Part 2--Growing From The Inside

By Chris Thurber

Successful internal leadership development (ILD) programs are those which clearly define what leadership is and how leaders mature. Having reviewed the philosophy and proposed a framework for self-study in Part 1 of this series, I outline below the design elements of robust ILD for summer youth programs. Naturally, every day camp, overnight camp, and parks and rec department will tailor these elements to fit their mission, vision, and values.


Commitment. ILD programs languish or fail without an absolute commitment from upper management. Both in faith and in practice, the camp director and senior staff members must move beyond a “this is a good idea” mindset to a “this is the centerpiece of our staff” mindset. In practice, this means:

  1. Giving top hiring priority to homegrown leaders

  2. Taking competitive promotion from senior camper levels to junior leader and leader-in-training levels seriously

  3. Rigorously evaluating and training any necessary external hires

  4. Holding all leaders to the same high standards

  5. Treating all levels and origins of leadership fairly, especially when it comes to salary and workload

  6. Firing leaders who break major camp rules, even if that means letting go of one of your favorites for a season.

Ritual. For an ILD program to work, young participants must understand that it is more than fun to work at your camp—it is a privilege. Eventually, they will understand the great responsibility that leadership entails and benefit from the professional experience they are gaining. For now, it is enough for them to see camp leadership as something that must be earned. If new hires see their job as a role in Meatballs, as an opportunity for romance, or as an easy, disposable summer job, then they will treat it like a stick of gum. Once the flavor is gone, they will be ready to spit it out.

Rituals, such as awards, ceremonies, campfires, camp songs, and special staff clothing, add a sense of mystery, importance, and high purpose to your brand of ILD. Instead of secretly selecting which senior campers are ready to be junior leaders next summer and then emailing them in the off-season, include a tasteful ritual in announcing your choices. Some camps announce the names of senior campers chosen to be next summer’s junior staff as part of their closing firelight; others read aloud at their closing ceremonies the criteria by which junior staff members are chosen and then individual letters are sent to those chosen. However you decide to integrate ritual and tradition into an ILD program, the goal should be twofold:

  1. Communicate the criteria by which campers are selected to be leaders.

  2. Make it clear that membership is an honor.

Training. Details of how to train young leaders are included in the next section. Here, as a design issue, it is enough to note that an overall training program should be formulated as a multi-season process. One way to do this is to promote senior campers to become one-month junior leaders, then junior leaders to become all-season leaders-in-training, then leaders-in-training to become full-fledged leaders. Thus, by the time a young staff member has her own group (at a day camp or parks and rec program) or cabin (at an overnight camp), she has had at least one season as a camper, followed by two seasons of training. Now, during training week, you do not have to review mundane aspects of camp, such as the daily schedule or the location of the bathrooms. Instead, you can spend time talking about different leadership styles and how to handle challenging campers.

Some camps require interested senior campers to take a year off from camp before returning as junior leaders or leaders-in-training. While that extra year may bestow some maturity upon these young people, it may also be a missed opportunity to train them, help them grow in camp spirit, and let them make mistakes from which they can learn. Whichever route you choose, it is important that junior leaders, who return to camp the season following their final camper year, do not become indentured servants. Work duties should be shared among all levels of the leadership, from the director downward, and not relegated to junior leaders who must “do their time.” If you want to know who is most worthy of promotion from junior leader to leader-in-training, or from leader-in-training to cabin leader or group leader, you must see how they work with campers. Anyone can wash dishes, but only a few can work effectively and enthusiastically with children.


Promotion. As part of an ILD program, devise a system of promotion that takes into account your stated goals, the camp’s traditions, and the style of training that suits you best. Each camp with a homegrown leadership does things differently. The most successful ones make their criteria for promotion public and work to abide by these criteria, consistently promoting only those young leaders whose behavior has shown their readiness and commitment to the prodigious task of leading children. At first, the yield will be fairly small, and the temptation to promote anyone interested will be great. Stick to your guns, however, and the yield will grow year after year. Over time, senior campers and young leaders will begin to internalize your promotion criteria and work hard to make the cut.

It is essential to use clear language that distinguishes between the oldest campers and the youngest leaders. Some camps use the terms LIT and CIT to entice 14- and 15-year-old campers back to camp, but that’s a risky practice. Although you can give paying participants some age-appropriate, carefully supervised leadership opportunities, the terms LIT and CIT suggest a staff rank that is background-checked, interviewed, trained, and paid. To avoid confusion and the lawsuits that arise from untrained pseudo-staff misbehaving, I advocate a crystal-clear distinction—in both name and dress—between participants and staff members. Giving any person at camp a staff shirt and a staff-like title obliges you to implement hiring, training, and supervision that meet or exceed industry standards for staff hiring, training, and supervision.

Training Techniques To Maximize ILD
There are six techniques that all camps with successful ILD programs use. Regardless of how you customize a program, work hard to integrate these training elements.

