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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Leadership = Combustion Amidst Elegance

Leadership = Combustion Amidst Elegance

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

While talking to a friend about issues with my golf swing, our conversation segued into discussion of his interest in televised golf. An incredible golfer who plays the game each week, he noted a small handful of professional golfers who demonstrate incredibly smooth golf swings, while at the same time, getting more distance and accuracy than others who try to smash the ball into oblivion.  I was trying to smash the ball.

In their effectiveness, the best golf swings are quite elegant – and intriguingly, embedded within that elegance exists a moment of combustion when club strikes ball, that which gets the job done, yet that which is invisible for the most part to the naked eye.

Thoughts then drew me to leadership, to metaphor.  Leaders, as well, must benefit from discreet moments of combustion within elegance, to be truly effective.

Metaphorically I equate combustion with the exercise of power and authority to target and achieve a desired end, that which cannot be easily undone – the moment when leaders “take action.”

A few examples:

Firing someone.
Asking your Board for its vote.
Suspending a student.
Hiring a teacher.
Offering a quote to the local newspaper.
Going where no one has gone.

The notion of leadership elegance as part of the golfing metaphor has to do as much with others’ perceptions as it does reality.  Here’s how it applies.

When readying for moments of opportunity to initiate combustion, leaders rarely should be seen locking and loading. Pondering thoughtfully but privately works; posturing and telegraphing are inelegant. Decisions should not appear overly effortful or contorted.

Part of your expected role as a leader is at times, to ensure elegance when readying the next hit of your club.

It could be said that in order for leadership to be perceived as relevant and strong, a few hits of your club need to occur [a few rounds played] from time to time, so that all in your care are satisfied that you are capable of doing what leaders should be capable of doing … playing golf, metaphorically – taking swings.

Like golf, your game of leadership includes suiting up, practicing and preparing, making your tee times, collaborating, competing, sharing in fellowship, taking long walks, as well as the game-specific components of driving down the fairway, laying up, getting out of tough spots, going for the pin, and knowing when to settle for par.  It also doesn’t hurt to celebrate birdies and eagles, to accept a bogey or two, and every once in a while, to make a hole in one.   

For your consideration, I offer these thoughts from my friend, colleague, and golfer:

Perhaps leadership and golf also share the notion that both are not 24/7 stretches of intense focus. In fact, to play better one needs only to focus for about 20 seconds for each shot; maybe adding a minute prior to each shot for contemplation, with the rest of the time as simply, informal chatter - a pleasant distraction. And it pays to have a bad memory so the bad shots do not creep into good decisions made later. As leaders, it would seem one might last longer if he/she spent less time in intense focus, and found more of the pleasant distractions in between the brief intense moments (personal communication, April 30, 2012).

Taking your swing, however, is non-negotiable. 

The positive perception of elegance during the swing is directly proportional to how others may come to define your leadership game.


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be found in the Bayh College of Education 326A or on Twitter at  Feel free to e-mail your commentary to or give him a call at (812) 237-8624.


  1. As I read this week's topic and last week's, I find them to be in juxtaposition. One thought encourages leaders to evaluate and act differently than we normally would. The other encourages leaders to act with elegance when faced with a difficult decision; or what I like to call go-time.

    I use both positions as a leader for the benefit of students. What I find most interesting is the sequence of the topics.

    I do not think that I am a great golfer, though I do hope that I swing with authority and care when needed.

    Nicole Singer

    1. it would seem that leaders need to make what they do seem effortless, or, elegant, despite the necessary violence that a smooth golf swing invokes on the ball.