5 Helpful Ways To Lead Difficult Scouts (Without Being A Jerk!)


Acting as a leader and role model is one of the most rewarding aspects of Scouting. However, just because it’s a valuable experience doesn’t mean that leadership will be easy! It’s hard to predict what kind of challenges you’ll encounter throughout your troop leadership term, but one huge obstacle that almost everyone faces is trying to work with difficult scouts. 

While it’s easy to be bossy and harsh when trying to direct others, remember that true leadership comes from mutual respect and understanding. As a leader who’s handled difficult scouts (and, as an ex-difficult scout myself!), in this article I’ll be sharing with you 5 useful tips for leading difficult scouts without acting like a jerk or bully.

PS. This article is based on the experiences and research of Eagle Scouts, Kevin A and Cole 🙂

If you’re serving as a BSA leader, whether you’re a Patrol Leader or Assistant Scoutmaster, you’ll practically always have one or two scouts that don’t follow your instructions well. The silver lining to this is that you learn more from your difficult leadership experiences than your easy ones. In the long run, this challenge will make you a much more effective leader, overall!

Difficult scouts can come in many forms: from disruptive scouts, to scouts that don’t follow your directions, to those that show you blatant disrespect. However, regardless of what they do, it’s crucial to always treat these defiant scouts as valued members of your troop. Believing in them is the first step to helping them change their behavior!

I saw my fair share of these scouts throughout 6 years of leadership in my troop, and it definitely tested my ability to adapt on the fly! Although I can’t say these experiences were enjoyable in the moment, they taught me a lot about what it means to be a good leader. 

If you ever feel that an individual or situation is potentially unsafe or out of control, don’t hesitate to report it to your adult leaders. A great leader knows when to defer responsibility to higher authorities.

While you should handle each situation to the best of your abilities, the safety of yourself and your fellow scouts must always be your #1 priority. 

As a leader, your judgment will improve over time and you’ll be able to handle these situations with greater and greater ease. To get you quickly started down that path, I hope the following tips in this article can give you the foundations for refining and improving your leadership judgment. Now, without further ado, let’s get into the first tip! 🙂

1. Establish Mutual Respect With Each Patrol Member

Most leaders demand respect from their followers, but not enough leaders reciprocate the respect they’re given. Remember that respect is a two-way street; how can you expect scouts to listen to you if you aren’t willing to listen to them, equally? 

A lack of mutual respect most often happens when you’re tasked with leading scouts who are several years younger than you or several years older than you. Younger scouts might not listen and older scouts might think they know better than you. How do you establish respect here? 

While there’s no one method that’ll always be 100% successful at resolving issues, I’d recommend doing a couple of things to start establishing mutual respect with your fellow scouts: 

For Younger Scouts:

  • I would make sure to avoid giving younger scouts the worst jobs when delegating tasks (such as cleaning latrines or carrying heavy objects).
    • This helps the younger scout to feel as though they aren’t at the bottom of the totem pole. Plus, it shows that you’re willing to get your hands dirty, in spite of being the leader! 
    • If you do need to assign a younger scout a difficult or unenjoyable task, there are still better ways to go about it. You could thoroughly teach them how to do it, assign them a competent “buddy,” or even do it with them yourself.

For Older Scouts:

  • It often helps to ask older scouts for their advice. This could be anything from how best to complete a task, to their tips on leading scouts.
    • Asking older scouts for their input gets them invested in your success as a leader. Think about it. If you just gave a piece of advice to another scout, you’d want to make sure that advice works. Therefore, the older scout who gave you the tip will also unconsciously try to help in other ways!
    • By asking for advice, a relationship of mutual respect can be built between yourself and the older scouts. Since they feel as though their voices are being heard, they’ll be much more willing to follow instructions.

2. Build Your Credibility as a Troop Leader 

While I’m sure that you’re a capable leader, not everyone in your troop will immediately view you the same way. That’s why building your credibility is so important! Think of it like this: Your credibility is a piggybank. When you act with integrity and lead well, you add a bit of money. However, when you slack off or speak poorly of another scout, you lose money.

Continuing with the last analogy, your goal should be to become a credibility-coin millionaire! However, let’s say you’re a Star Scout who’s just been elected as SPL, but has never served in a high-ranking leadership position before (Check out the article on How To Be An Amazing SPL). At this point, you’d have very little credibility built up, and there might be a number of scouts who don’t think you’re qualified.

To build your credibility as a leader, you’ll need to lead by example. Keep this point in mind as you watch the quick video (1:05) below. The speaker explains this point in a much more effective way than I’d be able to write it!

Now that you know the importance of leading through a positive attitude, below are 5 keys that, if followed, can skyrocket your credibility as a troop leader:

  1. Be patient and don’t expect people to change their impressions of you right away.
    • Building your credibility as a leader will take time and consistent effort.
  2. Avoid losing credibility at all costs
    • Don’t slack off, forget responsibilities, or be unnecessarily mean to any other scouts.
  3. Lead with confidence.
    • Take your time and make thoughtful decisions. Once you’ve decided on a course of action, don’t second-guess yourself.
  4. Stay humble in success.
    • Don’t take credit for your troop’s successes. Instead, build them up and give plenty of praise.
    • If you made a good decision and succeeded, try to understand why things worked out and use that info when making decisions in the future.
  5. Admit to your mistakes and learn from them.
    • If you make a bad decision, be sure to learn what went wrong. Remember, failures often present the best opportunities to grow!

By following these keys over time, you’ll gain credibility in the eyes of your troop and become a much more capable leader. Once you’ve built credibility, even the most difficult scouts will be much more likely to follow your instructions!

