Leadership in Parks and Recreation: It Can Be Taught

Posted by Jamie Sabbach on Apr 4, 2019

In the days since the 2018 edition of the annual NRPA Conference, the general industry discussion has centered around how Parks and Recreation can raise the bar. Part of the answer lies in how the new wave of professionals can develop into future leaders.

Taking it upon yourself to become a trailblazer in your community and ensure that your Parks and Recreation agency evolves and stays relevant over time isn’t easy. No matter what industry you work in, becoming a leader is hard work and, admittedly, isn’t suited to every individual or personality type.

The misconception is that leadership can’t be taught or learned, when in fact the opposite is true. With a dynamic approach to educating the next generation and emphasizing the long-term benefits of thinking outside the box in the short term, far more is possible than most people realize.

Leadership: Teachable Skill or Intangible?

Let’s back things up for a second. Can you really teach leadership? Are you really able to transfer what the majority of professionals consider intangibles rather than learned skills? What makes something instinctive versus a practical tool that you can acquire over time?

The difference is in how the teaching and learning process unfold. Leadership is not a built-in character trait but rather a skill that you can master by doing, not simply listening or reading. Now, certain personality quirks are helpful in fortifying strong leadership qualities, while others can make that learning curve steeper, at least in the beginning. That said, leaders that stand the test of time are those who are willing to be the first through those walls that stand between them and the change they want to see in the world.

If we’re looking at a historical picture that’s bigger than just Parks and Recreation, individuals who achieve true greatness had to lead by doing, not simply telling or showing. Abraham Lincoln. Rosa Parks. Mother Teresa. Mahatma Gandhi. Three well-known examples, all of whom were leaders because they identified with a cause, had the willpower to see it through and, perhaps most importantly, had faith in themselves and their vision.

Man standing on mountain

Get Out and Lead!

No matter how many inspiring books or blog posts you read, no matter how many seminars or workshops you attend, believing in what you’re doing and being okay with doing so is the real key to leadership. This means sticking to your guns even in the face of potentially disappointing people.

We get it – disagreement, confrontation and, in a more general sense, having to go through individuals who don’t see the end game as clearly as you do can be extremely frustrating. However, what other choice is there? To fold and remain silent or inactive? That course of action will only leave you as the most disappointed party of all.

This was one of the big takeaways from the most recent edition of the Altruism Institute. None of the Parks and Recreation professionals present at the event lacked passion or an emotional investment in the industry or its cause – so much so that the topic of real, lasting change was met with enthusiasm. It’s turning those overarching ideas into implementable action items that, at times, seems like an insurmountable task.

Teachers Need to Start the Fire

Part of the challenge has to do with the leadership gap that currently afflicts more than a few agencies across North America and around the world. The first step in solving this problem lies in those who already hold down leadership roles empowering “the next wave” to find their own reason to reach out and grab the industry’s torch, not wait for it to be handed to them.

As Liz Ryan wrote for Forbes, teaching lights the fire and learning keeps it going:

"If we want to teach leadership skills, we have to begin by letting leaders know that there is no good reason for them to be the leader. If they want there to be a good reason, they have to create that reason for themselves.

Leaders are astounded to hear this -- especially new leaders who don't yet feel secure in their roles.

'What do you mean, there's no good reason for me to be the leader? I was promoted after three interviews and three years on the job!'

If you think that the best reason for you to be somebody's manager is that somebody else conferred that title on you, then you are not ready to lead with your own voice. If you try to lead on the basis that somebody promoted you, you will lead with your boss's voice -- the person who conferred the management title on you."

Therefore, it’s safe to say that, yes, leadership can be taught to anyone, so long as the willingness to put in the work from a learning standpoint and persevere through challenging times is there. Experience, politicking and other contextual factors may open the door for you to become a leader in your community but having your own voice and using it to shape your organization’s future for the better must come from within.

Do something great sign

Management is Built on Your Unique Voice

Statistics from March of 2018 revealed that 58% of managers haven’t received or taken on any management training. If that doesn’t immediately shock you, it should: The majority of those in a position to lead and impart their supposed wisdom on future generations haven’t actually been taught how to lead.

That isn’t an indictment of managers or their ability to take charge of a situation and invest their energy and resources in a cause bigger than just themselves but rather demonstrates my earlier point, which is that becoming a leader means getting out in the world and actually doing, not just talking about doing.

Part of our job as Parks and Recreation consultants is to educate and provide those learners with insight that can help them grow. Giving organizations and their employees the confidence, courage and validation needed to step into the leadership realm and be tenacious in the face of adversity is not just our passion and privilege but also our duty. Helping this industry that we love evolve never takes a backseat.

Want to learn more about how we can help instill leadership qualities in your agency's staff?

Contact us today!