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What summer camp can teach us.

Teaching Teens to Lead

Leadership requires practice, but young people get few opportunities to do so.

Our nation values leadership, but we do not teach it well. 

Colleges place a strong emphasis on leadership, as any high school senior who is filling out applications can tell you. We watch movies and read books about leaders. It borders on a national obsession. 

Yet employers see a gaping deficit. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (p21.org) interviewed thousands of the world’s most respected employers and asked two questions: 1) what are the skills critical to success in the modern workplace and 2) what skills do new hires lack. Of the roughly 100 skills surveyed, “leadership” ranked in the top 10. It also showed the second greatest skill deficit in recent college graduates (second only to “written communication”). Roughly 28% of graduates are described as “deficient” with only a small fraction deemed highly skilled. 

If we value and respect leadership so much and it correlates with success in the workplace, why then do we see such a gaping deficit? 

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The answer is actually fairly simple. Leadership requires practice and there are very few opportunities for young people to practice leading. 

Some of the challenge is simply structural. Since only one person can “lead” at a time, it is difficult to create opportunities for every young person in a group to practice the skills. Doing so would require vast effort and programmatic intentionality. Teachers and coaches have plenty to do without adding this additional challenge to their responsibilities. 

Also, many people see leadership as an inherent trait rather than a series of skills. In this case, the same children tend to become the leaders, be it through assignment, volunteering or peer vote. People call them “born leaders”, thus suggesting that other children are “born followers.” 

I disagree with this assessment. 

Leading is more about learning specific skills than possessing inherent qualities. In this way, being a leader is like being an athlete. Certainly, some children are born with attributes that aid in athletics, such as size and quick reflexes. But success in athletics requires thousands of hours of practice to acquire the skills needed for success. Regardless of genetics, there is no substitute for practicing forehands and backhands if one wishes to excel at tennis. Ultimately, success has much more to do with the skills honed through practice than genetics. 

Similarly, some individuals have innate attributes that help them lead, such as extroversion or height, but once again they are only a small part of the equation. Much more important are a set of skills that can be learned and practiced. These include listening skills, oral communication, collaborative skills, empathy and posture. 

But where do we practice leadership? How can we create groups for a nascent leader to develop these important skills? 

Summer camp is certainly one exceptional place to practice leadership. Let me describe how camps teach and develop leadership skills. I will then suggest ways beyond summer camp where teens can hone these skills. 

At camp, teens are often counselors or counselors in training (CITs). As such, they enjoy several unusual advantages. First, they get intentional training on how to lead from camp professionals that have years of experience. Success in camping is a function of the success of the counselors and CITs, so virtually all camps have invested a great deal of time in teaching effective leadership skills. 

Second (and perhaps most important), camps provide teens and college students with groups on which to practice their developing skills. You might see a cabin of 12 8-year-olds, but I see a perfect laboratory for leadership experimentation. Success is instantly rewarded with happy children working together. Failure also provides immediate feedback in the form of late arrivals, failed cabin inspections and cabin dissention. 

Third, counselors and CITs are observing each other and exchanging ideas. Since everyone is experiencing similar challenges, they share what they have learned with each other. 

A counselor or CIT that works a three week session will get over 250 hours of leadership practice. Over the course of this time, you can see progress on almost a daily basis. The posture becomes more confident and effective; word selection improves; interpersonal interactions become fluid and subtle. 

Meanwhile, their peers at home, who have been working as interns, playing sports or just “hanging out” have been getting little to no practice in leadership skills. 

After the summer, our counselors and CITs report back to me that they find themselves the de facto leaders of their organizations. Each seems to find this surprising even though we told them it would happen. But it is no more surprising than to find that a musician that practiced for 4 hours a day for a summer would “suddenly” be better than another player that did not pick up his instrument during the same period. 

If we want to confer meaningful advantage on our teens, teaching them to be effective leaders is an area of great opportunity. 

Of course, one option is to work at a camp. If, however, this is not possible, here are a few potential substitutes for teenagers:

  • Volunteer at a Boys and Girls Club
  • Volunteer to coach a sports team of younger children
  • Help with the younger children at a church, synagogue or mosque (if applicable). 

The key to any opportunity is to have a group of younger children. The age disparity between the leader and the children provides some (though not complete) authority at the outset that makes leading more possible. 

When possible, teens should seek out effective older leaders to partner with and carefully observe what they do when they interact with the children. 

In short, leadership is important, it involves a series of skills and these skills require practice. Teens who wish to develop and hone their leadership acumen should seek out opportunities to work with groups of younger children to get this practice. If they do so, they’ll be pleased to learn how easily these skills can be transferred to leadership in all areas of their lives. 

Steve Baskin is the owner/director of Camp Champions and serves on the Executive Committee of the American Camp Association.

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