What I Learned About Organizational Culture at Summer Camp

By: Bill Palmer

Often, individuals in my clients organizations tell me feel that they are prisoners or hostages of their corporate culture.  My experience at summer camp tells me that we can instead be architects of culture. And yet, even the best architects may not design out a cultural shadow side.

Summer camp was, for me, after an initial bout of tearful homesickness, a wonderful place I went from the age of nine until fifteen.  Berkshire Hills Camp (which no longer exists), tucked away in the northwest corner of Connecticut on the shores of one of the Twin Lakes, was distinctive for its inclusive, warm and supportive culture.

Sports were important, but kids who weren’t good athletes were accepted and appreciated for other attributes.  Brawn was appreciated, but so were brains.  People were not, for the most part, teased or humiliated with regard to their physical appearance.  Appropriate affection among campers and counselors was common.  Strong discipline and order were enforced, but with a velvety  and compassionate touch. Values and ethics were taught and observed, but not to the point of orthodoxy or rigidity.  In many ways, Berkshire Hills Camp was an ideal experience for children of the 1950s and 1960s who attended.

Even today, Berkshire Hills Camp alumni remember the experience not only fondly but almost reverentially.  “Summer camp saved my life’ said one former camper I interviewed.  “It was an emotional oasis in the desert of the dysfunctional family I grew up in,” he added.  The Facebook page created by former campers is awash with fond recollections based on their belief that the camp’s culture was rich, inclusive, warm, loving, fair, fun and exciting.

As a fellow alumnus of BHC, I agreed with their perception. .  As an Executive Coach  and OD consultant, I too often hear clients speak of their organization’s culture with disgust, resentment and resignation to the status quo.

Was BHC truly a warm, loving, inclusive and high-functioning culture, or is this nostalgia?

If it was as described, why?

 I asked dozens of former campers to explain why they thought the camp had such a culture.  Here’s a sampling of their responses:

“For me it was like an alternate universe. The moment I got on that bus I entered a secret world with special people that were a part of my sweet summers.”

 “There were fabulous athletes, not so great athletes, singers, dancers, swimmers. Some of us participated in everything, and some just observed. We didn’t look at others weaknesses, but were encouraged to play on everyone’s strengths.”

 “It worked because it felt like family. That feeling started at the top and we all felt the love. I remember once being treated cruelly… I ended up crying {in one of the counselor’s} cabin with her consoling me. There was a great deal of nurturing.”

The Head Counselor during the time I was there was known as “Uncle George.” He played a key role in molding and maintaining the camp culture, as did the camp’s owner, known as “Aunt Elsie.”

The consensus answer to the first question—was it really that way? —was yes. When prodded to consider the idea that their recall of the camp might have been smoothed by time and mismanaged by memory, former campers felt strongly that the place was special, even magical.  While conceding it was not Paradise, many former campers recalled conceptualizing as children that this was an unusual and worthy environment.

The answer to the question “why” was harder to tease out.  There was something of the “fish in water” dynamic here:   The fish knows the water so well that it cannot distinguish it from the fabric of its experience.  (At least that’s the story some of us make up about fish).  In a sense, fellow BHC alumni could tell me about the temperature of the water, its degree of clarity, whether the current went this way or that, but had very little to say about why things were the way they were.

The culture was much as they remember it.  Here’s why:

A positive culture interdepends upon a variety of factors working together and simultaneously.  Any of the cultural traits listed below would not work as well in the absence of any of the others.

Wise Leadership–Uncle Georgewas a wise and thoughtful man unafraid to use his theatrical skills and sense to command respect and instill discipline. He had a booming voice, and he yelled a lot. I asked him recently how much of the yelling was theatrics and how much of it reflected real anger.  “It was 99% theatrical,” said George.  (George has a background in theater and acting, as well as education).  So, one key to the culture was a leader who understood his real and symbolic authority and used them both judiciously.  With Uncle George, punishment was administered firmly and with compassion  (“I coached the counselors to put their arm around a kid when they were disciplining him or her”). And, to win Uncle George’s praise was meaningful.

The wise and compassionate exercise of both formal and informal authority and leadership is requisite.  Uncle George was forceful and kind, strict and compassionate.  He required that counselors manage camper behavior in accordance with these values, and counselors cascaded these values to opinion leading and influential campers.

