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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

Build a fire

Put out unintentional or misplaced fires

Make 4,000 friendship bracelets

Resolve conflict between two campers

Work with others to plan the activities of the day, week, summer

The list goes on and on.

And they do it eighteen hours a day, seven days per week, eight weeks in a row.

David Carter Florence, who works as a summer camp consultant, explains, “On any given day a camp counselor will be expected to resolve conflicts between campers and staff, direct an innovative program in the outdoors, assess potentially life-threatening risk, shepherd a timid or homesick child to tough it out with friends, empower a group to find shelter, food and “relational community” all the while positively leading the group with humor, song, and yes, even dance! It’s almost like living out ones’ wedding vows for a group of little tweens— for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health until this week is over!”

With so much on their plates, and so much time spent getting real-world on the job training, it’s no wonder that when they get to the work place, former camp counselors strike me as so much more adept at creative, flexible, team-based leadership.

Camp counselors are trained to recognize potential in others and draw it out. When they get to the workplace, they tend to keep doing just that.

Brian Frick, who works with the Presbyterian Church USA’s summer camping programs, explains, “Leaders become leaders not because they succeed, but because they fail and have someone there to be a mirror for them. Camp counselors get support to reflect, adjust and try again. After a summer of doing this constantly, their leadership growth far exceeds that of a peer who did an internship or other job for the summer. I know of no other place where young adults are given such opportunities to fail, reflect and improve their leadership. What other job gives you this much, AND makes it engaging and fun, and promises payback greater than what one gives?”

The interpersonal leadership skills cultivated by summer camps seem to translate beyond the workplace, too. Randy Pasqua, who recently retired after 35+ years as director of United Methodist camps explains, “It is the giving of care in the midst of fulfilling the mission of camp that develops successful and dynamic leaders.” He points out that in the most recent season of Survivor, the jury chose the winner of the $1M not based on their ability to win a record tying number of immunity challenges. Rather, “they selected the one who, in the midst of this game of manipulation, spent time to get to know them and cared for them as a person.” Pasqua notes that “Camp counseling is a daily incubator of caring leadership that translates to successful leadership in the broader arenas of life.”

(This article was reprinted with permission from the Huffington Post)

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