Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Assessing Common Sense: An Overview of Intelligent Opinions

Assessing Common Sense: An Overview of Intelligent Opinions
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor & Departmental Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Blogmaster’s Note: Educational practitioners speak at times of the notion of COMMON SENSE.  Yet, what is “common sense,” really?  How is it defined?  Doctoral students from Evansville, Indiana, in December of 2011, offered Associate Professor & Departmental Chairperson Dr. Steve Gruenert at his suggestion, their thoughts and opinions on this oft-quoted concept.  As we are again holding doctoral prelims this week, we thought it would be interesting to re-run  their definitions, streamlining for readership interest and scholarly learning.  Some are quotes students have cited, thus apologies to those original authors for not citing as such. Many of you are enjoying a reprieve from your professional building responsibilities this week and can, thus, take a bit more time for a “deeper read.”   

Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

“…if you have ever purchased a self-help book on making common sense decisions, you lack common sense.”  -- Evansville Doctoral Student

Considerations for Common Sense Assessment via Continuum
Assessment is a term that determines a current position in relation to a desired position. Whereas the term evaluation simply gives something a value, assessment tells us how far we are from where we hope to be. To assess common sense, there needs to be an ideal established, and from that point all other possible positions need to be identified. We shall assume the ideal to be theoretical, that is, not truly to exist within any one person. Given this approach, no real definition of common sense is necessary as we simply find a way to measure the distance between where we are and where we hope to be. We’ll try to avoid defining the phrase, because of its lack of precision.
To assess common sense, we also need someone to do something. A type of observable action – which implies a decision was made to inform that action – will serve as that which is measured.  It cannot be a thought, a preference, an opinion, an idea, or emotion. While these concepts may influence a decision, we are assessing actual decisions, not the factors that impact those decisions, despite the belief that emotions plus logic create common sense.  Common sense guides the individual to use reason, driven by reason, regardless of the emotion that may be attempting to drive intuition. 
Here is one way to assess common sense: By comparing the initial reaction to the reaction you would have had, had you been given time to think things through, then determining the relationship between the two reactions.  We can assess the “distance” between what we did and (in retrospect) what we should have done. Perhaps we could devise a scale or continuum upon which to plot this distance, ultimately providing a sense of how much is necessary to maintain status within the window of common sense.

Uncommon(ineffective)                      Common                                            Uncommon(effective)
-5            -4           -3          -2          -1         0          1          2           3          4           5

As found in the above figure, we might be able to create a window of common sense, perhaps most might situate this window between -1 and +1.

There is strong argument for the notion that common sense is not defined by the user but by the consumer of the actions of the common sense. Thus, this distance should be assessed by an observer, not the actor -- which puts us in the dilemma of one person accusing another of not having “enough common sense to come in out of the rain,” while another may respond life is about taking opportunities to “dance in the rain.”

This forces us to recognize common sense not as a tangible entity held by a person; it seems to be an attribute that members of a community project on one another; a collection of traditions that a community has developed; a way of behaving which is reinforced through a recurring pattern of reactions to statements and events -- in essence, to act in ways that make sense to the relevant community. A person’s common sense standard is related to the area in which the person uses the common sense. Thus, a bit of knowledge in that area may be necessary.
The areas that may inform common sense could include, but not be limited to: (a) safety, (b) courtesy, (c) logistics, (d) behavior, (e) discipline, (f) communication, (g) social skills, (h) personnel management, (i) leadership, (j) finance, (k) relationships, (l) situational awareness, (m) optimizing, and (o)flexibility.  Additional notions include thinking sensibly while (p) remaining calm; the (q) ability to survey the social and professional scene and carefully decide on next steps that preserve important relationships but insure that important actions are taken.  Each area might be scored on the same continuum.

