Enlightened Leadership - The Window or the Mirror

January 2005

Realizing Unprecedented Success — Third in a Series of Articles

Leadership has always been a contact sport. It's not a collision sport but more like dancing. To dance, you have to have a partner and together you move in harmony. Your leadership capacity is measured, in large part, by the partners you dance with every day of your life. You are either blessed or cursed by the challenges of your partners.

This article reviews leadership skills and examines seven leadership initiatives that will enhance your pursuit of leadership excellence. I will draw references from Jim Collins' book Good to Great, embracing the notion that good leaders "look out the window more than they look in the mirror." The seven initiatives for camp leaders to be discussed are:

  1. Construct a Cyclical Approach to Change
  2. Produce a Contagious Communication Network
  3. Build a System of Customer Service
  4. Craft a Great Governance Structure
  5. Enhance Human Resource Management
  6. Establish Value-added Partnerships
  7. Develop a Climate for Creativity

Leadership Defined

Leadership is defined as a process of persuasion by which an individual or a leadership team induces others to pursue the leader's objectives. In Willie Nelson's words, leadership is to "find out where people are headed and jump out in front of them." Leaders exhibit distinctive behavior. Among their many skills they:

  • Motivate those around them through positive interactions.
  • Take risks and encourage innovation.
  • Initiate change.
  • Listen and respond effectively.
  • Get things done through others.
  • Interact assertively.

Jim Collins states that leaders are more "plow horse" than "show horse." Excellent leaders are not found in organizations with a genius and a thousand helpers. Instead, they are found in organizations lead by persons who choose to be encircled by strong and competent staff. Leaders don't have the right answers, they ask the right questions — tough questions like the one put forth by comedian George Carlin, "What do you do when you see an endangered animal eating an endangered plant?" Leaders demonstrate unwavering resolve and set high standards for building great organizations, settling for nothing less. With these leadership skills in mind, let's examine the seven initiatives that can propel your camp from good to great.

Construct a Cyclical Approach to Change

Today there are many reasons to be thinking about "change" at your camp. Several of the more apparent reasons include the need to:

  1. Efficiently deploy camp resources.
  2. Enhance program offerings.
  3. Respond creatively to a new climate of camper expectations.
  4. Speed up decision making to implement change.

However, adopting a "change philosophy" has not always been a hallmark of camp organizations. Camp rituals for dining, cabin life, tripping, and age-associated programming often create barriers to change. John Kenneth Galbraith, the well-known economist once stated, "Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof." Camp leaders must be vigilant to seed change within their organizations. At our camp leadership lodge in northern Wisconsin, the statement "try it — change it — try it again" beams down from the lakeside wall for all to contemplate.

One executive I know promotes cyclical change by routinely asking board members, staff, and customers three questions:

  1. What can we do better?
  2. What form might that service or program take?
  3. What things should we stop doing?

This last question is of particular relevance as it forces your leadership to consider their deployment of current resources —
a prerequisite to efficient resource utilization. If you have ever spent time weeding a garden, you know that as you create available patches of bare ground, you begin to imagine new plants where the weeds previously stood. As people in your camp organization become comfortable dialoging about what could be versus what is, they will create a torrent of ideas that will fill the newly vacated weed beds!

Not everyone will embrace change, and some of your camp constituents will be resistant to anything new and different. Researchers have found that people generally fall into the following four categories when it comes to responding to proposed change. The labels are self-explanatory:

  • Core Believers in the new idea — they are visionary and consistently advocate for change
  • Initial Participators — closely follow the core believers after some discussion
  • Wait and See
  • Hard-Core Resistors

As a leader you need to resist spending large amounts of time and energy with the "hard-core resistors." Instead, make plans to separate those individuals from your camp organization! However, as a leader you will face legitimate resistance as part of the change movement. Try to view resistance as a rudder rather than an anchor. In Jim Collins' words, "There is no grand program or defining action, rather relentless pushing of a giant, heavy flywheel in one direction, building momentum until a point of breakthrough (Collins 2001)." Creating a cyclical approach to change requires patience and persistence allowing the flywheel of change to gain momentum one turn at a time.

Produce a Contagious Communication Network

Walt Disney created bulletin boards for employees to offer their thoughts on particular cartoon characters and sketches. These "storyboards" became powerful communication links for all who walked the Disney halls. Good communication embodies both words and actions. The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once stated, "No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he only had good intentions." As a leader, your words and actions will be scrutinized by staff, campers, parents, and board members alike. A good communication system has four cornerstones. They include:

  1. A clearly articulated set of values.
  2. Encouragement to others to apply those values in their own decisions and actions.
  3. Follow-through with your own actions to demonstrate consistence and accountability.
  4. Aggressively confronting pockets of ignorance and resistance.

