I was wearing myself out: Planning everything, doing everything, following up, and trying to get boys to show up for Scout meeting.
All they wanted to do was play basketball, and I had only been a football coach.
We had taken them to Fillmore, Utah to the big Jamboree. I have fond memories of thousands of Scouts running all over trading two-dozen kinds of Dinosaur trading cards as a way of getting to know other scouts from all over.
Within a few days it was a dustbowl.
We camped next to a Scout troop that we couldn’t help but overhear. Everything was drowned out with the loud voice of their Scoutmaster: “Do this”, “cook that”, “clean this pan”, “pickup that chair,” “don’t leave your neckerchief lying around.”
I don’t recall that I heard the voice of a single boy.
My boys remarked how that troop didn’t look like they were having any fun.
“At least my boys were having fun,” I thought.
But I wasn’t.
I was doing everything just like that other Scoutmaster; I just wasn’t raising my voice so loud.
I went to work a while later and told the story to my friend Dave Kartchner, who happened to be the Trainer for the Great Salt Lake Council. I told him I was wearing myself out, nobody would come to my activities, and I wasn’t having fun.
He remarked with a grin, “It sounds like you haven’t learned about Lawn Chair Leadership.”
“Lawn Chair what?”
“Lawn Chair Leadership,” He replied, “it’s where you teach the boys how to lead and then let them do it. You measure your success by whether you can sit in a lawn chair and watch them make it happen.”
“I’ve never heard of that,” I confessed. “Is there a Lawn Chair Leadership manual at the Scout office?”
“No,” Dave laughed, “but there really should be. It would be the most important manual of them all, and there are a lot of manuals. But Robert Baden Powell called it The Patrol Method. I first learned it at Wood Badge.”
“Would you teach me how to do Lawn Chair Leadership?” I begged. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to take a whole week of my vacation and go to Wood Badge.”
“Wood Badge is the single most powerful thing you can do, best week you will ever spend!” He stated emphatically. “But I’ll teach you about Lawn Chair Leadership for now.”
“I’m ready,” I said, and pulled up a chair.
“It’s not easy!” Warned Dave. “It’s twice as hard up front as just doing it yourself, but twice as easy when it works. And you have to do it all over again every new batch of boys that become leaders. You only need one single ingredient to get them to show up. But you can destroy it all with a single action.”
“What do you mean?” I questioned.
“Well, you get a new batch of boys in leadership about every six months,” said Dave. “And you start over every single time. Remember, you are growing boys into leaders, that’s what Boy Scouts is all about… Leadership, and service. That’s it!”
“I thought we are teaching them to camp, how to survive in the outdoors, and get merit badges.” I replied earnestly. “And to get an Eagle Scout!”
“That’s what everybody thinks, those are how we teach, not what we are really teaching!” He looked at me earnestly. “But they are missing the whole point. The point is leadership… and service.”
“Ok, I understand. And what do you mean, you can destroy it all with a single action?” I asked.
“You have to teach them to lead, then let them actually do it!” He said very seriously. “If you do it for them again and take over, they know they really aren’t in charge, and they just let you do it. Then they don’t trust that they are really in charge and you ruin the whole thing!”
I went completely silent and let the weight of what he said settle on me.
“That’s exactly what I do.” I confessed. “I can’t help it! They do some dumb things!”
“So did you at their age,” chuckled Dave.
“I was worse,” I admitted.
“And what is that one single ingredient?” I asked.
“It’s the same thing you said you weren’t having lately.” He replied.
“Oh… fun.” I knew exactly.
“If you let the boys plan it, it will always be fun!” Dave summarized. “But you add additional elements and resources so it is even more fun.”
“That I can do!” I was eager.
“Now, the only exception is safety.” Dave followed up. “Scouting is all about safety, and you have to step in immediately if things are dangerous. But don’t step in just because they are hard. There’s a big difference.”
“The key is letting the boys do hard things!” He summarized.
