A Battalion’s Secret Sauce: Expedition Behavior

My first Battalion trip, I watched the leaders drop two teams on the Tuscarora Trail, in a light rain, well after sunset, their destination seven miles south. When the teams entered camp, after midnight, a 16-year-old squad-leader was carrying my 12-year-old son’s pack on his chest. My son was exhausted but cheerful, under his squad-leader’s care.

His squad leader retrieved the boots, and removed his own socks for his young charge to wear.

The following year, we launched four teams of Brigadiers into George Washington National Forest on Friday night charged with navigating independently to a Saturday evening rendezvous. That Sunday for breakfast, another 16-year-old squad-leader pulled a 20-lb. watermelon from his pack that he had carried since Friday night, through 15 miles of mountainous bushwhacking. All dads’ jaws dropped. This was his expression of care for his guys.

Some years later, in that same forest, a 12-year-old was at the brink of tears when his boots came off while slogging through a thick patch of muddy trail, trashing his only dry socks. His squad leader retrieved the boots, and removed his own socks for his young charge to wear. That youngster’s mom still tells other moms that vignette, 8 years later.

On one March trip, a freak storm caught many unprepared. We woke on Sunday surprised to find snow on our tents and a howling wind across the ridge. A 15-year-old squad leader hiked out in shorts and a t-shirt because he’d given his only warm layers to a novice hiker under his care.

In the fifteen years since, I’ve seen this played out innumerable times, older teens, non-comms, carrying some little-boy’s pack out of the woods on Sunday. In fact, each of my four sons had some older boy carry their pack or gear at some point on one of their early trips, when the mountains or weather had beat them. They then longed for the day when they’d be privileged to carry some younger boy’s gear, having been imprinted with this image of what it means to be a Christian teen. The behaviors above were expressions of what this group of teen leaders had learned from their teen leaders 5-6 years earlier. And the behaviors modeled by the non-comms become the routine behaviors of those they lead.

“culture eats programs for breakfast.”

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” claimed Peter Drucker, the 20th Century’s most prominent leadership theorist.* The ministry analog would be “culture eats programs for breakfast.” Drucker insisted that culture overwhelmed all else in an organization’s success, and I’ve seen nothing in 40 years as a naval officer, coach, leadership educator, or church elder to refute his claim.

Culture instantiates belief. An organization’s culture is defined by its instantiated assumptions and beliefs. And a key source of organizational stress resides in the distance between espoused values and values-in-fact, those values instantiated by behavior.

Surely, your ministry’s espoused values are evident: “Greater love has no one than this, than one lay down his life for his friends.” “All men will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” But are they your ministry’s values-in-fact? Closing any gap between the two is our primary challenge as leaders.

I’ve found that while teen boys easily visualize what their mother’s love for them means, they have a much more difficult time conceptualizing what it means for them to love one another as Brigadiers at a meeting or on the trail. While the most powerful learning will come from the demonstrated love they experienced as young campers from older boys, Expedition Behavior has proven a valuable concept in translating Scripture’s lofty exhortation to a conception of concrete behavior in the church gym or on the trail.

Expedition behavior (“EB”) captures not simply the grand gestures above of carrying packs and watermelons, but the little behaviors that signal, “I’m glad you’re here with me,” and “I’m here for you,” regardless of the weather or terrain. It’s sharing a snack, or extending a hand across a stream. It’s fetching water for someone else, or the team. It’s showing up ready to serve, rather than expecting to be served. EB spans how we treat one another, how we treat our group, how the group treats each member, and how the group treats those other groups we meet afield (waking other groups with your noise or leaving your trash for others is not good EB). And, per my stories above, good EB begets good EB.

It’s the character-forming culture that will determine more emphatically the kind of fathers and elders these young men will become

Here’s some suggestions to build a deeper conception of good EB with your non-comms, where it must begin.

First, have them do a search for the New Testament’s “One Anothers.” Some will come to mind immediately. “Love one another.” “Bear one another’s burdens.” “Forgive each other.” “Pray for one another.” But don’t let them quit there. There’s over thirty, and when you catalog them on a chalk-board, taking in the whole, you get a richer sense of what your ministry can aspire to in great EB. (Teens invariably get a chuckle out of “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” which appears three times.)

Second, you and your non-comms can call out great EB when you see it. And, not just the big things, but great EB cultures arise from the little behaviors reinforced into habit. A young boy or older teen will recall you telling them, “That was great EB.”

It’s the character-forming culture that will determine more emphatically the kind of fathers and elders these young men will become than their awards or achievements. Their character as fathers and church elders will prove the real measure of our ministries’ success.

Note: Peter Drucker came to faith late in life, claiming it was an economics decision: “No where but the gospel do you receive everything of value for nothing.”

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  1. The article above illustrates what the Battalion ministry is designed to accomplish.
    Our charges do not become what we teach.
    Our charges become who we are.
    The essentials?
    A growing Christian man … his interaction with a young man … and a Bible.
    All the rest supports those three elements.

  2. Absolutely love this article. I have seen this play out in our own Battalion as well. When I was a young teen, I also had my gear carried for me. I’ve seen noncoms do this through the years as well. It is amazing the impact that has on the younger boys and he is right, it is all about what culture you have made.