To fulfill these expectations, you must encourage people to examine their values and the manner in which their values play out in day-to-day situations. Your communication style should include frequent recognition, good listening skills, clear directions and expectations, and timely and objective feedback. At times "less is more" when it comes to good communication. The Nordstrom's Corporation, a department store chain, publishes its "employee handbook" on a 5- by 9-inch card. It reads:

"We're glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them. So our employee handbook is very simple. We have only one rule . . . Use good judgment in all situations."

Most importantly, your skills as a teacher are a compelling component of your camp communication plan. Great leaders are great teachers, and teaching is at the heart of leadership. Leaders think about their own experiences, draw lessons from what they know, and then discern how to share those lessons with others. Consider yourself a full-fledged, faculty member and be both diligent and generous in helping others. Look for opportunities to provide teachable moments where your experience can enhance another's learning.

Build a System of Customer Service

Camps face the challenge of keeping pace with the changing expectations of campers, parents, and a growing liability crisis. David Brooks recently wrote in The New York Times that because of the liability crisis, camps "banned most of the activities that scared and thrilled us." He writes, "Camp became safer, but also more tepid and less meaningful (Brooks 2004)." Today's camps must build a system of customer service with a balance of both adventure and safety.

There are three strategies that camp leaders can employ to optimize customer service.

  1. Access available data provided at the national, regional, and local levels on camper trends. The YMCA recently compiled a list of "2004 Trends" covering areas that include: outdoor enrichment, character development, family strengthening, service learning, spirituality, volunteerism, and diversity. Examine the relevance of these and other customer trends in light of your current and future camp program offerings. In addition, look at the American Camp Association's new "Camp Parent Initiative" that assists camps in communicating to parent audiences.
  2. Solicit timely feedback from your camp stakeholder groups including campers, parents, grandparents, and referral sources as well as schools, churches, and friends. Utilize one of many electronic survey instruments available to camp organizations as your survey vehicle.
  3. Invite your staff to contribute ideas for meeting and exceeding camper expectations. It is important to emphasize teamwork and employee empowerment as you focus on new protocols for eliminating barriers that impede customer satisfaction. J.W. Marriott's book, The Spirit to Serve, is a valuable resource for gaining insight on great customer service and quality. Camp leaders can learn valuable lessons from Marriott's well-disciplined attention to service behaviors and job-specific expectations (Marriott and Brown 1997).

Craft a Great Governance Structure

Board Responsibilities
Maintaining a high performance board of trustees is an essential ingredient in your leadership "toolbox." Your camp board is charged with five duties that delineate their overall responsibility to camp and to you as the CEO. These include:

  • setting the direction
  • assuring effective camp management
  • enhancing the assets of camp
  • achieving quality goals
  • acting on behalf of the campers served

You need to work actively with your board to assure optimal governance performance. Begin by examining your board's current fulfillment of the above duties. Once you have their attention, create a dialogue with your board leadership on issues including: board structure, selection process, leadership effectiveness, communication, and training.

CEO Responsibilities
Be assertive in distinguishing your role from that of the board. Your role, as CEO, should reflect the following four duties:

  • Orchestrate and monitor camp performance.
  • Develop and manage the camp to achieve strategic and operational performance objectives.
  • Nurture and support the camp culture and values.
  • Manage communications with key camp stakeholders.

I recommend sitting down with your board officers to talk about board and management leadership. Begin with the above set of responsibilities, and ask how they rate your camp board and management performance. Then, create a board evaluation tool. It should measure both individual board members and your own performance based on several strategic outcomes that have been previously adopted.

Joint Responsibilities
Camp directors often are encumbered by boards that spend time on the trivial — reviewing, rehashing, and redoing decisions on a reactive basis. To avoid this circumstance, focus on the following:

  • The board's principal job is to establish policies to guide, direct, and assess organizational performance.
  • Board's focus on strategic versus operational oversight.
  • The buck stops with the board, but the key to success is management.
  • Management's job is to carry out the policies of the board.

Remember, most board members are committed and capable of fulfilling the duties of camp governance. However, your leadership is necessary for this to effectively occur.

Enhance Human Resource Management

Your most valuable asset is your staff. Jim Collins has five principles that are worthy of note when it comes to enhancing human resource management:

  1. First who, then what — get the right people on the bus, then get them in the right seats.
  2. When in doubt, don't hire.
  3. Put your best people on your greatest opportunities, not on your biggest problems.
  4. Motivating people is a waste of time. If you have the right people, the key is to not "de-motivate" them.
  5. Hire self-disciplined people who don't need to be managed, and then manage the system, not the people.

In addition to these principles, there are other important issues to consider when assessing your camp personnel structure. Keep the number of reporting layers within your organization to a minimum. Maintain a flat organization to decrease turf thinking and force people to think about the whole organization. Push down decision making, giving both authority and accountability to those closest to the action.

