Picking Up Trash, and Other Leadership Lessons from Summer Camp

The summer after I graduated from college, I worked as a counselor at Camp Kanata outside Wake Forest, North Carolina. Having never attended summer camp as a child, this was a completely new experience for me. But nearly twenty years later, I still think of it every day.

Camp Kanata, 1998

Camp Kanata

Working as a counselor that summer taught me more than I could have dreamed, and three of these lessons are highly applicable to a career in nonprofit leadership.

1. Expand Your Circle

We talked with our campers all the time about confronting their fears and limitations to “expand their circle.” Expanding your circle is a metaphor for pushing yourself to go beyond your comfort zone. We all have a point with almost any activity where we reach the limits of our comfort zone and naturally pull back. But leaving that boundary unchanged cements our potential at the limits of our current perception.

camp3

The “leap of faith” element. That’s just 30 feet up… 30 more to go!

For me, I don’t do well with heights — not full-on acrophobic, but I get dizzy and have a fear of falling. So before showing up to camp, I couldn’t have imagined jumping from a 60-foot tree at the end of a high-ropes course. But just 24 hours in, I did it, and it changed my life. I spent the rest of the summer, and much of the next year, leading young people through high-ropes experiences.

At an outdoor camp, young people are faced with countless opportunities to confront their fears. Whether the fear was heights or swimming, being away from home or making new friends, our campers faced new challenges every day and gained the experience of facing them head-on. And once you’ve expanded your circle, it is slow to move back to its original size — you can almost always summon the courage to do something a second time.

How It Relates:

This taught me that my fears were something I had the power to overcome. It’s not about ignoring or curing your fears. It’s about seeing and feeling your fears for what they are, and remembering that fear is only internal. The difference between a person who can do something and a person who is afraid to is only in their heads. Take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other, and choose the path that allows you to go beyond your perceived limitations.

Nonprofit leaders face fears all the time. Speaking in front of an audience, “making the ask” in a meeting with a donor, and providing negative feedback to an employee are very common challenges. But getting prepared and then going for it is the only way to be better than you are today.

When you’ve learned to recognize the limits of your comfort zone and then allow yourself to take a step beyond, you train your mind to accept a little discomfort in exchange for personal growth. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already identified that you want to be intentional about your leadership. Part of that work is seeing your limits and choosing to move beyond them.

2. Never Walk By a Piece of Trash

This was a commonly cited rule for all counselors. As we walked around camp all day, the camp’s leaders expected us to pick up every piece of trash we passed. A few of us may have joked that it was just cheap custodial service, but they said it conveyed pride in our camp and that it ensured that visitors had a positive impression.

It turns out they were right.

The camp looked great all the time, and we were never embarrassed if a visitor showed up. Better yet, it wasn’t long before the campers were doing it, too, without being asked. And when walking around with visiting parents, they noticed that we would nonchalantly kneel to pick up trash as we walked along.

How It Relates:

What takes only a few seconds to remedy affects the first impression of every visitor to your facility. On the other hand, if you walk past a piece of garbage, what does that say to your team and your clients?

But perhaps more importantly, there’s a great lesson here for leaders. Having people see the executive director picking up a piece of trash conveys a sense of pride in the organization and a willingness to do anything to make things better. Conversely, walking past trash on the ground conveys that “it’s somebody else’s job.” Knowing that organizations take their cues from the leader, would you rather foster a culture of “that’s not my job” or one where everyone pitches in and solves any problem, regardless of their job description?

3. Powerful Experiences Change Lives

My co-counselor Nicholas Dishler and me with camper Will, 1998

My co-counselor Nicholas Dishler and me with camper Will

Everything about that summer was a WOW experience. The experience was powerful for me, and I and my fellow counselors worked 24/7 (literally) to make it a WOW for the kids. For some, it was the circle-expanding things they accomplished. For others, it was sharing their feelings in a way they never felt safe to do before. For just about all, it was the campfire on the last night — how it magically caught fire, how the groups competed with their songs and cheers, and how the whole thing ended in laughs and hugs and tears.

I can still see the faces of several of the kids that I know had particularly profound experiences. I am very certain that many of those in my care that summer — who would now be 25 years old — look back on that experience with passion. I know that it was an inflection point for me, weighing heavily in the decisions that have influenced my career.

How It Relates:

In the nonprofit sector, we often supply just these experiences. Our clients, and even our employees, can be wowed by the experience of our organizations.

But it isn’t automatic. Just because an organization has a good mission doesn’t mean its people will be forever changed by it. The organization must produce WOW experiences with intention. Figure out who has been the most influenced by your organization and what their experience was like, and then focus on providing that experience to others.

Conclusion

I’m not an outdoorsman — not then, not now. I didn’t attend summer camp as a kid. I didn’t have a clue how to do the majority of the camp activities, let alone how to teach them. Honestly, I wasn’t a risk-taker, either, so choosing a path seemingly out of left field was very out of character at the time.

But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I believe that I was a camp counselor that summer so that I could learn these lessons, as well as being tuned into work that changes the lives of young people.

Week after week, we talked with our campers about “expanding your circle,” and all the while I was focused on doing exactly that in my own heart.

Question: What pivotal experience from your past helped shape the person you are today? Please leave a comment below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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