1. Provide leadership by example. Perhaps nothing is more powerful in shaping a person’s behavior than the behavior of those present. Senior staff members—from the director down—should model good leadership. From the outset, leaders need to agree both to solicit constructive criticism and to provide it. Of course, this requires a nonjudgmental atmosphere focused on learning. Achieving this is not easy, given that senior staff members are required to evaluate junior staff and make promotion decisions at the end of the season. This inherent power differential makes young leaders reluctant to point out older leaders’ shortcomings. To overcome this obstacle to candid communication, senior staff members need to model humility, a willingness to listen, and a desire to improve. When, as a member of your camp’s upper-management team, did you last ask for feedback from a new counselor or counselor-in-training?

2. Enhance responsibility. If you want leaders to learn and mature, you must provide room for that growth. You must not only delegate responsibility, but also be silent and see whether young leaders will take the initiative to get things done. They must develop a keen eye for seeing what or who needs attention around camp. To become as sharp as you are in spotting these needs, give staff real decision-making power. Resist the temptation to micro-manage each and every situation. The only real way leaders grow is by examining the consequences—both good and bad—of their decisions.

3. Simulate realistic scenarios. Make role-plays part of training during pre-camp week. The main reason most leaders groan when you say “role-play” is because, if done well, it reveals the leader’s true strengths and weaknesses. Most leaders would prefer a cushier, less confrontational training technique. But there is no substitute for learning by doing. Draw role-plays or “sim drills” (short for “simulation drills”) from actual case examples. Carefully set up, play through, debrief, and replay each case. Remember to check with participants to see how they felt acting out the different roles. Quiz those in the audience about what they liked and what they would have done differently. Brainstorm alternative outcomes. And for particularly challenging scenarios, ask a second group to role-play the same case so that everyone can see the stylistic differences that exist among leaders. You don’t want anyone to think there’s only one right way to solve a vexing leadership problem.

4. Conduct ongoing evaluations. The ultimate feedback for any leader is to receive (or not receive) a contract for the following season. Long before then, however, each leader should have received feedback on his job. You can set the stage by reviewing the evaluation process with the entire leadership before the season starts. As noted above, directors and senior staff members must also foster an atmosphere of candid, bi-directional communication. Whether written or oral, formal or informal, each leader should receive a mid-season evaluation so she has the chance to improve on specific things during the second half of the season. No one wants eleventh-hour feedback on something that would have been easy to change.

The camps with the most successful ILD programs actually have their own leadership director. This person’s job is to solicit feedback from experienced staff members about the job junior leaders are doing, distill that feedback, and then review it with the leader in question. Questionnaires help supervising staff summarize a young leader’s strengths and weaknesses, and they give leadership directors standardized teaching tools. Consider designing a questionnaire that leaders can use to critique their own or another leader’s performance. Finally, remember to balance strengths with weaknesses when giving evaluations.

5. Conduct regular mini-trainings. There is no way that any member of your leadership will learn all of what she needs to know during staff-training week. Therefore, you need to see staff training as an ongoing process. Like any other priority, carve out time for mini-trainings. “Fitting it in somewhere” hardly ever works. Instead, plan ahead and allocate time in leaders’ schedules for additional discussions, meditations, sim drills, and other exercises that force honest self-examination of the job. At the very least, you will want to provide time in the weekly schedule for leaders to discuss issues in small groups. Bring particularly enlightening or critical issues to weekly full-staff meetings and facilitate a discussion on improvements. Consider hiring a professional staff trainer or a leadership director from a neighboring camp to conduct a review of leadership performance and/or mid-season training.

6. Give time for leaders to bond. At the beginning of training week, and throughout the camp season, provide both structured and unstructured time for leaders to bond. Structured activities might include ice-breakers, trust-building exercises, and team games. Unstructured activities might include a mid-season pizza party, a staff movie night, or an evening at the director’s cottage. And, don’t forget days off and nights off. ACA standard or not, staff members need time away from camp to recharge. Whatever the mechanism, the goal should be to provide the time and space for leaders’ relationships to evolve from acquaintance to friendship. Remember, the time you allow staff to bond, without the distraction of other responsibilities, is an investment in the overall strength of leadership.

Putting It All Together
If putting all of these philosophical ideas, design elements, and training techniques together were easy, then every day camp, overnight camp, and summer youth program would have its own outstanding ILD program. The fact is, ILD programs are challenging to implement, but infinitely valuable to the health of a program and its participants. Take the time to design a system that capitalizes on the existing strengths of a camp. With the proper elements in place, an ILD program will become more than a method for hiring high-quality staff. It will be part of what makes a camp unique and one of the most important reasons that campers return to your camp year after year. For a camper to admire her leader, to want to be in her position someday, to want to work at your camp, is the ultimate compliment a director can hope for.

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: