Lifelong Leaders

Kate continued, “Naturally, I encouraged him to return for the nine weeks of his LIT summer. Not only was it an honor to have been asked back, but I know that he’ll have an experience like yours, where the mentoring he’ll receive will last a lifetime.”

I agree wholeheartedly. The apprentice model of internal leadership development, about which I am frequently asked to teach, pairs young leaders with role models whose sterling example endures well beyond camp. Indeed, camp is nothing if not a powerful launch pad for living kindly and serving others. And what better teaching tool than homegrown leadership-by-example?

Putting It In Perspective

When I sat down, I had flashbulb memories of moments when Jeff, Ted and Tim had made a difference in my development as a leader.

From Jeff I learned to take time with those I mentor. I’ll never forget washing up for bed one night and walking to the cot where I slept, located along the same wall as Jeff’s senior-leader bunk. Jeff spoke up: “I saw you were reading William Peter Blatty’s book, The Exorcist. Want to see something cool?”

He then showed me a pack of photos, several of which were taken near the Georgetown campus, where he went to school.

One showed the famously long and lethal stone staircase featured in William Friedkin’s movie version of the novel. Yes, it was cool. But what was so much cooler was that this experienced leader, in a ranking staff position, was taking an interest in me beyond what was required.

From Ted I learned to provide and process feedback. On our way out of the dining hall one evening, Ted pulled me aside. We’d just shared the first meal with our new cabin of nine 12-year-olds. I had tried hard to take the initiative and show Ted that I could encourage good conversation around the table.

“Can I give you some feedback?” he asked. “Sure.” (What else is a LIT supposed to say?) Ted continued, “You have a ton of energy, which is great. But that whole speech about how to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich the right way was a little manic. It might go over well with the 9-year-olds, but these boys have different sensibilities. Just tap the brakes a bit and follow my lead for a day. You’ll catch on.”

I did catch on, eventually becoming the division head myself five years later. Most important, I had felt the power of a caring mentor deliver balanced and timely feedback.

And from Tim I learned to keep my sense of humor front-and-center; to not take myself or my challenges too seriously.

For parents, teachers and camp staff, taking one’s job as a youth-development professional seriously is essential. Taking oneself too seriously can easily lead to discouragement and burnout.

Tim’s trademark joke was a whimsical comment with a deadpan delivery. He’d witness someone do something mildly idiotic–a frequent occurrence among 14-year-old boys at camp–and he’d pause, eyebrows raised. Then he’d look around skeptically at the group and say, “Gentlemen, that’s one way someone might choose to do that.”

Invariably, we’d laugh until our sides were splitting (yes, you had to be there), but then a transformation would occur in the group. Whatever problematic behavior had blossomed a moment ago withered and died. No lecture, just laughter.

After lunch that day in D.C., I delivered my best-ever version of my presentation to a standing-room-only crowd. It felt great to hit my laugh lines, answer questions intelligently, and give the participants a new set of tools to connect with their students and colleagues.

Better still was how amazing it felt to know that each person in the room had devoted his or her career to making lasting and inspiring connections with youth.

Best of all was remembering that you can take a kid out of the camp, but you can’t take the camp out of a kid.

Even if that kid is 43 years old and has kids of his own.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at He is the co-creator of, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at

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  1. Future Leaders
  2. Manners Matter
  3. The Beauties Of Camp Duties
  4. Staying Relevant
  5. Writing Camp Jobs On A Resume

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