The Comeback Kid: Learning to Lead at Summer Camp

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed
May 2017
camper and staff sailing

“Leaders lead. Period.” That truism — while straight and simple — reflects a cornerstone of the leadership training and consulting I do in business, higher education, nonprofit administration, and camping.

What does it mean?

Regardless of your title, rank, or years (seasons) of service, you have an opportunity to be a leader at your camp this summer.

Of course, there are those who would lend a dissenting voice. For example, in his Harvard Business Review article “What Science Tells Us about Leadership Potential,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says, “Although the scientific study of leadership is well established, its key discoveries are unfamiliar to most people.” He goes on to point out that, while leaders should be driving employee engagement, only 30 percent of them actually are. “Part of the problem,” Chamorro-Premuzic writes, “is that many widely held beliefs about leadership are incongruent with the scientific evidence . . . . For example, it is quite common for people to believe . . . that any person can be a leader” (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2016).

I take an antithetical approach.

So, too, does Leann Mischel, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Management and Decision Sciences at Coastal Carolina University. She tells me that everyone can be a leader, although not all lead in the same way. Exactly! The variety — and diversity — of leaders you’ll work with this summer will surely make our point.

The Power of Expectations

During the interview process, your camp director likely expressed some broad expectations for you in your role as a counselor. And, if you are like most engaged employees, you’ll strive to meet them.

That is a very good thing.

If you haven’t yet been informed as to what those expectations might be, rest assured that your staff orientation days will be filled with a fire hose of them, some dictated by law, others by regulation, more by accreditation standards articulated by the American Camp Association (ACA, 2016), and most, well, by common sense.

Undoubtedly, those expectations will include:

  1. Be a team player. Do your share of the work. Anticipate what needs to get done and do it without being asked. And pitch in to help others with their share when they are falling behind.
  2. Be a good role model. If you set a good example for your peers and the campers, so much else of what is stressed during orientation will naturally fall into place.
  3. Have fun. Teams that play together stay together. Plus, if the kids see you having fun, it is more likely that they will have fun as well.

Goals to Be Great

NBCUniversal’s back-to-school “Goal to Be Greater” campaign has challenged adults to model for students to make a positive difference in our communities (Education Nation, 2016). Likewise, every summer, camps across the country make a similar challenge — for each of you to set goals for your work with the campers. Goals to be great!

Ask yourself, “What do I want to do this summer? Who do I want to be at camp?” and, maybe most important, “What legacy do I want to leave behind when I’m gone?”

Last year at this time, and in this magazine, Audrey Monke, co-owner/director of Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, California, offered some pretty inspired advice in her article “Five Ways to Be an Outstanding Counselor This Summer” (Monke, 2016). She started off with a greeting: “Hey, you! I know something about you. You want to be a great counselor this summer. You really do. And you can be one of the best, most memorable counselors your camp has ever seen.”

She is right, of course. And her advice holds true today.

  • Begin with the end in mind.
  • Show your campers, every day, that they’re your number-one priority.
  • Be a model employee who gets a great recommendation from your camp director.
  • Take care of yourself.

Leadership 101

If you embrace being a leader at camp, you will find that motivating and managing others, be they campers, CITs, or fellow staff members, is both parts challenge and reward. It’s an art, not a science.

And, by the way, being a good leader also requires, at times, being a good follower.

In his LinkedIn Pulse piece “How to Manage a Jerk like Me,” ghostwriter Bruce Kasanoff shares some wisdom (2016). He says, “For four years, I spent my winter weekends working as a ski coach for kids at Stratton Mountain in Vermont. Much as I love skiing and working with kids, the reality of this position was that it put me in the position . . . of [having] a supervisor who has a supervisor who has a supervisor. In other words, someone else told me what to do, and I grimace when other people tell me what to do . . . . But at Stratton, Randy Szkola told me what to do. He was my supervisor . . . and I liked him!”

Kasanoff’s takeaways?

  • Be a genuine expert.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Empower other people.
  • Be proud of your team.
  • Offer sincere thanks.

Providing Feedback

Being a leader also means providing feedback to those you are leading. This is where things can get tricky.

Legendary NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who once founded a company that used psychological research to coach leaders, speaks to the construct of feedback in his article “Leadership Strategy: The 4 to 1 Rule” (Tarkenton, 2014). In the piece, Tarkenton cites the work of psychologist Aubrey Daniels, offering that his “big idea” revolves around the notion that behavior is a function of consequences.

Makes sense.

Tarkenton explains, “Whatever gets you praise or a reward, you’ll do more of it. If something brings you punishment or criticism, you’ll avoid it. And if you do something and nobody says anything either way, you’ll do it less too.”

