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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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An "I" for an "I"

An “I” for an “I”

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

Oftentimes as leaders we must do some unpleasant things … things that keep us up at night.

It’s our job. 

One of these unpleasantries is “pulling the trigger” on staff members who are not pulling their weight.  A method for doing so, one that I have been philosophically wrestling with recently, is our topic this week – An “I” for an “I.”  

I’m interested in how this approach resonates with principle-centered leaders. 

Maybe with this week's five-minute read, I’ll spark a bit of a debate between those more in sync with the leadership paradigm of ethical relativism and others more in tune with the black and white perspectives of moral absolutism (for those who enjoy such constructs). One can only hope.

Anyhow ...

I had to pull the trigger a few times in my career; it was uncomfortable. 

I was trained to do it with speed, dispatch, and calculable forethought.  I didn’t enjoy my training or the experience.  To this day, the thought of firing, or encouraging the resignation of,  someone who has a mortgage, a family to support, pride to maintain, and a reputation to uphold, is unsettling for me. 

Maybe I’m just a softy.

Termination, I realize, is a burden that leadership must bear in order to protect students from educational neglect. 

I get that.   Research demonstrates that having two bad teachers in a row adversely affects a child’s future (Peske & Haycock, 2006).  Having one is pretty inexcusable, in and of itself.  It reflects poorly on leadership.

Regarding the mechanics involved in pulling the trigger – Those who have done so might agree that firing those who are jerks is actually easier than firing those who are nice, yet incompetent.  The latter are oftentimes bad fits for circumstance –  some shouldn’t have made it through pre-service education; others have been ill assigned.  Most are nice, from what I have found, which makes everything even more difficult.

In the worst-case scenario, we, OURSELVES, made the mistake of hiring incompetent folks in the first place.  Some of us do so because of teacher shortages in certain content areas; others of us just get busy and thus, sloppy.  We create the problem. 

Once leaders set in motion a chain of events by hiring those not up-to-snuff, we bring about nothing but dissatisfaction and heartache.  Newcomers to our schools begin to sink roots in our communities -- they shop at our stores, attend our churches, and support our Little Leagues.  They bring their own children to school; their kids play with our kids. Some even play Frisbee in the dog park and volunteer at the holiday soup kitchen.  However, once we find that they are incompetent or ill suited for their roles, we have to clean up our own mess, at their expense. They need to go.

In these instances, nice guys really DO finish last. 

The process of removal, of pulling the trigger itself, is certainly not for the faint of heart.  The “how” of the process has caught my attention … at least to the degree that I’m questioning one such method -- a cookbook for firing those who are incompetent (nice or not), long a part of administrative lore – An “I” for an “I.”  

It’s nasty business.  It’s not nice.  Yet, it may be necessary, as we fight to liberate our children from mediocrity and poor performance in the classroom.  

Wars aren't pleasant, are they?

An "I" for an "I" involves a leader’s turning an employee’s INCOMPETENCE (“I”) into INSUBORDINATION (“I”).  It is managerial hardball, played barehanded. Only one team gets to bat.  Only one team gets the “out.”

The model suggests that when leaders are dealing with a situation of incompetence, they may address it as such if they wish to be considerate about it, but simultaneously, they begin setting the stage to reframe anything short of "immediate turn-around" as Insubordination.  Once complete, termination becomes much easier.

Justification for this approach rests upon the assumption that removals based on incompetence might be too cumbersome, too risky of being defined as subjective, and too prone to potential reversal.

The suggested ethical justification for An “I” for an “I” purportedly pertains to higher-order considerations for children enrolled in the classrooms of those incompetent, and thus deserving of “quick work” on the removal.

In the playbook for An “I” for an “I,” school leaders would:

1.     Consult with a school attorney and the superintendent before doing ANYTHING.
2.     Establish standards of performance for the employee using behaviorally measurable criteria. 
3.     Advise the employee of these criteria.
4.     Direct the employee, both verbally and in writing, to adhere to those standards of performance within a specified time frame.
5.     Allow reasonable administrative support (and time) for the employee to reach those standards of performance, those that could be expected of one similarly certificated.
6.     Measure whether or not those standards were attained in the time period.
7.     Next, do one of two things: (a) witness immediate improvement or more than likely (b) document instances of performance NOT meeting those standards.
8.     And ... since a directive was given to perform up to certain criteria, the failure by the employee to do so is, in effect, INSUBORDINATION.
9.    If this determination is made, consult appropriately with those who review your processes (and your documentation) before pulling any triggers (In other words, CYA … “Call Your Attorney”). 
10.  Pull the trigger if needed*.