Uncommon(ineffective)                      Common                                            Uncommon(effective)
-5            -4           -3          -2          -1         0          1          2           3          4           5
                              (a)   (l)(g)  (c)   (i) (n) (m) (p) (q) (b)(d)     (f)       (e)     (h)(j)  (k)   (g)  (o)

The overall pattern or predominance of indicators could provide a means to determine whether a preponderance of common sense exists, or not. In the above figure, scoring indicates 8 out of 18 criteria in the common sense range. This is 44%. Most might find this person to be lacking common sense. It is important to state that this process does not assess effectiveness.
Once this process has been refined, we might be able to develop a hierarchy of performers. Those possessing the most common sense would be studied further to determine their secrets to success while the rest of us aspire to their abilities. Anyone with uncommon amounts of common sense would be granted special status. They could help us further define common sense as their actions in the future would be regarding as exemplary (see Animal Farm). This may be viewed as an attempt to project one’s own beliefs on the population at-large. A handbook on common sense could be created. Yet how much sense would it make to those who needed it? Perhaps those who do not show adequate yearly progress toward increasing their common sense could experience an intervention from the state?
To digress, many believe common sense is not measurable. To some, common sense is considered the “mean” of the shared culture, which everyone seems to know--yet to which no one can assign a value. Common sense is in the eye of the beholder; therefore, depending upon who is measuring, one might or might not display common sense. 
Yet, others find it measurable by determining when it is not present. The negative space, or lack of data, still tells us something. Lacking common sense can be an action that is assumed to be in opposition to popular opinion, and thus, that action leads to a less than desirable result. If others in the culture respond by labeling those individuals as lacking common sense, then perhaps a predominant score located to the left of common sense (on the continuum) can be defended.
Common Sense as Prelude to Effectiveness
A person has never had to be highly effective in academic performance if they were able to apply common sense. Common sense absolutely comes from learning from our mistakes and those of others.  Experience and common sense can keep you from doing stupid things. Common sense is using practical knowledge with limited, specialized knowledge.  Therefore, we might surmise a correlation between the two concepts, but not causality.
The more common the sense is, the more successful the administrator will be in the eyes of the community. It is literally knowing what to do and when to do it, and that all depends on whom the players are in the arena.  If the goal of a leader is to maintain an acceptable reputation for having common sense, he/she must be in tune to the expectations of the community. The community defines common sense.
Common sense also relies heavily on the experiences of an individual.  Experiences or background knowledge, not necessarily formal education, enables leaders to predict consequences more accurately. The mistakes leaders make when faced with new cultures are often attributed to lacking common sense.  “What were they thinking?” is a frequently asked question. Yet, to improve common sense, one should experience more surprises in life so that those can be used in the future as common sense lessons.
If we don’t think and react as the status quo of “regular-minded” people, then we are lacking common sense.  Some amount of experience is required for common sense.  Therefore, new professionals may make several mistakes and live with the consequences (unless they are pilots) before learning what not to repeat. The bridge between common sense and effectiveness is fun to imagine. Becoming effective could be perceived as a matter of cataloging mistakes – knowing what was outside of the common sense range, yet knowing which of those were okay. Common sense is something to be learned and hopefully increased over the course of on-the-job experiences and extensive human interaction.
If you can keep the common sense label, and therefore your job, you cannot move forward without bringing the understanding of the community with you, a very slow boat. While common sense is not very effective in strategic decision making, it seems to provide a comfort among folks needing to make tough decisions. In the end, the choice to balance common sense with science is made, and the process continues.  Loss aversion and status quo bias serve as two reasons why we can’t rely on common sense. Difficulty can be anticipated when what makes the most sense may not be the “common” sense.  Having experience in knowing the expected decision may be the essence of common sense.
Life Implications

The common sense verdict of the majority of ordinary people throughout history is much more likely to be accurate than the latest fashionably brilliant insight of the ruling elite. Reliance on our past experience alone can lead to predictability and prevent us from exploring new ways of thinking. Common sense is usually the default, but it can be a trap.
As you continue your trek toward the Ph.D., someone wrote: One who becomes more intelligent will begin to display less common sense.  Perhaps the best measure is having enough common sense to know when to keep your mouth shut. Intelligence is teaching others with your mouth shut…well, at least it should not be open as much as the learner.
Dr. Steve Gruenert encourages your thoughts, comments, and reactions, as well as your contributions to these notions of Common Sense, and can be reached at

