Leadership & Operational Lessons from Philmont Boy Scout Ranch

Philmont Boy Scout Ranch is located in Northwest New Mexico and is the largest of the four major high adventure camps run by the Boy Scouts at over 144,000 acres. Philmont is a working ranch that hosts 23,000 scouts, advisors and staff every summer – that is almost 400 people in and out of Philmont every day through the summer hiking season. In order for Philmont to host and process this many people across 90 different camps on the property, it must run like a machine in order to both give the scouts and advisors the best back country experience possible as well as teach the crews how to Leave No Trace behind in order to preserve the land for future generations.

I traveled with Troop 186 from Seattle to Philmont at the end of July for a 12 day stay at the ranch with my son and 42 other scouts and dads. I left with a deep respect for the operational proficiency and the systematic training of leadership skills for the scouts. The lessons to be shared in this post can be divided into four major categories: Preparation, Process, Training and Communication.

Troop 186 + Rangers at Philmont Ranch - 2016

Troop 186 + Rangers at Philmont Ranch – 2016

Preparation

The preparation for a 12 day backpacking trip to Philmont starts a full year in advance with the selection of a pre-trip leader who is responsible for coordinating the troop and setting us up for success upon arrival. Who’s going, recruiting help to take on specific trip tasks, travel arrangements, costs and organizing crews (groups of scouts and adult advisors no larger than 12 people with a max of 4 adults).

Individual & team preparation included:

  • Gearing up by acquiring and packing just what was on the provided list of items down to a specific number of shirts, shorts, socks & underwear
  • Medical check ups to be within a certain boundary of physical fitness. A particular concern was weight to height ratio and blood pressure restrictions due to altitude and physical stress
  • Each crew selecting their crew leader, chaplains aid (morale) and wilderness gia (leave no trace policy enforcer)

Process

From the moment we step onto the grounds of the base camp of Philmont we’re guided through a orchestrated series of activities designed to create group cohesion, ensure we’re ready to spend 11 days in the back country and set up for success.

It all starts with meeting our Ranger at the welcome center who spent the next three days teaching us the Philmont way. He had a large checklist of items for us to start executing against and communicated primarily to scout crew leader to begin the leadership training with the adult advisor in tow. We visited the administration office to pay final amount, the clinic for everyone to turn in medical forms and get a quick check-up, provisioning to get our first ration of back country food, bear bags + line, the commissary, logistics for the hike (where and when to pick up food, sleep, do cool stuff, etc.) and our accommodations (cowboy tents and cots) for the first evening before heading out the following morning.

I am amazed at the number of people the base camp supports, the amount of paperwork we handled quickly, the number of tasks we accomplished on a tight timeline. The process was amazing. Again, very clear steps, well documented time tables, a few key pieces of paper with several supporting documents. Checklists and timetables ruled the day.

Training

Philmont dedicates a Ranger to each crew to teach the Philmont way.  The Ranger spends three full days going through a checklist that covers everything from how to tie up your food on bear wires to how to cook your meals + clean out your pots (fun fact: involves drinking the food residue in the pots vs dumping into the bushes) to how to poop/pee in the backcountry (hint: only poop and paper in the backcountry toilets – no pee).

The compelling elements of training that I found included:

  • He was very methodical with the instructions. Clearly he had been given a lot of training himself.
  • He made it relevant and engaging. Even the bit about how to poop/pee in the woods was funny.
  • He taught us once on the first day on the trail and then watched us set up camp without guidance to ensure we had it on the second day.

Communication

Communication was a key factor in the success of our trip.  The expectation setting from Philmont prior to arriving and the clear guidance once we arrived and got set-up has been covered. The other major dynamic of the trip was having a 14 year old scout lead the entire 12 person crew (including 4 adults). One of the challenges of Philmont is blending together hikers with different physical ability on a 70 mile 11 day hike and different spans of attention – 14 year old boys that need to get tasks done while have fun.

Several key approaches helped with both situations:

  • Roles and Responsibilities – the successful crews had a clear guide on who was doing what when such as setting up the fly-tarp, pulling up the bear bags, cooking, cleaning and retrieving water.
  • Communicating from the back of the hike line to the front of the line. Invariably, the navigational leader for the day would hike too fast for some of the slower hikers (adults included) which meant the middle and back of the hike line would need to let the front know to slow it up. The leader of our crew made the decision to have one person set the pace who had the right speed once we found him.
  • In the evenings, to difuse frustrations and improve team work we would go around in the circle to share Start, Stop & Continue
    • Start – what should we start doing
    • Stop – what should we stop doing
    • Continue – what should we continue doing
  • We also shared daily roses, thorns and buds to connect and remind ourselves of the beauty and challenge of the day.
    • Roses – what you loved that day
    • Thorns – what you didn’t like
    • Buds – what you are looking forward to the next day

The other major lesson I learned is how teams evolve. I would say the flow below is pretty accurate and by the end of the trip we were definitely in the norm stage with hints towards perform.

  • Form – teams assemble out of organizational necessity
  • Storm – conflict as roles bounce against each other to figure out who does what and why
  • Norm – normalization of duties and roles within the team
  • Perform – when a team is firing on all cylinders

The Philmont Scout Ranch is an operational and logistic machine. The incredible number of young scouts and semi-out of shape men who successfully complete 65 – 90 mile adventures in the New Mexico high country is a testament to organizational effectiveness and planning. We all learned a ton and grew tremendously on the trail.

If you’re interested in photos from the trip – click here to go to the album in Google Photos.

About scott

Scott has over 20 years experience in building successful businesses in a variety of industries including: e-commerce (Amazon.com), Online Subscription (Rhapsody – RealNetworks, Optify), Digital Marketing (Avenue A, Optify & Brand Digital, Inc.), Online Games (WON.net), Consumer Entertainment Software (Sierra) and Recycling/Solid Waste Management (Rabanco Recycling).

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