The alarm clock on my phone screams through the darkness of the early morning. My roommates sharing the hotel room groan from the clamor as I stumble across the room to silence the racket and check the time. I throw on my matching shirt and head to the pair of white vans parked outside the hotel. The cool blast from the AC fights off the stuffy heat from yesterday’s sun as the engine springs to life. People filter out to the vans as the clock inches closer to 5:30. Camp runs on a tight schedule, and there is no room to be late. One person sprints to the door as the clock turns to 5:31. Someone is still not out of the room yet. We need to learn to be on time. It looks like we are leaving at 5:25 tomorrow.
This experience was one of many similar summer mornings as the day of camp began. My job as the director for this team of a travelling day camp was something I was very proud of and held in high regard. I was the youngest director they hired. I was placed in charge of a group of twenty other college students and made decisions about each detail of our work at camp and our free time outside. I determined when we woke up in the morning, what time we left, what we ate for dinner, when we would meet and when we had a day off. I evaluated people’s performance and decided what was acceptable. Walking into that summer, I thought I had everything straight. It took just over two weeks to shatter that illusion.
By the end of the second week, things were rough. Our team morale was down, people were tense with each other, and I was struggling with keeping the team punctual. I set deadlines that people were missing. I held high expectations, yet hardly anyone was striving to reach them. In meetings I was always quick to figure out what our current problems were and do everything possible to fix those problems. The heart of the issue finally dawned on me halfway through the summer: in my head, my job was all about me.
So much about leadership is focused on leaving a legacy. Politicians want the best laws passed under their watch, business leaders want to see high growth during their time in charge. I wanted the summer to be a success because of how it would reflect on me. My own pride hindered me from leading the team.
This desire for accomplishment caused me to lead like someone I am not. I love building relationships and helping people grow, yet I led my team from a distance. I focused all my energy towards enforcing my team to obtain results when I should have spent time investing in relationships so I could effectively empower my team. My mindset was centered on tweaking every detail to make camp as smooth as it could be. Through all this, I neglected to build up my team and motivate them. Through failure after failure, I learned that leadership is not about achieving, it is about inspiring.
This is where my engineering background and leadership experience collided in a wreck that stained the first half of the summer. Engineering has taught me to look at everything as a problem to be solved. People are not just “problems” that you can “fix.” As I realized this, I drastically changed my approach. First, I started to act more like myself instead of the big man in charge. I spent time getting to know my team. I stopped simply fixing problems by telling people what to do and instead started to work with them individually on whatever they were struggling with. Slowly, things began to turn around. People took initiative and created incredible moments. Our staffer who was the least punctual person on the team had a complete about-face in his work ethic. He even inspired a movement during our recreation time that I can only describe as the most intense battle march that first and second graders have ever performed.
The summer of camp concluded as the most intense, stressful, enlightening, humbling and rewarding experience of my life. I walked in thinking I had it all and walked out with the realization that I still have so much to learn.
Memories of my personal achievements are hazy and unclear. However, I do remember how my team developed throughout our summer together. Learning and growing with them is the most gratifying takeaway I have. I was able to have an impact on my team by looking past myself as the leader and instead looking for ways to serve them.
I discovered that a legacy is much more than a list of accomplishments. A legacy is how you set up the people who follow you to succeed.