*As lore suggests, oftentimes after an “I” becomes an “I,” the need to “fire” is actuality avoided, as those about to be affected pen a quick letter of resignation, while all involved parties promise “no name calling” as desks are cleared and keys are returned. 

All’s good, right? 

Well, not so much, if another community’s children get your castaway ... not so much if that person has a family to support.

You know, as an alternative to this approach, we as leaders could ensure that we are doing our own better-than-incompetent jobs of hiring folks in the first place, avoiding all of this hardball and consternation.


Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is interested in your thoughts, opinions, and feelings.  Please share your perspectives on the ethics involved in An “I” for an “I,” by contacting him at or (812) 237-8624.  Thanks for taking 5 minutes for a read!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Playing Defense

Playing Defense

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

We’ve heard for years, “The best defense is a good offense.” The opposite is also true in school leadership.

I think back many years to my first principalship. As I did not have an assistant, I would select my social studies teacher, Chris, to pinch-hit when I had obligations out-of-building.

When preparing Chris for the role, I asked him to keep in mind an acronym, SODA (Safety, Order, Discipline, and Attendance), as SODA comprised his four priorities as my substitute (in that order) while I was away.  Nowadays, I would probably add two additional letters to the SODA’s tail end, “TL” – Teaching and Learning. 

This week, I would like to pose another way of looking at the acronym, beyond that of a substitute principal’s job description – more in line with notions of leadership preparation and the way we define a principal’s current role. 

As I ponder SODA-TL’s conceptual properties, I envision a hierarchy of institutional needs, which I represent below in a conceptual model:

As with many hierarchies, items more toward the top depend on those nearer the bottom for their existence and sustainability. This hierarchy applies to school leadership as follows:

School safety is foundational.  Its necessity is inarguable. If we cannot ensure that children will return home each evening unharmed (physically, emotionally, etc.), then we should not be in the schoolhouse business. 

Resting just above our platform of school safety is the notion of order, “a must” for both effectiveness and efficiency of operation. Roles and responsibilities cannot be carried out in the midst of chaos or confusion. Once order is achieved, the institution can work toward providing for a higher, yet still a mid-level need, discipline.

Discipline is both extrinsic and intrinsic, ideally influencing everyone to do what is appropriate to his or her role.  Extrinsic factors involve a natural follow-through on consequences for choices made (i.e. write-up’s for unprofessional behavior or conversely, bonuses for exceptional performance). Intrinsic factors, on the other hand, would include the even-more-important qualities of one’s being self-directed, pro-social, or professionally helpful.  When those in schools are disciplined, another mid-level need that rests within our hierarchy can flourish: attendance.

Not much needs to be said about attendance.  The notion of Must Be Present to Win certainly applies. Positive attendance provides its own platform for other, higher-level needs in education, starting with effective teaching, as students are better ensured continuity of instruction when teachers have continuity of student audience. 

Finally, resting atop and dependent upon quality teaching in our hierarchy is learning.

Here’s the bottom line:

We cannot assume SODA-TL will just happen in schools.  This hierarchy needs defending each and every day, as our hierarchical homeostasis is vulnerable to forces both from within and without the schoolhouse walls.

Are we ensuring that someone is always on hand to play defense?

With recent trends in what we demand of leaders, I question whether many see defense as relevant.  Principals are now required to play much more offense (translated: tending to the teaching and learning atop the hierarchy).  In such, they’re a bit more removed from the defensive line.  What is perplexing at times is that in leadership preparation circles, the entire notion of defense is at times, depicted as a lesser entity. 


Some make it their mission to regale a principal’s role in management as antiquated, a product of the bygone eras of good-ole’ boys and one’s prerequisite as a football coach (this article’s metaphors notwithstanding).  Isn’t the reality of today’s situation that the game of the principalship is more complex than ever, requiring an all-hands-on-deck approach? 

Further, isn’t a principal’s game one that requires a “both/and” approach, as opposed to that of an “either/or” – the need for offense/Instructional leadership AND defense/Building Management?  

Aren’t both equally important in winning?

Instead of denigrating a principal’s role as building manager, let us instead envision the offense and defense of the principalship as partner constructs resting in different places on the same, all-important hierarchy of institutional need? 

Doing so would allow us better to organize our resources to give the time and attention to foundational needs (SODA), so as to allow higher-order needs (TL) to be met.

I can’t think of any losers in that game.


Dr. Ryan Donlan would like to reframe any contemporary indictments of a school leader’s “Building Management,” and as part of this, is laying the groundwork to have a discussion about the importance of Assistant Principals in future weeks.  If you have any thoughts you would like to share, please don’t hesitate to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cabin Fever

Cabin Fever

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

Have you noticed that some people are sad this time of year?  Quite SAD, actually.  Yet given their condition, they still come to school each day and depend on our leadership.

