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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"ALL In"

“ALL In”

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

My son recently played Superheroes, saying to some of his imaginary compatriots, “Are you guys ‘ALL In’?” 

After receiving satisfactory response, he said, “OK … let’s DO this thing!”

A pint-sized esprit de corps.

“ALL In” is an interesting colloquialism, used at times by those consulting in school change, contending that a leader’s asking “Who’s ALL In?” makes for a quick barometric reading of who’s got your back and who’s ready to effect change. 
Doesn’t it?

My doctoral students the other evening quickly reminded me, however, that the notion of “ALL” is contextually specific and sometimes can even cannibalize its own existence. 
Let me share how “ALL In” popped into my mind this past week.

I was driving down I-70 near the border of Illinois and Indiana, when I thought of the foot of snow that fell on our Wabash Valley just a week prior. During the snowfall, I was in my own version of Heaven-on-earth with the sub-zero temperatures and the opportunity to use my Northern Michigan snow scoop.  Truth be told … I probably drove around on area roads just enjoying the moment, when I wasn’t supposed to do so. 
The weather reminded me of my principalship in the U.P., when seeing 20 – 30 snowmobiles parked outside my office on schooldays was more the norm than the exception. Things didn’t need to grind to a halt with winter’s blast. 

As I drove further into Indiana, I resolved myself to the fact that the brown of snowless winter had returned.  In the parlance of this week’s construct, it appeared that my new home was not “ALL In” to the white stuff. 

Yet to its credit, South-Central/ Southwestern Indiana is “ALL In” to some other nice things:

A Long Gardening Season;
Excellent Schools;
A Good Cost of Living; and
Sycamore Hospitality.

It’s just not “ALL In” to Winter. Mother Nature just doesn’t say to herself, “Let’s DO this thing!”   

The positives of being “ALL In,” thus seem, contextually specific. 

Turning to education –

How does the notion of “ALL In” apply to those of us who are working hard to make positive changes in schools, students, and communities?  Again, consultants have said that “ALL In” is good.  I have been taught as well through example that the best of us aren’t afraid of being “ALL In” to whatever we were doing.  My heroes, as immediate supervisors, certainly required it.

I vetted my metaphorical rambles with doctoral students from Northern Indiana later that evening – “Our Need to Be ‘ALL In’ as Educators,” -- “Hallway-to-Hallway Commitment” … “DOING Things 100%” … “Staying the Course.”   After all, aren’t Kotter and Cohen’s (2002) first few steps in the school change process (after Increasing Urgency) – Building the Guiding Team before Getting the Vision Right?

Many would contend that leaders should be in the school business of getting those who are “ALL In” on our teams and getting rid of those who are not.  Is this a good practice?  I thought so, on balance, and readied the first volley:

I argued that when we, as educators, are “ALL In” … we’re:

Vested in what happens;
Committed to a cause, even if uncomfortable;
Willing to make the best of circumstance;
Standing steady, whether the ground we’re on is firm or not;
Owning-up to who we are and what happens around us; and
Saying, “If kids are not learning, it’s our fault.”

I argued further that when we, as educators, are not “ALL In” … we’re:

Putting each foot in a place that doesn’t complement the other;
Looking too much at “next” and not enough at “now”;
Trying to sell ownership as someone else’s;
Attributing fault through excuses;
Looking over our shoulder, hoping a friendly is behind;
Saying, “If kids are not learning, something else must be up.”

The folks with whom we work, I acknowledged, can be “ALL In” for both right reasons or wrong … good or bad.  We can’t always control for their intentions, those hidden.  Yet we still must build that team that is “ALL In.”

Some very bright people, however, our ISU “future docs,” quickly made some observations; they pushed back a bit, agreeing with some points yet noting the following:

What if “ALL In” is a pseudo concept?  After all, someone’s definition of "ALL In" could differ perceptually from another’s.  For example, a superintendent’s working 80 hours per week on curriculum and test scores, at the expense of his/her appearance at ball games, could be one example, with a Board of Education more interested in “Regionals” than “research papers.”

What if timing could play a factor?  For example, what if “ALL In” at one point in a school’s history could impinge upon another, such as during times of sweeping enrollment changes due to the local economy.

What if one’s being “All In” could, in actually, be a bit unhealthy?  For example, could one’s “ALL In-ness” prevent one from achieving balance of perspective or even the reserve of energy necessary for thoughtful leadership and good decision making?  That was their point on cannibalism above. 

I did concede that an educator’s being “All In” might be dangerous at times.  It may cost us a job … maybe even a personal relationship, such as a friendship that felt genuine.  I shared with respect to those who have made team sacrifice that I had not often heard that one’s being “All In” would cause a loss of self-respect … or even a next chance at being “All In” on something else. Special forces look for the those who will commit.

Yet mindful of the excellent points that our new group made, I asked myself in the hours that followed: 

To what degree do leaders who seek-out those “NOT In” enhance decision making?
Could compartmentalization empower leaders to make these choices, as they most certainly will slow the pace of forward momentum?
Does a deeper level of “ALL In” exist, which transcends marching orders or published mission? 
Could “ALL In” actuality mean “Not Being So”?  And finally …
Does “ALL In” make any sense in a profession of complexity amidst ambiguity?

New Northern Indiana Doctoral Student Mary Tracy may be closest to the point of how “ALL In” pertains to those who champion tomorrow’s future, when she said, "All in to me means caring so deeply about something that, good, bad, or indifferent, you go the course with a sense of conviction that is driven.  It does not seem daunting, but rather, necessary."


Kotter, J. P., & Cohen, D. S. (2002). The heart of change: Real-life stories of how people change their organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Dr. Ryan Donlan tries to be ALL IN to the ISU Ed. Leadershop each week with five-minute reads for deep-thinking educators.  A heartfelt “thanks” and WELCOME go out to our new Ph.D. Student Cohort from Northern Indiana!!  Glad you weighed-in on the Leadershop.  Please feel free in sharing some ideas or writing of your own by contacting Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at

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