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.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Wanting a Space, Part I

Wanting a Space, Part I

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

There I was, face-to-face with my new adversary subsequent to the scream of two 3rd-grade girls (my daughter and her friend next door belting it out for all its worth) – a 3-foot black Coluber constrictor atop my front porch.

Snakes fascinate me.  This black racer certainly did.

And … I have a healthy respect, so I made sure to check its venom potential on-line before making contact.  No venom to speak of, but I DID learn that he bites. 

The black racer is not-at-all docile.  He’s very quick, slithering left and right as I approached.  Though gloved-up, garden-style, I thought, “Too bad I left my stick-proof, law-enforcement-grade gloves for my K-12 successor and her vehicle searches.  Those would have come in handy.” 

It was now man-versus-reptile.

As I chased him across the porch and into the adjacent bushes, he then “went perpendicular,” climbing a weeping, ornamental tree near our berm’s corner. Slithering up branches and watching me all the while, he s-curved his head and neck (if snake’s have a neck), ready to strike, as I got near.

This was all happening to the delight of my children, who were jazzed that I was on-the-job, addressing this snake-issue. 

As he fortified himself within the branches, I decided to stand down, finding him later that evening burying half of himself, head-down, in our mulch, again near the front porch, adjacent to where my son, Sean, digs holes in our yard for his golf’s short-game.

Hmmm … I thought (alone now, as our children were at soccer practice), having Sean, Katelyn, or the girl next door bitten was not my idea of good parenting or neighborliness. 

I could chop him in half, I considered.  No, that just wouldn’t be right.  I then flashed back to my years in K-12, which helped me decide what I must do. 

Neighbors probably watched from their windows with delight as I used a plastic snatch-‘em-up tool (probably procured at the county fair, the Covered Bridge Festival, a Monster Truck cub scout event, or in a holiday stocking stuffer from my most-eclectic father) to “encourage” this snake to another part of our property. 

After a few dodges and parries … relocation successful. 
Family saved. 
Neighbors satisfied. 
Respectful co-existence, person-to-reptile assured.

That respectful co-existence part was very important to me, as I settled into a front porch rocker. 

My thoughts again went back to K-12.  I pondered this snake; then of another thing that fascinated me, yet at the same time could be foul, nasty, and certainly not with my best interest at heart … something that intermittently dared me into its personal space with an intent of self-righteous striking … yet something that often exposed its vulnerability, giving me a choice about what to do when confronting it …

K-12 Parents.

I remembered the one who arrived at the school to discuss her son’s suspension, wearing a shirt that said,  “F$ck You and the Horse You Rode In ON.”  The shirt didn’t have a dollar sign.

I remembered the dad who shared with me over the telephone, “Ryan, if it weren’t for the five warrants out for my arrest, I’d come up to that school right now and kick your A@s!”

I remembered the overindulgent business type who Rotary’d with my superintendent and whose son organized a sit-down strike in my high school.  While I pondered a good-ole’ fashioned kick to this boy’s behind, my boss suggested that I turn this one into a “Win/Win.”  That one really got under my skin.

I remembered these … and more.

Then, something occurred to me:  These folks were just like my snake. 

They were trying to bite me while I was in their personal space and in doing so, they were most assuredly in mine.

Yet, could it have been that they were simply Wanting a Space?

Could they have simply wanted a space to live their lives, and through circumstance, we were bumping into each other?  Could these folks have been doing the best they could with what they had, even if it felt short of my expectations?

I think so.

And it is often a parent’s nature to strike at obstacles, if they have no greater resources.  I perceived that they were reptilian, limited and overindulgent, yet in considering my next move – chopping them in half or using another implement to redirect – I often would pause and think of their positive characteristics, as people deserving of my effort:

They were working hard to make present circumstances work, as they were dealing with the hand they were dealt;

They needed a place to live, and because of geography, they were forced into a relationship with ME;

They loved their offspring and were simply trying to provide them with a good life in the context of what they knew and believed.

And I was in actuality, an obstacle to them.  I was the snake.  I was providing more than a distraction; I was providing barriers to their preferred paths of least resistance, affixed between their present and future.

It didn’t matter who was right; what mattered was, “What Was.”

Did I at times, chop?  Yep. 

Did I more often, move to co-exist?  Assuredly.

In dealing with others who are very much different from ourselves, shouldn’t we, at times, ask, “What are we doing for those who are poised to strike, yet just Wanting a Space?”  

The how of the answer is for future conversation.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is pondering snake charming and other aerobic exercises of leadership and looks forward to sharing strategies for handling those who are difficult in future weeks.  If you can help him unearth what he seeks and provide additional information for our readership, will you please consider contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Compartmentalization or Confluence: What's Best for K-12?

Compartmentalization or Confluence:
What’s Best for K-12?

