Lessons From the Road to Leadership

February 1, 2016, Department, by Tiffany Johnson, CPRP, MPA

Tiffany Johnson, CPRP, MPA, lays out the road she traveled to a position of leadership within parks and recreation. It seems like just yesterday that I was where many of you are today: a former program participant, summer employee and intern. Some of my peers and family laughed at the thought of studying parks and recreation management when I was a student. I remember being 21, a recent graduate, and going back home to Washington, D.C., seeking a career in the field. The park and recreation department did not have any vacancies, so I couldn’t even begin to pursue a career in the field. Instead, I took a part-time job at the International Spy Museum just to pay the bills. I thought I had sacrificed my passion; in reality, I gained valuable experience in the hospitality and customer service industry.

Three months later, I interviewed for a recreation specialist position with the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). I was nervous, but I used the tools and skills gained as a student, including my internship portfolio showcasing my educational and work experience, to help me visually share my story, my passion and my drive for wanting the position. On the panel of interviewers, the toughest person, who asked the most questions and made me sweat, became one of the best mentors and friends I have to this day. Sometimes people are hard on us because they see something in us that we don’t see within ourselves.  

The Entry and the Climb

Once hired, I immediately took advantage of every opportunity presented to me. My first mentor, a DPR employee, was one of the first to believe in me as a leader, not just in parks and recreation but in life. With her encouragement, I attended my first NRPA Congress in 2006. I had no idea how much of an effect attending this conference would have on my passion, growth and development as a professional. My experiences from that conference drove my commitment to being a better professional and to gain experiences outside of my normal scope of practice. That year, I made a personal commitment and adopted the motto, “Be the change that I want to see.”

Be the Change

I returned to Washington, D.C., with a renewed energy and passion for wanting to do more, be more, give more and someday create a legacy in parks and recreation. I tapped into the network of professionals that I met to create, enhance and implement programs and special events much different from the norm. I began to gain the respect of veteran professionals within my agency. In 2007, I was recognized by the National Recreation and Park Ethnic Minority Society (NRPEMS) and also was a recipient of the Young Professional Fellowship, which allowed me to shadow one of NRPA’s former executive directors. Attaining such honors further propelled my drive, my understanding of professional involvement, and my passion to continue to be active. As a “newbie,” I was coached and mentored to a level that I didn’t fully understand at the time. I thought that my image would affect my advancement, so I slowly changed the company that I kept, the way that I showed up, the way that I dressed, the way that I spoke and the way that I thought. I remained engaged in national and local networking through meetings, attending and presenting at conferences and by serving on committees. I learned to ask questions to assist with my lack of awareness and also to embrace being uncomfortable! From these experiences more success followed.

In 2010, I was nominated for and selected as an Extern for the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration. There, I was paired with an elite group of professional and academic mentors, and I gained a broader appreciation for having a diverse group of mentors. In 2011, I received the Mid-Atlantic and National New Professional Award, and, in 2013, was elected as the 39th and youngest president of the NRPEMS. As president, I created a national mentoring program that pairs new and young professionals with senior managers to prepare them for the rigors of leadership and brought back the quarterly newsletter and hosting yearly community service projects in the conference host city. My personal achievements encouraged me to do more to make sure that other young professionals were equally informed and exposed to these opportunities.


As a young professional, transitioning to a leader has been one of the toughest challenges, but as the world changes, so does the definition of leadership! Initially, when I stepped into leadership roles, I was very uncomfortable and had to learn how to lead people often older than me. Having active, professional mentors throughout the United States helps tremendously. Never be afraid to ask for assistance or suggestions; most leaders have been in the same place. In my 10 years as a professional, I have grown even more passionate about what the future holds for all of us and for our communities. I am now a Ph.D. student pursuing a degree in business administration with a concentration in organizational leadership focusing on parks and recreation with the intent of further propelling and advancing research and practice in the field.

I offer the following advice, my top 10 list for all young professionals:


  • Find things that you love and are passionate about. Learn to incorporate them into your position and share your story. Let your passion lead the way and you will never work a day of your life.
  • Find mentors inside and outside of your department and the profession. It is extremely important to stay in touch and have consistent communication!
  • Take advantage of volunteer, scholarship, fellowship, certification and award opportunities. There are so many available through NRPA and state associations. 
  • Step out of your comfort zone by networking with other professionals that don’t look like you or come from the same demographic or professional backgrounds.
  • Be a constant learner. Seek educational and professional development opportunities to assist with your growth. In addition, the NRPA schools will further develop your professional pursuits, knowledge and networks.
  • Surround yourself with positive individuals and avoid the watercooler!
  • Think and dream BIG!
  • Work hard and share your passion with your community.
  • Stay focused, determined and driven through it all.
  • “Be the change that you want to see!”


Tiffany Johnson, CPRP, MPA,is a Ph.D. student and Area Manager with the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation.