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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In Leadership's Wake

In Leadership’s Wake

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Two planes damaged, one down in flames, near Lake Superior.  All eleven surviving, including two pilots and nine skydivers, who through training, courage, split-second decision-making, and a bit of blue-skied fortune, made the best possible outcome out of a mid-air catastrophe.

 Some accounts speak of a burble as the cause.

A burble, similar to a boat’s wake, is what occurs as objects move through a fluid or the air.  The field of aerodynamics describes it as a dead-air space directly behind a traveling object, such as that behind the falling skydiver or the moving plane.  In actuality, this seemingly dead space actually generates a powerful recirculation.  Its swirling can actually draw things into the moving object from behind, causing a bump or collision. On the highway one can feel this “draft” behind trucks pulling on the vehicle following, if too close (on the upside, it helps with gas mileage).

NASCAR drivers live in this space.

Viewers watching NBC recently may have seen the two planes collide over Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, Minnesota.  From video shot through skydivers’ helmet-cams, it appeared that one plane came up from behind the other and crashed into it. Speculation is that the forces involved might have been a burble from the leading plane, which had the potential to create danger for even the most experienced pilots trying to move people into close proximity for some formation teamwork.

It is interesting how the environment can influence well-intentioned people wanting to collaborate, as collaboration can often be an unnatural act … or we wouldn’t be struggling to sell it.  

Organizational leadership has burbles, those spaces of seemingly dead air behind one’s movement, those with recirculating forces swirling in stealth behind a forward moving leader or initiative.  Someone or something hopping behind, yet too near, can actually create problems.  Sort of reminds us of a legislative bill coming out of committee with a rider attached too closely that causes collision in spite of the best intent of those driving the main package.

Who or what could experience the vacuum of recirculation, or the ping/pong effect, of burbles in leadership?  A few may include …

… Those trying to ride too closely on the coattails of others making change quickly;

… Those sprinting to jockey for position amidst a new company “order” after a new boss is hired;

… Those affiliating themselves too closely with a unidirectional platform or someone tunnel-visioned.

In another’s burble, one loses touch of his or her controls, becoming a pawn of the forces circulating, some unpredictably and errantly, with no rudder to avoid collisions.  In a burble, one may hit the backside of that which creates the forward movement or change in atmospheric condition, causing potential damage to the change-agent as well as others affiliating too closely.

Is it possible to get sucked up into a negative burble? Some leaders in actuality provide a pernicious leadership vacuum, influencing the path of positive people through their undertow.

To be ALL IN, yet in another’s burble, is not an optimal perspective from which to co-navigate or fly in formation.  Even with positive leaders, those nearby who are ALL IN experience, at times, learning vacuums, creating a climate of overly ambitious curiosity toward improvement or even blind allegiance to change at the expense of recognizing what should be left alone?

Can we get too close and possibly lose something, such as perspective, understanding, or identity, in that process? Of course we can, as burbles create blindness … helplessness … danger, and a false sense of security

Another way to think of a burble in leadership is that seemingly dead, yet deleterious swirl that occurs in the wake of a charismatic leader’s leaving the organization for other opportunity -- folks in the trail swirling haplessly, running into one another, wanting to jockey for position yet pathetically rudderless … colliding and wondering where the forward momentum had gone.  Disempowered … disemboweled. 

Both positive and negative leadership opportunists work well in this type of setting. Negative leaders, in particular, look for opportunities to evangelize their beliefs, as they understand that when people are about to crash, they will often look, in panic, to anyone for help.

Interestingly, this recirculation of movement may lead to organizational vertigo, a sense or perception of improvement or forward movement when nothing is happening.  Physiological vertigo causes people to lose their balance as “crystals” in the inner ear become detached, floating around.  These crystals, when functioning correctly, tell us when we are upright, prone, stable, or falling.  When dislodged, they provide the owner with a sense of movement, when in fact he or she is still. This distortion provides yet another example of how negative leaders can arrest the development of an organization, even when they believe they are doing the right thing.

Whether the problem is from following someone too closely or from an inner sense of not functioning well, we oftentimes in organizations receive feedback from sources we cannot see (burbles) or from oft-times reliable sources that have become untrustworthy (vertigo).  And sometimes the feedback is without warning, either of great danger or that which is most critical to survival.  

As a leader in education, or even as a follower, are you creating a burble somewhere out there, or … are you caught in one?  Might you be experiencing vertigo?

No matter your circumstance, as did our skydiving friends far above Lake Superior, open your eyes, deploy what training allows, DO SOMETHING … and allow for a safe landing:  For yourself, for your colleagues, and for your organization.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a former U.P. Michigan skydiver. Dr. Steve Gruenert now employs him to help K-12 educational leaders make sense of circumstance.  Dr. Donlan and Dr. Gruenert hope that you will help them continue their conversation at or 

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