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lesson Planning for Leaders

Lesson Planning for Leaders

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

A few mornings ago, I noticed my wife’s lesson-planning book sitting atop the table in our breakfast nook.  She uses it at the Indiana State University Early Childhood Education Center.  I smiled nostalgically as I remembered the last time I used one about 20 years ago as a classroom teacher, then thought, Why didn’t I ever use one as principal or superintendent?  

Pondering how leaders could begin with the end in mind, as Covey (1989) reminded us from those highly effective, I thought of how a school principal might take the Standards and Standard Elements of the Educational Leadership Constituent Council (ELCC) and work backward toward ensuring “coverage” of each during his or her leadership in any given school year. 

Turning my mind a bit further, I imagined how vertical articulation of leadership content could be delivered as a school’s organizational culture progresses developmentally through any planned program of a leader’s tenure.  A leadership curriculum, it would be.

I then I thought: Is our leadership Standards-based?  Do we use backwards design?  Do we even have a curriculum or lesson planning, per say?

Said other ways …

Do we move from the outcomes we desire, through next the framework upon which our decisions are suspended, and finally to the actions we take to reach those outcomes? 

Do we perform gap analyses or use pacing guides, even figuratively? 

Do we evaluate the intentionality of our leadership with respect to scope and sequence of what others can handle in followership?

Or … do we simply go to work and deal with urgencies?

I then wanted to examine the logic of my thinking, so in order to evaluate commonalities in teaching and leadership, I pulled from Domain 1 of Dr. Robert Marzano’s Art and Science of Teaching Framework’s Learning Map (2011, 2010).  I noticed quite-the overlap. 

Take for instance the Design Questions from Domain 1, “Classroom Strategies and Behaviors”:

Design Question 1:  What will I do to establish and communication learning goals, track student progress, and celebrate success?
Design Question 2: What will I do to help students effectively interact with new knowledge?
Design Question 3:  What will I do to help students practice and deepen their understanding of new knowledge?
Design Question 4:  What will I do to help students generate and test hypotheses about new knowledge?
Design Question 5: What will I do to engage students?
Design Question 6:  What will I do to establish and maintain classroom rules and procedures?
Design Question 7:  What will I do to recognize and acknowledge adherence and lack of adherence to classroom rules and procedures?
Design Question 8: What will I do to establish and maintain effective relationships with students?
Design Question 9: What will I do to communicate high expectations for all students?  (Marzano, 2011, 2010)

Consider a quick substitution of “staff” for “students” and “school” for “classroom,” in each question above.  Our better leaders ask these questions of themselves. 

So how does lesson planning for leaders fit in? As important, What’s left out of leadership if lesson planning is absent?  My guess is that it would be prudent forethought … as well as depth.

Broadening the panorama, I will go so far as to suggest that a bonafide leadership curriculum is necessary to help any principal span the gamut between professional standards as written and daily actions as required? 

Who would write such a curriculum? 

Leadership Teams? 
Boards of Education?  
College Professors?  

Let’s measure twice before we cut once on that one.

I have often suggested to K-12 leaders that we take time to THINK each day.  Would this “thinking,” let’s say with a lesson plan book in our Sunday armchairs, help us better to craft what we do to move a school forward?

In conferring with colleague Dr. Steve Gruenert on the need for lesson planning in leadership, he extended my thoughts as he typically does, noting, “Pastors use bibles, coaches use playbooks, the military uses the most current intelligence, parents go by intuition. Perhaps educators ought to use all four.”  

Dr. Gruenert also noted that leaders might best separate the leadership curriculum guide from the to-do list, as oftentimes, our to-do list becomes mistaken for the playbook.  He’s got a point.