All camps have people known as consummate insiders. These are staff members who get things done by working through other people while making few waves in the process. These are the folks who will likely help lead your camp toward innovation and growth. They deserve special nurturing.

Engage your staff in discussions on how leadership will be exercised throughout your organization. Share how you will communicate and reinforce values, reward performance expectations, and support learning and innovation. Enhanced human service management is the foundation for competitive success. It allows you to move beyond personnel administration and shifts your focus toward fulfilling your camp's mission.

Establish Value-added Partnerships

A new framework for successful camp operations is emerging, and it has to do with collaborative work with other organizations that share similar visions. In the business world, these initiatives are known as "relationship assets" that create synergy. School organizations are prime candidates for camp partnerships as they are often searching for resources to enhance science and natural history curriculums using a camp setting. The educational connection can also work at the college level with a slightly different twist. A camp in Minnesota recently shared with me its partnership with Winona State University. The University provides students to the camp as counselors for special needs campers. The students receive credit for their time at camp and serve as exemplary counselors.

When addressing the topic, begin by discussing the rationale for pursuing partnerships. The motivations to consider should include:

  • Enhancing your ability to grow.
  • Accessing additional depth of resources.
  • Expanding the geographic presence of your camp organization.
  • Providing opportunities to grow both organizations.

Once you have developed the rationale, establish a set of criteria for partnership consideration. The goals for partnerships should align with your camp mission, vision, and values and enhance desired outcomes. An example of criteria to consider includes:

  • Expand the potential of service/program offerings.
  • Offer opportunity to increase utilization of existing facilities.
  • Offer enhanced training opportunities for staff.

Not all opportunities will be in your camp's best interest. Most organizations create a set of "filters" that steer you away from misguided or unproductive partnerships. For a camp, a set of filters might include the following:

  • A negative impact on endowment or ability to raise funds.
  • Loss of mission focus.
  • Loss or disruption of tax exemption status.
  • Negative impact on staff.

The opportunities for collaboration through partnerships can be a value-added initiative for many camps. Incorporate partnership planning into your strategic planning process and begin exploring the synergistic potential for your camp.

Develop a Climate for Creativity

Developing a climate for creativity is a key attribute of good camp leadership and essential for organizational success. Albert Einstein noted, "Imagination is more powerful than knowledge." As the leader, you play a major role in supporting creative thinking within your camp organization. Creative organizations are made up of individuals who come up with novel ideas that add value to the organization by thinking out-of-the-box.

When addressing creativity, the general rule is quantity breeds quality! The more ideas you and your staff can generate the better. Thomas Edison was very deliberate when it came to promoting creativity within his establishment. Edison gave himself and his assistants idea quotas. His personal quota was one minor invention every ten days and a major invention every six months!

Try to encourage people to look at things using a multiplicity of perspectives. Oftentimes, our initial perspective in problem solving is narrow and self-limiting. Imagination and a clear vision come from stepping back and asking, "How else can we examine this issue?" All of us know the tune to "America the Beautiful" but once you have heard Charles Ives "Variations on a Theme of America" your perception of the tune is forever altered.

You can support a culture of creativity by focusing on the following four management practices:

  1. Immerse yourself in finding all the relevant information.
  2. Enlarge your field of perception and encourage others to do the same.
  3. Promote creative problem solving.
  4. Avoid becoming defensive when new ideas or programs are suggested.

Remember, as a leader, you must overcome the tendency to constrain creative thought. Instead, use your own expertise and knowledge to think freely and bring to fruition fresh and innovative ideas to your camp organization.

Leadership Is a Contact Sport

Remember, leadership is a contact sport. Your interaction with board members, campers, and staff will motivate others and spark great performance. Apply the principles of leadership discussed in this article along with the seven leadership initiatives.

Leaders continually acquire new knowledge and abilities and pass their learning on to others around them. Looking out the window rather than in the mirror will help you become an enlightened leader. The key to long-term success is to share with others what you see "out the window" and to spot the opportunities and improvements that will make your organization great.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. Harper Business, p. 14.
Brooks, D. (2004). "A Camp on the Rebound" The New York Times August 21, 2004.
Marriott, J.W., Jr. and Brown, K.A. (1997). The Spirit to Serve. Harper Business.

Bob Ruch is president of Ruch Enterprises, a management consulting firm that specializes in leadership, organizational transformation, and planning. His client base includes camps, human service agencies, churches, hospitals, and schools with over 200 engagements since founding Ruch Enterprises in 1993. He is an adjunct associate professor at Des Moines University where he teaches "practice management" and "economics." A former camper and volunteer counselor, he currently serves on the Board of Camp Manito-wish YMCA, located in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. He can be reached at 515-276-7262 or at Bobruch@AOL.com.

Originally published in the 2005 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.