the rules and trip, in no time at all my son has reverted to his old ways. Last night he and a friend stayed up till the wee hours playing video games. The ensuing mess in the family room this morning resembled a battlefield, with banana peels, Sprite cans, cracker wrappers, and other food items strewn about the floor. Absent a leader to tell them to clean up, nothing happened…until next morning that is

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