I wonder how it would be received if I asked principals enrolled in my graduate classes to purchase lesson-planning books as part of their required course materials. 

Might be a learned experience, putting them to good use.


Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people.  New York, NY: Free Press.

Marzano, R. (2011). Marzano art and science of teaching framework learning map. LearningSciencesInternational Learning and Performance Management.  Retrieved at

Marzano, R. (2010). An observational protocol based on “the art and science of teaching”. Englewood, CO: Marzano Research Laboratory.


Dr. Ryan Donlan would love to hear your thoughts, opinions, feelings, reactions, reflections, and intended actions regarding lesson planning in leadership.  Please feel free to contact him at anytime at (812) 237-8624 or at

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Jeopardy in Education

Jeopardy in Education

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University


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

In the game of Jeopardy, contestants are given answers and must provide responses to such in the form of questions.  It sounds easy enough, but as the last few decades have shown us on network television, it can be a challenge, indeed.  Education, likewise, has provided us answers for quite some time, to which we have been trying ourselves to ask the right questions.

Consider the following from games played in our schools each day.

Contestant - “I’ll take Pedagogy for $1000, Alex.”

Alex - “The answer is: Giving a pop quiz.”

Contestant - “What is a form of assessment?”

Alex - “No, I’m sorry, the correct response is: How do weak teachers ensure attendance?”

In your next faculty meeting, why not deepen everyone’s perspective by including Jeopardy as a way of putting a conversational cart before a horse. It might lighten a subject that runs the risk of hitting too close to home … yet one that needs exploration.  The Internet has many sites where one can download the Jeopardy game and insert your own answers and questions.

One such critical conversation has to do with student behavior.

As educational leadership faculty, we believe that when students misbehave, they are answering a question. A strong teacher will be able to discern the answer a student is providing. An average teacher will fumble around trying to read-in to the answer or attempting to guide the student toward a different one, eventually succumbing to the philosophical weight of the exercise. A weak teacher will respond with his or her own answer in response to the student’s answer. The weak teacher will misbehave as well.

Student misbehavior seems to pervade many schools; teachers oftentimes claim it as their number one source of frustration. Quotes of apples not falling too far from trees are oftentimes topics of lounge banter.  If student misbehavior is a recurring problem, perhaps it is an answer students are providing for a question borne of the teacher, lesson, or classroom environment.

So, let’s explore some other answers that are occurring in our schools.

Contestant - “I’ll take Bullying for $500, Alex.”

Alex - “The answer is: Jimmy won’t leave Charles alone.”

Contestant - “What happens when Jimmy gets mad?”

Alex - “No, I’m sorry, anyone else?”

Contestant - “What happens when the teacher leaves the room?”

Alex - “No, I’m sorry, we need a more specific response.”

Contestant - “Who is Jimmy, and what are his needs?”

Alex - “Correct.”

Let’s try another:

Contestant - “I’ll try School Culture for $500, Alex.”

Alex – “The answer is: Good people are visiting a toxic teachers’ lounge.”

Contestant – “What happens if preparation periods are too long?”

Alex – “No, I’m sorry, do we have another question?”

Contestant – “Where is the only microwave provided to staff?”

Alex – “No, I’m sorry, it doesn’t have anything to do with technology.”

Contestant – “How can a good school become weak?”

Alex – “Correct.”

Another possible question might be “What have we done with our leadership to encourage ‘our best’ to seek refuge?” 

If the Socratic Method is to continue to explore the answers in a setting of dialogue and inquiry, perhaps using the game of Jeopardy in the context of educational professional development (going deeper with each inquiry, to get to the best and most logical question), could be deemed as the Jeopardic Method.

Consider this a new way to approach leadership, one of getting to the best question for each answer provided in daily business of “doing education.”  It could even become a part of the way we better learn how to lead.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to have three focus groups of educators get together (high performers, average folks, and underperformers) for the purpose of facilitating the Jeopardic Method with these issues:

The answer is, “Low faculty morale.”
The answer is, “Low student academic performance.”
The answer is, “Poor student attendance.”
The answer is, “Weak parental support.”

