A Healthy Lead

By Chris Thurber

Staff members are usually on top of their game until they start treating their job like one. Once young people lose sight of the importance of caring for other people’s children, taking unhealthy risks increases. By contrast, if they rest playful leadership on the three-legged stool of sleep, exercise, and nutritional food, their resilience and stamina also increase.

Ask Not What Your Camp Can Do for You
Does this sound idealistic? Do you wonder where on earth you might find such wholesome young adults to staff your camp? Whether you staff the camp with an apprentice-style, internal leadership-development program, with external hires, or with some combination of the two, the quest for quality should always include the appropriate interview questions.

Asking hypothetical questions with “right” answers is a waste of time. “What would you do if some of your friends had been drinking and were about to drive themselves home?” is an example of just such a vacuous query. The question lacks what psychologists call discriminative validity , meaning that it cannot validly discriminate between two groups—in this case between responsible and irresponsible people. A person’s answer to this question tells only whether the interviewee knows what a person should do in such a circumstance. (If you’re done having candidates tell you what they know you want to hear, read on.)

A better alternative is to say, “Tell me about a time when you had to make a tough decision to keep a friend out of trouble.” Listen carefully to the person’s answer, and then ask open-ended follow-up questions such as, “What did you struggle with when you chose that course of action?” and “Who in your life influenced you to behave that way?” and “When have you ever had a friend get you out of a jam?” and “What did you learn from that experience or from some other poor choice?” and “How might you instill a sense of social responsibility in your fellow staff members this summer?”

The strategy of asking a job candidate to choose a specific, personal behavior and then answer a string of open-ended questions about that situation is called behavior-based interviewing or sometimes performance-based interviewing.

Religious Taboos
Anti-discrimination laws justifiably prohibit employers from asking prospective employees, “What religion are you?” The answer is worthless anyway, not because it is meaningless to the person, but because it has no discriminative validity. There are great leaders from different faith traditions and many who do not identify with a particular faith. What does have some value is asking about one’s coping style.

  • How do you bounce back from adversity?
  • What do you think or do to help make things better when you’re feeling down?
  • How have you overcome challenges that seem doable at first but then seem much more difficult?
  • What or who supports you when you feel down, drained, or discouraged?

These open-ended questions are all fair game. Best of all, the answers will teach you a lot about a person’s resilience and stress-management strategies. Some prospective leaders might even expound on their faith-based ways of coping, such as prayer, meditation, or participation in religious services. Religious or not, that person will provide an accurate sense of a coping style—data which can predict the person’s stability, stamina, and ability to weather in healthy ways the sometimes stressful storm of youth leadership.

Four Legs And Two Arms
Apparently, then, the three-legged stool of wellness turns out to have four legs: sleep, exercise, nutrition, and coping style. Naturally, candidates who deal with stress by drinking, drugging, or anythingelse that hurts their bodies or others should be summarily dropped from your list. But most interviewees are savvy enough to discuss only healthy strategies in your presence. This means that the discriminative validity of these resilience questions might take a hit—unless you listen for the “two arms” of the wellness picture.

The “arms” you should be paying attention to are the outstretched arms of social connection. Prospective staff members who recognize their own limitations and have the foresight and courage to reach out to others for support are staff members who will last the longest and demonstrate the most equanimity at camp. They also end up supporting their co-counselors and fellow staff through the summer’s toughest challenges. Realize that when interviewees mention social support in their coping repertoire, it’s an asset.

Reticence Predicts Weakness
Prospective hires who cannot articulate projects of which they are proud, decisions they wrestled with, and challenges they overcame are not ready to care for other people’s children. The interviewees may have athletic, artistic, or academic strengths, but they are unlikely to have the necessary combination of fortitude, gratitude, insight, judgment, and resilience. A perfect tennis serve won’t mitigate homesickness, promote good sportsmanship, or blend two cliques into a unified group of friends.

I’ve never known a staff member to be fired mid-season because of a lack of talent in basketball or finger painting, but I’ve known many to be fired for boundary-crossing, rule-breaking, and unhealthy interpersonal forays. My advice to directors is always to hire the person, not the resume. Of course, that requires thoroughly checking three references and solid behavior-based interviewing—time well spent if the quality of the staff-camper relationship is a top priority.

Fortified, Not Anesthetized
A journalist recently asked me what factors diminish the intensity of homesickness in college freshmen. She was a college student herself, so when I began talking about the foundations of wellness, she slowly realized that sleep deprivation, a diet of potato chips and beer, and a routine of sitting in class followed by sitting in front of a screen was a recipe for poor health. She ended the interview with her own insightful conclusion: “So, a healthy lifestyle can diminish the intensity of homesickness by shielding you from stress.”

“Yes and no,” I replied. “Wellness is more like a sponge than a shield. It absorbs some of the stress, but you’ll always feel something.” She thought for a moment. “Well, you’d want that, I suppose. No one wants to feel numb.” Not if they’re going to work with children , I mused.

Dr. Christopher Thurber enjoys learning from his own two children and from the students at PhillipsExeterAcademy, where he serves as the psychologist. He is the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a web-based training platform for youth-development professionals. Visit his website at CampSpirit.com.