Physicians and pharmaceutical companies call this condition, Seasonal Affective Disorder, also referred to as the mid-winter blues or another name we used when I was principal-ing in the U.P. of Michigan: Cabin Fever.  Cabin fever kicks in around this time each year – when a chill’s in the air, the sun’s not shining, and when things just aren’t quite green enough.

Maintaining staff and student enthusiasm for teaching and learning is a bit cumbersome during this season.  We find that our short days sometimes seem lengthier than our longer nights: staff fuses get short, office referrals get long, and students don’t seem to be buying what we’re selling.

What do we do?

As leaders, we try our best to play “Doctor Mom” or “Doctor Dad.” We make quick, prudent diagnoses of those who are SAD, offering prescriptions to “fix ‘em up.” 

Easy as that … Right?

Well, as a leader, I didn’t always think so. 

I tried all sorts of these motivational promotions from companies all-too-willing to flood my desk with catalogues of mailbox stuffers, happy-land posters, and workday-well wishes for the staff announcements.  Atta-boy’s and Rah Rah’s can last a quarter or two on a game clock, but typically not a quarter or two on a school calendar.  They didn’t work for me all too well.

Wanting to involve greater minds than mine for ideas as I composed this short-read, I reached out to friends in the Twitter universe and found that they offered more creative ideas for keeping high the energy level in schools.  A leader’s meaningful, genuine efforts to recognize, to reward, and to accentuate the positive were first on our colleagues’ lists.  They suggested that by finding those magic moments, making the most of “the present,” and asking staff what they, themselves, needed to get through this mid-winter stretch, leaders would make headway.  The key, my colleagues felt, was in listening to others and of course, smiling … authentically smiling.  I would agree wholeheartedly.  I certainly smiled when I heard the ideas for staff snowball fights and morning floor hockey. 

Through these and other conversations, along with the pleasure of reading a few excellent books, I think I have uncovered the most important part of what we as leaders must do in our schools to help others get through through this season’s Cabin Fever …

We must diagnose and cure our own. 

Yes, we must take care of ourselves first; yet, we often do not. 

We’re often in denial. 

Just like parents, sometimes when we have a fever (Cabin Fever, or otherwise), we stoically plow forward, not under any circumstances letting anyone else know we’re not well.   Yet, is this really doing anyone, any good? 

This week, I received a request to write a conference abstract for one of my upcoming presentations. As I put some thought into what I wanted to say, I thought of our Tweets this week and the Leadershop as well, and entitled it, When the masks drop, put YOURS on first. 

Here is what I wrote:

[Our] role is more of a calling than a job … more a mission than a position … in fact, a true labor of love.  As human service professionals, we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy operating altruistically, thinking of others before we think of ourselves, don’t we?  Yet, are we truly “helping” those who depend upon us to the degree that we can, when we do just that?!?  Airline personnel would remind us that if turbulence is present and the oxygen masks drop, we should affix OUR OWN, before fastening those of our children.  This is based upon the premise that unless we are first fully capable of helping others through a clear body and mind, then we are “no help at all.”  [There exists] the unapologetic necessity of focusing first on meeting our own needs while working in the helping professions, in that by doing so, we will be more effectively positioned to help others with theirs.  Being self-ful is the key that pays itself forward.

The cure for Cabin Fever? 

Ironically, might I suggest that in the midst of moving forward with the many good ideas that our colleagues on Twitter suggest, we should first ensure we are operating on all cylinders. Putting on our own oxygen masks first is not selfish; it is self-ful.

We can then navigate more effectively through our cabins, until we can open the windows and let-in a little fresh air, whereupon spring fever will bring about the exciting need for an entirely different prescription regimen.


Dr. Ryan Donlan studies school wellness and would hope that you should share ideas on how you apply your own oxygen masks with the intent of being self-ful.  If you would like to share, will you please contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at  Thanks for visiting the Leadershop!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Born or Made

Born or Made

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

Well, which is it … Are leaders born or made? 

First, a working definition: “In our view, leadership involves persuading other people to set aside for a period of time their individual concerns and to pursue a common goal that is important for the responsibilities and welfare of a group” (Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan, 1994, p. 493). 

Let’s go with that one and explore the question.

Scottish Author Thomas Carlyle, in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1888) popularized a notion in the mid-1800’s that a “Great Man” theory existed, in which someone’s personal traits defined [his] leadership. Beyond that, those traits helped to direct the course of human events for those who followed (Burkey & Widger, 2008). 

