Everything I Learned About Leadership, I Learned at Summer Camp
I used to have the greatest summer job during college and my early years as a teacher.
I spent 10 summers as a sports camp counselor in southern Missouri. I was fortunate to surround myself with some of the most kid-centered, high-energy leaders I have ever known. Since then, I have enjoyed 23 years as a school leader, and I have never forgotten the leadership lessons I learned.
Out of so many, there are three that seem the most important in this challenging summer. Here they are—everything I know about leadership I learned from summer camp.
These days, we are all feeling a little inadequate and underprepared for the new school year. This brings me to our first summer camp lesson:
Successful leaders focus on being a learner rather than being the learned.
American philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
When I showed up at camp, I was expected to teach campers many skills I had no experience with. I had never paddled a canoe, I couldn’t shoot a bow and arrow, I couldn’t identify trees (yes I was a Biology teacher, don’t judge me). The list went on and on. I had to quickly learn these skills so that I could safely teach the campers.
Fortunately, the camp had a structured way for veteran counselors to teach us newbies, and we had to show our competence before we were allowed to teach a session on our own. An impactful PLC creates a collaborative culture that focuses on how we learn and grow together as professionals.
A leader’s role is to create intentional structures that support professional learning, then follow up on its effective implementation. I see many schools who portray the PLC model, but spend the majority of their time worrying about getting along in team meetings.
It’s interesting to see how much time and energy can be spent trying to make “what we have always done” fit into a situation we have never experienced. If we are going to meet students’ diverse needs, we have to be willing to embrace the disruption and use it as an opportunity rather than a setback.
The second lesson I learned at summer camp was the value of empowerment.
In Developing the Leader Within You, John Maxwell wrote, “A leader is great not because of his or her power, but because of his or her ability to empower others.”
The camp staff was primarily made up of college students from across the country. They came to camp with different backgrounds and experiences. A counselor from the University of Arkansas approached his job quite a bit differently than a student from Hofstra University in New York. My friend from Hofstra had never been an outdoors person but was an amazing soccer player. My peer from UA was a national champion axe thrower, a rodeo clown, and able to start a fire with two wet sticks.
These skill sets were seen as advantages rather than differences.
Our camp director intentionally surrounded himself with those who were different than he was and they knew he valued their insight. How? He listened to you. His full attention was always on you. You would walk away feeling like you were the most important person to him. He didn’t listen to provide you with answers. He listened to show he valued you. I believe empowerment begins by listening intently and without judgement. As a building administrator or a team leader, how much of your time is spent really listening to others?
If you’re like me, you might be wired to forge ahead and just “get it done.” Many times, we become leaders because we have a vision or a passion for how we think things should be. It’s not easy to step back and listen to other perspectives that might be contradictory or cautionary.
Listening is more than nodding your head and putting in your time. The real empowerment happens when listening creates change. Right now our nation is facing a unique opportunity to listen. We will be welcoming back students and families who have been impacted by images of disease, protests, and radical changes.
As leaders, we are obligated to create schools that support our students and help them process these experiences. Let’s make sure we start with listening that empowers each of us to create change.
Stay with me for this last summer camp lesson.
Leaders always eat last, but it’s OK to break a watermelon every once in a while.
At our camp, leaders were in charge of grilling during picnics. We would spend hours grilling hundreds of hamburgers.
I learned quickly that no member of our leadership team ever made a plate before the last camper and counselor went through the line. We were also in charge of setting up the picnics and getting the food ready.
Watermelons were frequently our fruit of choice because they were easy to cut up and pass out to a large group. Every once in a while, a watermelon would get dropped “accidentally” and we would feel obligated to eat it. On a hot, humid day, it was a nice reprieve.
The lesson here has to do with finding a balance between the relentless pursuit of results and improvement, and taking time to have fun along the way. When we return to school, our students and staff are going to need leaders who are energized and passionate.
Take some time this summer to pursue a personal or professional passion or learn a new skill. Share your experience with your staff and encourage them to do the same. Let’s show students that learning isn’t just about results. You have to be willing to break a few watermelons along the way.
Summer camp seems like a lifetime ago, but I still consider that experience to be the springboard into a great career in education. Summer camps offer opportunities for children to step out of their comfort zone, be brave and learn about themselves. Wouldn’t it be great if schools were defined in a similar way?
We are facing an unprecedented time of change and opportunity. Let’s not waste this chance to create real change that truly meets the needs of all learners. We need leaders who are willing to step out of their comfort zone and be brave. Leaders who will learn rather than repeat, listen to empower those around them, and see the joy in the journey.
Have a great time at summer camp!
Eric Hoffer Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/eric_hoffer_109153
Maxwell, J. C. (1993). Developing the leader within you. Nashville: T. Nelson.
No responses yet.