Failure. It belongs in Scouting. 

Permission to Fail!

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine from college who was recently called to be the Young Men President in his ward, and he was feeling lost about what to do and where to go with his program. He inherited a program that, well, didn’t really exist. He was frustrated because he wanted to do what is right; but I suspect like many of you, he was conflicted with balancing time in calling, work, family, and personal time. He was frustrated with what he thought needed to be done, and what he felt could actually be accomplished.  He is not what we would call a HUGE Scouter, nor has he drunk the Scouting Bug Juice yet; but he is a good man who wants to do what is right by his young men.

As I tried to talk him off a proverbial ledge, it got me thinking. Sometimes in Scouting, we need permission to fail. My friend wants to do everything right, but he is afraid to fail because he doesn’t know what to do.

One of the GREAT things about Scouting is that it is a place where it can be okay to FAIL. It is a place where a young person can try something new and find out weather or not it works.  Adults can experiment with leading and mentoring youth and discover what works and what doesn’t. Youth leaders can challenge the different methods of leadership and receive instant feedback on which principles and methods work and which ones lead young people to dig in their heals like stubborn mules.  there are very few things in Scouting that we cannot fix, when they go wrong.  Scouting is a great leadership laboratory, in which the principle of failure applies for adults as well as youth. Failure can be a hard, but effective teacher, and better someone learn these lessons in Scouting, where we can correct them and learn from them, than in the real world where things are more finite. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some places where failure is NOT an option and that always revolves around the health and safety of our Scouts. In these areas, there is NO excuse for failure, ever.

That being said, I want to give adult leaders permission to FAIL, but ONLY on 2 conditions.

One, you fail moving forward.  What that means is, you fail or make mistakes because you are actually DOING something, and your failure is a product of either your inexperience or lack of training.  I give you this permission, because as you gain experience and training, you will find many of these failures naturally fixing themselves. As these failures become corrected through time and experience, you then become a great resource to other new leaders as a mentor or sounding board.  New leaders may not always be willing to listen to your suggestions based upon your previous failures; nevertheless, you become a great asset to Scouting, as a whole.  In addition to you being a great resource to Scouting, the lessons learned from failing forward are almost never forgotten and even more rarely repeated. Feel free to fail, but only fail because you are moving forward.

Second, when you fail, own it. Acknowledge your mistakes, seek to correct them, reach out to your resources (unit commissioner, district committee, district executive, ect in Scouting) and then commit to not repeat them again. With “owning it” also comes sharing your experience with your boys.  You will be amazed at the bond you can build when your boys realize that it is also okay to make mistakes, because they have seen you make them. When they see you walk through the process of correcting mistakes, your example will speak volumes to them.  They are watching you, always; and they see what you do, how you react, and will judge you based on what they observe.  They will come to respect you, take direction from you, and take feedback better from you when they know that you are just like them. It may sound weird, but owning your mistakes builds trust with your youth and peers quicker than trying to appear perfect. Youth have a way of sniffing out a hypocrite, and once they deem you as such, it is extremely difficult to earn back their trust.

Failure is not always a bad thing and one of the harshest teachers out there. I think back to my time as a Scout and my strongest lessons learned and most lasting memories came from my many failures. I have learned more from them than any one of my fewer successes.  It wasn’t until I learned that I had permission to fail, to learn from that failure, and to make corrections that I started down my path of becoming a better leader. Notice I said better leader and not a good leader. I am still learning and growing, along with everyone else.

One of the most lasting memories of glorious failure came when I finally got chance to act as Patrol Leader in Troop 112. I had wanted that position ever since I was a Tenderfoot Scout.  I had all the Scouting skills down, I was advancing faster than anyone else in the troop, and I thought those two things combined (knowledge and rank) is what made a great leader.  I felt that the boys in my patrol would naturally fall in line, because of my superior ability at starting fire, orienteering, and because I had more Merit Badges than they did (combined). Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, it was a glorious failure that got me relieved of my leadership responsibilities. I lost the position I had coveted because I was a horrible leader. I didn’t know that knowledge and rank only help in leadership AFTER you build trust and respect with and for your peers. A good leader does not command people to behave in certain way, but instead sets the vision for success and encourages others to catch the same vision. I didn’t think to ask for opinions and insights from my patrol members. I felt I had all the answers to all the problems our patrol would face because I was better than they were.  I had more achievements and more “bling” on my uniform, so that must make me not only better than them, but smarter than they were and a naturally better leader. Wow! Was I so wrong. And you want to know the funny thing, we all became Eagle Scouts.  In fact, they actually achieved the rank of Eagle Scout before I did.  In the end, they were the “better” scout, and it nothing to do with awards, ranks, or merit badges.

The bitter sting of that realization has never left me. In fact it is one of the pains I try to salve with striving to be a better leader today. But it wasn’t until a few years after I left Scouting that I realized healing would only begin with time, training, and a few more failures.

Remember, you also have permission to fail. You have permission to royally mess things up, but only on 2 conditions. One, you make your mistakes not because you are lazy or incompetent; but because you green, inexperienced, and under trained.  If you are failing forward, you are at least moving in the right direction. Second, you own your mistakes. Be willing to stand up and own the fact that you messed up, you learned a valuable lesson, you commit to never repeating it again, and then you look to share your experience and knowledge with others.

If you will help your Scouts, fellow adult volunteers, and yes even us professional Scouters know that it is okay to FAIL, Scouting will be better for it. Remember, if we all fail forward, at least we are moving in the right direction.


Author: theprofessionalscouter

I am a professional Scouter, having worked for the BSA for 12 years. I started my career in 2006 as a District Executive with the Nevada Area Council headquartered in Reno, Nevada. In 2009, I moved to the Chief Seattle Council, in Seattle, Washington to serve as a Senior District Executive and then as a District Director. In January of 2016, I transferred to the Great Salt Lake Council to serve as a District Director.

One thought on “Failure. It belongs in Scouting. ”

  1. Listening to Wood Badge presentations helped me reflect on how to be a better Scouter and person. “Developing heartfelt connections” and “engaging others to lead” really hit home, because I think taking the time to really do that, has been the key to success or failure in many of my Scouting and non-Scouting endeavors.


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