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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Now what?!?"

“Now what?!?”

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

That’s exactly what the dog said when he finally caught the car he had been chasing for a number of years.

“Now What?!?”

In our educational careers, we probably experience less than a handful of BIG CATCHES.  Bringing home the big ones, such as our first superintendency, the multi-million dollar federal grant we applied for perennially, or an opportunity for appointment to a national commission, are rare, indeed.
One of mine a number of years ago was the result of a few years of state and federal advocacy; it included a state’s incorporation of academic growth into a school’s letter grade.  These calculations are more common nowadays, albeit at times, a bit clunky in application.  Back then … the whole notion of applying academic growth was a bit more far-fetched.  Bottom line: Once we bring in our big catches, we’re responsible for doing something with them.  Catch and release is not an option.

The Indiana State University’s Department of Educational Leadership brought home its big catch recently in Indiana Principal Leadership Institute, a product of incredibly hard work in championing the cause of K-12 principals who had a similar experience taken from them approximately four years prior.  The Institute brings with it transparent accountability for participants, as well as their leadership teams and schools.  It also holds accountable the Indiana Association of School Principals and of course, Indiana State University.

Yep … we brought home the catch.
Now it’s time to deliver. 

Just this past week, we began working with over 50 principals statewide in a quest to assess their personal capacities for leadership.  It involved a good deal of personal and professional conversation – the asking of tough questions and answering honestly – all among colleagues who all want the same thing: educational excellence in leadership, schools, and the State of Indiana.

And … everyone’s watching.

We accept that, as we know Indiana deserves the best, and the best hold themselves accountable.  Our Institute’s principals are indicative of what is “best” about public education, and we’d like to think that we’re right up there as well in leadership capacity building.

As we think of the rarity of what we are experiencing right now (i.e. our big catch), we try to be mindful in our own modeling by asking ourselves – With this opportunity, what would great leaders do?  Are we modeling?  How have our best leaders over time taken advantage of “big catches” toward immediate good work, and over time … lasting success? 

First of all … we believe that with our best leaders, not too much time is really spent saying, “Now what?!?”  Answering this question started with the original desire for the catch in the first place.

Our best leaders who “bring home the catch” surround themselves with people who think very much differently than they think.  Not “Yes people.”  Our best leaders select effective followers; a science in and of itself.  Passive subordinates should not apply, as those who offer dependent, uncritical thinking fall short of the mark.  Kelley (1992) spoke of the need for effective followers to be independent, critical thinkers who are active in sharing their perspectives with leadership.  They have self-management, commitment, competence, focus, courage, honesty, and credibility.  Our best leaders are not afraid to add to the team those strong-willed like themselves.

Our best leaders “bring home the catch” while forgiving others in advance.  They know that the catch will involve new ways of doing things, and these things new will make some uncomfortable.  They know that by asking more of everyone (and “different” too), they will bring hardship at first; after all, many good people will have been doing the “old right thing” very well … one that has now become the new wrong thing (Black & Gregersen, 2003). New opportunities for schools are not accorded to leaders in order to help maintain the status quo.  Our best leaders are mindful of how important the status quo IS to some, especially those who lack balance in their lives and define themselves primarily by the work that they do. Our best leaders forgive and support while moving forward in spite of this.

The best leaders “bring home the catch” by not forgetting how to exercise their most important communication skill, one best exercised when the mouth is shut.  Our best leaders listen.  They listen to the words of others, as well as those things that happen between their words.  Through effective listening, our best leaders develop organizational acuity, and while doing so, take care of the needs of people first, so that the tasks involved in “doing what must be done with the catch” will follow. 

The best leaders “bring home the catch” by remembering at all times that although they need to take time to think, they were not hired to be resident philosophers; they were hired to DO something.  In such, they begin moving forward with prudent, right-sized steps, all the while listening rather than talking, forgiving those who resist them, and learning from those who bring discomfort of perspective, as growth cannot happen without it.

“Now what?!?”

“That’s what.”


Black, J. S., & Gregersen, H. B. (2003). Leading strategic change: Breaking through the brain barrier. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kelley, R. (1992). The power of followership. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.


Dr. Ryan Donlan has watched the ISD Department of Educational Leadership in partnership with the Indiana Association of School Principals and forward-thinking State Legislators “bring home the catch,” an example of due diligence in serving Indiana K-12 education at its best.  Please feel free to contact Dr. Donlan with your own thoughts regarding forward-thinking leadership or anything else on your mind at (812) 237-8624 or at

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