The Adventures Of True Leaders

By Dr. Christopher Thurber

One of my favorite books is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Like all great youth leaders, Twain was a wise student of human nature. In one famous scene from the book, young Tom—who is of camper-age—is tasked with painting the fence in front of his Aunt Polly’s house. How Tom convinces his friends to pay him to help is brilliant. His strategy also illuminates a great deal about successful leadership development.

As the story goes, Tom begins painting the fence as children in the neighborhood amble by, inquiring as to what he is doing. Instead of complaining that he has to work, he convinces each child that the project requires such a skilled hand that they are incapable of participating. He makes the idea so appealing that each one begs for a turn in showing what he or she can do. In fact, they are so intent on proving their skillset that he begins bartering with each one for an “opportunity” to paint the fence. This goes on all day until Tom literally runs out of paint. In the end, he makes off with an apple, a kite, a dead rat and a string to swing it with, 12 marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that won’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six firecrackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar--but no dog--the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

By the end of the day, he has learned a valuable lesson:

  “He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it--namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

   “And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

Work Is Not Play
I’ve thought a lot about Mark Twain’s distinction between work and play. The Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote (in 500 B.C.) that if someone loves his or her job, they’ll never work another day in their life.

This sounds romantic, but it isn’t true. Of course it’s wonderful to have a job that you love. I’m doubly grateful to have three jobs I love that keep me busy throughout the year: psychologist, educator, and camp professional.

But as soon as something is work—whether paid or volunteer—it is no longer play. Jobs are tasks where other people depend on you, where you’re held accountable for your performance, and where people higher in the organization give directions. Play has none of that. Sorry, Confucius, work is still work.

Fast-forward almost 2,500 years to American philosopher Samuel Clemens, who used the pen name Mark Twain. Let’s take a look at the strategies he gave to his famous character, Tom Sawyer. It’s worth trying to figure out how he got three coats of paint on his aunt’s fence, barely did any of the work himself, and ended up with a pile of cool stuff.

First, Tom rarified a common, mundane activity. By making the activity of painting unusual—by making it less accessible—Tom made it more desirable to his friends. High-quality camps do this well. Their limited seasons, limited size, limited number of activities, and highly selective internal leadership-development programs make every moment at camp more desirable. All dedicated youth leaders savor each moment in the field, from camp duties to the closing ceremonies, and everything in between.

Second, and related to making the task less accessible, Tom made his friends pay to paint. It wasn’t free, and it certainly was not something he pays his friends to do. He also does this well. Campers—or more likely their parents—pay the camp, not the other way around. Having made a financial investment in enrollment, families are guaranteed to also have an emotional investment in the camp’s mission. And although leaders and staff are paid, everyone who works at camp can probably make more money doing something else. The fact that they choose camp is a testament to the organization’s core values. It also means that employees put their hearts and heads—not just their bodies—into the work. No true youth leader ever just “dials it in.”

And third, Tom takes Aunt Polly’s requirement of painting and makes it a choice for his friends. By making painting optional, Tom transforms work into play. Here again, high-quality camps do it right. They give campers and leaders some choices about their schedules. Sure, some activities are built in, but almost everyone makes the most of their own schedule. That sense of agency, that wonderful feeling of choosing one’s own adventure, maximizes the enjoyment of camp. True camp leaders seek the joy of being alive, rather than passively having joy spoon-fed to them.

So high-quality summer youth programs get it right by being rare, by requiring a personal investment, and by actively seeking.

Seek The Peak
But what exactly do serious youth leaders seek? To find the answer, look no further than their leadership awards and promotion criteria. Such high-quality programs seek and encourage kindness, positivity, honesty, and initiative.

Simply put, the best youth leaders seek to do good, not have goods. They seek to create things, not have others create them for us. And they seek the positive in whatever has happened, and not complain about what didn’t.

By putting faith in core values and kind practices, rather than in things, genuine leaders are aligned with Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian traditions that put spiritual wealth above material wealth. Shiny new objects—things—all erode, degrade, wear out, spoil, rot, rust, or stop working after a while. Even our bodies will all stop working after a while.

But a positive social or spiritual idea, such as “God first, others second, myself last” has been—and will always be—permanent. Mottoes like this one have outlived most camps’ founders and will outlive current staff members. As long as staff members live, work, and play by a guiding principle, something about them personally will last long after their bodies quit. Certainly, putting the other fellow first is worth far more than six firecrackers or a kitten with one eye.

No Bargain Is Best
One can’t put a dollar value on acts of unbargaining service … precisely because they are unbargaining. Both of my parents have set a great example for my family by volunteering their time and expertise in all kinds of ways. Currently, my mother, a retired nurse, serves on the ethics board at the local hospital, and my father, a retired doctor, spends several weeks a year in rural health clinics in Haiti. This past spring, he told me the story of cleaning an infected wound in a woman’s leg. Her boyfriend had driven her 100 kilometers on their rusty scooter to get to the clinic. The wound was oozing puss and smelled putrid, according to my dad. As he began cleaning the wound with saline and gauze, the boyfriend remarked in Creole French, “Oh, man, that’s awful. You couldn’t pay me to do that.” My dad just kept cleaning the wound and said, “Me either.”

True leaders are seekers of a special sort. They don’t seek anything they can buy, hold, sell, or trade. They don’t seek meaning in the virtual world. And they don’t seek the easy way out.

True leaders seek challenges that build meaningful skills. They seek people who love them for who they are … and people love them back for who they are. They also seek places—like camp—that help them be their best selves. Most importantly, true leaders take what they’ve learned and give it away. Perhaps now you see Twain’s legendary scene as much more than a simple trick.

As you take stock of last season and begin preparing for the next, consider what you like and dislike about Tom Sawyer’s leadership. Consider how rarefication, modest pay, choice, and unbargaining service can breathe new life into your leadership program.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the Strategy Director at Camp Belknap. He is a psychologist, author, and professional educator who co-authored The Summer Camp Handbook and co-founded Reach him via his website,