He goes on to state that the “ideal ratio for helping people improve behavior” is four positive to one negative when giving feedback. He also articulates the following advice (Tarkenton, 2014):

  1. Tell people when they are doing a good job.
  2. Teach your [campers] to focus on important things.
  3. Give feedback that is timely and specific.
  4. When you have to give negative feedback, do it in a corrective way.

Similarly, in her article “8 Things Exceptional Bosses Constantly Tell Their Employees,” Elle Kaplan, CEO of Lexion Capital Management, says that employee success depends on your leadership. That also translates to camper success depends on your leadership. She advises to regularly say to those you lead, “I have total confidence in you. This is what I want us to accomplish . . . . What can we do better next time? What is your opinion? How can I better support you? And good work” (Kaplan, 2016).

Good work, for sure.

Of course, feedback is a two-way street. It is critical that you not only give it, but also that you are open to receiving it — from your campers, fellow counselors, or your camp supervisor.

Washing Windows

Successful summer camps work to empower you to be the very best you possible. It’s no small task.

Sara Slevcove Kuljis, a second-generation camp director, talks about leading with integrity. She offers, “Let us be honest, forthright leaders who do not skirt rules or the truth, even when it feels like the ends justify the means. Let’s be humbly confident in our strengths and open about our weaknesses, with the wisdom to ask for help from others who can make up for our deficits. Let us choose to be accountable, to say ‘I’m sorry’ and skip the excuses . . . . I have learned that our campers do not need leaders who are cool or hip. Instead, they need leaders who are real and present. They don’t need us to be loud, brilliant, always funny, or larger than life. Rather, they seek grounded role models with vision who are at least a few steps ahead of them and willing to hold their hands as we all move forward together” (Slevcove Kuljis, 2016).

She also encourages us to do the hard things. After all, if we won’t, how can we expect our campers to?

Good leaders are also a part of the teams they lead. Or as Carol Austin, an owner of Cape Cod Sea Camps and a retired senior vice president of global accounts at Herman Miller, likes to say, “We all do windows.”

Lessons Learned

In his October 2016 article for Entrepreneur, Phil La Duke serves up “5 Leadership Secrets Stolen from Famous People.” They are consistency, accountability, trustworthiness, vision, and, my favorite, courage — a highly underrated trait of great leaders (La Duke, 2016).

My article, “Indifferent Spectators: Leadership Lessons . . . For Camp and Beyond” (Wallace, 2012), enumerated my own tips on leadership. A couple of them found their way into a keynote address I recently delivered: “Top Ten Leadership Lessons Learned.”

10. When you see a void, fill it.
9. Be creative.
8. Asking questions is good; asking the right questions is better.
7. Be persistent. It often pays off.
6. Follow your passion; you never know where it’s going to take you.
5. Don’t be afraid to say you made a mistake and would like to correct it.
4. Ask your customers (campers) what they want.
3. Develop the relationships necessary to create change.
2. Have a vision. If you don’t, someone else will. Then that person becomes the leader.
1. Have a plan. (You can always change your plan as circumstances dictate, but not having a plan will waste time, resources, energy, and enthusiasm.)

Lending Leadership

In the great circle that is life, as you are being led and learning to lead, you will also pass along leadership lessons to your campers. You — yes, you — can seed the leaders of tomorrow.

In an interview with Camping Magazine, “Laugh, Learn, and Lead,” Sarah Weddington says, “Leaders are guides. We set the example. People, especially children, are continuously watching — and they often mimic what they see . . . . Effective teaching often begins by conveying concepts of leadership through words and concepts” (ACA, 2004).

All of this, though, begs the question: Are you a good leader?

Steven Olson, president of Generative Consulting, says that a good leader is someone who displays the qualities that make any individual good. What’s the difference between a good person and a good leader? Intentionality (Wallace, 2016).

Go ahead, take the test!

I am... Yes (how?) No (why not?)
Generous    
Fair    
Egalitarian (humble, respectful of others)      
Responsible    
Honest    

The Comeback Kid

If you didn’t score so well, no worries. Fortunately, leadership is a fluid, not static, construct. Even the unlikeliest of leaders can become one.

A case in point is Ben Quincy, a 17-yearold (recent) graduate of Fairfield Prep in Connecticut. Ben was a longtime camper at Cape Cod Sea Camps (CCSC) in Brewster, Massachusetts, starting at its day camp in 2004 and switching to the overnight program in 2007. Ben is an extrovert, a kind-hearted soul with a big smile and infectious laugh. Last summer, Ben emerged as a true leader — an eventuality not many had contemplated.

Why?

