Revolutionary Leadership

Sara Slevcove Kuljis
November 2016
camp staff dressed as pirates

When a new acquaintance asks, "What do you do for a living?" and I answer that I'm a camp director and shape lives in positive ways through summer camp, I often get a quizzical response. "Is that a real job?" "What does a summer camp director do the rest of the year?" I expect most of you have had similar experiences.

If the person asking the question bothers to really listen to my answer, I get to tell him or her just how meaningful I find my job and how effective the camp environment is in helping children, young adults, and families grow in ways that better position them for future success. I tell him or her we work year round to make summer the best it can be. Then I add that, "Yes, it's a real job — a real, important one!"

Leadership Qualities

Why is our work as camp professionals and leaders in the field of shaping the adults of tomorrow so important? It's important because what we do in our small corners of the universe influences millions of youth each year. It's important because the experiences and growth we initiate can transform the way children and families navigate our ever-more-complicated world. If we grasp the potential of our influence, our efforts should be revolutionary. Let's make them count. I suggest three leadership qualities to which we should aspire as revolutionary leaders: integrity, a willingness to do the hard things, and the ability to build environments of belonging.

Lead With Integrity

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. Let's be willing to clean up our own messes. Let's be leaders who make promises wisely and then keep those promises. Let us give the best we have to give without being blinded by personal gain or image.

"But it's just summer camp!" I heard a rookie staff member once say when challenged to lead with the utmost integrity. My response was, "Yes, it's just summer camp, but it may be the single most impactful experience of a camper's year or childhood. It's just summer camp, but here we get to help young people grow to be game changers back home, at school, on their teams, and in their neighborhoods. So lead at your highest level."

In my 25 years as a camp professional, I have learned that our campers and young staff 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. In my experience, the more integrity I see in a leader, the more I trust him or her. The more I trust, the more eagerly I follow.

Be Willing To Do The Hard Things 

Revolutionary leadership that creates positive change requires that we don't only do the parts of our job that we enjoy and that come easily. It is my pleasure to work long and hard in the aspects of my job that use my natural talents and bring meaning to my own camp experience. I love planning programs, training staff, communicating the value of the camp experience to parents, seeing a camper overcome her fears, and joining in on a spontaneous dance party. However, that's only about 85 percent of my job description. It's the other 15 percent that doesn't come easily — that is laborious or tiresome, uncomfortable or scary, frustrating or causes vulnerability — that I sometimes want to avoid.

The truth is, however, that enduring leaders hike up their britches and do the hard things. They cultivate a reservoir of conviction, wisdom, courage, and fortitude to draw from in order to do those hard things — always with their mission and the big picture in mind.

So, what does that look like for us camp professionals? Let's start by making decisions that are in the best interest of our campers and program even when it's unpopular. This might be a difficult staffing change, the addition of a tedious training exercise, or adding a cumbersome safety rule to prevent future injury. Let's bother to evaluate a program or policy even when it's not broken, or a longtime tradition even when it's sacred, just to make sure we are staying on track. Let's not be afraid of change when change is essential to meet the goals of our mission.

Let's model being thoroughly prepared even when we are tired, and rolling up our sleeves (again) to pitch in when staff is lean. Let's be the leader who shows up in the middle of the night to help the operations director check on that blaring fire alarm, not only to make sure there is no fire, but to remind him that he is not alone in his faithful service.

As leaders who do the hard things, let's make a habit of moving toward conflict not away from it. Let's not avoid or ignore problems, but tackle them when they are small snags and before they become big issues. Let's be more about solutions than about being right. This may mean sitting next to our most difficult camper everyday at lunch until we find a way to resolve our issue with him or her. It may mean reaching out daily to that hard-to-please day camp parent to demonstrate our commitment to a partnership. Let's follow through on imposing consequences for unacceptable behavior, even if it's our favorite staff member who committed the infraction. It will help ensure the staff member learns from his or her mistake. Let's make the difficult phone call rather than leaving it to another staff member.

Let's also remember that doing the hard thing may involve not doing anything at all. While we could take on a project ourselves and execute it exactly to our liking, leaders who seek positive change know it's important to delegate opportunities that will help rising leaders exercise their gifts, gain experience, and shoulder greater responsibility. It should be our joy to equip them with the tools and mentoring they need to be successful, and then make sure they are affirmed for a job well done, even if it is not done the way we would have done it. For many of us, this is indeed doing a hard thing.

Build Environments of Belonging

Why do campers describe themselves as happier, freer, and more peaceful at camp? Why do so many campers and staff say they are their best selves at camp? Why are camp friendships so strong and rich? Why do campers who age out of our programs want to come back and be staff members?

