There is so much good information about leadership. There are books about leadership with themes ranging from the military to Mickey Mouse; there are seminars, workshops, retreats, and entire conferences devoted to leadership, defining leadership styles, and even the best practices of other leaders. However, there seems to be a shortage of practical strategies for actually becoming a better leader.

The concept of practical leadership uses the word practical as a guide to help us develop into better leaders. I believe leaders are not born — leadership is a skill and can be learned like anything else. I hope that my daughter, Linnea, becomes a great leader some day, but in her first two years I've never picked her up and said, "Wow honey, you are such a great leader!" However, I did notice that she quickly learned how to raise her hand in the camp dining hall to get everyone to be quiet.

Practical means pertaining to or concerned with ordinary things, adapted or designed for actual use ("practical," n.d.). The root of the word is practice. So, practical leadership is leadership that is pertaining to ordinary things, designed for actual use, and it is leadership that you can practice.

Show and Tell

If we aren't born with it, where do we learn it? We all learned the best technique for skill development and growth in kindergarten or preschool, during Show and Tell. The concept is simple — I have something; I am going to show it to you; and I'm going to tell you about it. These are the basics of how we learn from others. To really learn about leadership we must watch what others have to show us — just like Linnea putting her hand up in the dining hall. She saw me do it over and over again and noticed the reaction of everyone else. 

The best art teachers will tell you that it is just as important to pay attention to the negative space as it is to the object you are trying to capture. When we are learning about leadership from others' actions, we have to pay attention to what is around them, what supports them, and how people respond to them. It is also very informative to listen to what they say or tell you. I'm not really talking about what they say about leadership. I'm more interested in the words they use to actually lead, inspire, motivate, and delegate. What do they actually say? And what don't they say?

Simon Says

So that brings me to Simon Says. This game is a perfect example of simple, ordinary, and everyday leadership strategies. What are the tricks to Simon Says? Saying one thing and doing another; doing the same thing over and over again, then changing it slightly; giving directions really fast; and many more. The leader in Simon Says is trying to get players out, so if we watch the Show and Tell of the players we can learn a lot about leadership. If the leader is saying one thing and doing another, and it's working to get people out, watch the problemsolving skills the players use to come up with a solution. When the leader is doing the same thing over and over again then changes it slightly, observe how patient the players have to be to overcome it. Finally, if the leader is giving directions really fast, examine the enhanced communication skills they use to follow the directions.

Practical Problem Solving

There are plenty of practical tips for problem solving when we pay attention to others (Show and Tell). Good leaders use a basic approach to classic problem solving:

  1. Figuring out the problem by asking questions and getting the facts. (Think about our Simon Says problem: What my eyes see and my ears hear are different. Am I supposed to follow the verbal direction?)
  2. Identifying causes or correlations. (The leader is trying to trick me.)
  3. Determining potential solutions. (I could close my eyes or look away.)
  4. Trying a few of those solutions out. (I'll try looking away or just listening.)

A more advanced strategy to practical problem solving is that great leaders do something different because of the problem. They affect a behavioral change. This may be Show or it could be Tell, but the problem actually leads to change. If I keep getting out when I do what I see in Simon Says, then I should try something different — such as not to look. There can't be change for the sake of change — and we cannot keep trying the same thing over and over if it does not solve our problem. This is why the first step in classic problem solving is so important. You have to ask a lot of questions. Notice that I didn't say, "You have to know what the problem is." That is hard, and rarely do you have all the information to ascertain what the problem is. The more information you have, though, the better your potential solutions or your "movement" will be.

Finally, the best leaders have perspective. Problem solving and conflict management are only part of the greater whole of behavior. The best leaders notice what is going right, what is working, and look for reasons why. It is easy to assume that one kid is just good at Simon Says, but it is another step to notice that he is concentrating very hard on your words and isn't looking at you — he has developed a solution to the problem of how to remain in the game.

Practical Patience

Every day we face challenges, or things don't go as planned. Some of the simplest techniques to overcome these challenges come from watching and hearing what patient people do or say.

