Where Leadership Thrives: Summer Camp And The Hope For The World

As the world tilts towards chaos and we stare down global uncertainty, it is not the mighty armies that make that make me feel safe. Nor does the knowledge coming out of universities bring me peace. Instead, I take solace in the fact that at this very moment, summer camps are preparing to open for business.

Summer camp is the unsung hero of our culture. As a society, we tend to look at college acceptance, graduate school degrees, and professional recognition as indicators of leadership. Summer camp often gets skipped over in the interview or on the resume, but the experience should not be underestimated. Summer camp serves a critical role as a primary training ground for local and global leadership.

I often half joke that in the workplace, I encounter two types of people: those who went to summer camp, and those who did not. More often than not, summer campers and camp counselors become people who can lead with flexibility, think creatively on their feet, organize people for a common purpose, and infuse the workplace with positive corporate culture and cheer. Of course, people who didn’t go to camp can still become effective leaders. They just may not have that je ne sais…camp.

I wondered whether my instincts about what makes an effective leader were true. With a quick google search, I was able to find numerous lists of characteristics desirable in effective leaders.

According to a report from Harvard Business Publishing “Leading Now: Critical Capabilities for a Complex World,” leadership traits most desirable for business include: managing complexity, acting strategically, fostering innovation, leveraging networks, inspiring engagement, developing personal adaptability, and cultivating learning agility.

In “11 Key Characteristics of a Global Business Leader,” James Clawson of UVA’s Business School, describes a number of traits that are typically fostered at summer camp, like deep self-awareness, sensitivity to cultural diversity, humility, honesty, curiosity, patiently impatient, well-spoken, good negotiator, presence.

When I compare these lists to the daily realities of life as a camp counselor, I’m struck by how closely they align. In a typical day, a camp counselor will:

Console a home-sick camper

Coach or referee a baseball game

Lifeguard at the water

Lead a group of kayakers

Break up a fight

Deal with bee stings, nose bleeds, and other medical emergencies

Wrangle campers between activities, meal times, bathrooms and

the nurse’s cabin

Help kids and other counselors reflect on who they are and who they want to be

Present at evening reflections