Hey, Scouter! Do you remember the moment you felt the call to leadership? Were your eyes large, sparkly, and full of stars? Did you have a laundry list of great, new ideas to help execute this already fantastic program? Were you so excited to answer the call that you drove to the Scout Shop and bought the shirt, but forgot about the pants and neckerchief? Was your den the most well-behaved group of young Scouts in the Pack? Did they tell you that Scouting was an hour a week and that it would be fun and easy?
How are you doing? Seriously. Are you alright?
I ask because, just like any job, Scout Leadership can take a toll and leave us all susceptible to mental, physical, and emotional burnout. Like the true Scouters we are, many of us will feel that strain and plug along because of our obligation to our Scouts and the unit, because “reliable” is the unwritten 13th Point of the Scout Law, and because we take that Scout Oath very seriously (as we should).
I don’t have percentages or a study to go from on this, but in my years of experience I’ve noticed that most if not ALL Scouters experience burnout at one point or another. You may very well be dealing with it yourself but don’t know the signs, or maybe another member of your leadership team is struggling but doesn’t know what to do. Here’s how you spot burnout from a mile away:
- Struggling to create meeting plans or see them through
- Constantly questioning yourself and/or others
- Feeling irritable and cynical
- Criticizing your Scouts without seeing failure as a step to success
- Becoming impatient with your Scouts
- Feeling isolated, stressing about a lack of help or parent participation
- Cancelling meetings because you’re struggling with a lack of interest or satisfaction
- Feeling physical symptoms like headaches, stomach issues, or a change in sleep habits
For me, I’ve felt much of that several times in my leadership career. The causes have been feeling a tremendous lack of confidence in other leaders and picking up the slack, not knowing what I was truly responsible for, feeling a Scout/Life imbalance, spending precious time herding Scouts or asking them to listen repeatedly, feeling tugged in many directions, being a “communicator” and therefore everyone’s sounding board or help desk, and not having more control over the direction of the unit… working this hard and feeling like we’re just keeping our head above the water.
The consequences can be serious; excessive stress, depression, true fatigue, insomnia, high blood pressure, a vulnerability to illness, and heart disease. Seriously, folks, this is not a drill. I want you to take a minute to really read that over because, if you’re feeling any of that, you need to take a deep breath and do the hard thing… ask for help.
Asking the Right People for Help
Cubmasters and Committee Chairs probably feel this the most, but it’s true of any adult leader; you have to ask the right people for help. My District plans an amazing Roundtable every month, and during our Cub Scout breakout, we were introduced to the Oreo Test. The gist of it is that you scope out potential leaders and pull them aside. You talk with them a little bit, learn more about them, tell some Dad jokes, let them know that it’s not a camp out without burnt bacon or Nutter Butters, and then ask for a simple favor. See if they’ll bring Oreo’s to share as a snack during the next meeting. Ask this of ALL of those potential leaders, sit back, and wait.
Why Oreo’s? As the Bryan on Scouting article (linked above) points out, there are many types of Oreo’s, and you can tell a lot about a person by the kind they bring in. Are they empty-handed at the next meeting and have an excuse? You don’t need this person in leadership. Did they bring in Snack-size Oreo’s? They’re a bare-bones kind of guy or gal, and bare-bones doesn’t fit our “Do Your Best!” motto at all. You don’t need them. Did they bring Regular Oreo’s to the meeting? Okay, they met the challenge and spent the time and money on something worthwhile; put them on your short list of potentials. How about Double Stuf cookies? Okay, guys, this is what we’re talking about. They’ve exceeded expectations – hand them a paper application on the dot! Did they just walk in with Nutter Butters? Hand them an app with the Cubmaster or Committee Chair codes already written on it because this person was listening when you said it wasn’t a camp out without Nutter Butters, they answered the call, they exceeded your expectations, and they are Scouts through and through. Did they bring enough for everyone, regardless of the kind of cookie, then their heart is in the right place and you want them on your team!
Maybe your roster is already packed to the hilt, every position is full, and you’re still feeling like you’re carrying the brunt of the weight. Please remember that you are ONE PERSON and not a pack mule, you have got to reach out to your team and let them know when and where you need assistance. A Scout takes an oath to help other people at all times, they will be there for you. Don’t make it a habit of holding on to everything out of pride or control; it’s not good for you, the unit, or the Scouts you’re leading.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
I admit to creating meeting plans from scratch simply because the published materials don’t suit my group at times, and that’s okay. I don’t make that a habit, there just isn’t enough time in a day. Each rank has a Leader Guide built specifically for the required and elective adventures using endless working experience and tried-and-true Scouting methods. They come in paper copies and are available for Kindles. Many units will buy binders for each rank specifically to house these guides along with any other materials that leaders want to pass on from den to den. USE THEM. They break down each adventure into 3 meetings, to include a field trip, and provide you with all of the great tricks, projects, skits, songs, and crafts to help your Scouts truly understand the material and earn their loops.
