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.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Leadership in Dog Years

Leadership in Dog Years

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

Could one’s tenure in school leadership be thought of in terms of dog years? 

Said another way, does leadership’s tenure, in what it represents through description and contribution, offer its own conversion factor to the more typical developmental lifespans often discussed?

In consulting a few sources (Cesar Millan’s (Dog Whisperer) website at and Pedigree’s website at, I learned what I believed I had known for some time: that a simple calculation of dog-to-people years does not exist.  It depends on the size of the dog, the breed of the dog, and the general health and wellness pertaining to lifestyle, circumstances, and ownership.  Nevertheless, did offer this helpful guide:

Dog Years
Human Years

Leadership’s tenure and what it represents depends on myriad circumstances as well, yet as a general rule, can we use something as metaphorically far-reaching as dog years to determine what impact we may be having as leaders and when it might be time to “move along little doggie”? 

To consider these, we could begin asking a few questions:

In leadership’s first year, is one’s leadership metaphorically similar to a 15-year-old?  Infatuated with it all, with possibly a combination of insecurity and overconfidence … knowing all the answers if not careful?

In leadership’s third year, is one’s leadership metaphorically similar to a 28-year-old?  About the right age to know what one wants, attractive to others, with peak performance yet possibly a bit shy on wisdom?

In leadership’s fifth year, is one’s leadership metaphorically similar to a 37-year-old?  Working hard to raise children (i.e. faculty & staff), imparting values, helping others to make good decisions to carry on the “family” name and provide for others who may depend on them?

In leadership’s tenth year, is one’s leadership metaphorically similar to a 62-year-old?  A matriarch or patriarch, wise in guidance and the living logo of what the organizational family represents.

Beyond that point (the ten-year mark), is it time for retirement or a reintroduction of our leadership to its adolescence in another’s neighborhood?

Admittedly, today’s 62 is the new 52, with one’s contribution potential enhanced through advances in medicine and overall lifespan potential.  Can it be said similarly that advancements in leadership science, including proper wellness, education, and continued maintenance, offer the same contributory parallels in school leadership?

The deeper question is this, of course:  Does leadership have an actuarial table, that guides us when making decisions on the continued impact of what we are doing, compared to what others could bring anew into our organization’s leadership equation?


Dr. Ryan Donlan’s longest tenure as a school leader was 11 years.  He encourages your input into his fledgling theories, as a sample of one does not an effective research design make.  You can reach him for comment, commentary, or canine contribution at (812) 237-8624 or at

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Arrowroot Effect

The Arrowroot Effect

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

Can the indistinguishable promote excellence?  Does the subtle, or even the invisible, serve a role, that if made more visible or predominant, might actually work against the optimal functioning of a team?

I think back to my years playing in a variety, special events band.  We played weddings, proms, nightclubs, and all sorts of special occasions from backyard parties to large-arena venues.  My job was to play keyboards and provide back-up vocals, with only an intermittent spotlight.  Through such, I added depth and appeal to the music in such a way that if I stepped away, a more empty sound would result; however, if I turned up my volume, we wouldn’t have sounded as good.  Others were excellent, and I was only average.

Which brings up an additional point to ponder -- Are average folks needed to connect or even enhance the functioning of those more excellent in an organization?  Without them, would excellence wane?

Put another way, is there a metaphorical glue, a protoplasm, a plasma, or some other agent that provides connections between the more talented agents in any organizational recipe, that without such, an optimal blend in reaching the organization’s mission would not exist.

And, can this thickening agent be the leader?  Or does the leader need to stand out and exhibit excellence?  In working through this, we might ask ourselves:

Can the offensive lineman be team captain?
Can the rhythm guitar player be band leader?
Can the C student be class president?
Can the Jazz conductor play 2nd-chair trumpet?

Can cornstarch rule?

A substance with similar effects of cornstarch, yet arguably one that is more invisible in cooking (or at least a bit less cloudy), is arrowroot.  Arrowroot is “a powdery substance that is made from the root of a tropical plant and that is used in cooking to make liquids thicker” ( It also has medicinal purposes, even historically as an anecdote for poison-tipped arrow toxins (  

Arrowroot thickens and heals, all at the same time.  Rarely if ever the main ingredient of anything, it doesn’t stand out, yet when incorporated into a recipe, those who are cooking quickly find that the preparation cannot exist without it.  Arrowroot allows other, more predominant and better-tasting, ingredients to predominate.  It allows for a blend, where others can then serve as the star performers through arrowroot’s support, thickening capability, and essence. 

What is the arrowroot effect of leadership?  Can leaders simply be arrowroot and nothing more?  Would this be enough to promote excellence?

