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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Leadership and Life's Resume

Leadership and Life’s Resume

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

When I was once buying a vehicle, the salesperson said, “Gosh, it looks like your vehicle doesn’t have a clean CARFAX.”  This was no surprise to me, yet it did impact the tone and tenor of the conversation regarding trade-in value, as both he and I understood it. 

I was reminded of things that have happened in my past, this last weekend, while listening to one of the better Commencement Speakers I have heard in some time, Sally Neville, an alumnus of Indiana State University. 

During my years working with at-risk teenagers, I held a very large picnic each summer for all of the new students coming to our school.  Many of them had parents, guardians, and loved ones who had not graduated from high school.  A good number were products of the criminal justice system.  Many had children, as children.  They had Life’s Resume with them.

Our main goal of that first experience was to provide hope to students and families that they were now in a place that would not judge them … a place that would offer them a fresh start.  Yet no matter what we provided over the course of their time with us, the hard fact was that to a certain degree, past life circumstance would impact them.  And in turn, our students would, in part, define the limits of their capabilities, based on Life’s Resume.  This was our most pressing challenge in educating them, beyond that of academic deficiencies upon arrival.

We live in a world where Life’s Resume is ever-present.  It does seem, more often than not, that as often as we say, “Out damned spot; out I say!” the Hamlet of our existence will not allow for its removal. 

This happens on both personal and professional levels, where Life’s Resume endears us to others, or not … enhances opportunities, or not. 

Consider how much better of a position we are in to look for a new job in school leadership when the Board is not actively trying to fire us.  Our 14th Amendment right to “Liberty” even accords us at times, a certain degree of due process, when Life’s Resume could potentially impinge upon our rights to future, gainful employment.

Think about how the following may impact Life’s Resume – in particular, on any new opportunities (professional or personal) that could come along, or not, as well as how we view the world and our capabilities within it:

Getting Fired from a Job.
Teachers Who Just Don’t Understand Us.
What Our Children Do When We’re Not Looking.
Having the Wrong Last Name, in a Small Town.
An Undiagnosed Disability.
Parents Who Modeled Inappropriate Dispositions for Us.
Bullying in School or in the Workplace.
Unresolved Grief.

So in terms of K-12 leadership, what is our responsibility? 

First, K-12 leadership must recognize that if we do not have items adversely impacting our own Life’s Resumes, then we may be operating from the perspective of privilege (without truly seeing this in ourselves), and thus, lacking empathy. 

Second, K-12 leadership must teach children and families how to be efficacious in a world that incentivizes acceptance of circumstance, one’s “place,” and semi-related …  entitlement. Pillow-soft platitudes and hugging children harder won’t provide for the skills to obtain jobs with medical benefits when the predictability of the school years gives way to adult challenges. 

Finally, K-12 leadership must ensure that all of us look upon others, as Commencement Speaker Sally Neville suggested, standing in awe of the burden they carry, rather than judging them on how or why they are carrying it. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan tries to consider what Life’s Resume has accorded others in each conversation he has with colleagues, friends, and those whom he doesn’t even know, each and every day.  He may not get it right each time, but he’s mindful that he is a pretty lucky fellow, and others may not be.  Dr. Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at 

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