Growing From The Inside

By Chris Thurber

Part 1: Cultivating great leaders from participants of all ages

Internal leadership development (ILD) is a program of hiring, training, and promoting front-line staff members and supervisors from the camper ranks. The benefits for day camps, overnight camps, and other summer youth programs include:

  • Enhanced loyalty (because you are hiring people who love your camp)
  • Reduced liability (because you are hiring staff members whose behavior you have observed over multiple summers
  • Heightened expertise (because staff training week focuses on advanced skills, not teaching new staff members the schedule)
  • Easier spring hiring (because ILD can eventually become your primary source of new hires).

Although critics deride homegrown staff as incestuous, that characterization is invalid. The diversity of experiences staff members enjoy in the nine months of the off-season guarantees they will return to your camp with fresh perspectives, new ideas, and incisive questions about your traditions.

Great Camps Don’t Just Happen
“You could take skilled leaders and put them in a parking lot with a bunch of kids and make a great camp,” said Tom Giggi, one of my mentors, more than 30 years ago. I was a proud, first-year cabin leader, smitten with my newfound power and the immense privilege of having been chosen to return to camp after my Leader-in-Training year. Tom was charged with the prodigious task of keeping me humble and focused on my job: the children—not the equipment—at camp. His comment has become one of my mantras because it speaks to the tremendous potential that youth leaders have to transform a perfectly good camp into a great camp.

This transformation hinges on something simple but increasingly uncommon: a leader’s secure relationship with his or her campers. From that, other elements of a great camp follow: strong traditions, long staff and camper tenure, and a spirit that transcends the fancy equipment. Of course, finding talented leaders, who can keep children their top priority, is not simple. Even if you are an expert interviewer, you don’t really know how a new hire will treat your campers. Fortunately, there exist alternate methods for finding skilled staff members. In fact, they are right there in your camp already, enjoying their camper years and beginning to absorb the camp’s philosophy.

Nurturing, selecting, and training the campers who best exemplify a camp’s values is a complex process that lies at the heart of ILD. But before you make a commitment to internal leadership development, you must ask yourself key questions, understand fundamental training techniques, and design a model that incorporates essential core elements. What follows is an outline—which you can customize—of those questions, design elements, and training techniques.

Begin With A Leadership Self-Examination
Whether you are looking to enhance existing ILD program or start fresh, first ask yourself some conceptual and pragmatic questions. More than an academic exercise, these questions are a prerequisite to designing an ILD program and mentally committing to its success.

Responses to these questions will help determine whether ILD is right for you and lay the foundation for your version of an ILD program. Plan at least a day-long retreat to discuss these questions with senior staff members. (Some camps may elect to invite an outside facilitator to objectively guide this crucial stage in their camp’s leadership development.)  Allow each person to ponder each question and provide detailed answers. Without understanding why you are doing what you are doing, you cannot justify the program’s workings to staff members, see where it needs improvement, or obtain cooperation in following through on its stated goals.

1. What is leadership?

Rationale: Youth-development professionals have different definitions of what leadership means. To answer this question in the camp context, ask yourself why young participants do or do not follow staff members’ words and deeds, both good and bad.

Application: Formulate a description of the ideal qualities youth leaders should possess.

2. What is leadership development?

Rationale: You must understand how one’s leadership skills grow, whether through observations of mentors, on-the-job training, workshops, readings, or simple maturation.

Application: Discern what the camp is or is not doing to cultivate leadership among the campers and younger staff members.

3. What is internal leadership development?

Rationale: Leadership can be cultivated in many places, including outside of your day camp, overnight camp, or summer youth program. An ILD program presupposes seamless integration with pre-camp hiring practices and in-camp activity programming.

Application: Consider how you “bring campers up through the ranks” and hold out camp employment as a reward for exhibiting trainable leadership qualities.

4. What are the benefits and challenges of internal leadership?

Rationale: Good resumes are not hard to find, but good people are. Begin thinking about how cultivating your own staff from within the camper ranks could enhance the program’s quality. Consider also the disadvantages to a homegrown leadership.

Application: Whether you are starting a new ILD program or improving an existing program, keeping the pros and cons in mind will prevent you from becoming discouraged over multiple summers.

5. What are the alternatives to leadership?

Rationale: Some camps are not focused on leadership and are run as a bureaucracy or an autocracy. There are alternatives to consider, based on the camp’s mission.

Application: Consider where or under what circumstances you are unwilling or unable to let spontaneous leadership take its course.

6. What are the alternatives to internal leadership?

Rationale: Before you commit to an ILD program, consider all of the other ways camp staff members get hired (friends of staff, family of director, Internet job boards, international staffing agencies, camp fairs, etc.). How have those alternatives been working?  How can those alternatives be enhanced?

Application: It takes an ILD program a minimum of seven years to run smoothly and act as a significant source for new hires. You won’t want to let go of other hiring practices just yet.

7. What is your goal in developing an ILD program?

Rationale: After answering questions 1-6, you should begin to formulate one or more goals. Think of the reasons why you want to draw leaders from the camper ranks. Consider all the people who will benefit as well as the ways in which that will enhance the camp.

Application: Staff members are the lifeblood of your camp.The goals in developing an ILD program will motivate you and force you to think creatively about the program’s future.

Committing to ILD, or to an enhancement of your existing program, is a bold step to take. Besides the obvious regular meeting times you will need to set aside to evaluate senior campers and junior leaders, you will need patience and perseverance over many years, as the program evolves and you work the kinks out. It also means slowly hiring fewer staff members from the outside and sometimes putting a young leader’s interpersonal skills above his or her athletic or artistic skills. Most importantly, it means carefully designing a system of selection, training, and promotion that cultivates qualities you desire in leaders. These design elements are the subject of Part 2 in this series.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating and presenting original educational content. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy and consults for schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations worldwide. Learn more at: