Leadership consultant Sue Heilbronner knows the positive impact of summer camp.
As a six-year-old, Heilbronner began attending overnight camp in Maine. She spent many summers at Denmark’s Camp Walden, a traditional residential girls’ camp on Sand Pond founded in 1916. “Camp saved my life,” Heilbronner told a gathering of nearly 100 Maine camp professionals in Portland this week. “It gave me permission to become a person.”
Heilbronner has had a luminous and varied career in the decades since her time at Camp Walden, including serving as a civil rights lawyer at the U.S. Justice Department and as an executive in small and large corporate settings. But her exposure to the concept of “Conscious Leadership,” taught at the company where she served a decade ago, framed Heilbronner’s current professional mission. And her gratitude for the influence of camp and camp leaders was a driving force in the decision to return to Maine to this week to share that mission.
Maine Summer Camps’ annual Winter Workshop and Business Networking Extravaganza brings together scores of the state’s camp professionals — members of the nonprofit MSC — along with dozens of the organization’s supporting business members. On Wednesday, January 29, Heilbronner immersed workshop attendees in the world of Conscious Leadership concepts from a place of both expertise and appreciation. The workshop was sponsored by H & H Purchasing and Consulting.
Even if camp leaders operate with more “openness and curiosity” just a small fraction of their time — and give themselves “time to take breaths” — Heilbronner says their decisions can be improved.
In sharing her insights, Heilbronner asked attendees to consider the impact of “showing up,” a key tenet of Conscious Leadership. That means granting members of an organization the permission to “show up” honestly — with authenticity and vulnerability, for example. And while every individual defines those terms differently, she said such qualities play a vital role in how organizations, including youth camps, function.
Heilbronner, with humor and candor, told the group that she first learned about Conscious Leadership when a coach visited her company to solve what she called “the Sue Problem.” Her “anti-authority thread,” a rebellious aspect of her nature, was making a business partner uncomfortable, she told the group. And while she had initially thought that being a rebel was a necessary element of her tremendous career success, she realized it was just part of her personality. The coaching at her company helped her realize that a true “essence quality” in her possession was actually strength.
“Over time I was able to let go of being independent at all costs,” she said. “I had more connection with people, more love to share in leadership, more happiness as a person.”
Developing an understanding of one’s own leadership style, examining the roles one assumes as a leader, and exploring concepts such as responsibility, “clean” agreements, acting “above or below the line,” and understanding “facts versus story” are all keys to more consciously guiding organizations, Heilbronner said.
For example, organizations benefit when leaders are able to evaluate what Heilbronner referred to as “the Drama Triangle,” in which individuals may fill the role of “villains,” “victims,” or “heroes.” Whether casting blame (outward or inward) as a villain, being a “woe is me” victim, or attempting to “save the day” as a heroic fixer, those in leadership positions can learn from their approaches, she said.
Camp professionals often find themselves in a “hero” situation, poised to solve unexpected problems and put out figurative fires, she said. “The hero role looks nice, but you might want to pay attention to ‘while I’m a hero, what am I ignoring?’ Is there an emotion I’m suppressing?”
Moreover, she asked, is hero behavior actually a “commitment to create fires, so you feel good about putting them out?”
Closely related to the hero role is the concept of responsibility, a key to excellent leadership. Ideally, individuals seek to assume 100 percent responsibility, Heilbronner said. Taking on a higher percentage in a situation, such as 150 percent, means other individuals are likely doing less than their share.
The action is “usually positively intended,” she said, but taking on that hero role has a cost: “creating people who learn they don’t have to do their job.”
Leaders must also strive to make “clean agreements” as they carry out their jobs, Heilbronner said. Those agreements must be specific — made with a “who” with a name — along with a specific “what” or task, and a specific “by when.” Clean agreements require consent — meaning a “yes” with actual knowledge of the agreement. And they must be renegotiable, Heilbronner said.
Such arrangements “allow us to be in clean relationship with each other,” Heilbronner said. “We spend more time cleaning up messy agreements than anything else.”
As Heilbronner shared her insights, utilizing examples from workshop participants, she also emphasized the importance of effective listening. Conscious listening — such as listening to complaints from staff — demands an awareness of temptations to simply “fix” problems, or to ask follow-up questions that can deflect the issues at hand.
“You’re not listening if you just offer a solution or platitude,” Heilbronner said. Instead, she suggested, reflect back what you heard to best ensure the least influence of a “listening filter.”
Quality listening — particularly to complaints — demands a focus on “context instead of content,” she explained. By considering how an individual is “coming into the conversation,” and bringing their own contexts into consideration first, leaders are better equipped to address a colleague’s concerns.
“If you have empathy,” Heilbronner said, “you can leverage genius qualities.”
Much of Heilbronner’s presentation was couched in the idea of behaviors and communication that falls “above or below the line,” key concepts to The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp, a guidepost for Heilbronner’s work.
While actions existing “above the line” demonstrate curiosity and an awareness of a choice of how to respond, behaviors and statements at camp that may feel “below the line” might include “I can’t,” “someone else will do it,” “I don’t have time,” or “you always.”
“‘Why do you never?’ is a perfect below the line question,” Heilbronner said. “There’s zero curiosity,” she said. “It’s just a statement with a question mark at the end.”
Leaders’ work is below the line “96 percent of the time,” Heilbronner told the workshop. “‘Where am I?’ is the first question to ask. When you are below the line, millions of things happen that are good.”
Indeed, the true problem lies in people acting like they are above, rather than below, the line, she said. In fact, the benefits of acting below the line can be more rapid decisions, a leader’s realization that “I’m making a decision I don’t have time to discuss.” Leaders need to know where they are, she said, and explore whether they can accept it.
Finally, Heilbronner asked participants to examine the idea of facts versus feelings or stories. More authentic conversations exist when they stem from an understanding that “almost everything we say is a story,” she said. Facts — such as the time and subject matter of a parent email — are different from the inferences that arise from those facts. “Pay attention to the fact that those are stories,” she said. The ability to “own stories as stories,” rather than true facts, can create a more open work environment.
Indeed, “unarguable speech” stems from that distinction, Heilbronner said in concluding her talk. Feelings, such as a body sensation or the description of an emotion, can be followed by the expression of a thought. “You’re allowing people to see you as authentic,” she said.
“Free flowing” feedback — and candor that allows others to be candid with you — is a vital component of a culture of conscious leadership, she said. It begins with self-awareness and leaders’ understanding of where they are.
Sue Heilbronner’s life work is now sharing and guiding, challenging and supporting, professionals who lead a broad range of organizations. As a former Maine camper who understands firsthand the immense positive influence of a camp experience, Heilbronner’s workshop was both a business venture and expression of appreciation for the professionals in attendance.