Developing Excellence in Camp Leadership: Four Requirements

by Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T.

A 2004 American Camp Association poll of its members found that the one area camp administrators wanted more information on was personal leadership development. It is evident that there is a quest in the camp field for enhancement of leadership. As camp directors plan for the new season, your experiences from the previous summer should help you recognize and acknowledge some of your leadership strengths and weaknesses. Yes, we all do indeed have positive and negative leadership qualities. Before the new season is upon us, it is crucial to analyze and consider our personal options for leadership development, and chart a course for improvement.

Be forewarned though that personal development is not easy and that, in spite of how highly touted some may be, leadership and management fads come and go. As an example, some of the most popular books on leadership only a decade ago can now be found — forgotten — in the bins of discounted bookstores. It is thus essential that a person seeking to become a better leader not become a blind disciple of a current popular management fad or leadership guru. If one culls the research from management studies, organizational dynamics, and psychology, we find that there are several consistent findings regarding leadership: no matter which path we individually take for leadership development, four essential interventions must occur. Indeed, if a person neglects even one of these steps, he or she will never become an excellent leader. It might be possible to become a good leader, but excellence can only occur if one has utilized these four necessities.

This article does not detail the one and only path to leadership excellence — such a path simply does not exist. Each of us must create our own highly individualized path toward this end. What this article will do, however, is specifically spell out four action steps that each and every one of you must undertake no matter which path is chosen.

Challenges to Leadership

Every leader faces a series of challenges that must be acknowledged. The following three are common to every leader regardless of profession. The four necessary interventions assist in coping with these ubiquitous leadership challenges.

  • Lack of training. Leaders are often promoted up from the ranks in organizations. There is a real problem with this tradition. Let's use a noncamp example for illustrative purposes. Paul works at the Acme Widget factory and has the reputation as the best widget maker in the company — he makes more widgets per hour with the least defects in comparison to his co-workers. When an opening occurs to be a leader of his floor, the company naturally turns to Paul for the position. A question that should occur at this point (but rarely does) is whether the same set of skills necessary to be a successful leader is the same set of skills necessary to be a widget maker? Of course not. But we've all seen a similar process in our camps. Counselors have been promoted to unit leader or group leader positions based on their excellent work with campers, often with highly variable results. Without doubt, success with leading colleagues requires a vastly different approach than success with children.

    Many new leaders are promoted into positions with little guidance, support, or formal education on leadership. They are expected to learn as they go along. This of course is not the best start for a leader. This is further complicated by the fact that leaders have multiple constraints on their time including an often-overwhelming workload. As such, they have little time (or energy) for personal development.
     

  • Lack of insight into personal leadership qualities. The most common method of evaluation for leaders is personal review. Leaders are busy people — camp professionals in particular spend a large portion of their time handling the innumerable disturbances that occur every day. There is little time for a complicated or complex review system.

    The problem here is leaders are subject to the same human foibles that every person on the planet experiences. One particularly problematic area is that humans tend to underestimate their weaknesses and overestimate their strengths. We simply do not see our leadership weaknesses. Psychological research indicates that individuals are not unbiased in how they evaluate themselves; we maintain unrealistically positive views of ourselves and actively select biased information in our self-appraisal that will bolster our self-image. One common method of information bias selection is called social comparison. Leaders often compare themselves to other leaders as a form of self-evaluation. Unfortunately, leaders tend to automatically compare themselves to less successful leaders, which of course then bolsters their own personal positive self-appraisal. This cognitive process is one of innumerable self-enhancement machinations that we actively but often unconsciously perform in our personal evaluation process. In short, leaders are often the least knowledgeable of their own weaknesses.
     

  • Lack of feedback. Leaders do not commonly receive critical feedback regarding their performance. Staff members who may have helpful feedback are cautious, and most often silent, in presenting feedback; most employees are intimidated by the idea of presenting critical feedback to their superiors. The higher the rank, the less likely an individual will receive quality feedback.

    Is feedback important? Feedback is essential for leadership improvement. Leaders that do not make themselves accessible to feedback and suggestions are wasting valuable resources. Since most leaders enter a position lacking training and skills but nevertheless still continue to appraise themselves as doing a good job (the latter due to human cognitive processing as described above), the only opposing force to our lack of awareness is external feedback. Indeed, all leaders may be able to recognize three major leadership weaknesses they have, yet employees — if given the opportunity — may be able to give us a list two to three times longer.

