Internal Leadership Development

by Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D.

Had it with hiring cabin leaders who just don't “get it”? Tired of combing the Internet for something more than cookie-cutter counselors whose resumes all look the same? Eager to reduce liability by hiring staff you've known for years instead of hours? Consider making internal leadership development your staffing priority.

Internal leadership development (ILD) is a program of hiring, training, and promotion with the goal of cultivating staff from the camper ranks. Designed thoughtfully and implemented seriously, it can eventually become your primary source of new hires.

(I use the word “leader” to refer to members of the camp staff who live, eat, and run activities with campers. Although “counselor” is also popular, this word has other meanings — lawyer, therapist, etc., — none of which personify leadership qualities. “Staff” is a broader term that denotes anyone on the camp payroll.)

Great Camps Don't Just Happen

“You could take skilled cabin leaders and put them in a parking lot with a bunch of kids and make a great camp.” So said Tom Giggi, one of my mentors, sixteen years ago. I was a proud, first-year cabin leader, smitten with my newfound power and the immense privilege of having been chosen to return to camp after my Leader-in-Training year. Tom was charged with the prodigious task of keeping me humble and focused on my job: the children — not the equipment or other staff — at camp. His comment has become one of my mantras because it speaks to the tremendous potential that gifted leaders have to transform a perfectly good camp into a great one.

This transformation hinges on something simple but increasingly uncommon: the leader's secure relationship with his or her campers. From that, other elements of a great camp follow: strong traditions, long staff and camper tenure, and a spirit that transcends the fancy equipment. Of course, finding gifted leaders, who can keep children their top priority, is not simple. Even if you are an expert interviewer, you don't really know how a new hire will treat your campers. Fortunately, other ways of finding skilled staff exist. In fact, they are right there in your camp already, enjoying their camper years and beginning to absorb your camp's philosophy.

Nurturing, selecting, and training your best campers to become cabin leaders is a complex process that lies at the heart of internal leadership development. Before you make a commitment to ILD, you must ask yourself key questions, understand fundamental training techniques, and design a model that incorporates essential core elements, yet is customized to fit your camp. Let's take a look at those questions, design elements, and training techniques.

Begin with a Leadership Self-Examination

Whether you are looking to enhance your existing ILD program or start fresh, you will first need to ask yourself some conceptual and pragmatic questions (see table 1). More than an academic exercise, these questions are a prerequisite to your designing an ILD program and mentally committing to its success.

ILD programs are not for every camp. Your answers to these questions will help determine whether ILD is right for you. If it is, then your answers will lay the foundation upon which your ILD program rests. Plan at least a daylong retreat this winter to discuss these questions with your senior staff. (Some camp directors may elect to invite an outside facilitator to objectively guide this crucial stage in their camps’ leadership development.) Ponder each question and take your answers seriously. Without understanding why you're doing what you're doing, you cannot justify the program's workings to your staff, see where it needs improvement, or get cooperation to follow through on its stated goals.

Committing to internal leadership development, or to an enhancement of your existing program, is a bold step to take. Besides the obvious regular meeting times you will need to set aside to evaluate senior campers and junior leaders, it means having patience and perseverance over many years as the program evolves and you work the kinks out of it. It also means slowly hiring fewer staff from the outside and sometimes putting a young leader's interpersonal skills above his or her athletic or artistic skills. Most importantly, it means carefully designing a system of selection, training, and promotion that cultivates qualities you desire in your leaders.

Design Elements of Successful ILD Programs

Internal leadership development programs languish or fail without an absolute commitment from upper management. Both in faith and in practice, the camp director and senior staff must move beyond a “this is a good idea” mindset to a “this is the centerpiece of our leadership” mindset. In practice, this means:

  • giving top hiring priority to homegrown leaders,
  • taking competitive promotion from senior camper levels to junior leader and leader-in-training levels extremely seriously,
  • rigorously evaluating and training any necessary external hires, ideally with the help of a skilled leadership director,
  • holding all leaders to the same high standards,
  • treating all levels and origins of leadership fairly, especially when it comes to salary and workload, and
  • firing those leaders who break major camp rules, even if that means letting go of one of your favorites for a season.

