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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Dark Side

The Dark Side

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

Is there a dark side to leadership? 

I have seen it in a few of the leaders for whom I have worked over the years.  Darkness, it seems, comes in varying shades.

Could it be that some school administrators are motivated by things they don’t talk about … even to themselves?

A few examples (maybe one … just one, applies to a leader you have known):

Those who have unresolved issues that drive them to champion causes greater than themselves or expose themselves to unnecessary risk.

Those who are treated like punching bags in their personal lives, and thus, have a need to exercise titular authority professionally.

Those who find that they have difficulty with authority, so they better BE the authority.

Those who have a deep-seated need being in the middle of conflict and may through their behavior manufacture it, even unconsciously.

Those who have balance lacking in their lives and identify themselves by the work that they do, not the people they are.

Why do I mention these things?

The dark side of the leaders I knew did not, in and of itself, make for bad leadership.

It simply introduced another layer of “circumstance” or “complexity” that made the commute to work with them each day.  It was baggage, recognized by the more self-reflective, with a need to be checked.

Those of us who do qualitative research recognize that we must control bias while we do our jobs.  We do not pretend that we do not have it; instead, we acknowledge our biases and “bracket them out” as we work. 

As we lead, do we acknowledge our own biases, or even our dark sides, if they exist, bracketing them out of our leader behavior, amidst the hundreds of positive things we do every day? 

Or … do we ignore them … repress them, and in doing so, run the risk that they unconsciously influence the way we lead?

At the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute this week, we are asking over fifty K-12 leaders to set goals while examining their personal capacities to lead, so that they can focus on two years of targeted, intentional school improvement on behalf of their students, staffs, and communities.

In doing so, these leaders will acknowledge and reflect upon the things affecting their lives – those that make them human and thus, fallible – and work to bracket them before moving ahead in professional development. 

They will better understand that they must work to address their own needs before they can work to meet the needs of others.  And … that they must keep their eyes open … especially in the dark.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is both pleased and honored to be on the design team of the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute.  If you would like to continue this conversation about one’s personal capacity to lead, please feel free to contact him at or at (812) 237-8624.

1 comment:

  1. I like your perspective on leadership. Our biases should always be kept out of our decisions as leaders. But as humans, sometimes we tend to have affinity for those who share our thoughts and beliefs. That is what we should guard against.