Set The Tone

By Kristin Santillo Welch

Let’s face it—a camp can have state-of-the-art equipment, the most pristine lakeside setting, and the best mac ‘n cheese this side of the Mississippi, but the truth is, it’s the staff members who make or break a program. The exciting part is that it doesn’t take a complex equation, billions of dollars in marketing, or a super computer combing through all the sites to find the right staff. It starts with you.

As the leader, your role is to develop the leadership potential within each staff member. Why? What’s the point? Staff members are here one summer, gone the next. The truth is that a great leader remains well beyond the years of service. A leader leaves behind a culture—an atmosphere—that sets the stage for the next round of leadership. As the leader of an organization, you need that culture to be one that parents and participants respond to positively, and one that remains consistent, even when staff members do not. Good leadership is systemic and takes time to develop. Program success—short and long term—begins with your ability to help staff members reach their leadership potential.

The term “leadership” means many things depending whom you ask, but the underlying tone is consistent. “Leaders are people who know how to achieve goals and inspire people along the way” (Helmrich, 2016). Leadership is the culmination of actions, words, and choices that allow you to help others develop into strong, confident leaders.

Model behavior. Remember when your grandparents told you it’s not what you say, but how you say it? That rings true each and every time someone in your organization speaks to constituents. For example, it’s common to have to tell parents and campers “no,” which can sound harsh and slam the door on any further conversation. However, if you make a conscious effort to say something like, “I understand where you are coming from, and perhaps that’s something we can do in the future, but, unfortunately, we cannot make that accommodation now,” you will find staff members mimicking that behavior, making the word “no” not so bad and leaving parents feeling better about not getting what they requested. Handling obstacles with positivity won’t make everything turn into sunshine and rainbows, but approaching a problem with negativity will have a negative ripple effect through the entire staff. Instead, acknowledge that the situation is not ideal, and immediately start expressing how, as a team you will adapt to the change and create a solution.

Own your mistakes. If you mess up, acknowledge it and then fix it. Nobody is perfect, but as adults, we need to own up to shortcomings and make every effort to rectify a situation. This idea ties in with modeling behavior.  If staff members see you owning mistakes and handling them with professionalism, they will do the same with other staff as well as parents.

Show respect. If you say you’re going to do something, do it! And do it fast! If you can’t complete whatever you said you were going to do as quickly as anticipated, find that staff member and give him or her an update on the situation. If they feel respected, they will put in more effort and have more patience with you; after all, you are human as well!

Communicate, follow up, and check in with staff members daily. A simple, “How are you today?” goes a long way. Never assume everything is fine because you haven’t heard otherwise. Nine times out of 10, by the time you hear of grumblings among staff members through the grapevine, it’s too late. The summer ship has started to sink. Keep the atmosphere positive by checking in regularly and asking everyone (and I mean everyone) how things are going and whether they need anything. Again, this shows respect, models behavior, and provides an opportunity to fix mistakes. Think of it from a parent’s perspective. How blown away would they be if a camp counselor walked up to them and asked how everything was going and if they or their child needed anything while at the program? That would leave a lasting impression that they will relay to others.

Never ask a staff member to do something you are not willing to do. Toilet clogged? You may not be able to fix it every time, but when you can, do it. If the boss is willing to do things that normally wouldn’t bein the “job description,” staff members will be more apt to jump in and do whatever needs to be done without passing the buck onto some else. Think about a world where the mundane things that normally would be a note on your desk to fix (which add up to hours of your time) are being handled on the spot by incredibly motivated staff members. Model the behavior you want to see.

Empower your staff. Let them have the responsibility and respect to make decisions on the spot. Not only does it make them feel valued, but your customers (parents) will be thrilled when their needs are met. When changes occur, bring key staff members into the discussion whenever possible to brainstorm solutions. They will appreciate that their input is valued, and when given the chance to help solve or develop problems/actions, they will take ownership of them—all of which helps drive the positive culture needed throughout the summer.

It really boils down to setting the tone by being the leader you want your staff to be. Find the right staff and then give them the tools and support they need to grow. It takes time and patience, but the end result is well worth it.

Kristin Santillo Welch is the Assistant Recreation Director for the town of Orchard Park, N.Y.  Reach her at (716) 662-6450, or

Work Cited
Helmrich, B. (April 5, 2016). 33 Ways to Define Leadership. Retrieved from