For an internal leadership development program to work, campers must perceive that it is more than fun to work at your camp — it is a privilege. Eventually, they will understand the great responsibility that leadership entails. For now, it is enough for them to see camp leadership as something that must be earned. If your new hires see their job as a role in Meatballs, as an opportunity for romance, or as an easy, disposable summer job, then they will treat it like a stick of gum. Once the flavor is gone, they will be ready to spit it out.

Rituals, such as awards, ceremonies, campfires, camp songs, and special staff clothing add a sense of mystery, importance, and high purpose to your internal leadership system. Instead of secretly selecting which senior campers are ready to be junior leaders next summer and then writing them a perfunctory letter in the off-season, include some public or private ritual in announcing your choices. Some camps announce the names of senior campers chosen to be next summer's junior staff as part of their closing firelight; others read aloud at their closing ceremonies the criteria by which junior staff are chosen and then send individual letters to those chosen. However you decide to integrate ritual and tradition into your internal leadership development program, your goal should be twofold: communicate the criteria by which campers are selected to be leaders and make it clear that membership is an honor.

Up the ranks
Details of how to train your young leaders are included in the next section. Here, as a design issue, it is enough to note that your overall training program should be formulated as a multi-season process. One way to do this is to promote senior campers to become one-month junior leaders, then junior leaders to become all-season leaders-in-training, then leaders-in-training to become full-fledged cabin leaders. Thus, by the time a young staff member has her own cabin, she has had at least one season as a camper, followed by two seasons of training. Now, during training week, you do not have to review mundane aspects of camp, such as the daily schedule or where the bathrooms are. Instead, you can spend time talking about different leadership styles and how to handle challenging campers.

Often, camps require interested senior campers to take a year off from camp, before returning as junior leaders or leaders-in-training. While that extra year may bestow some maturity upon these young people, it is a missed opportunity to train them, help them grow in camp spirit, and let them make mistakes from which they can learn. That said, it is important that junior leaders, who return to camp the season following their final camper year, do not become indentured servants. Work duties should be shared among all levels of the leadership, from the director on down, and not relegated to junior leaders who must “do their time.” If you want to know who is most worthy of promotion from junior leader to leader-in-training, or from leader-in-training to cabin leader, you must see how they
work with campers. Anyone can wash dishes, but only a few can work effectively and enthusiastically with children.

As part of an ILD program, you must devise a system of promotion that takes into account your stated goals, your camp's traditions, and the style of training that suits you best. Each camp with homegrown leadership does things differently. The most successful ones make their criteria for promotion public and work to abide by these criteria, consistently promoting only those young leaders whose behavior has shown their readiness and commitment to the prodigious task of leading children. At first, the yield will be fairly small, and the temptation to promote anyone interested will be great. Stick to your guns, however, and the yield will grow year after year. Over time, senior campers and young leaders will begin to internalize your promotion criteria and work hard to make the cut.

Training Techniques to Maximize ILD

There are six techniques that all camps with successful ILD programs use. Regardless of how you customize your program, work hard to integrate these training elements.

Leadership by example
Perhaps nothing shapes a person's behavior more powerfully than the behavior of those around them. Senior staff, from the director down, should model good leadership. All leaders should work together to help one another stay on their toes. From the outset, all leaders need to agree both to solicit constructive criticism and to provide it. Of course, this requires a nonjudgmental atmosphere focused on learning. Achieving this is not easy, given that senior staff are required to evaluate junior staff and make promotion decisions at the end of the season. This inherent power differential makes young leaders reluctant to point out older leaders' shortcomings. To overcome this obstacle to candid communication, senior staff need to model humility, a willingness to listen, and a desire to improve. When, as member of your camp's upper management team, did you last ask for feedback from a new cabin leader or leader-in-training?

Enhanced responsibility
If you want your leaders to learn and mature, you must provide room for that growth by letting go a bit. You must not only delegate responsibility, but also be silent and see whether your young leaders will take the initiative to get things done. They must develop a keen eye for seeing what or who needs attention around camp. To become as sharp as you are in spotting these needs, you must give them real decision-making power. Resist the temptation to micro-manage every situation. The only real way your leaders will grow is by examining the consequences — both good and bad — of their decisions.

