It’s Lonely At The Top

As a kid, a teenager, and even as a young adult, I loved camp. I planned my camping career path tirelessly as I worked my way from counselor, up through the ranks to senior leadership—program director, assistant director, and finally ... my ultimate goal—summer camp director. So after careful planning, on-the-job training and experiences, talking to other camp professionals, and plenty of post-secondary education and certification, things were great! Programs ran smoothly, registration was improving, and people seemed happy ... so why did I feel like I was struggling so much?

After 2 years of summer-camp directing, I realized I was lonely. It seemed ridiculous. How could I be lonely in one of the most social places specifically designed to enrich lives by meeting new people and creating meaningful relationships? People are not supposed to be lonely at summer camp! My frustration grew, and I became angry that my position as the leader had separated me from friendships with staff members, something I value highly. It was one of the key factors that kept me rooted in camp-based career ambitions.

Rather than stew in my frustration, I set about a well-established plan so my interactions with staff remained valuable, meaningful, and beneficial to the camp, while avoiding any “professional pickles” that might arise.

Take the time to talk to other directors, camp professionals, and corporate managers about what they deem as proper and appropriate social interactions in the workplace. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / 3DAgentur

Although there’s much to consider when planning interactions with staff members, the following should help reduce confusion, set appropriate boundaries, and still facilitate relationships that are mutually meaningful to the camp, the camp staff, and you!

Friendly Vs. Too Far

While every relationship is different, treating relationships differently at camp is bound not only to create discipline issues, but to create uncomfortable situations that can be harmful to the staff, the image of the camp, and ultimately your position as camp director. Take the time to talk to other directors, camp professionals, and corporate managers about what they deem as proper and appropriate social interactions in the workplace. Be sure to highlight camp-specific issues and situations, as the residential nature of camp often makes interactions with subordinate staff more challengeing. Discuss various issues regarding the age, maturity, and related development level of employees, since the issues are much different from those in the corporate world.

After these discussions, make notes, record your thoughts, think critically, and then review. The more you formulate a clear personal code of conduct (other than the basics outlined by your organization and relevant governing bodies), the more likely you are to automatically act appropriately in a tricky situation.

Communicate Clearly

Once that personal code of conduct is established, make sure everyone knows it. Let counselors know how you will interact with them, how to talk to you if they feel you are not relating to them in an acceptable manner, who they can speak if they feel uncomfortable in dealing with you or other members of the senior leadership team, and what the recourse is for questionable or inappropriate interactions. Give the senior leadership team a “watch dog” status—give them the OK to keep an eye on you, and create an environment in which they are comfortable to call you out if they feel things aren’t right, or might create problems. Actively listen to what they say, and make a wholehearted attempt to correct situations immediately—if the senior team thinks something is wrong then other staff members have also noticed.

Get A “Game Face”

The 24/7 nature of camp employment makes staff dynamics, interactions, and relationships significantly more challenging. Since you live where you work, there aren’t too many opportunities to let your guard down, goof off, or vent frustrations, and it’s easy to accidentally slip, say the wrong thing, or act inappropriately.

Before heading to a staff meeting, responding to a problem, performing an evaluation, or just making rounds on the property, take a few minutes to prepare. Rid yourself of negative energy; focus instead on the outcomes of what you are heading to do, and remember your personal conduct plan. Keeping a solid “game face” on will protect you from accusations of misconduct, keep staff at ease, and create a positive aura in the program.

Also, take the time to connect with people who aren’t subordinate staff members. Call your spouse, invite the family to visit camp, call a therapist, call the board of directors—do what you need to vent frustrations and clear your head. It’s much easier to maintain a strong front when you’ve been able to talk to an impartial party, sort and collect your thoughts, and take a breather.

Camp Is A Spectator Sport

No matter who the staff members are, you must always speak and act appropriately. Everyone must be treated equally. If you wouldn’t ask a 16-year-old counselor about her boyfriend, don’t ask the program director. If you wouldn’t invite the lifeguard for dinner and drinks with your spouse, don’t do that with the sports director, the cook, or the healthcare staff. If you have pre-existing social relationships with staff and are not willing to set those aside at the onset of employment, inform the organization’s human-resources personnel so they can relay any concerns.

No Need For A Beating

All staff-management professionals, organization leaders, board chairs, and others in positions of authority have made mistakes; camp directors are no different. Everybody slips, says things without thinking, or positions themselves in ways that appear questionable. Rather than beating yourself up, think and act carefully. Is the mistake minor enough that an apology will suffice? Do miscommunications need to be rectified? Based on this incident, does your personal conduct plan need to be modified? Most of these situations are easily fixed, but don’t be afraid to approach a more-senior advisor, board member, or professional mentor for guidance.

While a leadership position at camp can sometimes feel isolating, the way you facilitate interactions with staff members sets the tone for how they engage with each other and the campers. By setting a good example, you also can be confident that staff members are transferring those skills and lessons to their peer group in the off season, thus creating positive changes in the wider community. If that happens, I’m willing to be a bit lonely.

Carla Theoret is the Summer Camp Director at Lambton United Church Centre in Lambton Shores, Ontario. Reach her at