Management in the Mountains: What a Camp Job Taught Me About Leadership

In my early 20s, I spent three summers working my very first management-level job at my local council Boy Scout camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Camp life is busy: waking up early for the morning flag-raising ceremony, all-day merit-badge classes, and evening activities and campfires. It meant taking my responsibility to the scouts seriously while also being comfortable acting silly. The campers changed every week, but our staff had to work together during long days in the mountains for the whole season.

Those long days at camp over the years taught me important lessons that continue to help me working for a marketing and communications department and as a freelance writer and editor.

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Managers are responsible for advocating for their staff

When I got to run my own program area, arts and crafts, for the first time, senior staff knew I didn’t have enough help. But they assured me that, based on my work ethic from the previous years, I’d be able to handle it.

I’m a people-pleaser, especially around people in authority, and I’ll admit their vote of confidence was good for my ego. But arts and crafts could have a couple dozen scouts working on four different merit badges (knowledge- and project-based awards in art, basketry, leatherwork, and wood carving) at one time, and I only had myself, a part-time adult counselor, and a full-time counselor-in-training (an overwhelmed teen in his first job who would quit before the summer was over).

Normally, I shy away from even the whiff of conflict. But when I finally stood up and asserted, clearly and concisely, that I needed more people, senior staff was taken aback that nice, easygoing Megan was rightfully frustrated. Suddenly there was a new full-time staff member available.

People rarely get all the resources they need. But when I decided to stop complaining, take action, and present my case thoroughly and seriously, a smart supervisor made it happen.

Every job comes with a spoken or unspoken “all other duties as assigned” expectation:

We joked about this clause in our contract when we were doing something that wasn’t particularly fun, like setting up the canvas tents for campers to sleep in during training week. It was hard, physical work, but when everyone did their part, it went by a lot faster.

No matter your job title or how high or low on the ladder you are, rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty when necessary earns you respect among your coworkers, supervisors, and direct reports. People on the lower end of the ladder notice, in particular, which managers are willing to do the less glamorous, hands-on work with everyone else … and which are sitting out because they’re “too busy” or it’s “not their job.”

Sometimes you’re called to use skills you didn’t even know you had:

The Boy Scout motto is “be prepared,” and that’s good advice for the workplace. Crises, in particular, challenge people to do things they never thought they’d need to. One year, a few embers from a campfire that hadn’t been completely put out started a fire in the forest on the outskirts of camp. As soon as staff heard what was happening, most of us immediately headed up there with shovels and other equipment to try to contain the fire until the fire department arrived to put it out.

Technically a bunch of young adults probably shouldn’t have done this (in full disclosure, senior staff kinda told us not to). While “contained a forest fire” is never something I thought I’d add to my résumé, when the unexpected happened, we figured out what to do and got to work. I haven’t (yet) come across a serious emergency at work since my camp days, but there have been “drop everything” moments that often challenge me to grow in ways I didn’t expect.

Working at camp is one of the quintessential summer jobs, but the skills I acquired and lessons I learned are lifelong.

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