Follow My Lead

To become an effective parks and recreation leader

By Warren Bird

Ten days after graduating college, I started my career supervising the recreation division of a new parks and recreation department in a small town. I learned every aspect of running a department—knowledge and experience that helped me climb the professional ladder. One thing I discovered was that I had to change my thinking in order to develop a high-performing organization. This took me on a journey of professional development that included learning from my many mistakes, growing in wisdom and knowledge of management and leadership principles, learning successful principles from people in various industries, and devouring management books and articles to improve my thinking ability. For a few years I also owned a business that required me to develop a keen understanding of people in order to assist them to perform at their highest level. After going through all of this professional growth, I felt bold enough to share my knowledge, just as others shared their knowledge with me.

© Can Stock Photo / ifong

© Can Stock Photo / ifong

I have noticed that there are many excellent people in supervisory roles but who have little education or experience in effectively leading a staff. Staff members are required to follow the direction of their supervisor, but how much better would the staff perform if their supervisor was a more effective leader?

Take The Lead
I began my career as one of those supervisors who led from a position of authority, rather than from providing a model for a staff willing to follow my lead. After becoming painfully aware of this situation, I changed my thinking process to develop the skills of an effective leader. From attending training sessions, conferences, and schools for many years, I learned it is difficult to adequately teach leadership principles in 75-minute sessions. What’s more, only a small percentage of people attending these training sessions are prepared to incorporate the principles they learned into their personal development.

While leaders are of every form, personality, gender, ability, and age, they have similar traits that draw others to follow them.

First, an effective leader has to be passionate about his or her career. Passion is what drives one to go beyond in performing various job duties. Salary, camaraderie, and recognition may fade, but passion for one’s career field will be the strongest ally towards consistently high performance and achievement. Robert J. Vallerand in “The Role of Passion in Sustainable Psychological Well-Being” sees passion as a self-defining activity that people like (or even love), find important, and are willing to invest time and energy on a regular basis.

A Passionate Discussion
There are few industries besides recreation and parks where I can directly see the benefit of my work in the community I serve. Through parks, facilities, and recreation activities, the people I serve have a longer and better quality of life, families are strengthened, youth make right choices towards a productive life, property values are raised, economic development grows, and everyone benefits directly or indirectly. Who can’t be passionate about that type of career?

Passionate leaders put their organization’s vision and mission above their own desires. A leader’s passion motivates others to achieve the organization’s goals and vision. A leader’s passion provides energy for a team to accomplish difficult tasks. That passion is also a training tool for others who aspire to become better leaders.

A Vision For The Future
Vision is another basic requirement of an effective leader. Ben Stein wrote, “… the indispensable first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: decide what you want.” Leaders must have vision to channel their passion in accomplishing what they want. From my experience, when a leader’s personal vision matches the vision of the employer, a synergy occurs in which almost anything can be accomplished. The synergy of the team can overcome any obstacle towards achieving the organization’s vision.

I cannot stress enough the importance of hiring staff members who have a similar vision for the organization. Members will work harder, complain less, meld better as a team, and provide outstanding service because they are also achieving their personal vision—what they want out of life.

Hiring staff whose vision matches that of the leader and the organization also helps with succession planning. It costs thousands of dollars to hire and train an employee, and that person who shares the vision will stay longer, receiving more training and experience with a better chance for promotion. Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of effective leaders creating productive teams by assisting their staff in determining their personal vision.

Set Goals
Finally, an effective leader must be goal-focused. Nothing happens until goals are developed, written down, and read consistently. I recommend reviewing goals daily. I recommend developing long-range, mid-range, and short-range goals focused on achieving a personal vision and the organization’s vision. Then develop tasks to perform each day to accomplish short-range goals, which makes the mid- and long-range goals more achievable. Most any obstacle to achieving these goals can be overcome because of focus and a sense of direction. Supervisors will be amazed (as I was) at how much more productive their life can be with a vision, goals, and daily tasks.

The process of leadership growth is not difficult, but does require a willingness to change. The end result is a high-performing recreation and park organization that provides outstanding services for the public, and that is a wonderful thing.

Warren Bird is the Recreation Services Director for the city of Garland, Texas. Reach him at