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

I was asked last week to speak with a group of new faculty members on the topic of launching and establishing scholarship at Indiana State University.  Scholarship, along with one’s teaching and service, defines one’s successful work in academia.

In thinking through what I would share, I began thinking of how faculty members are encouraged to create a “blend” of the three, so that one informs and complements the other and all inform the entirety of what we do.  This notion of a confluence came to me so naturally that I have not often thought of it.  It just naturally occurs.

I asked myself, “Why?” 

Why is it natural to me?

In answering my own question, I believe it has to do with my prior, professional responsibilities in K-12 educational leadership. 

I’m hardwired as one of confluence, from experiences in the blending of two distinct identities for over two decades – my personal and professional lives.

Yet is this good or bad?  I’m not sure, but I’m still smiling, which gives me pause for optimism.

Let’s examine K-12 leadership for a bit and ask a very important question: To maintain a successful K-12 leadership career, is it better for us to treat our professional and personal lives compartmentally or with confluence? 

Let’s start with our terms (via a quick, on-line Google search of available definitions):

com·part·ment [kəmˈpärtmənt] noun:  a separate section or part of something, in particular.

con·flu·ence[ˈkänˌflo͞oəns,kənˈflo͞oəns] noun:  a flowing together of two or more streams.

I have noticed in leadership over the last 20 years that certain dichotomies present themselves in how we balance our personal and professional lives, including many examples in between. Let us consider the two extremes.

Leaders who compartmentalize create a distinct separation between their professional and personal identities.  Colleagues at work typically do not become friends at home.  An active social and recreational life allows for the rest and rejuvenation needed to put one’s ALL into the workday.  Oftentimes, others consider leaders who compartmentalize to have “balance.”  When this leader is at work, he or she is truly in the moment.  Personal errands, telephone calls from family or friends, and outside interests do not detract from this person’s professional responsibilities to school, children, staff, or community.  Conversely, when this person is at home, the school laptop is not open, the school cell phone is not ringing, and the day’s stresses are not brought to the doorsteps of family or friends.  This person compartmentalizes in every sense of the word.  Some professional colleagues, however, consider this person unresponsive outside of school hours or one with a 9 to 5 mentality.  “Either/Or” describes this personality.

Leaders who establish a confluence embody a both/and perspective to their professional and personal identities.  Colleagues at work are friends outside of work.  Social or recreational activities sometimes bring with them the need to multi-task, as a school’s demands do not limit themselves to the first shift of any given workday.  Oftentimes, others consider leaders with confluence to be incredibly accessible.  They appreciate it!  When this leader is at work, children or spouses may visit. Personal errands, telephone calls from family or friends, and outside interests become part of the leadership package. They don’t get in the way; they just happen in plain view of everyone.  When this person is at home, the school laptop is typically open with the “ding” of incoming e-mail part of the family symphony. Professional telephone calls are fielded at all hours, and workplace situations become ones navigated while children are underfoot.  Staff may stop by the house.  Business may be conducted on the golf course or at a Starbuck’s. This person is a personal/professional blend in every sense of the word.  Some personal loved ones consider this person a workaholic outside of school hours. “Both/And” describes this personality.

Which is a better fit for our schools? 

Let us examine contextual trends that have introduced themselves to us in recent years:

1.     A world in which work can be taken to worker.
2.     Online competition for K-12 education that can be delivered on demand.
3.     A never-sleeping World Wide Web of activities for our nation’s school children and those who influence them.
4.     The seeming obligation for schools to serve as providers of “anything parents, guardians, or communities abrogate.”
5.     Demands for accountability in a competitive arena in which educational services are being privatized and underperforming schools are being closed.

Given the aforementioned, I’m nearly of the mindset that we need leaders who treat their professional and personal lives with confluence.  What say you?

The question becomes then, to me … “What can we provide to leaders in preservice development so that they can live their lives effectively with confluence, so as not to negatively impact themselves and those around them?”

Are we responsible for helping everyone be “Both/And”?

Or … have we begun expecting too much of our leaders as a nation, and should compartmentalization and “Either/Or” reclaim the day? 


Dr. Ryan Donlan has a certain degree of bias in writing this article, as those who know him may well attest.  Given that fact, will you please consider offering an opposing viewpoint?  You can reach Dr. Donlan for comment, commentary, or criticism of his work at (812) 237-8624 or at 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Serving the Lead

Serving the Lead

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

James Hunter (2004), author and speaker, has written that to lead is to serve.  He also has shared with us the difference between those who are servants and those who are self-serving. Recently asked to speak to the Indiana State University Alliance for Servant Leadership regarding Hunter’s writing, I had the opportunity to review much of his book, The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader.  Those who are servants, I believe, have the ability to serve the lead, as it were.

            Three quotes quickly caught my eye as I started, upon which I’ll build this five-minute read this week, as I ask three questions of myself as a leader regarding them and this whole notion of serving the lead.