This summer I witnessed a twelveyear- old camper on the high ropes course exhibit some of the most basic strategies of practical patience. Over the course of five minutes, I saw him let someone else go first, think through a climbing strategy with his partner, try something several times, ask for help, take a deep breathe before he spoke, and say something in a calm tone when he was upset. I'm not sure he knew he was in the middle of Show and Tell, but I certainly learned a lot. If this kid were in a game of Simon Says, I don't think doing or saying something over and over and then changing it slightly would throw him off. What this boy understood was that patience is about paying attention. He noticed how antsy and obnoxious the other boy was being, so he let him go first. He watched what happened when that kid and his partner didn't work together on a strategy. He noticed that getting to the third rung would be really challenging because it was actually out of his reach, so he tried several different techniques for reaching it. His partner was yelling at him because he was scared and he noticed that yelling back didn't help, so he took a deep breath and spoke in a calm tone. Practical leaders that have patience pay attention.

A more advanced skill is to slow down. Most leaders, supervisors, and managers are going way too fast (especially at camp). They walk fast, talk fast, and try to do too much at once. So it helps to physically slow down. Remember what we look like to those who we supervise. If we look like we're in a hurry, really worked up about something, and on a mission, then we probably are — and we do not seem at all approachable.

It also helps to mentally slow down and end the myth of multi-tasking. Multitasking continually comes up as a skill of great leaders, managers, and camp counselors — I think this may be a lie. It is actually impossible to do "many tasks at once," which is what the phrase implies. I have tried, and I continue to try on a daily basis. To look around my office you can see the clues of my illness everywhere. I have three screens for my computer so that e-mail and Facebook are always on. I not only have to check an e-mail when it comes in, but I typically respond to it after only reading the first few words. These are my personal examples of trying to multi-task — but we all have similar issues. To deal with my "problem" realistically, I do a few things (besides turning my e-mail off).

  • I try to finish what I start.
  • When I can't or I am interrupted, I make a list.
  • I always come back to the top of my list.
  • I don't get to scratch anything off my list (which we all know is the most gratifying part) until it is completely done.
  • I try to delegate some things.

Finally, paying attention requires a patient mindset, which takes practice and isn't always easy. I recently had a conversation with one of my campers that helped me put this in perspective. He was relatively young, a first-time camper, and was at the first session of my camp (for children with Autism). He had a pretty significant meltdown during a game of Duck, Duck, Goose, and I happened to be there. What happened was that he was the "Ducker" and he just went around and around and never called someone a "Goose." The rest of the campers and even some of the staff started to ask him (and then later started yelling) to just pick someone, but he didn't. As voices rose, he got more agitated and less inclined to pick someone. It all ended with him screaming and running away from the group. After talking with him for a while, he finally told me that he didn't understand what he had done wrong to make "everyone" yell at him. I tried to tell him that he was supposed to pick someone, that is how you play the game, and he gave me the most confused look. "Why would I want to pick someone? When I am 'it' I get to walk around and play with everyone. When you pick someone you only get to play with one other person and that's not fun for everyone else." It was an "a-ha" moment. While Duck, Duck, Goose makes sense or is understood in one way, he had a different perspective. He wanted everyone to be able to play, so he just kept calling "Duck!" A-ha! Behavior, misbehavior, strange behavior, or whatever anyone does usually makes sense to them. Even if they are misguided, they have reasons for doing what they are doing. When I reframe what I am seeing and experiencing, it makes me automatically more patient.

Just accepting that it makes sense to them does not mean that their behavior is OK. It might make sense, but never calling "Goose" is just not how you play. However, this framework allows you to see behavior and choices that are not OK as a skills deficit, not intentional misbehavior. My daughter has just figured out how to throw a ball. She does two things that are evidence of a skills deficit: She sometimes lets go of the ball at the wrong time and it goes backward, and she sometimes decides to throw things that are not balls (like books). Because she is two, it is easy to see this as a skills deficit and to have a lot of patience for it. She has to keep trying in order to get better at it. She has to be reminded again and again that throwing books (especially at Daddy) is not OK, and then she'll understand that "throwing balls = OK," and "throwing books = not OK." This, however, seems to also be true for my eight-year-old camper that hits his friend when he cuts in line, my twelve-year-old camper that rolls her eyes at her counselor, and my nineteen-yearold staff member who is consistently late for curfew. They have to learn how to do it right, and our patience helps them learn.

