Joe-White-President of Kanakuk Kamps

Kanakuk’s Joe White on Building Something Great

The best way to take the measure of a leader is to see them in action. All the business insight and brilliant quotes mean very little if a leader doesn’t actually live it. Watching a leader genuinely love and serve people makes all the difference. Joe White fits that description.

Joe is the president of Kanakuk Kamps and the founder of several other ministries including Men at the Cross, After Dark, Pure Excitement, Kanakuk Haiti, and Kids Across America. Based in Branson, Mo., Kanakuk Kamps provides Christian sports and adventure camps to children ages 7 to 18. Their mission is to, “develop dynamic Christian leaders through life-changing experiences, godly relationships and spiritual training.”

We wanted to know what leadership lessons Joe had learned during his 38-year tenure as president of Kanakuk. Joe’s advice and experience applies to leaders of all types of organizations and businesses.

Transparency and Modeling

Most of the CEOs we have interviewed mention the importance of modeling the values they hope to see in their organization. Joe takes this concept to a new level—he sees every aspect of his life as a modeling opportunity.

“Even though I am 65,” says Joe, “I think it’s really important to model what we want our organization to be about.”

Recently, I spent the weekend at Kanakuk and got to see this in action. Kanakuk is a very busy place throughout the year. High school and college graduates traverse the beautifully wooded and well-maintained campus. They spend a year learning from well-regarded leaders who come from across the country to teach and invest in them.

As you can imagine it is not unusual for several people to want time with Joe. My friend and I were headed to the lake and happened to cross paths with Joe. He greeted us warmly and immediately took an interest. We told him we were going fishing and he insisted that he be the one to take us. This interrupted his day, but you would never know it. Down to the lake we went and Joe focused on us. What had we been up to? How were our families? What was life teaching us? Joe kept asking about us and deflected attention away from himself.Joe-White-Matt-Levy

October in the Ozarks is a beautiful time. The trees were starting to change and the temperature was around 78 degrees. Joe jostled the canoe out of its rack and slid it in the water. He handed us both a fishing pole and it was clear he wanted us to get in. Joe shoved the boat off the shore and hopped in back. For the next two hours he modeled the behavior he expects from his people. Joe paddled us around the lake as we fished. Joe was far more interested in us enjoying ourselves that anything else. Joe looks for ways to serve people and he does it better than anyone else I have ever met.


“Leaders need to be about the business of doing what they want their people to do,” says Joe. “If they want their people to work 10 hours a day, they need to work 12. If they want their people to be biblically based, they need to be biblically based in everything they do.”

Joe and his wife, Debbie Jo, often invite teenagers over for blueberry pancakes and Bible study. Joe loves to spend time investing in biblical mentorship and relationships with young people—because developing young men and women into leaders is what Kanakuk and Joe are all about.

Kanakuk’s focus on discipleship permeates every level of the organization. It is the center of the counselor and camper relationship and paramount to Joe’s relationships with his camp directors and leaders.

“Leaders build into the lives of those they mentor—that’s what good leaders do,” says White.

Spending Time Together

Discipleship—and great leadership—happens when we spend time together.

“The beautiful thing about camp is that it is a life-on-life ministry,” says Joe. “We wake up together, we work out together, and we study the Bible together.”

The concept of community and spending time together is important for the kids and staff at summer camp but it is especially important to the leadership team of Kanakuk. The directors of each of the camps reside in the same neighborhood on the east side of the lake.

“It is almost like we all live together, even though we all have different houses,” says Joe. “We raise babies together, we go to church together, we help each other, we do life together.”

Joe explained how Kanakuk employees intentionally “allow windows” into both their professional and personal lives. Not only does this deep level of transparency and community provide a high level of accountability, it also provides meaningful opportunities for the leadership team to sharpen each other and build deep and meaningful friendships with one another.

Leaders Must Be Willing to Sacrifice

A deep level of community does not happen without sacrifice. Over the years, Joe and his leadership team have made countless decisions for the sake of Kanakuk’s mission to transform the lives of youth. Because of their sacrifices and commitment, countless dynamic leaders have developed thanks to the ministry of Kanakuk.

“I believe if a person wants to build a successful ministry—whether that is a Fortune 500 company or a summer camp—they need to be willing to sacrifice greatly,” says Joe. “They need to be willing to sacrifice their time, their space, even their possessions for the sake of the mission. They also need to be willing to let the right people into their lives.”

Great leaders make significant impact when they are faithful with all of the responsibilities they have been entrusted with—both at the office and at home.

“Be faithful in the little things,” advises Joe. It is even more important than being a great visionary or being responsible for several billion dollars in revenue. “Leaders need to be faithful with their wife. They need to be faithful moms and dads in their relationship with their kids.”

Joe left us with four final thoughts that he believes are required to build any great organization. If you want to build something great, you must:

  • Be willing to sacrifice greatly.
  • Model the behavior you want.
  • Be transparent with your life .
  • Be faithful in the small things.

I think he might be onto something. What do you think?

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