The Prouty Team

Leadership Lessons from a Former Camp Counselor

by Kristin Jonason

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

As I reflect on impactful experiences and leaders I’ve had throughout my life, my most defining moments come from working at YMCA Camp Olson, an overnight summer camp for youth. I knew that the lessons learned from being a camp counselor for many years would stick with me for life, but I could have never guessed that they would prepare me for a pandemic.

Here are five competencies I developed as a camp counselor that are more important than ever during these unprecedented times.

  1. Compassion and Empathy: My job as a camp counselor was to ensure each child felt important, valued, and respected. Every day we were expected to spend at least 15 minutes 1:1 with each of our campers. And trust me, it was easier said than done given our busy day-to-day schedule. What was important about these individual check-ins was child was heard, seen, and felt like they mattered. How are you checking in, individually, with your team members?
  2. Teamwork: Have you ever tried to set up a 6-person tent by yourself? No one can do it alone. Ask for help and give help when needed. Speak up, ask questions, and assign roles to get the job done. We’re all in this together, let others know how you need help, and how you can help.
  3. Creativity: I’ll never forget the time I took 10 teenagers on the Superior Hiking Trail for 8 days and we forgot all of our pots and pans. We had to find ways to get creative and maximize our resources to ensure we wouldn’t go hungry. Sometimes it takes some restrictions to realize you can actually do more with less. Instead of thinking outside the box, how can you think more creatively inside the box?
  4. Positivity: I would always notice that my campers would feed off and usually mimic my own attitude. If we were doing something I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to, like cleaning the cabin, I would act excited about it anyway. My campers would pick up on my mood and we cleaned the cabin that much quicker and we even had fun doing it. Who knew you could convince kids to be so excited to take out the trash?! On the flipside, if I was complaining about something, my campers would immediately mirror my attitude and be equally upset which would make certain activities even harder to get through. Positivity and optimism can go a long way, especially in challenging times.
  5. Communication: If you’ve ever taken a First Aid Certification course, you’ll know that clear and calm communication and instructions can save lives. Letting people know what their role is, when to do it, how to do it, and why will increase the likelihood of success and eliminate questions and confusion. Be sure to communicate with your team calmly, early, and often.

Attending Camp Olson as a young camper who eventually became a counselor, shaped me to be an independent, confident, lover of nature, but also to be the compassionate, creative, and resilient leader and teammate I am today. What I realize today, now more than ever, that what was expected of me as a camp counselor is actually not so different from what is expected of me now as an employee and team member.

Essay Three, Part Two in a Series by Peter Bailey, Adrienne Jordan, and Kristin Jonason at The Prouty Project.

Read Essay One: Leading Others with Heart and Soul in Challenging Times

Read Essay Two: Listen for the Story


Read the Essays from Part One Here:

Read Essay One, Part One: Take a Breath

Read Essay Two, Part One: Permission to Rest

Read Essay Three, Part One: Time for Me



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