Leadership Lessons from Summer Camp

2013-07-02_Typical TentHaving spent a week sleeping in a canvas tent, walking everywhere, napping and then drinking coffee to wake up was actually a liberating experience (as it has been all these years that I’ve been to BSA camp in the summer starting in 1971 at age 5, but that’s another story).  The rain, sun, exercise and fresh air do wonders for a body that is normally tied to a desk.

Even more importantly, I got to meet other adult leaders and “scout dads” — guys who drive to campouts, but don’t wear a uniform for one reason or another.  It’s great to meet these volunteers and talk with them about their impressions of the scouting program, where it’s come from and where it may be going in the future.

One of the key issues that many conversations revolve around is leadership:

  • Leadership is expressed by the staff of the summer camp to make the program work seamlessly.
  • Leadership is offered by the adult volunteers who came with the boys to help them stick to schedules, coach them when needed, and provide safety barriers to prevent silly hijinks from becoming a serious issue from either a safety or emotional standpoint.
  • Most importantly, leadership should  be developed within the scouts as they participate in the program — sharing responsibilities, depending on each other, working as teams on projects, learning greater self-reliance and less dependence on dads to remind them of what they need to do or where they need to go (learning to think ahead, prepare/plan and execute). 

Some troops have dads follow their scouts around the camp, reminding them constantly of what they need to do and providing missing supplies like pens/pencils/papers — this enables them to remain unfocused because someone will swoop in at the last moment to “fix” the situation.  This does not inspire leadership, but does assure results that moms and dads like — lots of completed merit badges, smiles on their son’s face in all the photos and great trip reports.  (Yes, there may be exceptions to the rule, also, but…we must be careful to keep those situations as genuine exceptions!)

Others simply push the scouts out of the nest on Monday morning and let them fly or flail. Spartan in it’s approach, this tends to produce a “me first” attitude in many of the scouts as they learn to fend for themselves among the merit badge programs.  The problem is that leadership isn’t derived from a “me first” mentality, but a “team first” mentality built on trust, loyalty and shared responsibilities.

We’re far from the perfect troop, but we try to maintain a balance between the extremes. We know that some boys need a little more push to get started, but we can also pull back to let them learn to  fall down and pick themselves up constructively.

In scouting, there’s a concept presented in Latin — Primus Inter Pares — “First Among Equals” which simply means, we’re each a critical part of our team’s success and sometimes I’m the leader, but sometimes you’re the leader depending on which set of skills needs to come to the forefront.  This is teamwork at it’s best — none think themselves more highly than the others, but each is willing to accept any member as leader in a pinch in order to get the team across the goal line first.

Spring Summer 2013 154To build on this, there are many practical exercises in scouting to build teamwork and responsibility.  First there’s a duty roster (created by the scouts themselves) that outlines who will be responsible for cleaning the latrine each day, or serving as waiter, etc.  This is set up so that strong (experienced) scouts share duties with rookies to help them and show them what they need to do.  This is an investment in the future, and shows care/concern from the older scouts to the younger scouts.

Another example is building a campsite gateway.  This takes time and creativity from the group — each adding something special to the effort so that it is both unique and representative of the troop.  This year, the camp’s theme was “Pirates” and our gateway needed to reflect this theme.  Each scout and adult contributed their own additions to the gateway and steadily improved it’s look and feel.  We also made certain that the gateway had an educational component, as well.

Naturally, we were pleased when we received first place for our campsite gateway.  It won because it had pioneering components, educational components, a sense of fun and adventure, and it stuck to the theme “pirates”.  2013-07-03_Pirate Gateway

During the awards campfire, I noticed that there were more awards than ever before which recognized the achievements of individuals.  There were medals for triathlon runners, mile swimmers (including two from our troop!) and largest fish caught, etc.  While there’s nothing wrong with recognizing individual accomplishment, as scouts we have always tried to celebrate team and group activities since they infer a need for leadership to carry the team to the finish line. “We” can accomplish more than just “Me” alone could hope to do.

Today, upon my return to the office, a colleague shared the following article — “How to Think Like a Leader” (by Jack and Suzy Welch) — with me (click HERE to see full article). The article makes the following points:

Being a leader changes everything. Before you are a leader, success is all about you. It’s about your performance. Your contributions. It’s about raising your hand, getting called on, and delivering the right answer.

When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. It’s about making the people who work for you smarter, bigger, and bolder. Nothing you do anymore as an individual matters except how you nurture and support your team and help its members increase their self-confidence.

When scouting is done correctly, the individual grows AND the team grows at the same time.  As leaders we’re always learning from mistakes and from past successes, too.  We’re empowering our teams, but we’re also switching roles between leader and follower along the way — Primus Inter Pares!    When I can switch back and forth between these roles (by suppressing my ego, need for control, etc. and learning to really trust and know my teammates) then so much more can be accomplished.

Further, Primus Inter Pares closely parallels the “Servant Leadership” model espoused by Robert K. Greenleaf (Mark 10:42-45, et.al.)  Considering the rest of the team as equals shows them respect, empowers them to speak up, and encourages them to take risks instead of hold back.  Most critically, it empowers each member of the team to be ready to step up with no notice and take charge when appropriate to do so.

The Patrol Method of boy scouting builds this concept when it’s done right.  As scoutmasters, we have to let the boys run things, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.  We’re there as a safety guard to keep things from spinning too far out of control — it makes for messy meetings sometimes, but it’s a learning/growing environment.

A lot of times it would be far easier to just step in and take control, do the job on behalf of the scouts, or shepherd them to their classes — however, this cheats the boys from learning the most valuable lessons from the program.  They need to learn to fulfill their responsibilities to the best of their ability on a consistent basis.

So when the latrine stinks, there’s candy wrappers on the ground, tents are messy and the team is about to fail a campsite inspection, one scoutmaster will let the team fail…but then teach the scouts to clean the latrine properly, pick up the trash before heading out of camp and straightening the tents, too.  Another leader would have picked up the trash, hosed out the latrine and kicked the junk under cots before the inspector arrived (and as a consequence will have to clean the camp each day by himself since the boys are not learning to do it themselves.)  In candor, I’ve done both — but have been steadily moving away from protecting the boys to letting them fall, and then coaching them to succeed on their own.  It’s not always easy to do the best thing, but a committed scoutmaster will make the extra effort.

Spring Summer 2013 203

Summer camp provides all sorts of lessons.  It’s great when leadership is front and center in those lesson plans.


About Troop113

Our Troop # comes from Psalm 1:1-3 - describing the men we want our scouts to become
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