Leadership Lessons from Summer Camp

It’s time again to sign the kids up for summer camp. It’s the highlight of most kids’ summers—no mom or dad, wearing the same clothes three days in a row and candy every night before bed. What could be better? Last summer when we were at parent pickup, I realized that they are doing some things right that we can use at work.

You Need a Cabin: Cabins are home base. This is the place the campers go back to each night for fun and fellowship. They do skits together and evidently have a lot of inside jokes. There is pride for their cabin and the campers brag when they are recognized as “best cabin” or “winner of Race Day.” They are a team and count on each other for friendship, to excel and have fun. This camaraderie builds commitment, pride and feeling part of something important.

Camp Counselors Matter: Camp counselors are college kids who are the glue to a great summer camp. They are more than just responsible for getting their campers to the events and to pick up the cabin; they are role models and understand that each kid is important and an individual. Camp counselors are trained on how they create a great experience for the campers, not just the schedule and their “to do’s.” They have an incredible combination of leadership, mentoring and fun. My son still quotes the counselors and looks to their example even a year later. And, it’s an honor to be a camp counselor, after all.

Meet More Than Your Home Boys: At camp, even if you go with your best friends from home, during the day you have to mix with campers from other cabins. This is how you get out of your comfort zone and build relationships you didn’t have before. It helps new campers make new friends. And, because the camp has people from different places, you might just meet someone really interesting that you wouldn’t have hung out with at home.

First Impressions Are Big: When you drive up to camp, there are welcome signs, the camp counselors are waving and greeters are assigned to be sure that parents and campers feel welcome and know where to go. When campers get to their cabins, the camp counselors are there and already know their names and where they’re from, and have something fun planned as soon as they arrive. This enthusiasm and the fun welcome set the tone for a great week. It also helps build the campers’ confidence to get out there to meet other campers.

Remember the Blob: Camps have learned that you have to do some things just because they are fun. The Blob is a big trampoline in the lake or pool that campers jump on and pop off another camper and they both end up in the water. This is fun and a highlight of the day. Even on a busy day, a few minutes of fun can keep up the energy and keep campers happy and cool.

Ultimately, it’s about getting the basics right and remembering that leaders are more than organizers— they bring out the best in their ‘cabin.’ Campers need to feel connected and a ‘cabin’ is a way to feel a connection to the organization. You have one opportunity to make a first impression. Create groups or situations so that new bonds are formed across your business, as these relationships can create great new ideas and collaboration. And finally, when you think about summer camp this summer, don’t forget the Blob.


Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.

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