The Four Necessities

Let's start this section of the article with some good news: It is indeed possible to overcome the just-described challenges to leadership. There's bad news, too: Personal leadership will take time, effort, and for many, even money. Leadership development is a process, and there are no shortcuts. Americans are world renowned as seekers of instant cures, whether for weight, happiness, and/or even satisfaction in relationships. But there is no pill, gimmick, book, workshop, or motivational speech that will impart instant excellence in leadership (or for any longstanding challenge or problem).

I even want to warn readers that some of the following four necessities can be intimidating, costly, and anxiety provoking. These characteristics in no way negate the importance of the interventions. As with personal development in any important area, individuals must face their internal fears and move forward (sometimes into even more anxiety-provoking situations).

We'll start with one of the easier interventions.

Step One Establish a Definition of Leadership

Several months ago a son of a friend was querying me about positions at camp. During this informal interview he asked me what I did as the director of the camp — in essence, he wanted to know my responsibilities as the leader of a camp. In the best Socratic method, I turned the question around and asked him what he thought I did as the leader of a camp. Without hesitation he informed me that as the leader, my responsibility was to give orders to others. Thus in this young man's eyes, a leader is one who gives orders. So according to this young man, if I was to spend my day delegating and ordering other people about, I would be a great leader. It really wouldn't matter if my staff despised me and made purposeful attempts to sabotage the camp or even if the camp were falling about around me as long as I was excellent at giving orders.

I present this anecdote to establish the finding that many leaders and leaders-to-be have not actually defined leadership. They may have some vague and amorphous personal definition of leadership but lack anything specific and substantial. Challenge yourself; before reading any further, take a maximum of five minutes and write a specific leadership definition.

One of the most influential definitions of leadership was formulated in 1975 by Henry Mintzberg and has since become the cornerstone of leadership for hundreds of thousands of leaders. The Harvard Business Review, the periodical that printed Mintzberg's work, states that this article remains one of the most popular articles ever based on requests for reprints. Readers most certainly do not need to use the Mintzberg definition but can at least compare it to their own. An ill-defined definition or unrealistic definition (like the one offered by the young man described earlier) can hurt our leadership potential before we even begin.

According to Mintzberg, leadership is not simply one role but actually an assortment of numerous roles all considered under one title and with each requiring a specific set of skills. Some of these roles include:

  • The figurehead role — Every leader must perform some ceremonial duties. For example, in a summer camp, the identified leader may be the person who presides over campwide events or officially opens a camp for the summer season. Other organizations might have the leader greet new employees and give a brief history of the business.
  • The liaison role — Leaders usually spend much time with peers and other people outside their own immediate work groups. The leader might make contact with people outside the organization such as asking another organization for advice or simply to discuss changes occurring in the field. Leaders who attend ACA conferences and meet with other professionals are an example of this role.
  • The disseminator role — The leader passes on privileged information to subordinates. A leader who presents information in a staff meeting is an example.
  • The spokesperson role — This role occurs when a leader sends information to people outside the immediate work group. Almost all leaders must report to somebody whether that be a boss, an owner, or a board of directors. A camp director, as an example, might have to meet with a board of directors to discuss staff issues occurring in the camp — both good and bad.
  • The disturbance handler — This is probably the role leaders in which most are familiar. In this role, the leader must cope with an array of problematic situations in order to maintain the smooth functioning of the organization. A leader who intervenes between two employees whose inability to work together is affecting productivity is a common occurrence with this role.
  • The resource allocator — Here the leader decides who will get what. All organizations have a limited budget. Will more resources go to a particular activity (for example, more money spent on arts and crafts supplies instead of archery)? How will resources be decided most equitably? As a resource allocator, the leader must decide how to portion out the resources available, either financial, material, and/or human beings.

All of these roles are interrelated, and most problems that occur in an organization will require the coordination of several roles. Even more important, leaders who are responsible for other leaders (such as those in middle-management positions) need to be aware that these individuals will also have to assume the same variety of roles, some of which may be completely unfamiliar.