The similarities or differences in the questions (responses) provided would be interesting, indeed. What would teachers from each group believe is the cause of each of these conditions?

In particular, who among these groups could potentially move us toward the right questions? Or rather, would we stay with all groups at the pedestrian level -- that which has provided the same questions (reasons) to the answers we have experienced in education for quite some time?

By the way … teacher misbehavior, a question in and of itself, serves also as an answer that our strongest principals are beginning to aptly question.


Dr. Steve Gruenert and Dr. Ryan Donlan are always looking for contestants in their own game of Jeopardy.  Some consider it a rather uncomfortable topic for conversation; hence, our authors oftentimes must eat lunch by themselves or with each other.  If you would like to ask some powerful questions, or help better to discern the answers we experience, please feel free to contact them at or at  They would be happy to call on you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Unique Tool, Re-Offered

A Unique Tool, Re-Offered

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

As I recently had the privilege of presenting Personality, Identity, and the African American Student Experience with Dr. Kandace Hinton at the Indiana State University Student Success Conference, and in that venue had an opportunity for dialogue with many around campus regarding current pedagogy in our nation’s schools. It is from that experience that I got the idea to “re-offer” an earlier ISU Ed. Leadershop article from October 5, 2012, originally run under the title of A Unique Tool for Achievement.  I have made a few editorial changes and am presenting it below, as it is well worth our continued conversation.


After years of “reform-this” and “redesign that,” we’re left with the sobering reality that a gap continues to exist between the educational performance of students in our nation’s schools.
I have shared in my classes, in previous Leadershop articles, and in many speaking engagements, that if we are to be effective in our classrooms and schools, we must shift our personality energies while communicating with students. A wonderful example of the relevance of this information is Dr. Dianne F. Bradley’s, A Unique Tool for Closing the Gap (2007), published in the Spring/Summer edition of the Journal of the Alliance of Black School Educators.  The article is fairly easy to find with a quick, on-line search.
Bradley (2007) builds on the work of Dr. Taibi Kahler regarding the six personality energies that reside in students and are important in children’s academic readiness and potential for learning in school. 

These personalities are as follows:

The Persister – This personality processes the world through its beliefs and has the qualities of being dedicated, conscientious, and observant.
The Thinker – This personality processes the world through its thoughts and has the qualities of being logical, responsible, and organized.
The Harmonizer – This personality processes the world through its emotions and has the qualities of being compassionate, sensitive, and warm.
The Rebel – This personality processes the world through its reactions and has the qualities of being spontaneous, creative, and fun.
The Promoter – This personality processes the world through its actions and has the qualities of being charming, persuasive, and adaptable.
The Imaginer – This personality processes the world through its inactions and has the qualities of being calm, reflective, and imaginative. (Kahler, 2008)

            What is interesting about Bradley’s work is it offers a NEW explanation for our nation’s continuing achievement gap (albeit “2007,” I realize). She noted classroom teaching methodologies in our nation’s schools mostly reflect White/Anglo values, which are a mismatch with the preferred learning pattern for African American students. Bradley addressed the issue from an embedded values standpoint, those that are nurtured, celebrated, and reinforced in the home lives of students.  

Her points were as follows:

Oftentimes, the communication barriers that exist between mostly white teachers and their African American students (boys, as one example) result in referrals for disciplinary action, rather than teachers’ using the healthy differences that exist in communication as teachable moments to enhance learning (Bradley, 2007).  Teachers sometimes do not “SHIFT” in their styles of communication, and when not doing so, they cause problems for themselves and their students. 
            It is not so much a refusal to shift, I would contend, as it is an unawareness that entirely different communication and cultural patterns exist, those that should be learned, valued, and utilized in classroom instruction.

            The Euro-centric classroom should not be the only game in town. This is critical for both teachers and instructional leaders to understand.

