When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001, we were just five months from the ACA National Conference, scheduled for February in DC.

Over the next few months, big decisions had to be made about the conference. Did we try and hold it even though many other organizations were cancelling their conferences? Should we ask people to travel given the unknowns of flying? What about the safety of international delegates? Such decisions prompted ACA leadership to ask some very difficult questions about who we were and what we stood for as an organization. In the end, we decided to be our authentic selves and hold the conference.

Being authentic means being true to your core beliefs. It ensures that your actions align with your words and thoughts regardless of the circumstances. Organizations and people who understand what is required to be genuine do not let themselves become influenced by others, even if it means taking an unpopular stance.

Working at camp requires a lot of decision-making. It is the outcome of these judgment calls that creates the opportunity for you to trust your own choices. Campers know and respect authenticity, because being consistent creates friendships based on honesty. The same pattern holds true for you personally. When faced with a problem, why do you seek advice from certain people over others?

According to psychology professor Stephen Joseph, the formula for authenticity is knowing yourself + owning yourself + being yourself = leading an authentic life (Freni, 2022). Each element of this formula plays a big part in how successful you will be regardless of your job title. Knowing yourself forms your values and personality. It gives you the parameters of understanding what you want and don’t want, which become the driving force behind what you allow to happen. Owning yourself is the confidence you have in trusting yourself. It involves how you share opinions and what you think — and it guides your behavior. Being yourself is behaving in such a way that your actions match your values and are not altered by others’ influence.

Think back to a time at camp or school when you were impressed by what someone said and then watched as they followed through on their idea. This should be recognized as an accomplishment. Now recall a moment when you heard someone take a stance only to change their mind when faced with a little resistance. This leadership practice can be dangerous, because it causes people to form opinions based on emotion or influence, not policy or fact. The results are inconsistent and hard to follow, which can negatively define your authentic self.

Examples that reflect authenticity struggles can occur in almost any aspect of camp life. Being seen or heard for who you are and what you stand for can sometimes take a back seat to circumstances or tradition. It is also extremely important to place the success of your contributions into proper context. You might have a really good idea, but timing, resources, or lack of planning may prevent it from happening. Do not confuse expressing yourself in an honest way with the implementation of your ideas.

To be effective at your job, you need to know what the requirements are to meet minimum standards of responsibility. Once you know what those are, interject the appropriate personality behaviors to make the camp experience authentic. Be careful that your default responses do not take away from what you are trying to do. What you are looking for is balance. This means being open to the process and results — even if they were not the ones you wanted. You may have to prioritize your expectations or be willing to compromise to achieve a reasonable outcome.

Deciding tolerance limits based on issues of fact, like dealing with an old camp tradition or endorsing a new program, is usually done by discussing the situation’s circumstances — good and bad. However, when a decision needs to be made and an emotional component exists, it becomes much harder to reach a compromise. For example, let’s say a fellow staff member who has been struggling to get along with others is suddenly being considered for a position of greater authority. When you get upset, what happens? You may say or do things you are not proud of, because responses like being kind, showing compassion, or expressing gratitude get dismissed in the heat of the moment. This is what happens when a conscious idea conflicts with your unconscious brain.

If you want to be successful at camp, take time to cultivate meaningful relationships. The more clarity you have for authenticity, the easier your path will be to identify those who share your core values. Take pride in your tasks, find ways to make them your own, and give other people a reason to support what you are doing. If you build excitement around the outcome, good things will happen.

I was once a boating director at an overnight sports camp, and boating was not a popular activity. Initially thinking the merits of boating would be enough to interest people in participating, I soon learned no one cared. To make boating interesting and fun required staff who enjoyed boating and had influence in camp. Once those connections were made, I infused boating into camp culture by participating in non-waterfront activities. Then creating a new beach for hanging out, learning skills, and adding special events soon had campers requesting to go boating.

Staff often tell me fear is the main reason they fail to be authentic. Common fear concerns include:

  • Not fitting in
  • Being disliked
  • Lacking camp knowledge
  • Being misunderstood
  • Not possessing self-trust

Fear prevents people from expressing what they really feel and causes them to use other mechanisms to hide their behavior.

Camp is about self-discovery. If you betray yourself because you want to fit in, you may find yourself feeling alone or isolated from others. Any combination of these factors can lead to low self-esteem and a decreased desire to participate in activities.

If you feel your true self is not being accepted, talk to your head counselor or unit leader. Try to articulate specific instances where people or circumstances make you feel unhappy or angry. What are the emotions associated with these experiences, and is it costing you an abnormal amount of energy that prevents you from doing your job?

To prevent feeling unappreciated, you can develop strategies to be authentic.

  • Start from a position that all camp jobs will give you a sense of purpose or fulfillment.
  • Realize that meaningful relationships with your fellow staff are based on honesty and respect.
  • Be genuine in social situations. If you try to be someone you’re not, both colleagues and campers will see the inconsistencies and not trust you.
  • Take a personal inventory when you feel something is wrong or right. Make a mental note of who you are with, what you are doing, and what emotions are surfacing.
  • Try to see the situation from different perspectives. Take a step back and view the problem from all sides.
  • Determine the motivation for your feelings. Is it internal or external — and what are your options?
  • Think about how your actions affect the campers. Being authentic comes down to how you act/react on a daily basis.

Try this quick mental exercise: Imagine that the camp season is over, and you are sitting in a room with all your campers. What would you want them to say about you? What kind of counselor were you? What would their lasting memories be? Now switch the focus and ask yourself, what did you mean to them? Did you accomplish what you wanted to over the summer? Did you stick to your values?

