Reflecting on the hands-off (called laissez-faire back then) attitude common among Harvard College students in the late 1800s, senior class poet George Pellew wrote, “We deem it narrow-minded to excel. We call the man fanatic who applies his life to one grand purpose till he dies. Enthusiasm sees one side, one fact. We try to see all sides, but do not act. We long to sit with newspapers unfurled. Indifferent spectators of the world.”

Fortunately, times — and attitudes — have changed. Preparation for study, work, and life dictate a more self-directed, participative approach to our responsibility to ourselves and the groups, teams, and institutions to which we belong.

This summer, anyway, that list includes your summer camp and, moreover, the young people for whom you will be responsible. For them, you will be a role model and leader, forging an indelible set of values and principles with which they will learn to live their own lives, now and, likely, forever.

Heady stuff.

Preparing to Lead

In the fall of 2011, my camper Warren Davis was preparing to take the reins as student body president at her boarding school, Proctor Academy, in Andover, New Hampshire, where she is also captain of the fi eld hockey team. Though already a proven leader at camp, she asked me for some tips to guide her in her new role. So off to my bookshelves and the Internet I went in search of advice to pass along to Warren.

Lessons on Leadership

I discovered that lessons on leadership are not hard to find. Everyone from coaches to politicians seems to have weighed in on the subject. Here’s a sampling.


John Wooden (2005), the legendary coach of UCLA’s basketball team, defined leadership in his book Wooden on Leadership, as, “Helping others to achieve their own greatness by helping the organization to succeed.” Among Wooden’s admonitions:

  • Never mistake activity for achievement.
  • Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.
  • Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.
  • It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.
  • Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.


Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (2002), in his book Leadership, offers some ideas of his own.

  • Articulate a positive vision for what you foresee as the future.
  • Raise the bar — challenge people to act out of a higher calling of service. Lavish public praise on those who choose to make positive contributions.

Also in the political world, few have served more presidents than David Gergen (2000), author of the book Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership: Nixon to Clinton. He puts forth several “lessons of leadership,” including noting that leadership “starts from within” and that leaders have a central compelling purpose, a capacity to persuade and inspire others to carry on the mission.


Jack Welch, the longtime CEO of General Electric Corporation and author of such books as From the Gut and Winning, has spoken and written extensively on the subject of leadership in corporate America. Among his recurring themes: Create a vision, put the right people in the right job, give them what they need, and then get out of the way (Slater, 2003).

Camp and School

And what about leaders at camp and, to Warren’s point, school? I didn’t find much. So I developed my own list of twelve leadership principles and e-mailed them off to Warren. For this article, I asked for her feedback . . . and that of two other teen leaders from Cape Cod Sea Camps.

Having already established Warren’s creds, let me introduce you to Sam Francis, a junior at Newburyport High School (Massachusetts) and next year’s varsity football and lacrosse captain; and Lanie Schwartz, an eighth grader at Derby School in Hingham (Massachusetts) and president of its student government. Perhaps together we can provide some helpful guidance for camp counselors everywhere for the summer of 2012.

Principles of Leadership

1. Believe in yourself. There may be people who will doubt your ability to lead. Don’t let them sidetrack you.

Warren: Someone once told me that if you don’t believe in yourself, no one will. Do not let anyone tell you something different, control you, or minimize your own voice.

Sam: There will always be people trying to bring you down; consequently, they are usually the ones who envy you the most. So instead of holding a grudge, feel for them and find a way to bring them to the top alongside yourself.

2. Believe in others. They have the ability to rise to the occasion, meet your expectations, and achieve team goals.

Warren: Sometimes it is hard to put trust in others, thinking that they will not be able to complete the task as well as you. They might surprise you, adding a perspective that results in a better outcome.
Lanie: By believing in others, the whole atmosphere improves because you know someone has your back and you have theirs.

3. Don’t let others undermine you. Some will try — not necessarily because of what you say, do, or believe, but simply because you’re the leader and they’re not.

Sam: One influential person can change a kid’s future forever. You may not realize how much kids will look up to you, but just think back and remember all those you used to look up to. You’ll be surprised at how many of them there are.

Lanie: Take charge without being overly controlling. I have always liked to lead, so I’ve been working on this for years. And, as counselors, or counselors in training, we are all leaders. It’s important to listen to others as well as to keep your own voice.

4. Have a vision. If you don’t, someone else will. Then they become the leader. Sharing a vision means knowing where you’re going, even if you don’t always know how to get there. It also means being creative and flexible. Routes may change, but destinations should stay the same.

Warren: It is very important to stay with an idea and present it in a clear way for people to understand. They rely on the leader to be able to guide them. Incorporate their vision as well. That way, you are guiding while including others.

Sam: Let others know your goals. There is no easier way to accomplish something than when someone is holding you accountable. It’s also the only way to know if they share the same goals.

5. Have a plan. You can always change your plan as circumstances dictate, but not having a plan will waste time, resources, energy, and enthusiasm.

Sam: Goals are what drive people to do great things. Nobody accidently stumbles upon greatness. When someone has reached the top of their field, you know they have put their heart and soul into it.