            Preferred learning patterns of Euro-Americans focus on competitiveness and individuality.  Euro-American households encourage their children to learn to sit still from an early age and passively receive information that is being taught.  Conversely, African American households tend to be more group-oriented and less competitive, with more “vocal response, physical movement, and verve” (Bradley, 2007, p. 22). 

Higher energy learning strategies are oftentimes absent from Euro-centric instructional techniques.  Higher energy learning strategies are “a must” for an African American student audience.

            What is particularly interesting about Bradley’s research is that she overlays the preferred learning styles of Euro-Americans with those of Kahler’s personalities of Thinker and Persister. These personalities focus on valuing individuality, time orientation, work and achievement orientation, and competitiveness. Preferred learning styles of African-Americans, conversely, align more with Kahler’s personalities of Rebel and Promoter.  These personalities focus on communalism/group orientations, reactions with movement, action/excitement, and relevance (Bradley, 2007; Kahler, 2008).

            “Although we cannot make sweeping generalizations about the way that students of various races, cultures and personality types learn, certain patterns exist” (Bradley, 2007, p. 29).  The Euro-centered approaches so prevalent in our nation’s schools work just fine for those students who are logical, responsible, and organized, as well as those who are dedicated, conscientious, and observant.  Yet these approaches work not as well for our students who are more spontaneous, creative, and playful, as well as those who are charming, persuasive, and adaptable.
            Bradley encourages the use of more culturally competent instruction, in conjunction to those strategies that are mindful of the theories of Kahler’s Process Education Model (2008), as “employing these practices will help us begin to close the gap that keeps students whose learning patterns differ from their teachers, from achieving in school” (Bradley, 2007, p. 30).
            It all begins with an understanding of those who are different from us and our willingness and abilities to shift into others’ perceptual and communication frames accordingly.  As educators and leaders, we OWN the responsibility to shift, as well as the understanding that all personality energies are equally “OK.” 
Some students, because of their personality structures, perform better than others in school (within a Euro-centric-structured system), and unless we are willing to reframe how we think of school organization and delivery, we will be working against the natural and beautiful attributes of many personalities as we try to promote content competence.

Our responsibility starts with holding up a mirror to ourselves, realizing that although divergent personalities of every race, color, and ethnicity are currently “OK” as they come into our schools, our teaching and leading, as we serve it up for them, “might not be.”

Dr. Dianne F. Bradley has authored/co-authored three books:
Effective Classroom Management: Six Keys to Success (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2006), Here’s How to Reach Me: Matching Instruction to Personality Types in Your Classroom (Brookes, 2002), and Teaching Students in Inclusive Settings: From Theory to Practice (Allyn and Bacon, 1997).


Bradley, D. (2007, Spring/Summer). A unique tool for closing the gap.  Journal of the Alliance of Black School Educators, 6(2). 20-31.

Kahler, T. (2008). The process therapy model. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates.


Dr. Donlan share research interests with Dr. Bradley and has spent time talking with her at conferences of mutual interest and would love to extend this conversation at or via (812) 237-8624. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In Leadership's Wake

In Leadership’s Wake

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Two planes damaged, one down in flames, near Lake Superior.  All eleven surviving, including two pilots and nine skydivers, who through training, courage, split-second decision-making, and a bit of blue-skied fortune, made the best possible outcome out of a mid-air catastrophe.

 Some accounts speak of a burble as the cause.

A burble, similar to a boat’s wake, is what occurs as objects move through a fluid or the air.  The field of aerodynamics describes it as a dead-air space directly behind a traveling object, such as that behind the falling skydiver or the moving plane.  In actuality, this seemingly dead space actually generates a powerful recirculation.  Its swirling can actually draw things into the moving object from behind, causing a bump or collision. On the highway one can feel this “draft” behind trucks pulling on the vehicle following, if too close (on the upside, it helps with gas mileage).

NASCAR drivers live in this space.

