Leadership By Example

“Chris, in my early years as a camp director, I never worried about the off-season behavior of my staff. Now that staff members photograph and post most of their social lives online, I’m torn. I’m not the CyberPolice, but I’ve received complaints from parents and upset e-mails from campers who have discovered unwholesome postings and unsavory photos of respected counselors and camp leaders. It sours their view of camp. Where do I go from here?”

–Scott Arizala, Director of Dragonfly Forest

It’s frustrating to work as hard as we do to hire, train, and coach staff members for the camp season, only to have their sterling leadership-by-example tarnished by a careless Internet posting. When social networking sites first became popular, there were some clarion calls for prohibition. Today, the idea of forbidding staff members from joining Facebook seems absurd. People of all ages socialize online, and in many ways, it’s a good thing. Just this morning, I was Skyping with my wife and children, who are visiting family in Serbia. It was wonderful to connect like that.

Not so wonderful are the pervasive “cheers and beers” photos so many staff members post online. Some–showing friends with one arm around another and a drink in the other hand–probably don’t shatter campers’ or parents’ images of that person. Others–showing keg stands, lewd gestures, partial nudity, sexual behavior and pot smoking–probably do erode your camp’s otherwise wholesome reputation. Here are some simple steps you can take now to keep that reputation intact:

1. Continue whatever health education is woven into staff training. Educating staff members with online videos or in-person workshops that explain the dangers of binge drinking and sexual promiscuity probably lower the base rate of these unhealthy risk behaviors, at least for some staff. The less your staff members are engaging in behaviors unbecoming of a youth-development professional, the less frequently those behaviors can be digitally documented.

2. Stop it when you spot it. I don’t recommend combing the Internet for unflattering material, but if a parent or colleague finds publicly available material that casts a staff member in a negative light, promptly ask that person to remove the posting, or sequester it by using privacy settings wisely.

3. Educate staff members on the consequences of campers and parents viewing material that would be deemed inappropriate for camp. Reactions range from shock to disappointment to sadness. The sample letter to staff published as part of this article will serve as a valuable template. (Naturally, you should customize this letter for a particular camp.)

4. Distribute some social networking guidelines to staff members. Most camps have an electronics-technology policy, but it’s probably time to update your social-networking policy. Of special importance is the concept of creating different friend groups, each with its own privacy setting. Of course, the safest option is not to post adult content. For staff members that do post racy material, instruct them to make it available only to familiar adult friends.

5. Keep the discussion going, both online and in-person. It’s impossible to legislate what your staff members do in the off-season. What you can do is provide guidelines and facilitate discussions that heighten their awareness of the year-round nature of leadership-by-example.

Social networking and the Web sites that support cyber relationships are constantly evolving. They are powerful tools that can be put to good use. What shouldn’t evolve are the high standards of behavior to which you hold staff members. The guidelines above will help uphold those standards. For many young people, their camp counselors are the most powerful adult role models they see. What will your campers and their parents see this season?

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