Think in terms of our own situations that we have encountered in K-12 schools:  Do average and seemingly invisible leaders subtly promote organizational excellence, with something indistinguishable that provides girth, strength, or substance to ingredients that would not coalesce otherwise?

Or must leaders stand out?

And what happens when a star is born, and it wasn’t what we were marketing?


Dr. Ryan Donlan now wonders if arrowroot’s steak is more important than a superstar’s sizzle. He encourages you to join the conversation on the potential power of subtlety in leadership by calling (812) 237-8624 or writing to 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bare-Knuckled Nonversation

Bare-Knuckled Nonversation

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

As I have many times prior, I learned something unique from my dad last week. He shared a term he had heard used on television: “nonversation, ” which led to a nice conversation and a bit of reminiscence.

From online sources, the term, nonversation, is described as follows: “A completely worthless conversation, wherein nothing is illuminated, explained, or elaborated upon. Typically occurs at parties, bars, or other events where meaningful conversation is nearly impossible” (

Merriam Webster notes similarly, from its Top Ten User-Submitted Words, Volume 5, “A conversation that seems meaningless or without logic (

Yet, that’s not how I thought about its potential definition.  It’s not how my dad did either.  What if nonversation could also have Definition #2: “A conversation that took place, but never officially did”?

That would seemingly apply more toward the struggles school leaders have in leadership, wouldn’t it?

Under the second definition, nonversation would be what we all speculate happens in smoke-filled caucus rooms, teachers’ lounges, and/or at coffee shops prior to the BIG votes at school board meetings.  It might even be what many of us do when we shut the doors to our offices.

Leaders with organizational acuity know how to detect and decipher nonversation, conversations “not” officially taking place in schools and in local communities. Further, our best leaders know that nonversation is also in many cases, more powerful through both its stealth and substance -- more dangerous as well, really packing a wallop.

This week’s question:  Should school leaders, themselves, use the power of bare-knuckled nonversation?

To avert a worst outcome in a complicated situation?

To unearth the weakest link in an imposing force?

To encourage liars to tell the truth, when honesty would serve them better?

To speak in another’s language, one who only understands something really “direct”?

To be authentic, when public record (and political correctness) dis-incentivizes this sort of behavior?

To explore the pavement beneath some bloviator’s posturing?

Or even, to find humor amidst idiocy, something school principals aren’t typically allowed in public?

Or conversely, is nonversation as a tool, forbidden in a de jure or at minimum, a de facto sense, in K-12 leadership?  Said differently, is the use of nonversation unfashionable for those trusted with the care and feeding of our nation’s school children.

One could argue that once we are anointed to serve as role models for children, the practice of sharing something that by definition, we’ll never admit to saying, would beacon “conduct unbecoming of public stewards, where principals would shed their principle?”

Others could argue that by putting themselves out there, principals who make judicious use of nonversation demonstrate, in actuality, the courage to step-up and do what needs to be done, slugging it out in a world where children need someone willing to throw down for them, fighting the fight the way it is brought to them.


Dr. Ryan Donlan would encourage all K-12 leaders to [content of what he would share in nonversation deleted] and can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at for conversations more prone to parsed words and political correctness.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Elegance of Disproportionality

The Elegance of Disproportionality

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

My daughter, Katelyn, and I watched a young deer foraging through our back property a few days ago.  It had an odd gait and looked a bit shabby, yet was beautiful in its own way.  Later in the day, I watched my son chew a bit of wild onion from the yard as he picked a sprouting dandelion for my friend and colleague visiting from overseas. My colleague, in turn, shared what her culture views as the weed’s true value, in terms of teas and holistic wellness. 

I was appreciative of Sean’s exposure to a different perspective.  I don’t really like dandelions and haven’t really said too many nice things about them.

That same evening, I noticed how that same onion and dandelion protrude awkwardly over spring’s early arrival of a precious commodity, the grass in my lawn.  In fact, our entire property seems a bit out of proportion – grey trees dominating skeletally in one sense, yet at the other extreme, exposing much-too-much of the adjacent subdivision. Our ground is still more a patchwork of straw and clover, than anything attractive.

The point is that while things often look a bit out-of-proportion and even a bit rough around the edges, an overarching “plan” seems to be in place, serving as a harbinger of good times to come.  That is, if we have the patience to allow it.  The forgiveness.

As I’m reminded in K-12 of the gangly looking, pubescent child sprouting awkwardly into a teen or the B-film actor turning into a werewolf one protruding limb at a time, my thoughts are, as usual, with leadership.

Whether leadership in our schools, businesses, or among children on a playground, how often do we stop to appreciate the elegance of inelegance, the beauty of one’s leadership development when it looks a bit raw, a bit out-of-proportion, and even to some, a bit ugly.