Use ScoutBook to log your Scouts awards and advancements. This syncs with your Council so you always have an accurate roster, and the monthly reporting makes award purchases a breeze! This is also the best possible way of passing on timely communication with unit families. Do you need your den parents to help out with planning or executing a meeting? How about a reminder that there is adventure homework or an upcoming special event? Use ScoutBook to keep families in the loop. Use Sign-Up Genius and Evite for Unit Events, because keeping track of guest lists and wish lists can be stressful. These tools alone can take quite a bit of strain of your shoulders and handle work that you don’t have time for.
Attend your District’s monthly Roundtable meeting… as long as part of your burnout isn’t because you feel like you’re attending too many Scouting events and need more of a Scout/Life balance. I truly believe that, if done well, these meetings are the best resource for understanding the program better, learning how to present it to your Scouts, and amping up your creativity. The Roundtable Commissioners and your peer leaders are offering up years and years of great experience that you should take advantage of when you can.
Webelos leaders, you will want to bookmark the JCCarter.info site for great ideas to help you better execute your required and elective adventures. His printable materials simply cannot be beat.
Connect with Scouts around the Globe and leverage their leadership experience! They are freely sharing ideas and support online, and three great resources that I use regularly are the Cub Scout Volunteers, Boy Scout Volunteers, and Webelos and AOL Den Leaders Facebook groups. Fair warning, just like in your unit, there are a variety of opinions and perspectives shared on these groups and sometimes it leads to some back-and-forth. Remember that a Scout is friendly, courteous, kind, and cheerful!
Know When You Need a Break
You know the signs of burnout, but sometimes pride can make it difficult to acknowledge it’s time for a break. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with stepping back for a hot minute and taking a breather. There’s nothing wrong with respectfully stepping down and out of a role, either. It’s all good and it’s totally understandable. Don’t forget that you’re an unpaid volunteer with a job, a family, and other obligations outside of Scouting. If you need to reclaim some time and energy, no one will fault you for it.
Don’t feel daunted by the service of others. Remember that you signed-up because you wanted to lead our youth through a wonderful Scouting program. You didn’t do it to keep up with so-and-so, or to earn more knots than the other guy or gal, or to take home an award for longevity. Yep, there are certainly lifetime Scouters who will remain in uniform until the day they are called home, and those are admirable men and women who have made Scouting the focus of their lives. Good on them, and if this is you, thank you for your service! It’s not for everyone. Nor is it necessary to take on every single new role someone in your unit, District, or Council asks you to take on. JUST SAY NO! In my house and unit, my kids have grown up knowing that “no is a complete sentence,” and this isn’t just true for children. You don’t owe anyone a reason for not wanting to be a den leader, Commissioner, camp coordinator, and fundraiser. Just say no.
Remember the Basics
For instance, to breathe. Take a deep breath, reassess the track you’re on and where you’d like to be, and consider the basics.
- Are you meeting the program requirements?
- Are your Scouts attending your planned meetings and engaged?
- Are your parents helping?
- Are you having fun?
Yes? Then you’re meeting the basics and you’re doing a great job! High fives all around, leader, you deserve it!
- Am I experiencing any of those burnout symptoms?
- Am I losing sight of the basics and getting lost in the details?
- I’ve planned to do more than I can handle; is this still a quality program or event if I scale this back?
- Do I still care about this program?
These are tough questions, but if you answered yes to all of them then you need to reach out for help and go back to the basics. If you answered no to the last question, you’re totally burned out and it’s time to step back for yourself, your Scouts, and your unit.
They don’t tell us to keep it simple, make it fun for nothing. It’s a reminder that the program is built for us to execute with a fair amount of ease, and that we don’t need to put ourselves through burnout-level stress to achieve it. We owe our Scouts a great program, not the last bit of mental health we have left. They don’t want that and you should not feel obligated to give it.
Look Wider Still
Of course I talk about this a lot, but let’s flip the perspective from going above and beyond for our Scouts to giving ourselves a break sometimes. “Look wide, and even when you think you are looking wide – look wider still.” Lord Baden-Powell didn’t just want for us to dig deep and seek out opportunities to give more of ourselves. He understood that a leader is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent… and that we’re human beings. He knew that it takes a team to make this program go, so he carved out leadership roles and instilled the value of helping others at all times. He certainly didn’t do this alone! He was surrounded by people who helped one another, who paid attention to where help was needed and pitched in, who asked for help when they needed it and knew it would not just benefit them but provide an opportunity for leadership and learning. Be a Baden-Powell. Look Wide and really see your team. Look Wider and see where you need help. Look Wider Still and know when it’s time to ask for it.
I wrote all this because I’m nearing the end of my Arrow of Light year in Cub Scouting and my final year as Cubmaster. I’ve experienced extreme burnout, especially this year, and found that it made it hard to show up much less do the big stuff like consider succession planning. I was spread thin and started worrying that taking on so much was making it impossible for someone to come in behind me and fill my shoes next year. It’s important not to find yourself in that position because it’s heavy and it’s hard. It takes all the fun out of the experience and truly all I want is for every awesome registered leader to enjoy these special, fleeting years. Don’t let burnout be the legacy you leave behind or the thing that makes you ill… please take care of yourself.
Yours in Scouting,