Commissioner’s Corner

About the Author

David Frydenlund has been active in Scouting, off and on, since joining Cub Scouts in 1955. He has served in many Scouter roles including Chartered Organization Representative, Committee Member, Committee Chair, Den Leader, Assistant Cub Master, Cub Master, Assistant Scout Master, Associate Crew Advisor, Consultant, Trainer, District Committee Member, Unit Commissioner, Assistant District Commissioner, Lifesaving Commissioner, District Commissioner, Assistant Council Commissioner, Commissioner’s College Instructor. He is the Commissioner’s College Founding Dean . He has been awarded the Venturing Leadership Award, District Award of Merit, Silver Beaver and Distinguished Commissioner. He holds a Doctor of Commissioner Science.

What is a Commissioner?

At Scoutorama I was approached by a Den Leader who saw my distinctive, tan Commissioner’s jacket. She asked me, “What is a Commissioner?” I was momentarily at a loss for words. It is easy to forget, after having been a Commissioner for quite a while, that this question is probably very real for most Scouters. As I paused thinking of an appropriate reply, it also occurred to me that there is no easy answer to the question.

My first thought was to focus on the notion that the main reason for there being Commissioners was to “Help Units Succeed.” But then I thought, while true, that reply was too abstract and did not really answer the question.

I then thought about telling her that Commissioners helped units through the (sometimes confusing) rechartering process, but decided this also failed the test because it describes a thing that Commissioners do rather than what they are. My mind shifted over to trying to explain to her the wealth of good advice that a unit leader could get from an experienced Commissioner when they faced problems like recruiting, finding activities, adult leadership changeover, and understanding local and national scout policies and practices. But, I wondered whether a Den Leader could relate to that.

The easy out then popped into my mind. Commissioners run Roundtables which deliver continuing supplemental training to Scouters of all levels and also provide a source of new ideas for unit activities and a source of information about things happening at the District and Council levels. But, if I focused on that, something she should be able to relate to, would I be neglecting the unit visits, the counseling sessions, the informal phone calls, and the encouragement talks that I knew good Commissioners did routinely? The words “friend” and “mentor” came to mind as synonyms for good Commissioners. Just like good parents…

What I finally said was, “A Commissioner is like a good parent for Scouters. They are people you can turn to when you need help and advice, and people who sometimes let you know you need help and advice, even if you don’t recognize it. Their job is to help you to become a better Scouter, and through you, to help your unit become a better unit.”
She seemed quite satisfied with that as an answer, and, after some long reflection, so was I.

Finding Good Commissioners

I was recently reviewing some Scout literature and looking at the advice they gave for how to find good candidates to serve as Commissioners (a never ending search). They spent a considerable amount of time talking about things like: respected member of the community, well liked, patient… What they did not seem to spend much time on was “familiarity with Scouting.” This struck me as odd considering what we actually want Commissioners to do.

A good Commissioner should be able to provide useful advice to other Scouters about how to make their programs better. Sometimes this advice is solicited. It often has to do with access to resources or information not directly available to the unit or with Scouting policy. Sometimes they are called upon to be a sounding board by a Scouter who wants a second opinion or who needs help in resolving a personnel problem. We always expect them to be able to observe their units and attempt to identify, and head off, problems, often even before the unit leadership becomes aware of them. All these things we expect of them seem to imply that Commissioners are deeply experienced in the Scouting program.

Now, I would be the first to agree that Commissioners also need to be respected, well liked, patient… But I have to confess that I have great difficulty imagining someone with no Scouting experience being a good Commissioner, much less a great one, until they have developed that experience. I do not think that the experience has to be in any particular slot or program. I have known great Commissioners who never served as a Cubmaster or Scoutmaster. But all the great ones I have met have served as either Committee Chairs, Scoutmasters, Assistant Scoutmasters, Cubmasters, Assistant Cubmasters, Den Leaders, or Advisors before becoming Commissioners, or served a long apprenticeship as a Commissioner before becoming really effective.

The bottom line here is, if you are looking for Commissioners (and all of us should be, all the time), ignore the guidance about “respected members of the community” and focus your attention on those Scouters who know the program well and who are willing to share what they know with their fellow Scouters. There are actually lots of those folks out there. The trick is to find the respected and competent ones and to get them to step up beyond their unit and work for the good of the whole program.

The best time to recruit these folks is either just as their youngest child “ages out” or just as they step down from some major leadership position at the unit level. These people are the future of Scouting. They are flattered if you let them know that and a fair number of them, properly approached, can be encouraged to continue their Scouting experience long past the departure of their children. But, you have to ask them…

Four Key Signs of Unit Health

When I first started serving as a Commissioner, I was told that there were four key signs that I should look at if I wanted to know whether a unit was healthy. These became the things that I monitored most closely as I looked at units.

