A Slice Of Life

Editor’s Note : This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Apparently my December column in PRB struck a nerve because I received quite a few e-mails commiserating on the subject. Entitled “Man vs. Machine: Draw the Line before Heading for the Sand,” it discussed modern man’s becoming a slave to “The Machine” (phones, computers, iPods, Blackberries, etc.). I lamented humans’ inability to go anywhere or do anything without being “plugged in” to some form of communication device.

Swapping Stories

One letter especially illustrated the dark side of this all-too-common phenomenon, and it included some prescient words of advice that I thought needed to be shared. Wes Barton, Director of Parks and Recreation in Ruston, La., wrote:

“I just got around to reading my December issue of Parks & Rec Business magazine, and wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your article about cutting the electronic cord. In support of that, I thought you might enjoy the following story.

A couple of years ago, I attended a conference in Oklahoma. As usual, at the start of the session, the presenter asked everyone to turn off cell phones, beepers, etc. However, several minutes into the session, a cell phone went off, and the individual answered it, jumped up, and started talking as he tried to work his way down the aisles, obviously upsetting the entire session.

The speaker took advantage of the situation, stopped his presentation, and once again told everyone to turn off their electronics. He went so far as to tell everyone that if such an incident occurred again, the individual(s) would be removed from the session and not allowed to return. That was when it got interesting!

The presenter asked everyone who didn’t bring any electronics with them to stand up. I was one of a dozen of over 400 individuals who stood. The presenter then asked everyone to look at us and notice our ages--we were the older crowd. My group was then asked if we had cell phones, which we all did. We were asked where they were--each one was left in our rooms.

The presenter went on to explain that we were the ’old-line’ managers, who knew how to supervise and manage without having to be involved in every detail. He then asked how many of us walked out the door at work to attend the conference and didn’t worry about what was to occur at the office. Each one of us raised our hands. He then asked which of us had specifically trained our personnel by assigning specific duties and responsibilities, allowing our employees to do their jobs without being micro-managed. All but one in the original group again raised their hands.

I still operate this way. Although I carry a personal cell phone, I put it away when I go home in the evening. I also carry a work cell phone, but it never rings. I allow my employees to ’discover’ themselves. Do they make mistakes--yes! But is it really a mistake or just a different way of doing things? More often than not, it’s the latter. Most of the staff members seldom use cell phones, instead choosing to communicate among themselves. Personally, I think that works better!”

For The Greater Good

I think this slice of life that Wes shared not only is illustrative of our obsession with electronic communication, but also contains a valuable leadership lesson, one that I will be writing about more in upcoming columns.

Simply put, modern parks and rec leaders (and I include myself in that group), and those of the future, need to decentralize their leadership grip on operations. With shrinking budgets, staff cuts and no reduction in the demand for our services, there will be more reliance on a bottom-up operation, where the leadership decisions and authority go to subordinates rather than managers, administrators and directors. Modern communication and technology force the pace of life to move faster than most of us can really keep up with, so effective leaders will need to come to grips with how that changes leadership styles.

The ironic part of this story is that Wes, by his own admission an “old line” manager, has shared a time-tested technique that may well bridge the gap to successful leadership in the future. Developing leaders who can make good decisions at all levels of an organization creates a more productive operation.

On a personal note, I appreciate Wes taking the time to provide this type of feedback to readers. It’s exactly what this column is all about. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I believe that for every parks and rec issue or problem, someone in the world has an idea or solution. This column is a place we can share our experience with others.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail dls@peachtree-city.org