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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Innocuous and the Disparate: Critical for Leaders

The Innocuous and the Disparate
Critical for Leaders

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

The Challenge

What intrigues me about our leadership profession is that we are evaluated by how effectively we ensure children pass tests, yet our best leaders use this as a starting point, rather than a destination.  Our calling demands more.  It demands not simply using our power of mind to guide instructional leadership; it requires that we use turn-of-mind to uplift the human condition and give our students a fighting change, a responsibility often abrogated by other institutions. 

Critical in leading today is our ability to unearth seemingly innocuous circumstances and make meaning out of disparity to promote learning and healthy development.  This involves our ability to teach, not necessarily befriend; to guide those who follow us through analogy, metaphor, and theory; to allow for a smart balance of win’s and losses in developing resiliency; and to enlighten others on how they are being perceived.

To facilitate relevance of learning, we must also stretch the capabilities of our minds, transcending our typical leadership texts with the perspective of sociologists and the acuity of anthropologists.  In doing so, we must:

1.  Open our minds to recognize things seemingly innocuous around us, those with the potential to connect with those we lead in teachable moments;

2.  Interpret phenomena that are seemingly disparate to the layperson, through artful analogy, metaphor, and story, to make deeper the learning.

Years ago, I played in a variety rock ‘n roll band with a man 17 years my senior, who began his response to most things asked of him, “Well it’s like anything else … “ He would respond with the most artful of analogy, far beyond what most could discern on their own.  This made sense.  I often walked away thinking in new ways beyond the conversation.  He connected things for me that were seemingly disparate.  That was leadership.

The Human Condition

I cannot tell you the number of times I have been approached by staff or students expressing concerns that all boil down to a lack of self-awareness.  Approaching this directly, I could simply tell them that at times, “You turn people off.”  However, that rarely works.  More effective would be offering an analogy that would allow them to walk away thinking about the way they come across … hopefully learning in a way that is non-threatening. 

Consider this: 


I just stopped at the convenience store on my way to work.

The customer in front of me said to the clerk, “John, how are you doing?”  John responded with a smile, saying, “Hey buddy, I’ll be a heck-of-a-lot better when I'm outta here.”  Both chuckle, yet nothing more was said.  John then put the change on the counter for the customer.  The customer picked it up, put it in his wallet, and left silently.

The customer in an adjacent line asked the same of Karen, who said, “Great, thanks!  Glad to see you here this evening.” She handed the customer his change.  A nice conversation ensued, as the man left, stating, “You have a great day as well, Karen.”

Those exchanges are quite interesting to me, in that 95 out of 100 persons would not see anything unique.  Yet as a leader, I noticed something.


What connections can you make? 

Anything innocuous or disparate?

I'll continue next week.


Dr. Ryan Donlan teaches courses in Educational Leadership in the Doctoral, Educational Specialist, and Master’s Degree Programs in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  Please give him a push on his commentary by adding comments to this article or by contacting him at or (812) 237-8624.

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