Viewers watching NBC recently may have seen the two planes collide over Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, Minnesota.  From video shot through skydivers’ helmet-cams, it appeared that one plane came up from behind the other and crashed into it. Speculation is that the forces involved might have been a burble from the leading plane, which had the potential to create danger for even the most experienced pilots trying to move people into close proximity for some formation teamwork.

It is interesting how the environment can influence well-intentioned people wanting to collaborate, as collaboration can often be an unnatural act … or we wouldn’t be struggling to sell it.  

Organizational leadership has burbles, those spaces of seemingly dead air behind one’s movement, those with recirculating forces swirling in stealth behind a forward moving leader or initiative.  Someone or something hopping behind, yet too near, can actually create problems.  Sort of reminds us of a legislative bill coming out of committee with a rider attached too closely that causes collision in spite of the best intent of those driving the main package.

Who or what could experience the vacuum of recirculation, or the ping/pong effect, of burbles in leadership?  A few may include …

… Those trying to ride too closely on the coattails of others making change quickly;

… Those sprinting to jockey for position amidst a new company “order” after a new boss is hired;

… Those affiliating themselves too closely with a unidirectional platform or someone tunnel-visioned.

In another’s burble, one loses touch of his or her controls, becoming a pawn of the forces circulating, some unpredictably and errantly, with no rudder to avoid collisions.  In a burble, one may hit the backside of that which creates the forward movement or change in atmospheric condition, causing potential damage to the change-agent as well as others affiliating too closely.

Is it possible to get sucked up into a negative burble? Some leaders in actuality provide a pernicious leadership vacuum, influencing the path of positive people through their undertow.

To be ALL IN, yet in another’s burble, is not an optimal perspective from which to co-navigate or fly in formation.  Even with positive leaders, those nearby who are ALL IN experience, at times, learning vacuums, creating a climate of overly ambitious curiosity toward improvement or even blind allegiance to change at the expense of recognizing what should be left alone?

Can we get too close and possibly lose something, such as perspective, understanding, or identity, in that process? Of course we can, as burbles create blindness … helplessness … danger, and a false sense of security

Another way to think of a burble in leadership is that seemingly dead, yet deleterious swirl that occurs in the wake of a charismatic leader’s leaving the organization for other opportunity -- folks in the trail swirling haplessly, running into one another, wanting to jockey for position yet pathetically rudderless … colliding and wondering where the forward momentum had gone.  Disempowered … disemboweled. 

Both positive and negative leadership opportunists work well in this type of setting. Negative leaders, in particular, look for opportunities to evangelize their beliefs, as they understand that when people are about to crash, they will often look, in panic, to anyone for help.

Interestingly, this recirculation of movement may lead to organizational vertigo, a sense or perception of improvement or forward movement when nothing is happening.  Physiological vertigo causes people to lose their balance as “crystals” in the inner ear become detached, floating around.  These crystals, when functioning correctly, tell us when we are upright, prone, stable, or falling.  When dislodged, they provide the owner with a sense of movement, when in fact he or she is still. This distortion provides yet another example of how negative leaders can arrest the development of an organization, even when they believe they are doing the right thing.

Whether the problem is from following someone too closely or from an inner sense of not functioning well, we oftentimes in organizations receive feedback from sources we cannot see (burbles) or from oft-times reliable sources that have become untrustworthy (vertigo).  And sometimes the feedback is without warning, either of great danger or that which is most critical to survival.  

As a leader in education, or even as a follower, are you creating a burble somewhere out there, or … are you caught in one?  Might you be experiencing vertigo?

No matter your circumstance, as did our skydiving friends far above Lake Superior, open your eyes, deploy what training allows, DO SOMETHING … and allow for a safe landing:  For yourself, for your colleagues, and for your organization.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a former U.P. Michigan skydiver. Dr. Steve Gruenert now employs him to help K-12 educational leaders make sense of circumstance.  Dr. Donlan and Dr. Gruenert hope that you will help them continue their conversation at or