With the summer holidays behind us, many of us can reflect on the childhood adventures of summer camp, with days spent swimming in a lake and nights beside a campfire making s’mores. But summer camp as a powerful training ground for future business leaders? Probably not the first memory that comes to mind. And yet, looking back (fondly) on my summers as a camp counselor in South Africa, there is no doubt that many of the tenets of leadership that remain with me today as the CEO of a Fortune 300 company were first engrained during those sun-filled days.
Like most counselors, I was a camper first, and learned from direct experience what motivated me to be a part of something larger – and what didn’t. When it was my turn to be the counselor, I tried to apply those lessons with the group assigned to me. Even now, as the head of a company with more than 17,000 team members, I try to apply the very same the lessons from my days in the South African countryside. Here are the five lessons I took with me in the business world.
Be flexible, nimble and innovative: Like a counselor facing a bunk full of restless campers when the rain won’t let up, leaders must be flexible, nimble and innovative. Since change is the only constant, leaders must fully embrace the challenge of changing conditions, they must always look for new avenues for success, and they must be nimble enough to do what is necessary to engage the restless camper.
Get everyone on the field: Great leaders are inclusive. They recognize the strengths and talents of each individual, and they encourage passionate participation to drive collective success. Being a good leader is not just about telling people what to do. It is about rallying the team to understand and believe your company’s goals and culture, and to feel a personal stake in the team’s overall success. Likewise, a deep appreciation for a diversity of perspectives provides any leader with a rich tapestry of experience to draw upon.
Be a coach, facilitator and mentor: Team members look to great leaders for guidance and encouragement. Always take advantage of opportunities to share your knowledge with others.
Tolerate reasonable risk and teach how to fail successfully: As the great basketball player, Michael Jordan, once said, “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” Great leaders have a tolerance for reasonable risk-taking, and accept occasional failure as a learning opportunity. You can’t learn to swim without diving in.
Celebrate achievement: At Henry Schein, we firmly believe that, much like a great camp counselor, leaders know that celebrating success is important. We recognize exceptional work, which inspires each of us to think creatively about new ways we can help achieve our company’s goals. It also reminds us that we are all part of an extraordinary team of talented individuals, and that each of us adds a unique and valuable color to our collective picture of success.
The leadership lessons that I learned as a camp counselor can be summed up by the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” When you think back on your summers at camp, the arc of the experience is not so different from what one experiences when joining a company. You begin as one of many unique individuals, each with different perspectives, strengths and opportunities for growth. Over the course of time, these individuals become a cohesive team, with team members playing different roles and contributing in valuable and complementary ways. And from the summer camp to the C-suite, the pivotal person in this transformation is the leader who makes it all possible.
Stanley M. Bergman is Chairman of the Board and CEO of Henry Schein, Inc., a Fortune 500 company and the world’s largest provider of health care products and services to office-based dental, animal health and medical practitioners, with more than 17,000 employees and operations or affiliates in 27 countries. www.henryschein.com.