3. Don’t Just be a Leader — Be a Fun Person to Hang Out With

A leader who’s friendly and fun is almost always more effective than a leader who isn’t. So, if there are difficult scouts you have to lead, being an unpleasant leader isn’t going to help you get things done.

Personally, I tried to create a more fun experience for my fellow scouts by making jokes or just hanging out, casually. Not everything needs to be about work and results, y’know 😉 . Also, if I had to assign someone a difficult task, I’d often try to talk in a much more light-hearted tone, and acknowledge that I appreciated their help. 

I’d recommend that you don’t act too seriously either. There are times when you do need to focus on your leadership responsibilities, but often that can get in the way of building relationships with the people that follow you. Even in the workplace, bosses who make the extra effort to talk to their employees casually are more well-liked and effective! 

Especially when dealing with difficult people, being extremely serious and rigid may not always yield the best results. Keep in mind that rebellious scouts are often teenagers who dislike authority, so over-compensating with serious tones may deter them further (since you’re probably a teenager too, I’m sure you can understand that perspective!). 

While being pleasant, fun, and casual may not always be successful, it’s definitely a strategy to consider trying! 

4. Make an Effort To Relate To Every Scout on an Individual Level

Would you rather be led by a person who’s shown an interest in who you are, or by someone who hasn’t made any effort to get to know you? Chances are, you’d prefer the first type of leader (I know I would)! That’s why it’s crucial to get to know each scout on a more personal level.

Even if you can’t become closer with the difficult scouts themselves, by being a friend to everyone, the rest of your troop will have your back if there’s ever a disagreement. While the difficult scout might not listen to you, they’ll probably listen to their close troop friends. By getting to know everyone past the surface level, their friends will also be your friends, and encourage the difficult scouts to behave!

I can’t overstate the power of building relationships. Creating that personalized connection goes a long way in making it easier to work with every scout — not just the difficult ones! Keep in mind, you don’t need to develop a super deep emotional connection. However, establishing some sort of friendship and a sense of mutual respect will be extremely helpful in every situation. 

5. Assign Constructive “Punishments,” and Only Involve Adults as a Last Resort

If all other routes of dealing with the difficult scout have been exhausted, you’ll likely need to consider discipline as a way of solving the issue. While it may be tempting to use discipline as your first method of handling misbehavior, I’d strongly advise against that idea. “Teaching them a lesson” is often the wrong way to handle things and may make the scout less likely to listen to you in the future. 

If you do decide to assign a punishment for misbehavior, don’t go overboard. Your goal should be to help the difficult scout to learn and change their actions. Before deciding on anything, I’d advise going to your adult leaders or older scouts for advice on how best to proceed. Common and acceptable “punishments” for safety violations or bullying include things like:

  • Putting them in a (supervised) position leading younger scouts.
    • This is sort of counter-intuitive, but sometimes scouts who misbehave are just bored and looking for leadership opportunities.
    • By giving them a chance at responsibility and having them be looked up to within the troop, they may change their behavior and act more like a role model!
  • Taking away a little of a scout’s free time during a camping trip by assigning them an additional task like picking up trash.
    • Don’t just dump awful tasks on them. However, by having a set “undesirable” job that everyone who breaks the rules must complete, you have a strong deterrent to stop misbehavior.
    • Cole here — Personally, I’d accompany any scouts who I assigned extra tasks to. It’s a great chance to get to know them and learn how they view the situation.
  • Have them sit out of a fun activity to plan a skit or come up with something constructive.
    • When doing this, make it clear that they’ll be able to participate the next time around if they change their behavior. Having some time alone to think can really change a rebellious scout’s tune!
  • Have them talk to the victims of their actions.
    • Honestly, this is a pretty interesting option that often works wonders. If there’s teasing or mild bullying going on, have the scouts sit together and talk.
    • First, ask the misbehaving scout to explain why they were acting that way. Ask them how they think the other scout felt. Then, allow the scout being bullied to express their feelings. Ask the misbehaving scout if they realized their actions were having that effect.
    • Rarely are misbehaving scouts ever intending to cause actual harm. They might just be getting carried away, or lack the empathy to see the effect of their actions. Giving them a chance to sit and talk can help them to learn and reexamine their behavior.

Never, under any circumstances, can you physically punish another scout. The very worst form of discipline you should assign is reporting the scout to your adult leaders, who might then speak with that scout’s parents.

However, I’d only recommend going to your Scoutmasters in very bad situations, where the scout is repeatedly causing problems or endangering others. Around 95% of problems can be resolved with the 5 methods we’ve just covered, without needing to defer to the adults.

Remember that setting a tone of discipline will likely create more tension, so only use it as a last resort. Instead, approach the misbehaving scout like you want to help them (which you’re doing). By assigning constructive “punishments” and not needlessly going to your Scoutmasters, you’ll handle behavioral issues effectively and lower the likelihood of future problems!

Conclusion 

When it comes to leading difficult scouts, it’s always hard to figure out what exactly to do. While I wish there was some magic process that would work every time, the tough answer is that it takes true leadership to guide difficult followers. However, over time, through your successes and mistakes, I promise you’ll become an individual capable of leading anyone! 🙂

By following these 5 methods, I’m sure that you can serve as a great leader, regardless of whatever position you’re in. And remember, there are always adult leaders and older scouts around who would be happy to give you their help and guidance! 

Thanks for reading! To learn more about how to become a great leader, I’d highly recommend checking out my article on The 5 Most Common Mistakes That Scout Leaders Make (And How To Avoid Them). I hope you learned a lot from this, and am wishing you all the best on your Scouting journey!

Cole

I'm constantly writing new content because I believe in Scouts like you! Thanks so much for reading, and for making our world a better place. Until next time, I'm wishing you all the best on your journey to Eagle and beyond!

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