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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 

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