Leadership Lessons from the Scouts

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 10th November 2016

A new study has suggested that those who were in the scouts or guides as a child are 15% less likely to develop anxiety or mood disorders by the age of 50.

The researchers have linked this with the resilience-building activities at the centre of these groups, and I would like to offer my own experiences in support of these fascinating findings.

For me, being a part of such a group not only bolstered my confidence as a human being, but as a fair and engaging leader in later life.

Leadership Lessons from the Scouts

My ascent to leadership

I became a cub when I was about 8 years old. I was a ‘sixer’ at age 9, and discovered that I had the responsibility of leading my ‘six’ in a range of activities. That first day I was so chuffed to have been chosen to be the ‘boss’, and even my father (always my fiercest critic) seemed mildly pleased.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that my team were looking to me to make decisions and tell them what we should be doing; I went from chuffed to intimidated and insecure in about half an hour.

I made decisions. They often proved to be the wrong ones. My team came last in the first day of summer outdoor activities. They were despondent and I felt that I’d let them down.

My one advantage, which helps me still, was a natural tendency to analyse and reflect. I learned fast, I refused to be beaten, I listened to my ‘Akela’ and my team mates, and we got better at speed.

At the end of the week, we won the pack trophy for the best overall performance. I can still remember the taste of the Tizer we drank from the cup. It tasted like victory and vindication and, perhaps most of all, like hope. That day the trajectory of my life shifted a little.

Two or three years passed, and I was now a patrol leader in the scouts, leading my patrol and several others on an ascent of the Sugar Loaf mountain in Wales. I’ve always been hopeless at reading maps or using a compass and have, notoriously, no sense of direction (cue the sound of chuckling from my wife and friends, and the echo of my father’s comment that ‘Nigel couldn’t find his own backside with a mirror on a stick’).

I asked my team who was the best map reader and who had their ‘orienteering badge’ (not me, for obvious reasons), and set them to lead the way. We had been given a huge back-pack laden with flasks, billy-cans, tins of beans, torches, spare boots and (or so it felt) about fifty concrete slabs. One of our more junior, but quite tall and beefy, members had been given the job of carrying it by the scout leader.

I made my first true leadership decision that day. I took the pack from him (I’ve just remembered his name was Simon) and shouldered it, giving him my whistle. I went to the back of the patrol, told them the plan, told them to follow the orienteers at the front, and that I would be at the back to help anyone who was struggling, and set them off on the trail.

Crikey, I can still remember how heavy that pack was. We older boys were supposed to take turns at carrying it, but I wouldn’t let it go to anyone else and carried it all the way to the top before collapsing in an exhausted heap. Along the way, I encouraged a few of the smaller boys who were falling behind and stopped to encourage a few that had decided they couldn’t go on. We took about an hour longer than the fastest group, though we were about fourth of more than 20 teams.

The fastest team ‘lost’ three of their members along the way, sent back down by their leader because they couldn’t keep up and he wanted to win. Several of them were damaged either physically or through verbal abuse from their team mates. They lost some equipment. They arrived at speed but in disarray, with him about two minutes ahead of his last exhausted team member. I can remember his jubilation and how he jeered at me and my team when we arrived.

What I learnt from my early experiences

It’s interesting how these early lessons stick with you. I’ve ‘won’ a lot of times in my long career, which is fine and enjoyable in its way. I’ve also helped, mentored, developed, served, and encouraged a lot of people along the way, and I’ve tried to shoulder the pack whenever it’s been the best thing for the team (just as I’ve asked others to carry it when that’s been for the greater good), and that matters to me a whole lot more. When you’re a leader, you want everyone in your team or organisation to win, not just you.

Thankfully, I’ve never felt the need to ‘beat’ other people or put them down in order to feel better about myself or to mask my insecurities. Insecure leaders can so easily become tyrants.

To me, leadership is about being the best version of yourself, and enabling others to achieve that too. That why I became a leader that day on the Sugar Loaf mountain.

The scouts taught me so much, and gave me a chance to find out who I was. As a kid from a condemned council slum who went to a poor secondary school and was bullied for being ginger and wearing dodgy hand-me-down clothes, I suddenly felt like someone who mattered. Being a scout when the cool kids were loitering in bus shelters smoking roll-ups suddenly felt worth it.

Today, research has been published indicating that those who were part of an outdoor-based movement such as a scout or guide association in their formative years are significantly less likely to suffer from mental health problems such as depression in later life. I can absolutely see why. But it goes deeper than that. I learned the values of comradeship, teamwork, collaboration and resolve in those years.

OK, it might not be the ‘coolest’ thing a kid can do (and frankly, if that’s the most important consideration for you or your offspring, then you may need to rethink your own priorities), but it might just change their future and give them lifelong resilience.

Not a bad return for one night a week away from the TV or tablet, and the odd weekend. Think about it.

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