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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Innocuous and Disparate: Extending the Talk

The Innocuous and Disparate: Extending the Talk

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

… Continued from last week: 

Imagine John, not as a convenience store clerk, but as principal, saying and acting as such with staff, students, or parents.  How would that work out for him? 

Further, what is he really “saying”?

1.     “That I don’t enjoy work.”
2.     “That I don’t enjoy talking to you.”
3.     “That I have unhealthy biases.”

Conversely, what is Sharon “saying”?

1.     “That I enjoy what I’m doing?”
2.     “That I enjoy you.”
3.     “That I am well adjusted.”

Our best leaders continually collect opportunities for wisdom by making note of the small things that speak loudly about people … about life – things seemingly innocuous and disparate.

I’ll bet if I asked you to close your eyes and think of the great leaders you have known, you would not necessarily think of someone who did well reading textbooks, writing papers, and filling-out reports, as leaders are oftentimes graded. 

You might instead think of someone who defines life in a way that was meaningful … someone who has a handle on how things worked, both professionally and personally … someone who sees things from a 10,000-foot perspective but stays grounded.

In peak performance, leaders think more deeply and make better connections.  Yet, where does this all start?  Where do WE start as leaders, if we want to operate at this level … to see things that clearly … and to make better connections for ourselves and others … to be on someone’s short list of those making an impact?

A good first step is to promote our own wellness through balance in life, such as having an interest, hobby, or talent that we can use to begin crafting analogies to leadership (S. Gruenert, personal communication, August 6, 2012).  

This allows us to see connections that are personally relevant.  A few examples might be:

Using our knowledge of carpentry to envision building a team (foundations, finish work, quality materials, many hands making light work, etc.).

Using our understanding of ballet to help in evaluating one’s management (dedication, grace, timing, breathing, symmetry, etc.).

Fly-fishing, golf, swimming, and riding one’s tractor
are mentioned by friends and colleagues.

The next step is more difficult – Moving beyond our personally meaningful metaphors to those universally accepted by others who share “not” our interests. 

We’ve all seen the school principal (former coach) who defaults to sports analogies, much to the chagrin of all the musicians and artists -- or leaders who run schools on academic rigor alone, ill-equipped to offer the metaphor needed by those whose relevance is the basketball court.

That’s not leadership; that’s one-trick-pony-ism.  

Examples from our best leaders, rather, focus on the needs of others. To do this effectively, leaders take opportunities to stretch their minds.  They make time to think deeply.  They perform cerebral calisthenics.   They force themselves to be uncomfortable.

Through such experiences, leaders discover the innocuous; they find similarity in things disparate, capitalizing on teachable moments disguised as “life happening.” 

These connections then change lives.

As I study my own teaching of leadership, I often ask students to make meaning out of things innocuous and disparate. Do I explain “well-enough,” and “often enough,” why I’m doing so?


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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