Laugh, Learn, and Lead

An Interview with Sarah Weddington

Sarah Weddington, a keynote speaker at the upcoming American Camping Association National Conference in San Francisco, California, is devoted to helping individuals develop their personal leadership skills. She is particularly well known for her work on issues affecting women through her many roles as attorney, legislator, and presidential advisor. Having lived a life of leadership, Dr. Weddington shares her expertise and techniques — her insights into how to increase your energy and how to recognize those important learning and "aha" moments, practice leadership, and make a positive difference.

In an interview with Camping Magazine, Dr. Weddington discusses how her philosophy of "laughter, learn, and lead" applies to the camp community and all those who work in child and youth development.

The need to demonstrate and instill leadership skills is a powerful responsibility for those who work in the camp community and with children and youth. What leadership skills do you think these people should have and why?

The most important method of teaching leadership is by example. An applicable saying is, "Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear your words." Staff members will pattern their leadership after those above them — not after what others say as much as what they do. Second, camp owners, directors, and administrators should allow their staff members to practice leadership. I suggest practice in part because inherent in it is the concept that one doesn’t have to be perfect. Improving one’s leadership skills often involves taking some risk and moving beyond what one has done successfully in the past. Of course, I am not suggesting jump-off-the-top-of-a-mountain risk, but rather risk taken in small increments. Third, one of the most important leadership skills is the ability to listen. Each person — of whatever age — coming to a camp will have an individual story. Camps offer a unique environment for children to have new experiences and grow into their own. By listening to the needs of each child, staff offer support that helps children develop their own identity. Another aspect of listening is that of listening to fellow staff members. A recent article talked about how we are often e-mailing, going through mail, driving or performing a variety of tasks while having a phone conversation. We aren’t truly listening; but we should.

How do they teach these skills not only to their young adult counseling staff, but also to the children and youth in their charge?

Leaders are guides. We set the example. People, especially children, are continuously watching — and they often mimic what they see. That’s true regarding physical activities and skills, but it’s also true regarding values demonstrated by how one treats others and one’s conduct. Effective teaching often begins by conveying concepts of leadership through words and concepts. When those words are reinforced by actions, then the message is much more easily understood.

Each camp session is — for all intents and purposes — a "new" summer. How can you maintain energy and enthusiasm to start afresh each session and to sustain the energy necessary to provide quality leadership throughout each session?

Leaders have to find ways to sustain their own energy. Laughter or good times can be setting aside time for the activities that help us replenish. I am an introvert who has learned extrovert behavior, so I have to set aside time to be alone, whether reading, walking, or working on a project. Extroverts often need to schedule time purposefully with people who energize them. One extroverted student said he did his best studying on a city bus — to prepare for a test, he got on a bus and just rode around the city finding energy in all the activity. That same plan would be a disaster for me.

Continual learning allows leaders constantly to extend their own reach and competencies. And focusing on the "why" of camp and our work as leaders allows us to renew our sense of purpose. Camp and similar programs are filled with activities that are generally both mentally and physically exhausting. Yet staff keep coming back year after year. Why? I suggest it is because of the ability to see those in our care grow and flourish. Many staffers keep returning for one primary reason — the kids with whom they have the opportunity to work. The camp experience makes a monumental impact in the lives of children. Keeping that as the focus will create the motivation necessary to remain kid-centered and produce amazing "new" summers each week.

Why is it important for professionals to replenish their energy through educational opportunities such as ACA’s national conference?

I believe that leadership is the ability and the willingness to leave one’s thumbprint.

The ACA conference is a perfect place to think about things that should be different or things you would like to change and to develop a plan for how to leave your thumbprint. Youth development professionals have made a noble commitment to play an important role in the lives of the children they serve and staff. This commitment comes with a number of sacrifices (i.e., time, money, etc.). It is vital to the success of a camp for these professionals to continue learning and "recharging their batteries."

What do you think is the biggest challenge to leadership today?

The biggest challenge to leadership today, in my opinion, is that most people are tired. At times just getting through a day can seem to take all of one’s energy. One friend commented, "I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days gang up and attack me all at once."

That’s why I like them so much — I admire people who try to help others mature and develop useful skills and attitudes. I am a teacher, and I think of you as teachers. But when flying, the flight attendant always says, "In the unlikely event of an emergency, an oxygen mask will fall down. First, put your own oxygen mask on . . . ."

I believe we can find oxygen and energy through laughter (or good times), through learning, and through impact or leadership. Life is a series of course corrections. If you had asked me when I was finishing college what I was going to do or be, I would never have accurately guessed my path. Leadership is learned in many ways, including through practice and through what I call "use of the critical eye." Because I learned leadership, it has lifted me to many opportunities. I often say, "Leadership is the wind beneath my wings." I am grateful to have had so many exciting experiences and opportunities, and most of them were made possible by my leadership interest and abilities.


Originally published in the 2004 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.