Learning while Leading: an exercise in humility

What a year.

Last April I took on a new position, a new life, as a full-time Camp Director at a 103 year old summer camp. It was a return to a career that I’d put on hold while I was a stay-at-home-dad (SAHD) and professional consultant/trainer. I’d been a YMCA summer camp director for a few years before that, gotten burned out and took an intentional break (I know, how millennial of me).

Then in the fall of 2021 as pandemic depression and anxiety was setting in (as it did for so many others) I knew I needed to get back to my calling, Camp Directing. And while I was fortunate to receive some great offers that fall, I never accepted a position due to the distance it would create from our family and/or a organizational culture that I didn’t align with. I held out hope for one position in particular, made it do the final round of interviews and was crushed to not get the offer. It seemed I had exhausted all options and what was worse, I had exhausted myself right before my annual seasonal depression was about to hit. It was a terrible winter for my mental and emotional health, with affects that I’m still trying to work through a year and a half later.

However, last spring something amazing did happen, an opportunity to return to central Iowa and be a full-time Camp Director with an organization that had immense potential. Exactly what I wanted and needed. One hiccup though….I had already booked 15 summer camp trainings beginning in early May and ending in late June. This meant that I’d be coming into my new camp and moving my family in the middle of the summer season. Ouch.

How would I lead 40 camp staff, 2 camp sites, countless volunteers/supporters and thousands of children all while learning from scratch a new position, a new camp and a new culture???

Here’s how:

  1. Show up with a smile: Every day was a chance to learn. I had a million questions and I trusted that they’d all get answered in due time. I tried not to be too annoying to my supervisors or the camp staff, instead I “learned by doing” (my favorite 4-H motto) and by being present to make crucial observations. I simply showed up with a smile on my face everyday and was willing to do whatever was needed to be done in any moment. Furthermore, I trusted in my team, I trusted in myself and I trusted in the process and philosophy that good things happen to those who are willing to put in the work.
  2. People before position: This is not a new concept for me, in fact if you’ve ever worked with me in the past you know that this is one of my top phrases. This year it held true once again. “People before position” means that people are more important than any job, title or company. First and foremost we’re put on this earth to connect, to support and to love….not to work. Work is good, it can give us purpose and drive but being compassionate to others is even better. Focus on getting to know the people around you, lifting them up, showing them that they are valued and that the future is bright. So I got to know my staff and campers, and talked with any and everybody to learn about this special place. I talked more than I worked. Scratch that, I listened more than I worked. And here’s the payoff, I know my camp better, I know my people better, they all have more trust in me because we formed a connection and I could immediately hit the ground running when it came time to start developing our camp.
  3. Be humble….give and take grace: I have a hard time asking for help. I think I can do it all myself and don’t want to be a burden to anyone. It’s a flaw of mine that has been reinforced my entire professional life. However this year I learned a new word, “grace”. It means allowing yourself and others the space to grow through self-discovery, mistakes and adversity. I am thankful that I came into this role with a sense of humility. This was not my camp, my staff or my families….yet. I was an outsider and the community’s fear that I would come in and change things immediately was pretty high. Instead I listened, learned and connected. I asked questions, made mistakes and even at times allowed myself to ask for help. Had I not approached this journey from a place of humility and grace, I would be in a world of hurt right now, and a lonely world of hurt at that. At least now when I am facing adversity I know I have strong connections within my little camp community to lean on and support me through this journey…our journey. I also encouraged others to have moments of grace and growth. I was patient, positive and proactive when it camp to moments of adversity and being there to support my team through their challenging moments.

So there you have it, my advice to new Camp Directors:

  1. Show up with a smile
  2. Put people before position
  3. Be humble…give and take grace

There are a million other little things that will aid in your success, but for me, for this first year, I learned while I led by following those three concepts. Good luck!

*These views are my own, based on my own experiences and knowledge as a summer camp professional. They do not represent any other person or entity’s point of view that I am associated with.

Published by drewdemery

That Summer Camp Guy!

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