How To Turn Feral Cats into Boy Leaders: Step 1

Boy Scouts, leaders, leadership, Boy Scouts America, troop, critical thinking, leading

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of trying to lead 35 Boy Scout tweens and teens through a process to build independence and leadership. I have not, and I do not envy our selfless Scoutmaster. For a lot of reasons, creating a safe place for boys to learn to lead other boys has been a real struggle.

Don’t get me wrong, these are good boys. They’re just, well, boys. And they, for the most part, have not had to be independent, nor leaders. Because well, they’re boys. This is what we know about boys: They want to have fun. They like being silly. They live half their waking lives being argumentative just because. They stink. They have poor executive functioning skills because their brains are still forming. They stink. They have the attention span and memory capacity of a gnat. So really what I’m saying is, it’s like herding feral incontinent blind cats in stinky uniforms.

So how do we transform these smelly beings into responsible, motivated leaders? We don’t do things for them. We don’t tell them what to do. We give them opportunities to fail. We do this while setting them up to succeed. Here’s how:

Visuals: Have clear signage of tasks the boys must complete at each meeting. Take attendance, check. Take minutes, check. You get the idea. Have it visible for them. It’s their responsibility to check those items off. After a while, they won’t need the external prompts anymore. And at no point in time was an adult hovering over their shoulders, “Asking did you take attendance yet?”

Have an agenda and clock visible:
7:00pm Meeting begins
7:05pm Review agenda
7:10pm Complete XYZ task
7:30pm Fun game
7:50pm Clean up
7:55pm Closing
Learning how to manage time is a learned skill. How do kids learn this when the majority of their days have school bells and teachers and parents and coaches telling them when to go where? We give them the opportunity to try managing their own time. But they need to learn to get a sense of time, of what 5 minutes feels like (forever to a boy), what half an hour feels like (hell to a boy). And they will need to learn to eventually speed things up to complete certain tasks within 5 minutes. Assign the leader of the meeting to create an agenda, and stick to it.

Project Management Skills: We tell kids they need to learn how to plan, they need to learn how to do things themselves. Great concepts, I agree. But they don’t even know what that means. The first step is to teach them how to be critical thinkers. Good leaders, smart people–they critically think. What does that even mean? It means knowing what you don’t know, what you need to ask for, what you need to find out. It means being able to see the big picture and know where you are, and how to get to where you want to be. Telling boys “Get me the information I need,” is not specific enough.

At this stage, the boys need to know what they don’t know. So ask them, without giving them the answers. Prompt them with:
-What do you need to know for this task or trip? Let them brainstorm. If they do this long enough, they’ll be able to identify their knowledge gaps. To plan a ski trip, they will learn that they need to know location, cost, availability, transportation, attendees, etc. But there’s a lot of moving parts and data collection to get to the point of determining feasibility.
-What potential problems are there?
-How will you address those potential problems?
-What resources do you have that you can use to get ideas or answers?
-What tasks are involved with executing this plan?
-How will you delegate these tasks?
-What is your timeline for each task?
-How will the leader of this task monitor progress?

Evaluation and processing: Upon completion of each trip/project, review what happened, what went wrong, what went right, and what lessons were identified. These need to be concrete statements. Not just a broad “Great job. You planned well, and we all had fun.” or “That was stressful, you guys need to plan better next time. Start earlier.”

Instead, say things like:
-I see you worked backwards with your time frame to be clear about what things needed to be done by certain dates. So this time you got the deposit in on time. Great work. I see also that there was a time crunch with that one task. Maybe you didn’t give yourself a reasonable amount of time to complete that, and next time you need to provide more time to complete that task.
-I see we don’t get to go on a ski trip as we’d hoped. We didn’t get the information about cost and availability in time. What can we do about this problem next time?
-I see you planned the meals for the camping trip and came in on budget and there was enough food. Great job. I see also you decided to bring watermelons on this backpacking camping trip. How did carrying and cutting up the watermelons work out for you?

It’s important to say these details out loud. We need to give them words to these ideas and actions. We need them to truly understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. We need to give them more visuals, concrete external prompts. We need to teach them how to use tools like simple spreadsheets.

Rinse and Repeat: Sit back and watch them fail. Know they will fail. They will argue. They will look around with blank, zombie stares. They will flail and flounder. And you let them. And you talk about what happened after they feel the natural consequences. And each step along the way, you point out what they succeeded at. Even if that success is that they eventually remembered to use the resources literally in their hands instead of just arguing with each other or offering unrealistic ideas. Even if the only success is that they knew what questions to ask.

Raising children, raising leaders, raising barns–they all take a long time. It’s a process. It takes a village for all three. It takes a lot of patience and stopping yourself from jumping in to intervene to make things happen. It takes a lot of restraint to refrain from screaming, either in your head or at them. Slowly but surely, these feral cats will move from living in these barns to becoming independent leaders. These are the first steps. Lessons on teaching and mentoring leadership skills to feral cats to come in a future essay.

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