Others countered that historical events have instead positioned people into opportunities for effective leadership, stating, “Innate traits, in and of themselves, did not a leader make.”  Further questions have included, “What deeper factors define leadership?”  Are these one’s traits, one’s skills, one’s style, or are they dependent upon the situation that one encounters (Northouse, 2004)? 

Again … more simply, “Are leaders born or made?” 

Some have dismissed this as an oversimplification, answering, “YES,” and moving on.  I think, however, that the question is worthy. With this week’s five-minute read, I think we can get a better handle on it.  

Buckingham and Coffman (1999) shared the parable of a scorpion and a frog, in which a frog was hesitant to honor a scorpion’s request to carry him across a pond, fearing he would be stung. Despite assurances to the contrary, once upon the frog’s back, the scorpion stung him, noting, “It’s in my nature” (p. 56). 

The authors used this story to discuss the innate nature of who we are.  They posed that we cannot expect professional qualities from others that they simply do not have.

Is this accurate, as it would seem in part an argument for leadership as born, wouldn’t it? 

The authors go further, saying, “Skills, knowledge, and talents are distinct elements of a person’s performance,” and “The distinction among the three is that skills and knowledge can easily be taught, whereas talent cannot” (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999, p. 83). 


Talents, Buckingham and Coffman (1999) noted, are the recurring pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of a person over time, “… an accident of birth, ‘the clash of chromosomes,’ as the ethologist Robert Ardrey described them’” (p. 93).  Talents are transferable generally, they concluded, clarifying that skills and knowledge “… are often situation specific” (p. 88).

Could “talent” then be the part of leadership that is born and further, could “knowledge” and “skills” be the parts that are made?  I believe the answer lies in how a leader’s personality factors in to all this, as it seems a related and important construct.

Five-factor theories of personality are a part of mainstream scholarship. These factors help explain the underlying categories that serve to describe people – those of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability -- the latter referred to, at times, as Neuroticism (described in the research regarding job performance of Barrick & Mount, 1991). The acronym OCEAN is often used to describe the five-factor model.

With all this, the question becomes, “Is the OCEAN inside us made, or is it born?” Is it more in line with our nature, as with the scorpion and the frog, or more in line with our nurture, as in things taught or developed?

Note the work of Dr. Taibi Kahler (2008), which highlights how factors of personality traits differ in strength and demonstrable energy, depending on how overall personality structure is arranged at birth and develops over a lifetime. Kahler (2008) actually presents a SIX-factor model for use in therapy, communication, and education.  It has been validated through construct (Kahler, n.d.) and more recently in its instrumentation (Ampaw, Donlan, & Gilbert, 2012).

In Kahler’s model, persons are born with one predominating personality type. By age seven, five other personality types layer themselves in to a complete structure (720 different combinations), each type influencing one’s overall personality and one’s leadership potential in various contexts.

Kahler’s six-factor model fits nicely in a five-factor world in that each of Kahler’s six personality types has its own, naturally occurring levels of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability (traits, if you will).  That, of course, is my interpretation, which I would love to have Dr. Kahler evaluate.

Where Kahler’s model has even greater sophistication is in answering the question of how we can build strength in our own leadership areas that show a deficit, whether these are talents, skills, or knowledge [i.e. things BOTH born and made].

Kahler demonstrates how this takes place not by debating the question of whether leaders are born or made; instead, he theorizes that when people provide for their own psychological needs to be met (i.e. when people are “ok”), they can more readily access and energize those aspects of personality that might not be as strong … yet still, those needed for leadership.

In short, Kahler might suggest that we are all born of nature with six personality types useful in our leadership; however, we are more capable of accessing those areas of lesser energy if we make use of nurture to provide for our own needs in a way that works for us.

Upon shoulders of theory rests my answer …



Ampaw, F. D., Gilbert, M. B., & Donlan, R. A. (2012, August). Verifying the validity and reliability of the Personality Pattern Inventory. Paper presented at the 4th International Congress on Process Communication, Vienna, Austria.

Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44(1), 1 – 26.

Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Burkey, R. & Widger, D. (2008). On heroes, hero-worship, and the heroic in history.  A Project Gutenberg E-Book, retrieved from

Hogan, R., Curphy, G. J., & Hogan, J. (1994). What we know about leadership. American Psychologist, 49(6), 493-504.

Kahler, T. (2008). The process therapy model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.

Kahler Communications, Inc. (n. d.). Personality Pattern Inventory validation procedures. Little Rock, AR: Author.

Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership theory and practice (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.


For comments and conversation, please consider contacting Dr. Ryan Donlan at the Indiana State University at (812) 237-8624 or at