The first sign is the unit committee. Healthy committees result in healthy units. Look to see how often the committee meets. Find out how active the committee members are. Find out how much they know about what the unit is doing. Visit at least two committee meetings a year.

The second sign is the uniformed leadership. Find out how many of them are trained and what their future training plans are. Find out how many positions are “two deep” or more. Talk to them about their leadership succession plans. What is their system for getting new adults into leadership positions. Find out if the Committee Chair or Key leaders are expecting to step down soon and what system or plan the unit uses to select new leaders.

The third sign is recruiting. Good units recruit year round. Many also have two special efforts, a spring and fall recruiting sweep. Look for evidence that a new group is added each year so the unit never becomes one with the “mouse passing through the snake”. Missing year groups, or too many people in one year group, both lead to great difficulty in managing youth leadership opportunities and often result in failed units.

Finally, look at advancement. The advancement program is a key Scouting method. If a unit has good program, advancement should be nearly automatic for most of the youth. The things that they need to do for advancement are part of the program. Looked at from the perspective of “Management by Results”, youth who are earning advancement are participating in the activities that the program sees as necessary for them to develop the character, fitness and citizenship which are the primary purposes of the program. If youth are not advancing, there is a good chance that the program is weak and the unit is not providing the growth that is the core reason for the program. (These same ideas can be applied to adult training).

If these four key areas; Committee, Leadership, Recruiting, Advancement, are all in good shape, so is the unit. If one is faltering, the others will soon follow. Stay on top of these, and your units will stay healthy and deliver the promise for their youth.

Look Out for Yourself?

I get asked, every now and then, why, in an organization that clearly emphasizes service to others, a key part of the oath is “to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” Is this not a little self centered? The answer is at once simple and complicated. The simple explanation is, “If I can not take care of myself, I am of little use in taking care of others.” In fact, if I can not take care of myself, I become a burden for others.

The more complex answer goes even farther. If you are going to be able to help others, you must not only be able to take care of yourself, you have to develop surplus capacity. You have to be able to take care of yourself and still have left over energy and skills to take care of others. In practice, this means constantly developing new, and maintaining old, skills. It means being aware of how much energy ordinary life demands and maintaining a personal fitness program that prepares you to deliver considerably more. It means taking a look at your life style and asking not only whether or not it is adequate for your personal needs, but whether or not it sets an example for those who are struggling to develop their own moral compass.

In a larger sense, in Scouting, keeping yourself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight is not about what it does for you at all. It is actually about what it does to enable your service to others. Scouting envisions every member going as far as they can along the path that starts at “burden to others”, transitions through “self sufficient”, and culminates in “of service to others”. The fact that being physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight is personally useful is a wonderful side benefit.

So “Look Out for Yourself” and do not feel guilty about doing it. If you do not take care of yourself, others will have to take care of you. And, to the degree you can, go past self sufficiency and push as far as you can in service. There are always those who, on a permanent or temporary basis, need the help. Being prepared to provide the help is anything but self centered.

Using the Award System for Scouters

It has been known for centuries that people appreciate recognition for the things that they have done. It has also been known for centuries that most people perform best when they have a clear set of expectations about what they are supposed to do. Similarly, people who see other people being recognized or appreciated for what they do are more inclined to do those same things.

Many organizations set up award systems to take advantage of one or more of these ideas. Scouting is no exception. We have a good system of awards which are designed to aid the program. When properly used, our awards establish a clear set of desired behaviors, recognize accomplishment, and encourage others to rise to higher levels of performance.

This is especially true when awards are not cheapened by being given to those who have not actually met the requirements and when they are given with an appropriate level of ceremony in front of the right audience.

As a practical matter, every Scouter should seek as many awards in Scouting as they can. Most Scouter awards were established to encourage Scouters to do those things which make the program and the Scouter better. But, awards should be sought for the knowledge they bring, not for the hardware or ribbons they deliver.

Because these awards are based in developing, and demonstrating, the skills necessary to serve others, they are not about the Scouter, they are about that service. In a well run program, the awards are a way to publicly display who has what skill and experience rather than a way for an individual to show their “superiority” over others.

By the same token, each of us should be encouraging other Scouters to earn as many awards as they can. The more awards they earn, the better they become as Scouters, and the better they can serve the program. And ultimately, serving the program is what it is all about.

So, remember, Scouter Awards are a powerful tool. They are a way to define good behaviors, reward those who behave that way, and encourage those who need it to step up and live the Scout way. Properly using these tools can dramatically improve the quality of your program.