YMCA Camp Kitaki

Lessons I Learned from My Camp Mentor (That I Hope our Campers and Staff Now Learn From Me)

Lessons I Learned from My Camp Mentor (That I Hope our Campers and Staff Now Learn From Me)

Each September, a panel of 3 returning SKs and I conduct group interviews with prospective SKs. It is a fairly informal process, more of a chance to for me to get to know the new SKs and them to get to know me. As a part of the interview, we often ask “Tell me about a role model in your life.” And because it is an informal process, I provide my answer as well. Now, my answer has changed some over the years as folks have come and gone from camp. I used to say “Austin’s dad,” then when Austin wasn’t around it became “Madi’s’ dad,” and currently we are in the “Jack’s dad” phase, because Jack is the final Klingenberg in the SK program. But I am always talking about the same person, the former camp director and my current Y colleague: Chris Klingenberg.

I have been fortunate enough to work for some amazing leaders, and each has taught me a great deal, but Chris was my supervisor when I was really starting to develop my vision of what it meant to be a strong leader. I am very fortunate to have had a role model like him at that point in my life, and I hope now that I occupy a similar space at Kitaki as he did when I was younger, I can provide the same to our current campers and staff.

Leaders Know Their Team

I joined the SK program in 1999 (cue giggles from all the young people who take the time to read this blog post). At the time, the defining element of my personality was my painful shyness. Speaking in front of a group? Yeah right. I could barely speak to someone one-on-one. But I loved camp, and loved the idea of helping at camp, so in spite of my nerves I packed a bag and headed to Orientation Weekend. It went better than I expected, though I was definitely one of the quieter SKs. I assumed that as the quiet kid I would fly under the radar, but at the time that was how I liked it.

As I was leaving, Chris (who was in charge of the SK program at the time) came up to me. As the Associate Executive Director at the coolest place on the planet (in my mind at least), I knew who Chris was, but hadn’t ever really talked to him and so assumed he had no idea who I was. But he walked up to me, addressed me by name, and thanked me for attending the event. I think I stammered out some sort of “no, thank you!” and then awkwardly walked away. Chris probably didn’t notice, because the interaction was probably no big deal to him. But to me, it was everything.

As I mentioned, I was used to flying under the radar, so for me the fact that Chris knew my name was one of the two hallmark moments of my camp career (the first was when Bob, the Executive Director, wrote me back after I sent him a camp-o-gram). By taking the time to learn my name, Chris helped me feel like someone cared enough to know who I was when there were so many other people who were louder, and funnier, and cooler than I thought myself to be. It was a feeling I have never forgotten, and it is the reason I invest a huge amount of energy into learning the names of as many campers as I can each year.

Leaders Know Their Team (And Love them Anyway)

My appreciation for Chris’ leadership deepened as the years passed and I moved from SK to counselor to a supervisor at camp. As we worked together more and more, one thing became very apparent: I am a very different person than Chris.

While his strengths are very future-focused and task-oriented, mine are very feelings-based. It would have been very easy for Chris to be frustrated by my incessant need to talk through the emotional impact of whatever issue we were tackling and just say “Here is what needs to happen. Get to it!” But instead he always took the time to put my needs at the forefront. When we worked with a new partner camp and I was stressed about the plan for morning activities, Chris listened patiently while I ranted and half-panicked, and in the process I worked through a solution and settled myself down as we talked. And you know what? I cared so much more, and worked so much harder, because he did that. Having Chris as my boss, I learned that if you want the best results from your team you need to give more than you ask for. And when you do, you often end up getting more out of the people you are supervising than you ever would have dreamed to ask of them.

Leadership Happens in the Trenches

Chris had a very lengthy and successful career at camp, and getting to know the people doing the work was a huge part of that success. But do you know what image comes to mind when I think back on Chris’ time at Kitaki? Washing dishes. Chris would often jump in and help in the dishroom, especially when he was promoted to District Executive Director and his duties led to him splitting time between camp and the Northeast Y in Lincoln. Why? Because more than anyone I have ever worked with or for, Chris understood that if you want to be a truly great leader, you don’t just support the people doing the work. When you can, you do the work. You start by looking for the most thankless task, be it dishes or sorting beads or mucking stalls. Make sure the people doing it know you appreciate them, help if you can, and don’t expect anyone to pat you on the back for doing so. You don’t do it because the job is bad or hard, you do it because the work needs to be done, and the people doing it need to be seen. Good leaders lead from the front, but great leaders can often be found in the back, keeping everyone moving forward.

Camp was a very busy place when Chris was in charge, and it is even busier now. But when I can, I try to remember how much it meant to see Chris standing in the window of the dishroom, hands coated in taco meat grease or tomato soup. Personally, I am more of a scrub the toilets sort of leader, but I hope the impact is the same.

Leaders Help Others Feel like Their Best Selves (Even When They Make Their Worst Mistakes)

When he was the director at Kitaki, all the staff knew that if you disappointed Chris, you would be able to tell right away. Not because he would yell or shame you. Chris was and is a very mild-mannered, even-keeled individual. But one look from Chris could speak volumes.

Forgot to put away the expensive supplies from your evening activity so they were ruined in the night’s rainstorm? You knew. Riding horses faster than you were supposed to and a staff member fell off and got hurt? You could picture the look Chris was eventually going to give you long before news reached him. Chris was not one to let mistakes slide. And that is important; it is why Kitaki is a safer, more intentional place than it was 15 years ago, or even 5 years ago. People need boundaries, and they need to know when they aren’t meeting expectations.

But even though Chris was not shy to let you know when you needed to shape up, his approach never left you feeling like he thought less of or cared less about you. You know the line “I’m not mad, I am just disappointed?” Well, sometimes you knew that Chris was mad, and disappointed. And, more importantly, you knew he wanted to see you do better, because he believed you could.

Sometimes, when I would make a low-level mistake like staying up past lights out, Chris would make an “I am strangling the air instead of you” gesture, and even though he would be smiling, I knew that it meant “If this happens again, I will no longer be smiling.” But I also knew that it meant “I have high expectations for you because I know you won’t let me down.” Chris would ask what happened, would listen, and would wait for you to come up with a plan. When I messed up, instead of lowering my self-worth, Chris had a way of making me believe in my best self. And because I believed it, I did better next time.

This is perhaps the most important lesson I learned from Chris. Just like 15 years ago, staff still make mistakes (I am happy to say that few of them result in injuries and rain-soaked equipment). When they do, I make sure they understand the severity of the mistake and the consequences involved. People need boundaries. But I also take the time to make sure they understand that I care, that making this mistake has not changed the support I am willing to offer them nor the fondness I hold in my heart for them. I try to help them feel seen and valued, try to connect, try to help when I can. Above all else, I try to help them feel like their best selves. And in the process, they share their best selves with our campers, and with each other. Watching it happen is probably the best, most rewarding part of my job. And I have Chris to thank for it.

Natalie "Nat" Roberts-Day

Associate Executive Director

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