My eldest daughter once attended a leadership camp that left her wanting. Not wanting more, necessarily. She was disappointed.
She was honored to be chosen to go, but she also went in knowing she had a lot to learn about leadership. Being my kid, she had been exposed to the subject more than the average 16-year-old. I teach leadership skills at work, and since the roles in my life tend to leak over into one another – mother, leader, teacher, student, friend, volunteer – my kids hear a lot about work stuff.
“All we did was listen to adults talk about leadership, Mom. We really didn’t learn how to do anything.”
The kids selected to attend were nominated and interviewed. Each was perceived as “leading”, or at least having shown signs….of what, I’m not sure. And neither was my kid. It seemed to her that “bossy” and “competitive” must have been on the list of criteria for identifying the honorees, among other traits commonly (rightly or wrongly) associated with leadership. Top finishers, maybe. Top grades. Election winners. Cheerleaders. Athletes.
She’d had a tough time getting a word in edgewise when she was placed in a small group for a “team building” exercise at the camp. A couple of kids took over and ran the thing, so the others eventually gave up and checked out. Not a big surprise to me. In fact, that’s the very situation leaders have to navigate every day. “So did they explain to you what was going on?”
“No.” She seemed puzzled by my question. “We were on our own. When the exercise was over, the two girls who took over spoke for us. We just sat there. The adults seemed happy with that. They didn’t know what was going on in the groups.”
Bummer. Missed opportunity. I assured her that what happened in her group is typical and natural, and there are ways to fix it when it happens. Most people don’t learn those skills. Ever. And those who do, figure it out when they’re much older, unfortunately. I was an old lady (in my thirties) when I finally learned. Now I love working on teams.
“We should do our own camp, Mom” she said. “You and your friends all do this for a living. You get some of your friends, I’ll get some of mine, and you guys can teach us all the stuff you teach people at work!”
Hmmm. I like her friends. And she likes mine. This could be fun. I’ll bet my friends would do it, too. They’re that kind of women. Women who get stuff done.
I work for a company that cares about training. I’ve been there for a long time, and I am learning new stuff all the time. When I started there, I didn’t know squat, really. Now I teach the stuff. And I really wish I’d learned it a lot sooner.
So on a road trip we took together to look at colleges – one of us driving, and the other typing away on a laptop – we worked on a plan for our own camp. We wanted our camp to be for kids who wanted to lead others…not to do it all themselves. We wanted kids to leave camp being able to do something they didn’t think they could do before. We wanted them to use what they learned, too. We weren’t going to talk about leadership at all. We were going to help each other learn to lead. Yes. So cool.
My daughter and I spent a ton of time talking about what kind of kid we wanted at the camp. Not the kid who was an individual performer. No Bossy Flossy people. We wanted the kid who would listen to people. The kids who put the objective ahead of their ego. A person willing to share the work…and the glory. A kid who was passionate about something , and wanted to get others excited about it, too. And most of all, a kid who realizes they have a lot to learn….and that it’s not a weakness to not have all the answers.
We thought a lot about what we thought the kids could learn. We couldn’t teach them everything, but we could give them a good, practical start. How to turn an idea into action. How to define the idea, turn it into steps, rally some support, and organize the action. How to plan and run a meeting. How important it is to find people to work with who are different from you…and then how to work with those people.
Then we had to figure out how they would practice the stuff we taught them. At work, employees practiced on the job. It was easy to create a simulation that applied to most people, because we all worked in a similar environment. The only thing these students had in common was that they were students. They weren’t all going to be class officers or club members…they didn’t have jobs… Then it dawned on us: They all live in this community. Do something good. Make a difference. They could pick something they care about….saving kittens, raising money for cancer research, mentoring kids…whatever. Perfect. Just lead some effort.
How many kids should we invite? Let’s start small, but not too small. How many can we fit on a bus? 42. Let’s pick 40 kids. That way two grown-ups can ride along. There was a camp run by our county for 6th Grade Science Camp and summer camps, too. Up in the hills. Beautiful set-up. Trails, obstacle courses, lookout towers, solid cabins.