Lanie: I have always been someone who runs on schedule, and having a plan is what works for me. One of the things I love about camp is the schedule, knowing what I am supposed to do and being given time to think about how I am going to do it. I make sure that I have enough time for everything that I love, but also that I have enough time to spend on my own.

6. Show respect. Pave the way for people to earn your genuine respect. Respect will ultimately influence how you relate to others.

Warren: Everyone I know appreciates being respected. If the leader leads by example, people should follow and respect those around them, leading to a happier community. Living a life of respect allows people in communities to be more comfortable with each other.

Lanie: I have a cousin who has Asperger’s. He is a leader and is graduating at the top of his college class. I admire and respect him for overcoming his challenges, working hard, and succeeding beyond everyone’s expectations. I have learned from his success not to judge people and that everyone has a chance to earn respect over time.

7. Focus on the individual. Being a motivating force, or a cheerleader, for the organization or team has an important place in leadership. But beyond the theatrics lie the individual relationships. They are the underpinning of support needed to sustain teams and organizations.

Warren: It is important to be a support system for everyone, to cheer them up, to listen to them. If a leader does not focus on the individual, people will start to feel neglected. It is important for everyone to feel that they are on the “same page” to be able to work well and mesh as a community.

Lanie: Camp relationships, with counselors and campers, taught me how important it is to be noticed and cared for by people you admire. I also happen to love being a cheerleader, and camp has given me many opportunities to encourage and cheer for other campers.

8. Be collaborative. Treat all as your peers, not your underlings, regardless of their roles, ages, or responsibilities. It is a truism that none of us is as smart as all of us.

Warren: It is so important to make everyone feel included and welcomed, not judged and undermined. For most people, it is important for them to feel accepted and safe. Being safe makes more people apt to teach others and to be open to learn from everyone!

Sam: Nobody is superior to anybody. It’s possible to learn something from anyone of any age or from anywhere. Everybody brings something to the table.

9. Be prepared. Someone once said that luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity. That some call it luck will not detract from the importance of your efforts.

Warren: Always have a plan that is accepted by everyone but also accomplishes what needs to be done. It is also a great idea to create backup plans if the first plan doesn’t achieve the results you want; you never know what the day may hold.

Sam: People can have lucky moments, but nobody can have a lucky lifetime. So when you achieve your goals, don’t let anyone tell you it was luck, because you know you worked for it.

10. Work hard. Some may believe that the higher you get, the less work you have to do. Actually, it is the opposite.

Sam: The mountain only gets steeper once you near the top. But that shouldn’t mean you quit. Stick to the same ideals that got you there and the sky will be the limit.

Lanie: I attend a competitive school and live in a competitive town. Because of this, I have grown up thinking that nothing less than your best is acceptable and you must always give 100 percent of your effort into everything you do. At camp, it’s easy to give more than that because it is so much fun.

11. Play hard. Have fun. Teams that play together, stay together.

Warren: This is a very important one for me. A team that plays together and has fun is going to be the team that will always be together no matter what. Encouraging and supporting each other to do and be your best, while enjoying the experience, is the best way.

Sam: It’s easy to stay together through successes. The test is when you battle through tough times, when things aren’t perfect, where you stand. Hopefully the answer is together.

12. Take responsibility when things go wrong, even when it’s not your fault. Supporting your team members means having their backs. Cede responsibility when things go right . . . even if the success is largely because of you.

Warren: It is very important to own up to your mistakes, but it can be hard to take responsibility. So when someone does, do not discourage them. Rather, listen and then proceed. No one likes to let others down. Even if it was not your fault, having people’s backs can go a long way. And if you did something amazing, always include others when and if you take the credit.

Lanie: I know how it feels to make mistakes but also how it feels to succeed. At camp, I try to support kids who are struggling with something and recognize others who are succeeding. When people work together and support each other, it takes the stress away from those who fear making mistakes.

Leadership Lessons Learned at Camp . . . for Camp and Beyond

So there you have it, some definitive advice from three youth leaders. And who better to guide our work this summer at camp? They are proof positive that sitting by as an indifferent spectator is not the path to leadership and success, or what your camp needs from you this summer.

Discussion Questions

In his article, Stephen maintains that all of us will be important role models and leaders in the eyes of our campers. Why do you think this is true?

Which role models and leaders have been most influential in your life and what have you learned from them that will help you in your work with the children this summer?

If you could add one or two “Lessons on Leadership” to Stephen’s list of twelve, what would they be?


Gergen, D. (2000). Eyewitness to power: The essence of leadership: Nixon to Clinton. New York, New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster.

Guiliani, R. (2002). Leadership. New York, New York: Hyperion.

Slater, R. (2003). 29 leadership secrets from Jack Welch. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wooden, J., and Jamison, S. (2005). Wooden on leadership: How to create a winning organization. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Stephen Gray Wallace, MSEd, author of the book Reality Gap — Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex: What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, senior advisor for policy, research, and education at SADD, and associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University. For more information about Stephen’s work, visit © Summit Communications Management Corporation. 2012 All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.