A Payoff for Cooperative Behavior–Campers lived together in very basic bunks, in very close quarters, and there was much to be gained by getting along.  Counselors lived in bunks with campers and were not much older than they—some were as young as 16 and not many were older than 21.  There was a cadre of adult counselors, in their 40s and 50s who mentored and monitored camp counselors and camperswho were known as “Aunts” and Uncles.”  The titles communicated authority as well as a familial tone.  Campers who were opinion leaders or known to be influential with other campers were coached by their counselors to be inclusive, and to use their informal authority to help counselors manage behavior.

Shared Core values–BHC had a spiritual/religious basis.  There was no requirement that a camper be Jewish, and as the years went by, more and more non-Jewish campers attended.  The camp’s observance of Jewish meal time and Sabbath rituals gave a sort of spiritual structure to the culture.  This was important not because it was Jewish, but because it provided a general framework of values and behaviors.

A Safe and Variable but Not Capricious Environment–Days were programmed with activities on a timed basis, and there was a set schedule for breakfast, lunch, dinner, etc. There were also rest periods and “free play.”  The predictability of the schedule was broken up by “special days” on which the schedule was ditched in favor of a special event or activity that included the whole camp.  So, life was predictable but not boring.  There were things to enjoy in the moment as well as things to look forward to.  This was great because predictability and playcan feel as though the environment and schedule that never changes are soul draining.  The environment and schedule that constantly and capriciously change can be spirit-killers in camps and in organizations.

The Shadow Side—The owner of the camp, Aunt Elsie, was an overweight woman who ran not only the business of the camp but also the camp kitchen, seven days a week.  Her physical appearance was the subject of much verbal abuse.  Aunt Elsie had the misfortune to share a first name with the symbol of the Borden Milk Company, Elsie the Cow.   So, behind her back she was referred to as “The Moo.” If she were nearby and campers thought they could do it without being identified, they would make the lowing sound of a cow.  At meals, on occasion, a camp song that had been rewritten to include the phrase “the big fat moo” was sung by campers and counselors alike.  There is no way Aunt Elsie could have avoided hearing this.  And it must have hurt.

Almost all of the campers I contacted said that either this never actually took place, or if it did they were unaware.  A few recalled that it happened and regretted it.  To my knowledge, Aunt Elsie never mentioned the abuse to campers and no campers were ever disciplined or punished for it.  Former campers I interviewed could not recall anyone being disciplined or punished for such behavior, nor could they recall being counseled to eliminate such behavior.  In effect, the camp permitted this behavior by turning a blind eye to it.

The camp’s wonderful culture was its strength and also its weakness.  The authority figures were benevolent and wise, for most part.  So, perhaps, verbally abusing Aunt Elsie was a kind of safety valve for resentment of authority and a safe target for   a group of children and adolescents who were successfully forbidden from verbally abusing their peers.   It is the rare system that has fully integrated its alienated pieces, and this proves true in the case of BHC.

No culture, system, group or individual is exempt from its shadow side.  The Berkshire Hills Camp culture architects were very, very good at what they did.  The fact of a shadow side in their work represents not failure on their part but a challenge call to all who believe that we can shape our culture and our organizations.

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3 Responses to What I Learned About Organizational Culture at Summer Camp

  1. Bill Palmer says:

    Hi Cookie,

    Liz was always a good big sister to me, her sister and to you and others. She still is. I am glad you have so many fond memories as do most of us, including me. And thanks for sharing the pillow on movie night!

    Bill

  2. Bill Palmer says:

    Hi Joanne,

    Thanks for the nice words about my piece. Interesting how we all have somewhat different memories and how those memories stuck with us–or didn’t. I don’t recall the swastikas–though I am sure they were there–but I do remember being told and believing (rightly or wrongly) that O”Hara’s–the restaurant and marina not far from the camp on the lake–was somehow anti-semitic. The other factors you mentioned about contributing to camp culture are right on the mark.

    Uncle George was and is a singular and unique and remarkable fellow. I am glad we all had the experience of being guided by him.

    Bill

  3. Bruce–somehow after all this time I just saw your response. I apologize for missing it. Of course I remember you quite well, and distinctly recall our singing “Dream, Dream, Dream” by the Everly Brothers at a camp show. Not that Don and Phil had anything to fear from us.

    I think we all tend to look at the past, to some extent, through a lens that might be tinted just a little bit gold. But most of the folks I talked to about BHC agreed it was pretty special, even if romanticized a bit. I hope you’ll be in touch after all this time, really sorry I missed your post. wmpalmer@williampalmerconsulting.com.

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