“But what if they fail?” I asked honestly.
“Let them fail! In small doses.” Said Dave. “That’s the best thing that could possibly happen. But after the failure, gather your leaders and do a reflection.”
“A what?” I asked.
“A reflection.” Said Dave. “That is where you spend five or ten minutes and reflect together on what just happened and prepare so they always improve for next time.”
“Here’s how it works,” he continued. “When your boys elect their new leaders, or the bishopric selects the new quorum leaders, immediately arrange to have a Junior Leadership Training course.”
“A what?” I asked again, puzzled.
“Don’t worry, there is a manual for this.” Grinned Dave. “And go buy enough of them for each new junior leader. In fact, have a special overnight camp, just for the leaders, maybe a sleepover at your home. Make it fun and rewarding to be a junior leader. Teach them about each of their positions so they know exactly what to do.”
“Help them plan the next years activities. But let it be their activities. You can shadow lead them a bit by asking questions about the wisdom of their plan, but they need to own it or they won’t be motivated to do it.” He warned again.
“What do you mean by shadow?” I asked.
“That’s another name for Lawn Chair Leadership. Some call it Shadow Leadership.” He added.
Dave continued. “Help them plan, go do the activity, then reflect with them afterwards. That’s the pattern.”
“Teach them how, let them do it, then reflect with them how they did?” I restated.
“Exactly, it that easy… and that hard!” He confessed. “You will be tempted to take over many times… but don’t. It will work. Remember, you measure your success by whether you can sit in the lawn chair and watch them.”
“Have a Junior Leader Training, plan activities with them, let them run the activities, and reflect with the leaders after each activity. I get it!” I replied. “That doesn’t sound so hard.”
He warned, “You better teach your Assistant Scoutmasters and Committee and Parents what you are doing or they will screw it up for you and wonder what the heck you are doing by actually letting the boys run things. Mom’s and old timer Scouters who never learned it will struggle with this.”
“One more warning,” Dave added. “It goes in about six month cycles. New boy leaders come in and you do most everything right at first. Each week you let them do more, fail more, learn more, until they are running things. By the second month or so they are running a lot of it. By the fourth month you sit in a lawn chair.”
“I see. Then new boys come in after six months or so and we start all over.” I acknowledged.
“That’s it!” Dave said. “Go try it.”
“I will!” I replied eagerly.
Little did I know how hard it would be at first. The boys tested me at first to see if I would really let them do it.
Sometimes they forgot to follow through. I learned that I needed to remind them, and help them a lot at first. Then I helped them less and less.
I finally went to Wood Badge and had my life changed. As promised, it was the single most powerful training I had experienced in leadership.
I found I actually could sit in a lawn chair and watch the boys lead.
They really did it.
My biggest challenge was actually letting an activity fail.
I learned that it was wise to let small activities fail, but not big ones that included the young women, or outside visitors or speakers. But even then I helped do it with the boys, not for the boys.
One time we went on a short overnighter and the young Quartermaster forgot bowls to eat the oatmeal in for breakfast. I had taught him and reminded him.
He still forgot.
But he and every scout there will never forget eating oatmeal right out of the bowl with their fingers.
The reflection on that experience lasted nearly two hours and changed us all forever. That group of boys still mentions it over a decade later.
The second biggest challenge was parents and my other leaders who kept trying to step in and take over for the boys.
I learned I had to have a special meeting with them all at the first of every new round of junior leaders I worked with. It was hard, but they got it.
Later I watched masters of the art of Lawn Chair Leadership, like John Heiner, write out scripts of what to say as he let young men actually conduct entire large meetings. They were very nervous.
But he let them do it after he showed them what to do and how to do it.
Thanks Dave Kartchner, thanks John Heiner.
I reflected a bit and realized they had used a little bit of Lawn Chair Leadership on me also.
So I have a little advice, from He who’s work this really is.
“Go and do thou likewise.”