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Monday, October 31, 2011

Cultivating Leadership

Cultivating Leadership: Identifying the Trinity

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Looking for leadership potential from within?  Cultivating those in your organization for future leadership positions? While working with doctoral students recently, I shared some aspects of leadership sustenance that I called the trinity. Upon further reflection, I believe that these three intangible qualities or skillsets of those being groomed for leadership are powerful indicators of their ability to handle the challenges of involved with that calling, or said differently, are indicators of one’s “having the art” upon which to refine with “science.”  As you work with leadership cultivation in your organization, consider sharing with me your thoughts, as continued discussion would be welcome.

The trinity of leadership potential involves Ownership, Model Building, and Story. As in metaphorical depictions of three flames coming together as one in a secular sense, they allow leadership potential to burn brightly, indeed.


First, Ownership: How is it demonstrated?  Educators with Ownership embody a certain efficacy of confidence and responsibility.  You will see them saying, “If students are not learning, it’s my fault.”  They believe in the natural abilities of themselves and others to achieve through hard work and effort, not simply because they have natural abilities.  When they fail, they fail forward, not backward, using their experiences as springboards for the navigation of future challenges.  They are smart with the risks they take and are not afraid of uncharted territory.  Having the confidence to reach out and ask advice of others, they are comfortable in their own skin and desire feedback on performance.  They “own” the feedback and learn from it.
Ownership also involves using what I call “the wave-off,” a construct that I borrow from the sport of skydiving.  Skydivers working together in freefall enjoy flying (in actuality, falling) with each other, pushing themselves as members of teams to accomplish formations, much as teams in schools work together for students and learning.  Yet, in each skydive, skydivers must eventually “go it alone” to open their parachutes safely.  Prior to opening, skydivers typically performs a “wave-off,” where they wave their arms to signal that all skydivers must get as far away from each other as possible to open safely.  All then move, or “track” as they refer to it, away from the formation, straightening their arms and legs while increasing speed and moving horizontally away from others.  They “go it alone,” taking sole responsibility for their safety and survival.  Ownership in school leadership involves much of the same.  Leaders must, at times, perform a wave-off when the situation demands.  They must take the lead, through deep conviction of personal responsibility, to act with speed and dispatch to make something happen for the good.  In doing so, they take complete responsibility for the result, good or bad.  Does the leader you are cultivating have the ability to smartly “wave-off” and “track” when the situation demands?

Model Building

Beyond Ownership, those with leadership potential use Model Building.  They have the ability to take complicated or ambiguous information and present it visually to others by way of conceptual diagrams or explanatory pictures (Estabrook, personal communication, 2005).  They can make the unfathomable, understandable, so that others can grow and learn, using visual imagery and especially, metaphor.  Our best leaders use metaphor in a way that connects with others’ interests.  Consider that we learn from conceptual models quite often.  Authors use them in their book and articles.  Three to note are Steil and Bommelji’s Listening Leaders: The Ten Golden Rules to Listen, Lead, & Succeed (2004), Fullan’s Leading in a Culture of Change (2001), and Estabrook’s article, Constellation Building: Leadership for Effective Schools (1997). In each example, the authors take a great deal of pertinent information and present it in an easy-to-digest model, one of interrelationship and substance.  As we seek to cultivate new leaders, we must look for those who build models naturally, as well as those who do it in a way that enlightens and motivates.


Finally, educators with leadership potential use Story.  We’ll see them spinning yarns with students’ rapt interest, tying themes within to the importance to academics, school community, and life lessons.  They use the questions students ask as teachable moments, with artful soliloquy, never digressing too far from their instructional targets.  They know innately that the human brain is wired for story and that children of all ages, from 4 to 94, learn through active engagement of personal meaning.  Story, to those with the most leadership potential, is effortless; they use it to foster amicable relations, to intervene in times of challenge or distress, and to enhance content delivery. In school leadership, the best leaders use Story to represent, influence, and protect positive school culture. If our leaders do not use Story, then the void will be filled with others, those who may be toxic.  One’s ability as a natural, engaging, and strategic storyteller is inextricably linked to positive leadership potential.


As we seek to identify future leaders who will take our schools from where they are to a better place, let’s consider that the trinity of leadership potential involves Ownership, Model Building, and Story, three flames coming together as one burning brightly.  The degree to which future leaders display the aforementioned influences the level and intensity of pre-service education and development that must be provided to them. I wish you the best in your cultivation of leadership. Happy harvesting.


Estabrook, R. (1992). Constellation building: Leadership for effective schools.
Contemporary Education, 63(2), 91-92.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Steil, L., & Bommeljei, R. (2004) Listening Leaders: The Ten Golden Rules to Listen,
Lead, and Succeed. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond Press, Inc.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a member of the United States Parachute Association, License A-30362, Member Number 134943.

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