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Tuesday, January 8, 2013



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

Last weekend, I watched one of my favorite football teams, the Indianapolis Colts, who have had a remarkable, and a remarkably eventful season.  The return of Head Coach Chuck Pagano got me thinking … of leadership, of course … of my time in K-12 … and yours.
Most of you may know that Coach Pagano was sidelined earlier this year after his diagnosis of Leukemia brought other priorities to life.  While he battled the disease into remission, Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians served in an interim capacity, leading the team to a winning season and an AFC wildcard spot in the playoffs.  Ironically, Arians was sidelined this week with his own trip to the hospital, from the team hotel.  Thankfully, he is now ok. 
The Colts didn’t win last weekend’s game, but that’s ok too.
Leadership is rough.
Sooner or later as educational leaders, we’ll all be sidelined for one reason or another. 
Metaphorically, it might be only for a play or two, or it may be for the game or the season.  The former may include having another administrator better equipped to deal with a certain parent take the lead in a meeting; the latter may be that we spend time away from our building in other duties or that we are off work temporarily or indefinitely, as others assume leadership.
Hopefully, it’s not that our health gets the best of us.
Getting sidelined may be personal: It might be the result of our tending to personal or family business that takes us away for a time.  Lots of us have parents getting up there in years, or even spouses.
Getting sidelined may be professional: As with many head coaches today, if our team is having a losing season (in our case, struggling test scores, etc.), then we may be removed from our positions or given “technical assistance”  (a.k.a. having “the bench” or “locker room” pointed out to us).
School leaders such as ourselves should expect to be sidelined, at times, in that our jobs are too complicated and high profile to be insulated from it.  There’s no shame.
Every leader must eventually step aside and let someone else lead. We need to see sidelining as a part of our leadership, not something to be avoided.  It is an opportunity for us to assume two roles that we should assume from time to time:  STUDENT and REAL PERSON.
For students and real people, sidelining can be a positive experience.  It allows others to drive the school’s mission for us, taking the wheel so that we have time to learn from them and learn more about ourselves.
As one of my former school board members said after he reorganized a health care organization and dissolved his own CEO position, “The closing of a door opens a window of opportunity.”
What are these windows?
While sidelined, a window opens when we are able to reprioritize our professional and personal lives with clarity, as others are more directly in the battles of urgency that confront building leaders each day.  We can then discern our own things “important” from those “urgent,” if that makes any sense.
While sidelined, another window opens when we have time to reflect and think deeply about our leadership and what it means to accept the responsibility of educating children.  We make all other professions and quality lives possible.  How often do we seriously reflect upon this?  Could it be that we need to elevate our game?  A visit to Johari’s Window (Luft and Ingham, 1955, in Luft, 1969) could be in order here, as we need to work toward minimizing the quadrant that others can see, but we cannot (maybe more on this next week, just for fun).
While sidelined, windows open when we have the opportunity to learn, to “play student,” as we expand our perspectives by watching others lead their own way to address the circumstances that face all of us in leadership.  We can expand our repertoire through deft observation.
Other windows …
Sidelining allows us the opportunity to make decisions, asking ourselves if we are a fit for the circumstances of leadership that present themselves in our school or if we need to look for something a bit more well-fitting. 
Sidelining allows us a better opportunity to get in touch, as while sidelined we do not necessarily move farther away from our school or role as school leader; we instead move closer into ourselves.
Whether sidelined for a play, a game, or a season, how are we handling it? 
By bemoaning our plight?
By besmirching the official?
Or like Chuck Pagano, by befriending the circumstance that is now a part of life’s story, and from it growing, learning, and valuing the positive impact on our wisdom through trials, travels, tribulations, and treadwear …

Our choice; our bench.


Luft, J. (1969). Of human interaction. Palo Alto, CA: National Press.


Dr. Ryan Donlan teaches leadership for the Master’s, Educational Specialist, and Doctoral Programs for the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  He encourages your commentary and insight and can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at

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