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Summer Camp Leadership


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Nov 10, 2008, 1:05 PM

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By Joanne Kates - Director of Camp Arowhon

I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if it ran more like summer camp…. Things would be really different…. The people in charge would be honest and reliable. Their prime directive would be to be shepherds who keep their flock warm at night, well fed, and safe. And they’d know how to do it! They would be hired for the job based on their skill set and demonstrated prior commitment – not based on how telegenic they were or how much money they could raise, or who they knew.

It’s hard to have faith in leaders who talk more than they listen, because in that instance, we have no reason to believe that they even know what we want and need.

At Camp Arowhon we are forever drilling into staff that their two most important leadership tools are the protuberances on either side of their head. The best leaders listen more than they talk. The best leaders know that when people behave badly, whether they’re six or 66, whether they’re a cabin group or an ethnic group, it’s pretty much always because they feel lousy about something in their lives. If we sit down and listen to them, we can generally find out what’s getting under their skin, and then it’s often possible to try to fix the problem.

The second thing that politicians have to learn from summer camp is about the core requirement of a leader: Vision. Government by polling, election by popularity contest, is a morally bankrupt (and not very powerful) way to be an effective leader. We saw this most sadly (although it did make for great comedy) in John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. Poor old honest John got snookered by his aides into picking a running mate because she would, they imagined, garner them the woman vote and the undecided conservatives. What they failed to do was choose a running mate to partner with McCain on vision. And they paid the price.

Leaders need vision because if they don’t know exactly where they’re going, then no one will be motivated to follow them. You’re going where the Gallop Poll takes you?

Thanks, but count me out.

Great leaders can articulate a clear vision of where they’re going, and how they plan to get there. Ask a camp director two questions: What are your core values? How do you achieve them? If a leader can’t tell you that in a few comprehensible sentences, then they have neither destination nor road map. Does it make sense to follow that person anywhere?

At the entrance to Camp Arowhon we have three huge wooden pillars that say Caring, Respect and Learning. Once you get into camp there’s a big wooden sign that gives a brief explanation of what each of those means in practice. Why the signs and why at the entrance to camp? Because sharing your vision needs to begin at the beginning. When you say “Hello,” you need to let everyone know what you stand for. You need to let them in on the grand plan, and how to achieve it, so they can come along for the ride too, and know what’s expected of them.

Strong leaders are vigilant shepherds who bring their flock along with them. There are too many schools and community organizations that have great principles outlined in their handbooks, but it stops there. It needs to start there. At Camp Arowhon we talk all the time about Caring, Respect and Learning. Are we doing it today? Where did we slip today? How can we fix it? What do we need to do it more and better? What does it mean to an 8 year-old? They need to talk about it and commit to it, as does everyone else. If we don’t keep our eye on the ball, we’ll never hit it out of the park.

Finally, the best leaders are learners. Being certain that you know what you’re doing is a quality (too often seen in politicians) that gets leaders into trouble, because that’s when you stop being curious, that’s when you stop listening and instead start telling people how it is. Because we’re leading humans and not widgets, our sacred trust as leaders is always to check out whether what we’re doing is working for them and meeting their deepest needs, and to adapt when it isn’t.

Confucius said that of a great leader, the people will say: “We did it ourselves.” Leaders who listen intently are leaders who empower people. When you respect the people enough to pay that kind of attention to them, you enable them to find their best selves, and to reach for the stars. And that’s why politicians should learn from summer camp – because every day at summer camp, every child finds a better self inside themselves - and that’s how a better world is made.

Joanne Kates is a highly successful freelance writer in Canada and the US and is the Director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park, Ontario

She is the author of Exploring Algonquin Park: The Personal and Complete Guide



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