What does this look like in schools?  A rookie principal trying on a new leadership “suit” for both size and style, or that late-career teacher fumbling haphazardly with instructional technology, or even a brand-new Board member micromanaging the details of every instructional supply purchase, much to the chagrin of one’s business manager, when we know the real agenda is to fire the soccer coach.

“What a pain!” some may say.  

While craggy on the surface, these disproportionalities, when viewed by those a bit more seasoned and forgiving, appear instead a predictable phenom of natural development of unnatural things, and thus, are deserving of a chance to make their own way.

Can we forgive inelegance in advance?  Reminds me a bit of John Legend’s perspective on giving one’s all to something or someone else, when he sings, “Love your curves and all your edges. All your perfect imperfections.”

Similarly, can we give our all to developing leaders by appreciating the elegance of their disproportionality, and meanwhile, forgive in advance the proportional inelegance of those who do not, so that they can learn from our example?


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a bit disproportional, himself, at times and can be reached for comment or conversation at (812) 237-8624 or at  He would love to have a chat.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Blissness as Usual

Blissness as Usual

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

Earlier today, Department Chair Dr. Steve Gruenert and I were facilitating a conversation with two groups of Ph.D. students, one from the Selaphoom district of Roi-Et, Thailand and another from Indiana State University’s Bayh College of Education. 

In the room sat the Dean of Roi Et Rajabhat University’s College of Education and other distinguished guests, including an Associate Professor of Teacher Education from China and a Director of a university program in Communication who was visiting as part of a classroom observation exchange in professional development. 

Our activities were leading into Round Two of the Leadershop debate that Dr. Gruenert and I had a few weeks back on Collaboration (I hear from honest folks that Dr. Gruenert won the initial exchange, so a rematch was ON).  During a sidebar, we mentioned to each other that we couldn’t believe we were actually getting paid for doing this.


Dr. Gruenert and I were facilitating a three-country, multi-university discussion on leadership.  Just doesn’t get any better than that!  Class adjourned, and I turned to thoughts on what I would offer in the Leadershop this week. 

Blissness as Usual just sort of just came to me, and in a serious way that I’ll now share.

Leadership is a challenge.  It can extend our health and happiness or seriously curtail both.  With such a heavy weight placed upon us each day as lives are entrusted to us, if we do not ensure that our “day jobs,” as much as possible, foster Blissness as Usual, then I fear we are positioning ourselves for eventual degeneration, and most certainly regret.

Thinking back to my first principalship, I remember strolling through the gymnasium with a textbook sales rep, watching groups of students shooting baskets during a long winter’s lunch.  A long-haired crowd rocked with ACDC from a P.A. system that I had provided for them in the gym’s mezzanine.  Our athletic director joined us, and I remember sharing, “The principalship just doesn’t get any better than this!”  When Blissness as Usual faded, I found it elsewhere (in fact, a few times). I often describe my eleven-year experience as a superintendent as one of Camelot, with a 9-0 board in a community that I loved.  Yep. Blissness as Usual. 

I’m pretty sure I have found it again.

So what comprises our litmus tests, as we gauge whether or not we are experiencing Blissness as Usual in our professional lives and leadership?  It certainly cannot be equated with the continual receipt of good news or uninterrupted success in all that we do.  That would neither make sense, nor would it describe true leadership, by anyone’s definition. 

Here’s how I am thinking about it, by asking some questions that might apply:

Would we do in our spare time what we are doing professionally each day, if not required?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Do we lose track of time and wonder where the day has gone?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Will we tend toward confluence, as opposed to compartmentalization, without overdoing it (see September 17, 2013 Leadershop)?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Are we smiling as we drive to work when no one else is looking, thinking of the upcoming day, or even when we envision the challenges placed upon us?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

When we experience failure, are we encouraged to fail forward, to learn, to be transparent, and to try again?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Do we have an immediate supervisor whom we respect and trust?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Are we finding meaning in our work, yet not our entire identity?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

When we need a comeuppance or a kick in the arse, does someone with authenticity offer us one, so that we do not need two?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Would we hesitate to accept other job offers at higher pay levels, even from organizations that appear to have fewer problems than our own?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Have we found balance in our lives, or at minimum, happiness in the imbalance?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

A final thought on the importance of having this conversation with ourselves:  If we wish our grandchildren to know us from time spent with them, as opposed to a photograph of someone mom or dad tells them about, we’ll get serious about ensuring Blissness as Usual for ourselves, and through such, for those who appreciate our being around. 

I’ll close by asking, “Do some big decisions need to be made in our own lives and livelihoods, in moving us toward that end?”


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a regular ISU Ed. Leadershop contributor and considers his role as a teacher of Ph.D.’s blissful, indeed.  Please feel free to contact him at anytime at (812) 237-8624 or at