The waterline test

I came across a really insightful post to the Harvard Business Review faculty blog by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer called Declaring Independence in the Workplace. The post deals mainly with problems that ensue when upper management micromanages their teams, and how team professionals deserve a “Declaration of Independence” of their own – independence to do their work without undue interference from above.

I began to draw many Scouting allegories from this, going back to the “Green Bar” Bill Hillcourt advice to train ’em, trust ’em and let ’em lead as we must do with our Scouts. However, one of the comments jumped off the page at me, full of meaning for the adult role in Boy Scouting.

IT executive Dan Greller posted a comment on the article in which he suggests that upper management use what he calls a “waterline test” to determine when intervention is advisable. He writes, in part:

Many of these managers would benefit from adopting the “waterline” test involving delegation of decision rights. That is, if the decision “blew a hole” in the side of the “corporate boat”, would it be above or below the waterline? Those “holes” that are above the waterline are cosmetic and can be repaired. Only those decisions that can sink the ship should be reserved for senior management approval.

Doesn’t this describe how the adults in a troop should interact with the youth?

If a problem comes up, and it’s not a serious problem that would result in a cataclysmic outcome (injury, for example), let the boys handle it. I usually cite a patrol cook burning the French Toast as an example of when not to throw yourself in the middle of the situation. Even conflicts between patrol members should try to be resolved at the patrol level before they are escalated. Those are “above the waterline” hits on the S.S. Boy Scouting, and can be patched up by the Scouts without sinking the boat – or requiring adult interference.

However, instances such as a Scout hatcheting away in the axe yard without eye protection (or, more seriously, playing with a knife unsafely) have the potential to be torpedo hits below the Plimsoll line, and need our immediate attention. Don’t hesitate to step in, but also don’t overreact – patch the hull, bail the bilge and full steam ahead.

I encourage you to read the article and the comments. Further down, a commenter reminded us of Peter Drucker’s advice about leading versus managing people. And next time you’re tempted to jump in and “rescue” the Scouts, take the waterline test to see if it’s necessary.

Image: Bernie Condon /

This post first appeared on Bobwhite Blather.
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