Throughout his time at CCSC, Ben struggled with self-regulation. This often resulted in social and emotional unrest. Yet, in Ben’s somewhat turbulent tenure, we can find kernels of advice related to perseverance, positivity, and productivity.

Ultimately, Ben survived and thrived — becoming an important asset, an assistant counselor, and, ultimately, a graduate of the camp’s leadership program.

In my college recommendation for him, I wrote, “Ben may be the proverbial poster child for resiliency — a lovable, gregarious, and rambunctious presence who battled everything from homesickness to a fear of sailing, a sport he longed to love. At every step, he showed the courage to move forward, past fear or failure, to ultimately find success, popularity, and praise.”

Positive Outcomes

Clint Eastwood might say, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question.” This could be yours: Will I be a leader at my camp this summer? If you are, the positive outcomes for your campers (and for you) are limitless.

Ben Quincy's Story

Describe your journey through camp.
At camp I learned how to live as a part of a community and about how leadership is necessary to create a functional, fun, and supportive environment. In my early years, my counselors provided structure and guidance and really were there for me when I needed someone to talk to. They also gave me the freedom to explore my interests and passions. I could definitely see a change in how campers are expected to act as they begin to transition into being the older members of the community. Counselors help to foster self-belief and independence while reinforcing leadership. In truth, I had my fair share of issues. However, I persevered and feel that these experiences tested my true character and developed me into who I am today. 

What challenges did you encounter and why?
I faced a number of challenges, especially regarding my actions within the camp community. I struggled many times with appropriate ways to express my emotions, especially when I was tired.

What successes did you find and how?
It was not until my final year in the leadership program that I found success outside of sailing. It was last summer, the culmination of my time at camp, and it was facilitated by years of mentoring by my counselors. They were great role models on how to interact with campers.

What lessons did you learn about leadership along the way?
All through my time at camp, leadership was pushed in unique ways in different activities. One example was transitioning from being just a good sailor to a sailor who can teach, explain, and execute. It takes a special skill to go out with four seven-year-olds in 15-mile-per-hour winds and be able to remain cool and collected while also being safe. I learned the importance of being levelheaded in leadership as well as being fair. Over my years as a camper, I realized that balance of safety and play are essential to being successful. The biggest thing I learned from many different people was that in a leadership role it is essential to listen and respect others' opinions and ideas in order to be most productive and efficient.

What advice can you offer to counselors across the country to help them be leaders at their camps?
My biggest advice to counselors is be involved with all of your campers. If you take the time to talk with each camper, his or her respect for you will grow immensely. I would also point out that being a counselor means you don't have much time when campers are not around. Whether you know it or not, they look up to you, so make sure you give them something good to model in the camp community and in the world

References

ACA. (2016). Accreditation and standards. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/staff-professionals/accreditation-standards

ACA. (2004). Live, laugh, and lead: Interview  with Sarah Weddington. The Free Library.  Retrieved from thefreelibrary.com/Laugh,+learn,+and+lead%3A+interview+with+Sarah+Weddington.-a0112367473

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2016, September 21).  What science tells us about potential leadership. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from  https://hbr.org/2016/09/what-science-tells- us-about-leadership-potential

Education Nation. (2016). Goals to be greater. Parenttoolkit.com. NBCUniversal. Retrieved from parenttoolkit.com/index.cfm?objectid=4278F14058EB-11E6-AF980050569A5318

Kaplan, E. (2016, December 9). 8 things exceptional bosses constantly tell their employees. Inc. Retrieved from inc.com/ellekaplan/8-things-exceptional-bosses-constantlytell-their-employees.html

Kasanoff, B. (2016 November 30). How to manage a jerk like me. Leadership & Management. LinkedIn. Retrieved from linkedin.com/pulse/how-managejerk-like-me-bruce-kasanoff

La Duke, P. (2016, October 21). 5 leadership secrets stolen from famous people. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from entrepreneur.com/article/283890

Monke, A. (2016, May). Five ways to be an outstanding counselor this year. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/five-ways-be-outstandingcounselor-summer

Slevcove Kuljis, S. (2016, November). Revolutionary leadership. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/campingmagazine/revolutionary-leadership

Tarkenton, F. (2014, December 19). Leadership strategy: The 4 to 1 rule. LinkedIn. Retrieved from linkedin.com/pulse/leadership-strategy-4-1-rulefran-tarkenton

Wallace, S. (2016). An introduction to camp counseling. Summit Communications.

Wallace, S. (2012, May). Indifferent spectators: Leadership lessons . . . for camp and beyond. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/ resource-library/camping-magazine/indifferentspectators-leadership-lessons-camp-beyond


Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes. He has broad experience as a school psychologist, adolescent/ family counselor and college professor. He currently serves as director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. He is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange). For additional information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.

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