Finally, we figured out what it would probably cost, and came up with a scheme for getting businesses or individuals to sponsor students. Students we selected.
Done. And we saw some cool colleges during that road trip, too. But mostly, we got fired up about this idea.
First we pitched the idea to John. He was all in. “Sounds cool. You guys should do it. We’d all help you.” With backing confirmed at home now, I pitched it to my friends (who also happen to be my workmates) at a girls’ weekend, and they said, “Oh, yeah. If you decide to go for it, we’ll do it….”
Now there was the matter of money. We needed sponsors. I hate fundraising. Yuk. But we had to. So we started with my company. My cool company. And believe it or not, they liked the idea so much, that they agreed to pay for the whole thing. Just like that. No fundraising to do. Excellent.
Wow. This was starting to get real. So we dove into the details. First snag: hormones. Teenagers. Weekend camp. Boys. Girls. Distraction. Drama. Not good. We weren’t really qualified to wrangle the mess that would be a camp full of raging adolescence. So we made the toughest decision of all: pick a gender. So far, we had been thinking “kids”. The camp my daughter went to was co-ed. They stayed in separate cabins, but still. This was my company paying the bills. No way was I going to get in over my head on this front. OK: so far all of the volunteers happened to be women. We’re going with girls. But it’s not going to be a camp about being a girl. It was about being a leader. Of all kinds of people. With all kinds of people. Someday, we could do a boys camp. Let’s walk before we run.
Another biggy was tackling the problem of follow up. I have teenagers. Short attention spans. We wanted to make sure these kids used the stuff. No free rides. Go out there and make a difference. Hmmm. Best to sic somebody on ’em. One-on-one. Somebody who knows the techniques we’ll teach. Someone who uses these tools at work. An expert. A cheerleader. A nag. A mentor. Wait: that means 40 mentors. Yikes.
One of the things I love most about my company is the amazing people who work there. Smart. Interesting. Hard working. Passionate. Really. And tons of amazing women. Collaborative, creative, ambitious, wicked smart women. I’ll ask them.
We were overwhelmed by the response. People loved the idea. It was intoxicating. Many said, “I wish someone had done this for me when I was in high school.” Besides, the women in my company like to hang out together. Book clubs, winemaking, travel, sports….this was just a really cool project we could do together. Bonus.
So as the work grew, our team grew. It got bigger and cooler and more inspiring. Everyone who pitched in started to own it. It became everyone’s camp. It started as a seed of an idea, coaxed along by two people on a road trip, then it took on a life of its own. People didn’t just “pitch in”. These women adopted it. And it got better and better.
My daughter was in awe of what was happening. What an excellent lesson. To watch the power of a good idea grow. And the best part of all was that forty more kids were going to have a chance to learn the very same thing. How to follow your passion. How powerful it is to ask for help. How leading is not about personal glory – it’s about accomplishing something. Making a difference.
We’ve had three camps so far. Every one of them has been a huge success and a rewarding experience for volunteers and students alike. Those students have done everything from teaching self defense classes to middle schoolers, to forming support groups for siblings of cancer patients. Backpack and clothing drives, animal rescue fundraisers and dance workshops. One 16-year-old put on a rock concert to raise awareness of human trafficking, a growing problem in our area. She’d heard a speech at church about the issue, and came to camp wanting to do something about it. She raised enough money to fund a special training effort for local law enforcement. She even produced a video to educate teens on how to spot a potential victim then how to help. She received an award from the DA’s office in a large West Coast city for contributing to a sharp increase in arrests. She was 16 when she did this.
One of the most fulfilling parts of the camp for we volunteers happens just before they load onto the bus to head back down the hill. Each camper is given a chance to say one last thing to the group before they leave. Imagine hearing a teenage girl say: “I came with an idea, but I didn’t think I could do it. And then bit by bit, as I started to map it out, I realized I could do each thing. And it dawned on me: I can do this thing. And I’m gonna do this thing. And it feels so amazing.”…
Yes, it does.