One additional point needs to be made in regards to our specific definition of leadership. A leader assumes these interrelated roles for one specific purpose: to keep his or her camp successfully thriving in uncertain times. The leader is continually taking a long-term perspective in regards to a camp's health.

Step Two Initiate a Formal Feedback Process

Now that we have a working definition of leadership, a natural follow-up at this point is to monitor how successfully we are meeting the criteria of our definition. As stated earlier, many leaders personally review their own success and failures but go no further than this. Recall though the challenges to leadership, particularly our inborn human tendency to overestimate our strengths and minimize (or even deny) our weaknesses. Our self-evaluations may have little to do with objective reality. There is only one way to circumvent this: Actively seek out feedback about our performance.

This second intervention can be an anxiety-provoking intervention. Opening ourselves to possibly critical feedback is not a highly desirable state, but it is the only way to accurately gauge our performance. (See the September/October 2003 issue of Camping Magazine for my previous article "Evaluating a Good Season" for some pragmatic tips on eliciting ongoing day-to-day feedback from staff.) Let's focus on the gold standard of feedback: The 360-degree evaluation.

Many large corporations, including most of the Fortune 500, use a 360-degree appraisal system. This system utilizes feedback from supervisors, peers, and subordinates. A brief description is as follows:

  1. Involved individuals completed anonymous surveys on a designated leader.
  2. Data from the surveys are formulated into an overall review of the leader.
  3. The leader meets with his or her supervisor to discuss the results and plan for future leadership development.

Anonymous surveys bypass the longstanding challenge of eliciting honest feedback from peers and employees. Though there is no claim that 360-degree evaluations are perfect, they are far better than traditional evaluations. Consider the power of a process in which a leader fills out an evaluation on herself and then is able to compare her responses to those compiled by peers and employees. Most leaders are surprised to learn just how differently others perceive them — including observations of strengths and weaknesses.

The American Camp Association (ACA) and I created the first 360-degree feedback evaluation for camp leaders, and it is available in the text Coaching the Camp Coach (2003). Again, a process to elicit feedback from others we work with is an essential intervention for leadership development; it is not a step that we can bypass and yet still expect to find success.

Step Three Ongoing Skills Development

By now we have defined leadership and been evaluated on our strengths and weaknesses. The third intervention is a natural progression to the first two steps: It is now time for us to build on our strengths and decrease our weaknesses.

Skills development typically occurs in two areas:

  • Objective Knowledge — Of the two categories of skills development this is by far the easier. Here we are attempting to educate ourselves on topical areas necessary for the success of our camps. Such areas include: maintenance issues, discipline, insurance, accreditation standards, food safety, etc. The list is potentially endless. We can attend conferences, read books, or even take a formal class on a topic. In brief, objective knowledge is easily taught and learned.
     
  • People Skills — This second category of skills development is, for most leaders, a very problematic area. Survey after survey finds that the most powerful influence on how strongly a person likes or dislikes a particular job is the relationship he or she has with an immediate supervisor. The more positive relationship between an employee and his or her supervisor, the more the person will like the job. And the more a person likes a job, the more effort he or she will put into work. In other words, if I were to tour your own camp and ask employees how much they like or dislike their job, the biggest influence in their appraisal would be the overall negative or positive relationship they have with their immediate supervisor.
     
  • People skills cannot be taught by lecture or book. No workshop — no matter how intensive — will lead to great people skills. We may, for instance, leave an educational session highly motivated to work better with our employees but find that this motivation dissipates after days (and certainly weeks). The optimum way for a person to maintain ongoing positive growth in the ability to lead people is by working with some type of coach. Coaches, in brief, help leaders maximize their potential by working with them to gain awareness on the effects of their words and actions on other individuals. Again, due to the busy lifestyle most leaders experience, deep reflection on interpersonal and intrapersonal does not rank high on the task list.

Typically coaches demonstrate the following attributes:

  • Self-awareness — These individuals have amassed a large amount of self-knowledge over a period of time.
  • Empathy — Coaches are excellent at understanding a leader's position and personality and demonstrate impeccable listening, questioning, and empathizing skills.
  • Credibility — Coaches have a high level of experience in the same career field as the leader.

