Follow My Leader


I spent the past two weeks enjoying the scenic views at the Philmont Scout Ranch with my son and some of his fellow Scouts BSA troop mates. It was very much the kind of vacation that involved a lot of hiking, mountain climbing, and even some inclement weather. We all completely enjoyed ourselves and I learned a lot about hanging bear bags and taking care of blisters. I also learned a lot about leadership by watching the boys in the crew interact with each other.

Storm Warnings

Leadership styles are nothing new to the people that read my blog. I’ve talked about them at length in the past. One thing I noticed when I was on the trek was how different leadership styles can clash and create friction among teenagers. As adults we tend to gloss over delivery and just accept that people are the way they are. When you’re fourteen or fifteen you haven’t quite taken that lesson to heart yet. That means more pushing against styles that don’t work for you.

We have all worked for or with someone that has a very authoritarian style in the past. The kind of people that say, “Do this right now” frequently. It’s a style that works well for things like military units or other places where decisions need to be quick and final. The crew leader exhibited that kind of leadership style to our crew. I sat back and watched how the other boys in the unit handled it.

If you’ve never gotten to watch the Stages of Team Development form in real time you’re missing out on a treat. I won’t go into too much depth here but the important stage happens after we get past the formation and into the Storming phase. This is where motivation and skill sets are low and the interaction between the members is primarily antagonistic. Arguments and defensiveness are more prevalent during storming. It happens every time and frequently occurs again and again as team members interact. It’s important to recognize the barriers that Storming creates and move past them to a place where the team puts the mission before their egos.

Easier said that done when you’re with a group of teenagers. I swear our group never really got past the storming phase for long. The end of the trek saw some friction still among the members. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was. After all, we grown ups can put things aside to focus on the mission, right? We can check our egos at the door and hope that we can just get past this next part to make things easier overall.

Style Points

That’s when our lead Crew Advisor pointed out a key piece of the puzzle I’d missed, even after all my time dealing with team development. He said to the crew on the last day, “There are a lot of leaders in this group. That’s why there was so much friction between you all.” It was like a lightbulb going off in my mind. The friction wasn’t the result of leadership styles inasmuch as it was the clash between styles that kids aren’t so good at hiding.

I’m not an authoritarian. I don’t demand people do things. I ask people to do things. Maybe when I want isn’t a request but it is almost always phrased that way. “Please walk the dog” or “Can you get me the hammer from the garage?” are common ways for me to direct my family or my unit. I was raised not to be a demanding person. However, in my house growing up those statements were never questions. I’ve continued that method of leadership as my own family has grown. Dad asks you to do something but it’s not optional.

Where my leadership style clashes is with people who tell you to do something right now. “Get this done” or “You go do this thing over here” wrankle me. Moreover, I get frustrated when I don’t understand the why behind it. I’m happy to help if you just help me understand why it needs to be done. Bear bags need to be hung right away to keep animals from devouring the human food. The dining fly needs to be put up to put things underneath in case of inclement weather. There’s an order to things that makes sense. You need to explain why instead of just giving orders.

As I watched the teenagers in the crew interact with each other I couldn’t understand the defensive nature of the interactions. Some of the crew mates flat out refused to do things because they didn’t get it. They took their time getting necessary tasks done because they felt like they were doing all the work. Until the end of the trip I didn’t understand that the reason for their lack of motivation wasn’t inspired by laziness, but instead by a clash in style.

My son is like me in that he asks people to do things. So when he was ordered to do something he felt the need to push back or express displeasure with the leadership style. It looked defiant because he was trying to communicate that politeness and explanation go a long way toward helping people feel more motivated to pitch in. 

For example, asking someone to help hang the bear bags because there is a storm coming in and they are the most efficient at it is a better explanation than telling them to just do it. Explaining that you want someone to train another person in a job because you excel at it helps the person understand this is more about education than making them do the job over and over again. I’ve mentioned it before when it comes to leaders leaning on the people that get the job done all the time without expressing why. It’s important to help people understand that they have special unique skills that are critical to helping out.

Promoting From Within

Leaders chafe at the styles that don’t match their own. One of the ways to help this process is through delegation. Instead of punishing those that talk back to you make them responsible for leading the group. Let them show off their leadership style to see how it is received. You’re essentially giving that person the power to express themselves to see if their way is better. Depending on your leadership style this may be difficult to do. Authoritarians don’t like letting go of their power. People with no patience are more likely to just do the job themselves instead of letting others learn. However, you need to do it.

Leaders will excel in the right environment. Give someone responsibility and let them accomplish things. Instead of simply giving out tasks let the leaders figure out how to accomplish the goals. I ran a small experiment where I told our crew leader to just take care of his one responsibility and then leave the crew to their own devices. By this point in the trek they knew what needed to be done. If they couldn’t find the motivation to get it done then it was on them and not the leader. Weather forced my hand before I could get the experiment done but when a leader is having issues with those under then chafing at their leadership style they need to empower their group to lead their way to see how effective it can be instead of just falling back on “I’m in charge so you do what I say”.


Tom’s Take

My leadership experience and training has been all about creating artificial situations where people are required to step up to lead. Seeing it happen organically was a new experience for me. Leaders emerge naturally but they don’t all grow at the same rate or in the same way. The insight gained at the end of the trip helped me understand the source of friction over the twelve days were were in the backcountry. I think I’d do things a little differently next time given the opportunity to allow those that needed a different style to come forward and provide their own way of doing things. I’ll be interested to see how those leaders develop as well as how I approach these situations in the future.

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