Practical Communication

We have a Simon Says legend at camp. I'm not sure of his real name, but his camp name is Curly. To see him facilitate a game of Curly Says is one of the most exciting and dramatic experiences I have had at camp. Curly's big trick is to talk really fast. He gets you going so fast that you are bound to mess up. It is a great example of the two fundamental communication skills that every leader must practice: clear self-expression and careful listening. Clear self-expression is not as easy as it sounds. Most of us love camp, love the details, and are passionate about the experience; but it isn't that easy trying to explain the energy of color war, the feeling of a standing ovation at the talent show, or how your male staff actually made mustaches cool. Write it all down. Whether I am doing a keynote or educational session at a conference, a training at a camp, or consulting with an organization, I always have notes. I almost never look at them, but I always have them. They are my security blanket. I think they give me comfort because I have taken the time to write down what I am going to say. It helps me organize my thoughts, deliver them in a straightforward way, and be clearer about my ideas.

Think about clear self-expression as if it were a dance. There are at least two parties — and both people need to be moving independently, but also to the same beat and in coordination with each other. When you are talking, what are your goals? What do you want to happen? How do you think your audience will respond? What can you do (or say, in this example) that will help the others to understand your movement, direction, and of course, your meaning? If you're doing the Cha-Cha and your audience is doing the Tango, you clearly have missed something. How can you create the right expectations? Through simple descriptions, small steps, active followthrough, f lexibility, persistence, and a willingness to try again, you will be able to practice clear self-expression (and dancing for that matter).

Careful listening is the other core communication skill that all practical leaders need to do well. Remember your non-verbal skills. A nod of the head, sustained eye contact, and a quick smile will go a long way toward helping you really listen and ensure that the speaker feels heard. But in addition, you need the actual listening part. My favorite strategies to help me listen are paraphrasing and asking questions. These may seem elementary, but try them with campers or your staff. I was recently in protracted conversation with several ten-yearolds about "Silly Bandz": who had which ones, who they traded with or gave them to, what they meant, what they were worth, the rare ones, and every other detail that you could imagine. I honestly could not believe we were talking about rubber bands. I have never been as simultaneously bored and fascinated as I was then. I found myself drifting, thinking about the parent phone call I really had to make, the evening activity for the night, the awkward conversation I had to have with the cook . . . honestly, I was really trying to think about anything else. So I practiced paraphrasing: "Wait, did you say that the dragonfly was one of the rare ones? How did you get three?" "You said that you trade them at school. Who has the best ones?" I believe the best leaders ask more questions than they make statements. Essentially, the best questions get whoever is talking to talk more. Ask a lot of questions; it helps you listen.

Punch the Shark

Lastly, we all need to "punch the shark." Have you ever watched "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel? They tell you to punch the shark (in the nose to be exact) if you are getting attacked. Basically, you are supposed to overcome every urge in your body and brain to swim away, and then turn towards the shark, puff yourself up, and punch it! The first time I heard this I actually laughed out loud. "You're supposed to do what?" Then the more I thought about it, the more I felt like we should all take this advice.

Great leaders say the challenging, awkward, and sometimes very difficult things. They approach the staff member that is trying but just not getting it. They talk to the awkward kid that has a hard time even making eye contact. They talk to their peers who may have done something to hurt their feelings or cause conflict. They punch the shark! It's easy to avoid these kinds of things. Most of the time we listen to the urge to walk the other way, look somewhere else, or act as if we are really engrossed in something on our clipboard.

Problem solving, patience, and communication are just three examples of how practical leadership can be viewed as a skill with useful steps for growth and development. Pay attention, and you'll see evidence of this every day. At my camp we sing. It always takes some getting used to for the adults that are new to camp, but by the end of the summer, even the doctors and nurses are singing from the soul. It is still hard, however, to lead the songs. To be a good song leader and to teach a new song, you have to take the initiative and ask to do it, stand in front of everyone and get their attention, project your voice, sing it at least once solo or repeat style, and be willing to mess up — all aspects of practical leadership style. This summer a ten-year-old camper showed us how the best leadership often comes up in ordinary and everyday places. He stood up in front of the dining hall and taught the entire camp a made-up song called, "I Like Pudding!" Not only was it an instant hit, it was a learning moment, and of course, he showed us skills we could practice.

practical. (n.d.). unabridged. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference .com/browse/practical

Scott is a leading expert, trainer, and consultant in summer camp. He is the director of Dragonfly Forest, a camp for kids with serious illnesses, and Camp Kesem, a national organization for kids whose parents have cancer. He is also the author of S'more Than Camp. Contact the author at

Originally published in the November/December 2010 Camping Magazine.