Preparing Camp Leadership Staff (and yourself) for the Hardest Parts of the Job

Being a leader means you'll be treated differently. Now what?

I've always told my staff that taking on more responsibility at camp often means less pure "fun," but that greater fulfillment can come with the greater responsibility. There's something really cool about knowing that there are a lot of people out there that deeply depend us to get the life-changing experience that we know camp can be.

That said, there are some aspects of becoming a leader in a camp setting that are really, really hard. In particular, I noticed that, much as I might try, the relationship of employer-employee or supervisor-supervised contained a lot of bits I wasn't ready for.

I don't think it's wise to dwell on the negative, but being prepared for these things can make things easier. Let's dive in.

Some people will lie to you.

Whether we're talking about staff members or summer campers, being part of the leadership team means that you are one of the most likely people to be lied to this summer. Being lied to really hurts, and I'd being lying if I said that I've "gotten used to it," but understanding why people are dishonest with me and trying to empathize with them (rather than judge them) has really helped me not take things personally.

So why do people lie?

It's not usually because they "think you're stupid," or because they don't like you, or because you haven't been nice enough to them. Here are main the reasons I see people lying to me:

1) They're scared that being honest will earn them an undesirable consequence. 2) They're scared that being honest will earn someone else an undesirable consequence. 3) They're scared that being honest will hurt someone's feelings. 4) They do not think being honest will get them the help that they need. 5) They think that an exaggerated version of a story will get them what they need. 6) They feel as though keeping SOME things private maintains some of their autonomy.

Most of all, people who lie feel scared and ashamed. These are hard ways to feel. But they're all totally understandable as well.

So when I suspect a staff member is lying to me, I'll start by trying to figure out which need of theirs they are trying to meet in the moment. If they're scared that they might hurt my feelings, I might state what I think they're afraid to say first: "I've heard that some people are frustrated by the drinking policy. I'm glad people have been able to bring that to me. How are you feeling about it?" If I think they're scared that they'll get someone in trouble, I might address how honesty will meet the needs of the community, or offer to maintain anonymity.

But I try to help my staff to never get into power-struggles about being lied to. A lie is a communication of a need, and it's very difficult to meet that need if we're trying to pin them down in a "gotcha!" moment instead of anticipating and meeting the need at hand. When we're in positions of power, people will some times try to level the playing field by withholding or re-shaping certain information.

Furthermore, showing someone grace when they are caught in a lie can have fantastic outcomes. I've said to staff, verbatim, "I can see that you felt the need to be dishonest with me. I want to let you know that I totally understand why you did that - you felt scared that you'd get your friend in trouble. I'm not upset with you, but I wanted to be honest with you and share that I know what happened. I'd love to talk now about how we can work on a solution."

To lie is human, to understand why people lie and love them anyway is divine.

Some people will talk behind your back.

It seems like the most painful conversations I have with staff who are struggling surround the moment they learn that someone is "talking behind their back."

Again, these would-be gossipers rarely have bad intentions, but it's extremely difficult to see that when you're in the moment.

I'll never forget, though, when I brought this struggle to a former boss and mentor in camping. He said to me, "James, I know how hard this can be. I used to really struggle with this exact thing. But then I realized - I've talked about people behind their backs before, especially when I didn't feel empowered or courageous enough to come to them directly. You've talked about me behind my back before, right? Even if it wasn't mean-spirited, you disagreed with a decision I made, or thought I did something wrong, and told someone else instead of approaching me?"

I winced and nodded.

"And I know that you respect me and care about me. You probably just needed to blow off steam, or wanted to share a story in a way that made you feel okay about how it happened. Whatever the reason, I know you didn't want to sabotage my whole life. I doubt the staff members you're upset about want to sabotage yours."

So, I now employ this same technique when working with my leadership staff. It's disarming, and really helps them empathize. Basically EVERYONE has been involved in an unpleasant conversation about someone who isn't present, and most of the people who do so aren't evil.

They are just trying to have a private conversation to meet a need of their own. Wide-spread defamation campaigns are a lot different than venting for 20 minutes on a break. As a leader and public figure at the camp, being the subject of these occasional rants is part of the job.

Some people will sneak around and break the rules on purpose.

You may have looked someone in the eye while they promised not to leave their cabin at night to meet up with their girlfriend, only to catch them red-handed a week later. What gives? I thought they respected you?!

Chances are, they do respect you. They just have a need that outstrips their need to follow your rules. Maybe they are in love for the first time, or maybe they get a thrill from risk taking. Maybe they didn't want to break the rule at first, but felt like it would be socially advantageous to do so.

But people almost never break the rules just to spite a leadership figure. In fact, they will usually feel completely ashamed the moment they know you know.

Layering on extra head-shaking, finger-wagging, and more shame rarely has any sort of positive outcome. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. I've seen staff members who were shamed after breaking a rule turn the shaming boss into the antagonist in the story, gathering peer-support against the heavy handed tyrant.

Approaching policy violations from a place of love (even with a firm hand) will make it so your staff know that you don't delight in the power imbalance that comes from catching someone breaking a rule.

"I totally understand why you'd want to leave the cabin at night to see your friends. I was young once. I know what that temptation feels like. But I think you understand why we can't put you in a position to counsel again this summer."

If staff feel empathized with and seen, they'll be a lot more likely to accept their consequences instead of trying to become a martyr.

Some people will assume you don't care about them.

Esty leading at Cairn
Esty leading at Cairn

I can't be the only camp director who's had a staff person march into the office, detailing how they've been given more work than their peers, or received less desirable jobs than their peers, or how their request to co-counsel with so-and-so was never met, or how they explicitly asked for only 2 weeks in the elementary village, ad infinitum.

Here's what staff don't understand: with all of the logistical balls we keep in the air, there is no way we're going to be able to precisely meet every staff member's requests and demands. Heck, there are going to be times where we do something that's downright inconsiderate. Two counselors had a grizzly break-up two years ago, and you forget, putting them together, alone, for a week in the arts and crafts shed.

Unless you're a way more precise person than I am, someone is going to feel slighted by their work assignments this summer.

So how can we avoid this? First of all, just let people know during staff training. When talking about staff assignments during staff training, I'll pretty much say the above paragraphs directly to my staff. I let staff come and talk to me directly with any such complaints with the caveat that I won't usually be able to change things that have already been done. If your staff is a lot bigger than mine, perhaps a little "reminder box" where people can submit written notes might help. Either way, though, helping staff understand that you're trying your best to put them in a position to succeed (even if you don't always succeed at it) will help them know that you aren't trying to antagonize them.

This is followed up by the next one, which is that

Some people will assume you play favorites.

Again, it's not because they think you're a bad person. It's often because they see the world in a way that's comparing their situation to others. If you work your tail off to ensure you're NOT actually playing favorites, this will go a long way.

And this all translates for your summer staff, too

A lot of your summer camp counselors are going to have experiences like this from a camper-staff level, too. Perhaps even more so. Helping them to understand that these sorts of undesirable behaviors are natural, not personal, and not necessarily an indication that they are doing a bad job can take the sting out of some of the hardest parts of leading others.

Rather than labeling undesirable behavior and allowing it to frustrate us, we can instead try and understand it better, that we might meet the needs of those in our charge even better. More understanding means better relationships, better experiences at camp, and more people feeling seen, heard, and loved.

And isn't that what camp is all about?