Lead With Enthusiasm

By Steven J. Thompson
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / wacker

Congratulations are in order. You’ve been elected to the Thompson Park and Recreation Board and/or Commission. You now have a tremendous responsibility to serve, and to serve well.


You’ll be working regularly with a group of professionals at the peak of their careers, and making decisions that will have a direct impact on the department’s future, its staff, and the community.

With so many advantages to board work, here are four reasons to approach these new duties with enthusiasm:

1. It will change how you think about leadership.
At their day jobs, board and commission members don’t typically have to be strategic thinkers--to think into the future about the internal and external factors in both concrete and abstract ways that will affect the organization as a whole.

Your knowledge, along with insights gained from other members and board training, will benefit both the park and recreation agency you serve and the one you work for. Soon enough, you’ll contribute to the board, rather than simply vote on issues.

Make that experience happen. If board meetings do not set aside time for strategic discussion, request that time. Without it, you will not hone your skills, and the agency will not be using its board or commission members’ knowledge effectively.

2. It will change how you think about diversity.
Diversity should be a key component of any board. Diversity of thought allows a sharing of perspectives, and an ability to face challenges that may affect community resident participation.

If you feel passionate about something, take advantage of the opportunity to share it with the other board members and agency staff members.

Other types of diversity are important as well, but diversity of thought is a great equalizer. The best boards or commissions make time for all types of ideas, and you have a responsibility to voice them, and to gain respect from fellow board members. Don’t lose your voice merely to fit in--that is not the reason you were elected.

3. It will change the way you think about park and recreation agencies.
A park and recreation agency’s past in many ways is just as important as its future. Be enthusiastic about learning why decisions were made before and about the decisions you make today.

You will not always be in agreement with those previous decisions, but don’t confuse enthusiasm with wanting to make changes, just for the sake of change.

Try to never leave a board meeting without learning something new about the agency, yourself, or one of your fellow board members. This will build confidence and a connection to the members, not to mention your own agency. You will be amazed at what you have in common with the other board members.

4. It will change how you think about service.
Chances are you have ascended the ladder of volunteer leadership. Perhaps you were a committee member or committee chair before someone convinced you to run for a board or commission seat. Maybe you participated in leadership training and were identified as a future organization leader.

However you arrived at this point and wherever it takes you, don’t lose your perspective on the needs of the community and the agency staff. Don’t become the person you talked about at the annual meeting when you said, “The board and commission is their own club, and they don’t really understand the needs of the residents.”

If successful in keeping your perspective, you’ll look back on your board or commission service with a special appreciation for the agency and work you accomplished.

Be sure to share your perspective with individuals outside of the board. Many traditional members don’t understand, or care much about what goes on behind the scenes until it affects them directly. When it does, they will want to know the “who, what, when, where, and why” of it.

If you and other members are spreading the good word about the work of the board, it will benefit the community and let you be seen as open and welcoming.

Of course, there will be some challenging days and meetings, but you can sustain your passion if you realize that service on a park and recreation board or commission is about the work of the agency, not your personal ideology. You are now a leader who leads with enthusiasm!

Steven J. Thompson, CPRP, CEO, is the executive director of the Wisconsin Park & Recreation Association. He can be reached via email at sthompson@wpraweb.org.