Coaching sessions are held normally once a week (often by phone) and focus on issues that the leader needs to work on (often uncovered in the 360-degree evaluation process). Sessions are confidential, and leaders are free to express their concerns and doubts about their leadership skills. Coaches offer ongoing feedback, reframing of issues, occasional suggestions and challenges, and complete support.

Coaching has become a staple in top corporations. If a camp leader does not have a person who can act as a coach — a trusted individual with demonstrated people skills and a thorough knowledge of the camping field — he or she will be forced to seek one out and likely pay out of pocket. This can become a financial burden, but is well worth the cost and effort in the long run if the desired goal is excellence in leadership. Actually, there is no other way to develop our people skills if we do not have a readily available coach who is willing to work with us for free.

Step Four Continually Monitoring the Environment for Threats and Opportunities

Recall our definition of leadership. The overarching goal of a leader is to keep his or her camp thriving through uncertain times. And we are indeed facing uncertain times. The camp industry is facing numerous challenges: land development, environmental threats, increasing diversity in the country, an increasingly unskilled workforce, an aging population, lack of funding for nonprofits. And these are just a few. It is imperative for the camp director to continually monitor the environment for challenges and threats to his or her camp. And each challenge offers a possible opportunity. As an example, my own camp was able to secure $50,000 from the federal grant to create a CIT program that additionally teaches general workplace development skills. The federal government had voiced concern over unskilled workers and was more than obliging to support a program that could be used to test whether such a targeted program could actually be successful.

Each challenge to our camps can, with consideration and forethought, be a stepping stone to an opportunity. As part of our ongoing leadership duty, we must remain vigilant to the myriad of worrisome influences that are confronting our field and attempt to meet them head-on and, hopefully, with our leadership alchemy, reduce their negative influence or, better yet, change them into positive developmental opportunities. It is only through such vigilance that we will be able to keep our camps successfully thriving into the future.

Conclusion

There is a familiar argument among camp leaders — "I lead every day, and I learn to be a better leader as I go along." This argument is a variation on the familiar phrase "practice makes perfect." And on one level, we do increase our leadership skills as we go out each and every day and interact with out staff and colleagues. But this is only true to an extent. Let's look at another field for elucidation. No longer in the physical fitness field/personal training industry do we hear professionals say "practice makes perfect." Instead we hear the much more validated "perfect practice makes perfect." If an individual is working out diligently but with the wrong form (e.g., legs straight instead of bent, a hunched back, etc.), he or she may indeed become stronger in targeted areas while unknowingly and concurrently compromising the integrity of other muscular systems of the body. Finally, one day months later, this same individual may bend over to pick up a beach ball (with a weight of a few ounces) and throw their entire back out. In effect, if we are building imperfections into our everyday practice, it will be impossible to end up with the net result of perfect performance.

Many leaders unfortunately encode both positive and negative leadership qualities into their daily routine. And once encoded, our body and mind will be resistant to change. Practice indeed does not make perfect. Without an overall direction and purpose for leadership, feedback, and ongoing coaching, leaders will ultimately fail to recognize the plethora of leadership challenges that are inevitable for any leader nor will they have the opportunity to remedy their weaknesses (many of which they will not even be aware of though obvious to those we work with). The four interventions discussed in this article are not the only requirements for excellence in leadership, but, without them, our strivings are foredoomed.

References
Collins, R.L. (1996). "For Better or Worse: The Impact of Upward Social Comparison on Self-Evaluations." Psychological Bulletin. 119: 51-69.
Mintzberg, H. (1998)."The Manager's Job: Folklore and Fact." In Harvard Business Review on Leadership. Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, pp. 1-36.
Morgan, H., P. Harkins, and M. Goldsmith. (2005). The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching. New Jersey: Wiley.
Sherman, S., and A. Freas. (2004). "The Wild West of Executive Coaching." Harvard Business Review. 82: 82-90.
Whitmore, J. (1996). Coaching for Performance. London: Nicholas Bealey Publishing.
Wood, J.V. (1989). "Theory and Research Concerning Social Comparisons of Personal Attributes." Psychological Bulletin. 106: 231-248.

Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T., is a consultant, trainer, and the director of Camp William Penn, a camp owned by the City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation. He is the author of Coaching the Camp Coach and Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Group Settings. Shelton can be reached via his Web site: www.meshelton.com.

Originally published in the 2006 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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