I'd suggest it's because we have done a very good job of creating environments of belonging — not just communicating, "You are welcome to visit," but rather, "this is your home, too, and here is your key to the place."

All humans have a deep need to belong. As the fabric of so many other environments is fraying, the belonging found at camp is more valuable than ever. Let us be leaders who intentionally build communities that allow both staff and campers to feel safe, a part of something bigger than themselves, and be more open to others. Let's keep offering programs that encourage developing new skills and building relationships with new people. Let's be strategic in helping all members of our camp communities understand that they have something valuable to contribute. We will see helplessness, apathy, insecurity, and entitlement fade as a result.

Creating environments of belonging is a thoughtful and vastly intentional process. It requires frequent evaluation and constant honing of our recruiting, training, programming, and execution. Forwardthinking leaders promote belonging at camp each summer by first helping staff feel connected and confident that they belong. Social media is a powerful tool to link staff together before summer even starts. Other strategies we implement include creating short-term staff cabin groups during training week that are comprised of members of different departments. As a result, a food service staff member gets to know a backpack guide, office assistant, and cabin counselor before the kids arrive. They then "belong" to each other all summer long. Insuring time to laugh, play, and to share personal stories during the packed staff training schedule is challenging but essential glue that binds a staff together. All departments attend training sessions on how to interact effectively with campers so that throughout the summer support staff can serve as "cabin buddy" to cabin groups and supplement their counselors' influence and leadership style. In-service gatherings coach staff in behaviors that bring unity and reduce cliques and division. Easy access to supervisors helps staff members feel heard and supported. So many opportunities exist to create belonging among staff, if we will plan for and take advantage of them.

When campers finally arrive at camp, forward-thinking leaders ensure that experiences to cultivate belonging are built into the daily flow of life at camp. We race to learn names so campers are greeted very personally each morning. We nearly always speak to them at their eye level. Like many camps, we eat meals at round tables rather than rectangular ones so no one is left out of the conversation. We structure activities so that more campers are participating and fewer are just observing. The majority of our activities involve teamwork. We tuck campers into bed each night to better recap their day and send them off to sleep with a good word before the "Good Night Song" is sung in the hallway. (Even 17-year-olds look forward to being tucked in by the counselor they admire.) We put campers' ideas into practice as often as possible. We may need to set aside our own terrific idea for a skit and, instead, help bring a camper's skit idea to life to build his confidence and value within the group.

It's fun to brainstorm all the creative ways we get to help others feel they are part of our camp family. In reality, however, environments of belonging take a tremendous amount of work. They are not without conflict, and true leaders cultivate in their communities the grace, patience, durable trust, and respect to navigate discomfort and differences.

A healthy environment of belonging doesn't mean we all look alike, think alike, or have all the same passions, talents, interests, and beliefs. It doesn't mean we never disagree or hurt each other, are always on the same page with the same priorities, or respond to challenges in similar ways.

It does mean, however, that we have a common vision and goals. It means we agree to honor guidelines that preserve everyone's dignity and promote everyone's growth. It means we probably listen more than we speak. It means that when we disagree with each other, we stay in calm dialogue and we respectfully consider each other's point of view as we resolve our issues. It means we may need to toss out my solution and your solution and come up with a third way to solve the problem. Sometimes this is very difficult; and sometimes it's as simple as my learning your songs and your learning mine, then both of us learning a brand new song together.

Creating environments of belonging asks us to make more space for others in our tent without pushing anyone out the back and without having to be just alike. As revolutionary leaders we have the power and opportunity to make this happen. In fact, we need to make this happen more and more for the benefit of our fractured world. A small example from this past summer made me smile. Two campers, one from the UK and one from Southern California, were having a friendly debate over s'mores about Brexit, Britain's decision to exit the European Union. As they passed graham crackers back and forth, I was dazzled by the comfort and confidence they had in their new friendship as they shared their opposing (and strong) points of view. The environment of belonging in which they found themselves was strong enough to hold their differences, and the disagreement made them better not worse. It was a refreshing moment amidst the contentious national debates and battles of the season.

Being leaders with enduring integrity, who faithfully do the hard things and who strive to create environments of belonging, is a high calling. But I am confident that such leadership is worth following and will have lasting influence on countless young people and their families. Summer camp is a real job — a real, important one.


Sara Slevcove Kuljis is a second-generation camp director and co-owner/executive director with husband, Steve, of Yosemite Sierra Summer Camp, Emerald Cove Day Camp, and Emerald Cove Outdoor Science Institute. She is a frequent speaker on topics of youth, family, and staff development in the camp, school, and church communities. Sara loves learning new things, excuses to wear costumes, laughing really hard, and raising her three children.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Kuljis.