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Wednesday, March 6, 2013



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

Sitting next to an incredibly successful principal intern and her supervisor last Friday, I suggested that as she sunsets her year-long internship, she plays to her leadership strengths while dialing-up other attributes that mirror those of her principal.  To do so, I felt, would result in a double-barreled arsenal of leadership competency.

On the ride back to campus, I thought of the fact that I have used the notion of “dialing-up” for many years, both in word and action. I often found myself dialing-up our school’s managerial authority in student handbooks each summer; staff felt that I was always dialing-up my expectations for their performance. I even saw myself perennially dialing-up the expectations I had for myself.  Dialing-up my personal responsibilities happened a bit over ten years ago as well, going from professional bachelor to spouse, partner, and provider, much to my benefit.

Dialing-up … It has very much become a part of my leadership … of my life.  Interestingly, I hadn’t thought too much of it until that long ride back to campus.

As leaders, when we experience leadership challenges, it seems that some of us are hardwired for dialing-up, while others are more hardwired for downshifting. Many of my mentors were downshifters; they were still leaders worthy of emulation for many reasons.  I was just different, that’s all.

I think of dialing-up when problems need solving, often with fleeting thoughts of a stereo volume control dial, approximately 2 ½ inch-in-circumference on a high quality system, one that allows me to gently increase the volume of life’s music in a manner both subtle and pleasing.  Thoughts might move to my enjoyment of dialing-up Steely Dan back in the 80’s, when I had a lot more hair, a lot less weight, and very little responsibility.  Then back to the real world, thoughts might move me to a place where dialing-up represents high-stakes finesse, timing, and effect … all critical.  Yes, this strange stuff happens in my brain, as it did when I led K-12.

I have always found that when I want success, I can best reach it by dialing-up.  Others may disagree.  In fact, conventional teaching and much of our nation’s history often shares the opposite, where temperance, sacrifice, and conformity have been held in high regard.  A few of us even expect a bit of conformity in our schools.

As one example of how I was asked to conform, I spent a considerable amount of time in preservice preparation hearing that I needed to downshift certain qualities of personality that could work against me, if I were to lead.  To name a few, I was cautioned to cut back on …

1.     My outspokenness.
2.     My hyper-convictionalism.
3.     My intolerance for those who do not work incredibly hard, and
4.     My willingness to seek forgiveness over permission to get things done.

In my earlier years, my hardwiring didn’t encourage me to cut back on these qualities, and at times, my leadership style gave rise to some interesting times.  In the latter half of my two decades in K-12, I played things a bit smarter, more in line with the finesse, timing, and effect that dialing-up would allow.  Yet I didn’t sacrifice, and I really didn’t conform, too awful much.

Regarding those four polarizing aspects of my personality above …

1.     I began dialing-up an appreciation for saying less and meaning more.
2.  As I began to raise children, I began dialing-up the appreciation for listening to others’ perspectives and the benefits of decision-making through consensus.
3.     Rather than judging, I began dialing-up an ability to forgive others in advance for being a part of what I call “the human condition.”
4.     I began dialing up my appreciation for the longer-term benefits of the trust and social capital borne of open communication and transparency.

Turns out that I really didn’t have to cut back on much of anything, despite the admonitions during my training.  Dialing-up helped soften my sharp edges; it helped keep things in perspective while I maintained my healthy sense of self and identity, so that I would not lose sight of what I wanted out of life and leadership.

I think of dialing-up like I think of preparing a great meal for others.  At times when I barbecue at home, I do not really measure my ingredients (takes the fun out of it).  So I end-up adding a bit too much of this or a bit too much of that.  When that occurs, I have found that the best way to mollify the effects of the overage is to add MORE of something that will counteract (i.e. dialing-up), as opposed to cutting out what I have already put in (i.e. downshifting).  Plus … we have more to eat!

Dialing-up works in our relationships with others. 

Dahlgren and Hyatt (2007) apply a similar principle to how they suggest that students are addressed in the classroom, writing that teachers should use “start-up requests,” as oppose to “shut down requests.”  Great stuff, that dialing-up! 

Imagine that … while as leaders when we are dealing with the more difficult people at work, we could be dialing-up a bit more patience, as opposed to downshifting a big batch of anger or frustration.

What I like best about the notion of dialing-up is that as leaders, we can reframe how we ask others to adapt and change to meet the demands of our professional environments. Dialing-up allows us to encourage folks to access qualities that they already have within arm’s reach, with the result -- a better “mix” of ready-for-primetime persona … skills for success that are personally meaningful, socially responsible, and economically productive.

So what’s the take-away? 

As we work to make a difference providing leadership in K-12 education, let us help others play to their strengths, resisting the temptation to shut them down while dialing-up opportunities that best position everyone for success.


Dahlgren, R., & Hyatt, J. (2007). Time To Teach: Encouragement, empowerment, and excellence in  every classroom. Hayden Lake, ID: The Center for Teacher Effectiveness.


Speaking of dialing-up, why don’t you consider dialing-up Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or let your fingers do the walking at  He would love to share ideas with you, anytime!

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