Question Number One:  Why do we serve the lead?

“A successful marriage, like any successful organization, is 100/100 and requires the players to get their heads fully in the game” (Hunter, 2004, p. 35). 

Mixed metaphor aside, Hunter (2004) noted through this example that leadership is not about being the boss. It is about using one’s talents and skills, wherever one is in the organization, to serve.  I would argue that to serve involves building capacity in others, and to further specify … capacity in their followership.

            “Followership?” you say.  “Aren’t we supposed to be building leaders at all levels?”  Well, yes … if those leaders are creating followers as well.  After all, someone has to follow.  The world needs followers.

            If you’re looking at this askance, consider Kelley’s (1988) definition of effective followership.  Kelley visually depicted followership through the use of two perpendicular axes – on the vertical, the spectrum from dependent, uncritical thinking to independent critical thinking, and on the horizontal, a spectrum from passive to active behavior. 
Four quadrants are formed from these axes. 
The most effective followers are those found in the upper right hand quadrant where they are active in behavior, while exercising the highest degrees of independent, critical thinking toward the goals of the organization (much like golf caddies, who support and provide consult to their pros) (Kelley, 1988).
This type of followership is decisively different than those in the other quadrants, such as that which is active in behavior still, yet exhibits dependent, uncritical thinking (Yes-People), or that which, conversely, is passive in behavior, yet utilizes independent, critical thinking (Alienated Followers) … or even that which is passive in behavior, yet utilizes dependent, uncritical thinking (Sheep) (Kelley, 1988). 
            True servant leadership creates an environment where active, independent-thinking employees are invited into high degrees of self-management, commitment, competence, focus, courage, honesty, and credibility.  Servant leadership defines leadership and followership simply as two separate, yet mutually dependent and equally important roles in any organization.  Yet, there is a bit of leadership in the best of followership, wouldn’t you say (as Phil Jackson of Bulls and Lakers fame oft-engenders)?

Question Number Two:  What is important about serving the lead?

“How we behave as the boss at work today affects what goes on around the dinner table in other people’s lives tonight (Hunter, 2004, p. 40).

            Hunter (2004) noted that leadership is an awesome responsibility. 
Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to take my daughter to dance class and sit in the waiting room as parents often do, thumbing through Hunter’s book.  As I read his quote above, I sat among people of all different professions, in all different circumstances, in a variety of moods … a few seemed to have much on their minds. 
I thought of the door from the dance studio that would eventually open, the children who would eventually reappear, and the evenings that these children would have, based on the level of distress that was present in some of their parents.
            I wondered how much of what the parents were thinking and feeling was created at work earlier that day … by leaders acting like bosses, in all the wrong ways. No doubt some of these leaders even created distress in these parents unintentionally through well-intended misfires of communication and behavior.
How so?
            In our leadership, do we recognize the fact that the golden rule needs an upgrade?  Could it be that leaders who treat others the way they, themselves, wish to be treated, are missing the fact that others may need to be treated differently?
Understanding this need and acting upon it isn’t always easy, and this is why, in part, leadership is such an awesome responsibility.  If employees leave each day with their needs unmet, how often will this roll downhill and stymie their efforts at parenthood or the indelible impressions upon their children later in the evening? 
How often will this indirectly affect the children of our superstars who worry about everything as they take their work home with them, much more so than those of marginal performance, who leave their commitment at the organizational gate?
Can we as servant leaders exert a positive influence and be others-mindful with respect to needs, so that it pays itself forward to those around them, those who might caring for us in our twilight?

Question Number Three:  Are we capable of serving the lead?

“… I have a difficult time believing that the good Lord would reserve the essential skills necessary to being an effective leader to those fortunate few blessed with just the right DNA composition” (Hunter, 2004, p. 43).

Hunter (2004) noted that leadership is a skill, and I would agree.  The skill of serving the lead is especially important.  Consider what one must do in that regard. 
In serving the lead, a proper perspective is to figure out where another stands by discovering where he or she sits.  In other words as leaders, we must be mindful of others’ perceptual frames.  We must know how others process the world around them as they make meaning of what is happening to them.  
Do we ask ourselves if others perceive the world (including all that happens at work around them) through their thoughts?  Do they think about things first or conversely, do they feel about them? Do they filter what they perceive through their values, or do they jump right into things to “get ‘er done”?  Do they react to situations or take time to reflect (Kahler, 2001)? This very much affects the way a leader communicates to followers, if serving them is important.  Those of us who serve the lead speak the language of the people we’re leading.

Of related importance, do we serve the lead through the meeting of others’ psychological needs?  Some in our organizations like to be recognized for a job well done, yet others seek recognition for the persons they are.  Some need to have playful contact with other people; others prefer isolation. 
Leaders who serve the lead will consider their employees’ or students’ psychological needs, because it is the right thing to do, yet also because not meeting them will certainly lead to employee distress, resulting in underperformance that leads to distress for all (Kahler, 2001).