Simulate realistic scenarios
Make role-playing part of your training during precamp week. The main reason most leaders groan when you say the term “role-play” is because, if done well, it reveals the leader's true strengths and weaknesses. Most leaders would prefer a cushier, less confrontational training technique. But there is no substitute for learning by doing. Draw your role-plays or “sim drills” (short for “simulation drills”) from actual case examples. Carefully set up, play through, debrief, and replay each case. Remember to check in with participants to see how they felt acting out different roles. Quiz those in the audience about what they liked and what they would have done differently. Brainstorm alternative outcomes. And for particularly challenging scenarios, ask a second group to role-play the same case so that everyone can see the stylistic differences that exist among leaders. You don't want anyone to think there's only one “right” way to solve a vexing leadership problem.

Conduct ongoing evaluations
The ultimate feedback for any leader is receiving (or not receiving) a contract for the following season. Long before then, however, each leader should have received feedback on his job. You can set the stage by reviewing the evaluation process with your entire leadership before the season starts. As I mentioned earlier, you also need to foster an atmosphere of candid, bi-directional communication. Whether written or oral, formal or informal, each leader should receive a mid-season evaluation so that he or she has the chance to improve on specific things during the second half of the season. No one wants eleventh-hour feedback on something that would have been easy to change.

The camps with the most successful ILD programs actually have their own leadership director. This person's job is to solicit feedback from experienced staff about the job that junior leaders are doing, distill that feedback, and then review it with the leader in question. Questionnaires help supervising staff summarize a young leader's strengths and weaknesses, and they give leadership directors standardized teaching tools. Consider designing a questionnaire that leaders can use to critique their own or another leader's performance. Finally, remember to balance strengths with weaknesses when giving evaluations.

Conduct regular mini-trainings
There is no way that any member of your leadership will learn all of what he or she needs to know during staff training week. Therefore, you need to see staff training as an ongoing process. Like any other priority, you will have to carve out time for mini-trainings. “Fitting it in somewhere” hardly ever works. Instead, plan ahead and allocate time in your leaders' schedules for additional discussions, meditations, sim drills, and other exercises that force honest self-examination of the job they are doing. At the very least, you will want to provide time in the weekly schedule for leaders to discuss issues in small groups. Bring particularly enlightening or critical issues to weekly full-staff meetings and facilitate a discussion on improvements. Consider hiring a professional staff trainer or a leadership director from a neighboring camp to conduct a review of leadership performance and/or a mid-season training.

Give time for leaders to bond
At the beginning of your training week, and throughout the camp season, provide both structured and unstructured time for leaders to bond. Structured activities might include icebreakers, trust-building exercises, and team games. Unstructured activities might include a mid-season pizza party, a staff movie night, or an evening at the director's cottage. And, don't forget days off and nights off. Your staff need time away from camp to recharge. Whatever the mechanism, your goal should be to provide the time and space for leaders' relationships to evolve from acquaintance to friendship. Remember, the time you allow them to bond, without the distraction of other responsibilities, is an investment in the overall strength of your leadership.

Putting It All Together

If only putting all these philosophical ideas, design elements, and training techniques together were easy, then every camp would have its own outstanding internal leadership development program. The fact is, ILD programs are challenging to implement but infinitely valuable to the health of your camp and your campers. Take the time to craft a program that capitalizes on the existing strengths of your camp. With the proper elements in place, your leadership program will become more than a method for hiring high quality staff. It will be part of what makes your camp unique and one of the most important reasons campers return to your camp year after year. For a camper to admire her leader, to want to be in her position someday, to want to work at your camp, is the ultimate compliment a camp director can hope for.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a licensed clinical psychologist, camp consultant, and the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook. For complimentary samples of hiring and promotion guidelines or staff evaluation questionnaires, or to inquire about a staff training at your camp, send an e-mail to


Originally published in the 2001 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.