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A document that has been copied and faxed several times.
In my work with summer camps and outdoor environmental education, I have encountered this concept at every organization I have worked with. My disclaimer is that I have always worked for small agency (non-profit) camps and resources were always a challenge. I know that there are larger operations that have different resources that perhaps allow for a better cohesiveness.
Here's what I know.
Often times, what is called "tradition" (cue Fiddler on the Roof Soundtrack) is closer to "that's the way we have always done it." And as Ben Zimmerman noted in his Forbes article, "it could be the most dangerous phrase in business."
Let me describe the setting and a composite of many, many conversations.
Picture a camp office set in 1987 or 1993 or 2000 or 2010 or 2016 (or any of the years in between). It is in California, Florida or New York. A 18+ year old is coming in to interview for a position as a cabin leader or activity leader at one of the summer camps that I have had the pleasure of serving over the past four decades. There have been nearly 5000 of these interviews in person, via phone, at a college recruitment or in modern virtual calls over that time period.
As we discuss the reasons why someone wants to work at camp the common answer has been, "I was a camper and "Forge" (Adam Haney, camp name of past staff) was my leader and he did..." And then they describe what he, she or they did and what an effect or influence it had on them. That statement is followed by, "I want to do the same for the campers this summer."
As you may or may not know, I like to ask questions and I often ask more (peeling back the onion like Shrek) about a person from the answer that they give. My question to these answers is a version of, "what did they do..." and specify what action or activity that they did?
This is where it gets complicated. Many times they would describe an activity or "tradition" (cue Fiddler on the Roof Soundtrack) and describe some fun (or perceived fun) camp activity or program. One example that came up multiple times at one camp was a ice cream party where the campers would file through a line and get an ice cream dish and the staff would be adding items (sprinkles, toppings, fudge, whip cream, etc.). However they would be throwing these items across the table and making a grand mess of things. Effectively a food fight or free for all.
(NOTE: I do not condone food fights. In fact I am abjectly against any food waste. Having served not for profit organizations and minimally our population had 1/3 of campers on financial assistance and lived at or below the poverty line. Food waste is not something that projects a mission or lesson that seems to line up with anything worthy of any organization.)
Other answers often reflected a program area that they saw a long time leader who was so adept at that program that they taught what seemed to be multilayered lessons and campers had no idea they were learning until reflecting later as the aged and matured. One leader Adam "Forge" Haney was greatly adept with his southern charm in providing leadership lessons on communication, team building, team work, and values clarification all while leading paint ball. He cultivated the culture of learning and leadership. And he applied what he learned to furthering the culture he described with the campers.
These campers who were now applying for a position as a leader and believed that it all magically happened. Further, they had their ideas on how to make it even better.
What I discovered well over 25 years ago, is that often, those activities were a reflection of what someone remembered that they saw or participated in and they wanted to convey that program from their memory. I do not believe that it was ever malicious or intentionally done with any intent other than their want to pay it forward.
The key word in that last sentence was "Intent."
My mentor, John C. Maxwell speaks about "Intentional Living" and wrote a great book about this. It was in that book that he states, "An unintentional life accepts everything and does nothing. An intentional life embraces only the things that will add to the mission of significance.”
Here's what I know, many folks get intent confused with preparedness and action. I had a team member about 15 years ago who was inspired during our staff orientation training week. He would engage in everything and constantly assured our leadership team that he would be the best staff person. He had great intent.
He did not have great follow through and was never prepared for the long days that working at a summer camp required. He pointed at those around him who he identified as being "successful." What he could not connect was that they were preparing their days and weeks and he was also chasing the schedule.
As a leader, I learned a great deal from this one leader. What we failed to help him learn was how to prepare with something as simple developing the skill and putting into practice the tools that we shared during that staff orientation session. His success was our success and his failure was our failure. As John Maxwell says, "“A leader is great not because of his or her power, but because of his or her ability to empower others.”
Our team had been creating "curriculum" for sometime for our activity leaders to follow.
We also had recently re-designed our staff evaluation tool. What we missed was helping new team members to develop the skills they needed to grow in their work.
It boils down to this in John's summary, "No one ever was successful with good intentions, but a lot of people are successful with good actions."
As a leader, take action to help those young team members learn and grow the skills that establish the program culture that lasts well beyond their time with your organization. After all, as the proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second best time is now.
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