To make sure the outcome of these questions reflects your authentic self, you need to figure out ways to develop your core identity. This is the cornerstone or set of beliefs you have had from childhood that helped to form your values. Camp culture provides you with a magical formula for developing leadership skills through a process known as self-discovery. When you are having fun with campers, be intentional about working on traits such as kindness or increasing self-esteem. It is these values that drive your display of character — which creates situations that are positive (like trust) or negative (like laziness).

Being your authentic self means choosing which beliefs you share. This is the artistry of what you bring to camp. Throughout your life, you have had experiences or been taught beliefs that shape your perspectives — like dedication, passion, or hard work. These will ultimately define your camp experience, because people will form opinions about you based on what you do and say regardless of the situation. Understanding how beliefs influence core identity will enable you to tie actions to consequences, and in doing so, empower you to do a better job.

While this sounds complicated, it is relatively easy to incorporate ways to develop authenticity. Once you know how to deal with traits, tolerance limits, core values, fear, and beliefs, try implementing some strategies to make your job easier.

  • Be mindful when dealing with others. Be present when they are talking and listen to what is being said. Eliminate distractions by concentrating on the moment. This can be a very challenging skill because it requires you to prioritize interruptions.
  • Strive to align your values with the camp’s mission. Identify some areas in which you can help campers to understand, experience, or recognize success.
  • Find ways to act on your core beliefs or talents. If you have an expertise in a skill or hobby, let directors know so your talents can be acknowledged.
  • Base your relationships on honesty. Be who you are even if a compromise or critical conversation is necessary.
  • Practice situational awareness. Learn to evaluate what is taking place and base your input on needs — especially if it challenges your comfort zone.
  • Being authentic is not an abstract concept; it is the sum of the choices you make each day.

When you interact with people who are judgmental, unable to express themselves clearly, or who are not open to learning from their mistakes, they are being inauthentic. Stephen Joseph, PhD, states, “If behind what a person says and does is a defensive and self-deceptive approach to life, then no matter how passionate and committed they are to a cause, ultimately they are not being true to themselves” (Joseph, 2016).

Learn from Conflict

Camp is demanding, hot, and tiring; conflicts are going to arise. Community living creates personal and philosophical situations that influence behavior. If you find yourself in a decision-making circumstance with an individual who has not yet reached a comfortable level of authenticity, stay true to yourself. Try not to take what they say personally. Find out what their objection is and see if you can connect it to a solution. This is where you practice being brave and rely on your past successes to find a connection.

If the problem persists, ask for help. Go to your supervisor or another staff person you respect, and take a minute to reset. Explain the dilemma and talk it out with a little compassion. Use these additional perspectives to formulate questions for your next conversation. To arrive at the best solution, be open to creative problem-solving and compromise.

People struggling with authenticity may talk about other people’s perceived faults, say what they think other people want to hear, or simply not tell the truth. They may show a lack of empathy or originality, but you don’t have to get caught up in their rhetoric. To avoid the competitive nature of debate, set boundaries to achieve collaboration. Then celebrate what you do well by defining your successes and applying those same attributes to new challenges.

Showing who you are can sometimes leave you feeling vulnerable. Do not be threatened by the process. Your level of success will depend on many variables, so try to avoid getting discouraged if the results fall below your expectations. Staying authentic means showing who you are by being consistent and refraining from attempting to please everyone. The most important thing you do in camp is build relationships. To accomplish this, listen with intent and respond without judgment.

Besides building confidence and increasing your self-esteem, the benefits of being authentic include the creation of deeper relationships, developing a sense of purpose, and the ability to be proud of who you are becoming. It creates a safe space to improve mental health while giving you the option to test your leadership ability. When you talk to other staff, share some things about yourself and seek to find some common ground. Start with easy tasks or skills, and be mindful not to dominate the conversation. Ask follow-up questions, and let curiosity lead you toward new activities or program areas — and closer relationships based on mutual respect.

Despite the events of 9/11, ACA understood the power of connection and decided to hold the conference. The leadership team recognized the significance of this historical moment and demonstrated authenticity by setting the standard for professional development. The conference was a life-altering experience for the people who attended — and it sent a message to camps around the world that our core values could not be compromised. Participants from around the world also understood how special this moment was, and they appreciated all who had the courage to attend. The conference provided camp professionals with an authentic way to learn, hope, and love.

This summer you have the same opportunity to define your core beliefs while making friendships that will potentially last a lifetime. If you follow through on responsibilities and cultivate meaningful relationships, the benefits of being authentic could change your life forever.

Discussion Questions

What are your core beliefs?

What’s one fear that you have that might make being authentic more difficult, and what steps can you take to alleviate that fear?

How might your authentic or inauthentic actions affect your campers? What might they learn from watching you?

Photos courtesy of Roundup River Ranch, Gypsum, CO; Cheley Colorado Camps, Estes Park, CO; Camp John Marc, Dallas, TX.


Freni, A. & White, E. (editor). (2022, June 23). A psychologist’s guide to: Being your authentic self. OpenUp. openup.com/blog/a-psychologists-guide-to-being-your-authentic-self/

Joseph, S. (2016, August 29). 7 core qualities of authentic people. Psychology Today. psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-doesnt-kill-us/201608/7-core-qualities-authentic-people

Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD, CPRP, was a camp director for over 30 years and has been conducting staff trainings since the early 1980s. He is a nationally known conference speaker, consultant, staff trainer, author, former American Camp Association (ACA) National Board member, standards visitor, and corporate trainer with more than 200 clients nationwide. Greg has trained thousands of camp staff on youth development and leadership. He has appeared on TV, radio, and Capitol Hill as a spokesperson for the camp experience and is a frequent contributor to Camping Magazine. Greg is featured in ACA’s By the Expert book series with chapters on leadership and staff training. To book Greg for staff orientations, trainings, and workshops, please call 703-395-6661 or email gregcroninva@gmail.com.