The structure and environment of a summer camp creates opportunities to learn and grow in countless ways. Young men learn how to live together. They learn how to work together as they cook their meals and clean pots, pans and dishes. Away from their home environment and the presence of parents or siblings, they grow in independence and self-reliance as they set and achieve goals.
An adult leader quietly observing in the background can witness success, failure or surrender. Time spent reflecting on lessons learned or behaviors witnessed can provide many insights to assist in the working world of adults.
Years ago, it was affirming to learn even a former U.S. Army Colonel—one who made presentations to Colin Powell and other top brass at the Pentagon throughout his career and held numerous leadership positions—admitted he gained a renewed understanding of leadership by simply watching Scouts at summer camp.
My list could be much longer, but here are four memorable lessons from my week:
If you can’t find the hamburger, someone might be sitting on it: While cooking dinner on the first day, a patrol of young Scouts struggled to get a charcoal fire burning. While focusing on building the fire, they forgot where they placed a plastic bag with approximately five pounds of hamburger. After a few minutes, one of the Scouts squirmed in his lawn chair and discovered he was sitting on the package. The Scouts were tired, stressed and not communicating or thinking.
Lesson: When an element of your business consumes your team’s attention, pause and take a moment to keep track of the hamburger.
You can’t do it all by yourself: No matter how skilled and organized a teenager might be, one can’t complete all necessary tasks to cook a dinner for eight over a charcoal fire and prepare to wash dishes. The enjoyment of his self-importance quickly becomes a state of panic of isolation. Barking out orders to fellow Scouts is futile. They became accustomed to watching the leader do everything and don’t have the skills to complete the task.
Lesson: From the moment someone joins your team and thereafter, continually engage and delegate. It’s the only way to build trust and confidence.
Applaud the pancake machine: Only two Scouts remained in a patrol when two other Scouts left to help younger Scouts prepare a breakfast of pancakes and sausage. The two remaining older Scouts made the charcoal fire, heated the griddle, mixed the pancake batter, heated the griddle, cooked dozens of pancakes and sausages, set the table and made preparations for cleaning up afterward. The two completed all tasks in less than 45 minutes without an argument, accident or incident.
They were a pancake machine. They modeled all traits of a high-performing team.
Lesson: Sometimes the smallest teams can complete large and complex tasks if they possess the necessary skills, focus and enthusiasm.
Jump in and go the distance: Every Friday during summer camp, Scouts are offered the opportunity to complete the mile swim. It’s not like swimming a mile in a pool with the swim team. There’s no wall for resting—only floating or treading water—and lake water prevents you from seeing the bottom.
For this mile, a Scout and his buddy must swim 50 yards to the middle of a lake to reach the course. Then, they swim eight laps around a line of lifeguards in swamped canoes. More lifeguards patrol the line in rowboats.
It takes courage to enter the mile swim. A light wind can create choppy waters. One can get kicked and elbowed by inattentive swimmers. The course appears to stretch forever.
Both of my sons swam the mile with me in years past. Last week, one of the 11-year-olds accepted the offer to be my buddy for the mile swim. At the beginning, he displayed the necessary determination. After a few laps, he learned to conserve energy by using the elementary back stroke instead of the breast stroke or crawl. At the start of the final lap, you sensed a quiet confidence.
Lesson: Start, no matter how challenging the goal. Learn how to keep going, no matter the distance. Confidence will come.
Remember the Scout who didn’t realize he was sitting on the hamburger?
He was my buddy who completed the mile swim.