Staying Relevant

By Chris Thurber

Among the most difficult leadership transitions is that from camper to staff member. Indeed, challenges facing new leaders include:

• Impulsivity
• Inexperience
• Immaturity
• Guidance and discipline of campers who are nearly the same age.

Of course, young leaders also boast some great characteristics that come as standard equipment: exuberance, creativity, style and a knack for communicating with children and each other. Simply put, they are “cool.”

This is all well and good, until you realize that the inverse is also true. Older staff are, well, not cool. Loved for their wisdom, perhaps, but no longer admired for their panache.

As the number of same-age peers slowly diminishes at camp, senior staff members struggle to anchor their personal and professional self-concept. It’s easy to feel confident when strokes from peers affirm your popularity. But when those peers retire from camp to take outside jobs, any tenured senior staff member will say that it starts to get lonely at the top.

Torn between social gloom and love of camp, many director-level leaders retreat. They return to camp, but ponder their relevance to the camp community, and openly question whether they’ll return the following summer.

Worse, they stop putting forth extra effort and become emotionally unavailable to younger staff. They may even become unreasonably critical of other staff members in a type of defensive backlash against their own dwindling commitment.

True confession: I know this syndrome because I lived it -- Freudian projection and all. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have a much younger staff member jolt me to my senses.

I thought Brendan was ready to lodge a complaint when he asked to speak with me alone. I had guessed he was unhappy with how I’d responded to a waterfront-policy transgression by one of his leaders.

Instead, I heard: “You’ve got so much to offer these younger leaders. Make yourself available. You’re more of an asset that you give yourself credit for.”

Gulp. Had I really withdrawn so noticeably? Apparently. And so I turned the corner that every older leader must -- if he or she hopes to stay relevant.

Here are the nine actions every older leader must take to keep his or her head in the game:

1. Serve the staff. Make it your business to help younger leaders do their jobs well. Fix equipment, outline schedules, provide in-service training, and assist with activities. You can serve the staff without being a servant as long as you share the workload.

2. Set a good example. Leadership-by-example is important at every level, but nothing is as powerful as the senior staff behaving in a way that sets a mature -- but playful -- tone for the rest of the leaders. Work hard and play hard, and the staff will, too.

3. Accept a mature tone. The scatological jokes, pop-culture references and slang fit an image in your teens and twenties, but they sound increasingly dissonant the older you get. Keep a sense of humor, but make it age-appropriate. Mostly.

4. Share history happily. Avoid the bitter yarns about the way things used to be done (so much better) when you were a young leader. If there are traditions that need refinement or rekindling, shepherd your flock with a positive talk of new opportunities.

5. Watch your words. Praise and criticism both carry enhanced import when delivered from an experienced mouth. The offhanded comment you got away with when you were 18 is taken quite seriously by the current generation of 18-year-olds.

6. Offer to assist. Provide support, but remember how much you enjoyed finding your own way as a young leader. “Would you like a hand with that?” is preferable to “Let me show you the right way to do that.” Avoid condescension by accident.

7. Beware of permissiveness. Many mature leaders have fallen into the trap of bending the rules, looking the other way, and letting things slide so that younger leaders like them. Doormats don’t cultivate respect, so follow the rules. Be an authoritative leader.

8. Be a trusted resource. Sometime before opening day, invite one-on-one conversations about personally relevant topics. Particularly powerful is: “As busy as I might look, I will always find time to talk with any of you about whatever is on your mind.”

9. Enjoy your job. The moment you stop having fun, staff members will notice. You’ll become the opposite of what you hope to be. When you’re having fun and putting forth great effort, so will the staff. A positive tone promotes contagious happiness.

No one ever said that getting old was easy, but it doesn’t have to prevent you from living the dream. Every day camp and resident camp benefits from a few elder statesmen, whether “elder” means 30-something or 70-something.

The perspective, sound judgment and expertise older leaders can offer are invaluable, but only when their attitude inspires collaboration.

Staying relevant means offering an outstretched hand to the new crop of young leaders; it also means keeping your own head in the game by remembering what you most appreciated about the senior staff when you were a young leader -- approachability.

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