As we close …

In order for success in serving the lead, we must keep the following in mind to establish and maintain their own sense of authenticity:

1.     We must accept responsibility for all that goes wrong in an organization and give away credit for all that goes right.
2.     We must forgive others in advance of their missteps, yet cannot forego their responsibilities for moving the organization forward to its goals;
3.     We must envision those whom we lead at all times as our clients, our customers, and our products, and must lead in such a way that our advice is accepted, our treatment of others is appreciated, and the results of our serving the lead include great people and professionals who can compete robustly in a challenging, global marketplace.

When these are established, leading and serving become much more similar both in definition and result.


Hunter, J. C. (2004). The world’s most powerful leadership principle: How to become a servant leader. New York, NY: Crown Business.

Kahler, T. (2001). Process Communication Model: A contemporary model for organizational development.  Little Rock, AR: Kahler Communications, Inc.

Kelley, R. E. (1988, November-December). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review, 142-148.


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached in the Department of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  He encourages you to extend his thoughts by contacting him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

From the Barbershop

From the Barbershop

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

When a barber sits next to you in a barbershop, awaiting his own haircut, you can plan on getting a good one, yourself. 

Good conversation, as well. 

That was the case last Friday, during my bi-weekly visit to Kent Taylor’s Barbershop in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The fact that my children, Sean and Katelyn, were with me made a story told by the awaiting barber particularly heartwarming, as my kids listened with interest.  They loved the story, and I was surprised that I hadn’t heard it prior. 

I’m sharing this story, details added from my subsequent inquiry, in this week’s Leadershop.  I have often found that as teachers, we borrow some of our better ideas from others.  That is the case with me this week.

Maybe one of you or your teachers would like to try this sometime.


A high school social studies teacher in Arkansas got permission from her principal and superintendent to start the school year without desks in her class.  No desks were present as her first period students arrived.

Students, surprised and finding they needed to sit on the floor, asked their teacher, “Ms. Cothren, where are our desks?”  The teacher responded, “You don’t get a desk until you can tell me how you earn one.”

Students responded, saying, “I guess we’ll have to make good grades.”  Ms. Cothren responded, “You need to make good grades, but that’s not how you get a desk.”

Others said, “It’s our behavior.  We have to behave, then you’ll give us a desk.”

“Well, you better behave in here, but that’s not how you get a desk.”

When the next period started, the process continued.  Students found no desks and were unable to provide a sufficient answer to the teacher’s satisfaction.  And as high school students would, they began calling their parents as this story is told, probably with cell phones, saying “Ms. Cothren’s lost her mind; she’s taken the desks out of the classroom.”

By lunchtime, the news media was at the school, reporting on the event.  In fact, all four local affiliates were on hand with cameras.

Ms. Cothren held her ground until the last class period.

At that time, students arrived again to find, “What else?” … no desks. 

They sat on the ground and stood against the wall, as all class periods had done before. 

Ms. Cothren said, “I guess I’m going to have to explain it to you.”

She then opened the door.

Into the classroom walked 27 veterans of the United States Armed Forces, each carrying a desk.  The veterans placed the desks in rows, then moved to one side of the classroom.

Ms. Cothren said to her students, “Guys, you don’t have to earn your desks after all, because these guys already did.”

“Every day you come in here and sit at these desk, I want you to never forget that [your desks] may be free for you, but [they weren’t] to these guys and for some of their friends who didn’t come back with them.

She then encouraged her students to sit in their desks and make good on what had been earned.


Now that’s darn good teaching, the kind often talked on in Kent Taylor’s Barbershop, and barbershops around the country.

After arriving home from Kent’s that afternoon, I found on-line, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee delivering this story at a speech at a national event in 2007, [among other venues in which he delivered it, I understand].  I tried my best to relay the quotations from his speech accurately.

“Many thanks” to the barber who shared this great story with Sean, Katelyn, my barber Kent, the folks who were awaiting haircuts, and me.

Who is Ms. Cothren? 

Martha Cothren taught this great lesson in 2005 on the first day of school in Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Thank you, Ms. Cothren, for this incredible, teachable moment, and please extend my truest regard to the school leaders who supported your innovation (and with leadership excellence, probably grinned from ear to ear as the press gathered outside).

From the barbershop … I’m Ryan Donlan reporting.


Dr. Donlan considers veterans of the American armed forces true heroes, including his father and father-in-law who served admirably overseas, the former at the Berlin Wall helping others to freedom; the latter in Vietnam with his sweetheart, now “Grandma Kathy,” awaiting his safe return.  Please feel free to contact Dr. Donlan with stories of darn-good teaching at (812) 237-8624 or at   Or ... see him at the barber Shop.