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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Subtracting for Additive Leadership

Subtracting for Additive Leadership

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

The textbook Tao Te Ching illustrates one of the foundational schools of Chinese thought, Taoism.  Translated, it is “The Book of the Way and its Power.”  Its author was reported by some to be Lao Tzu, an older contemporary of Confucius and an historian, who was last seen riding a blue water buffalo into the sunset of his life.  Well, other explanations for the book’s authorship include the fact that it was an anthology of Taoist sayings (Introduction by R. Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Scotland) (Tzu, reprinted with English introduction and translation, 1997).

The term “Tao” is often used in ancient Chinese teachings.  It means the “way” or the “path,” and illustrates a set of principles providing a framework for life and living in Chinese society.  In a sense, the Tao is considered the “ultimate reality” (Wilkinson, in Tzu, 1997, viii).   It is interesting what we can glean from Taoist teachings with respect to differences in Eastern and Western culture, as well as the way countries develop and systems operate, even school systems. 

Colleague and visiting scholar, Dr. Fenfen Zhou, recently provided a copy of the Tao Te Ching, which offers thoughts to consider for this week’s Leadershop.

From Chapter 48:

Learning consists in adding to one’s stock day by day;
The practice of Tao consists in ‘subtracting day by day,
Subtracting and yet again subtracting
Till one has reached inactivity.
But by this very inactivity
Everything can be activated.’
Those who of old won the adherence of all who live under heaven
All did so by not interfering.
Had they interfered,
They would never have won this adherence. (Tzu, 1997 Translation, p. 51)

It is interesting that such a small Tao passage can take exception with the notion of learning, and in doing so, make so much sense to those who embrace education, yet are willing to unlearn to understand it even more.

Consider the following: A great strategy to win a golf match is to send your opponent a book with 101 golf tips. If you don’t have that much time, just leave a copy of Golf Digest sitting in the car when you pick him up. The idea is to get him thinking about his swing – with about 20 swing thoughts all wanting his attention, his swing will suffer given all the new information.

Just what are we adding to our “stock day by day” (p. 51) as practicing educators, that forces us to think too much about our swings? 

A few questions come to mind:  Among new insight into the ways children better learn and adults could better teach, are we actually learning too much?  Are we in a maniacal race for coverage of something overly complicated and developmentally maladaptive during children’s formative years, when they could be best left alone to play?

In considering this, imagine if you would a bucket full of data, any data. Now we will pour the data into a bucket called “information,” using a funnel that separates the two. Some of the stuff will become information and get through; much of it will be noise and will not be of much use. Now pour the information into a bucket called “knowledge,” using a funnel that separates the two. Some of the information will become knowledge; some of it is just information. Each bucket weighs less than the previous one. Using the knowledge we have, pour that stuff into the “wisdom” bucket, or maybe by now it is just a small cup.

From metaphor to meta-analysis -- What are the research-based statistical studies really telling us about teachers’ impact on children or leadership’s influence on student achievement?  Are they telling us anything extra that demands important space alongside all else in our heads?

We think fondly of the principal who runs not from place to place – the principal who rushes not to script the next lesson – the principal who is, in a sense, “inactive” (potentially to his or her occupational peril) believing instead that through a daily professional pause, “everything can be activated” (p. 51).   Could this principal be  “subtracting and again subtracting” (p. 51), making space to provide people what they need?  

In computer lingo this might be called de-fragmenting the hard drive.  In a spiritual sense, it may be called a walk through the wilderness.  In education, it is the mindset some teachers have, realizing students do not come to us as blank slates (Pinker, 2002).  As a qualitative researcher, it is the process of coding hundreds of pages into a few themes. In statistical analyses, we use factor analysis to let 30 questions suffice for 100 without losing the essence of the interrogation.

To stop and smell the roses does not make one lazy; it is a way to let the environment come to us rather than forcing ourselves upon it.

With all we have learned about leadership in the last many years, through training-upon-training, article-upon-article, edict-upon-edict, study-upon-study, and nugget-learned-upon nugget (that which has added to our stock), we may wish to ask the question, “Have we augmented or cluttered what we hope will allow us to find the light of our offices’ doorways and beyond, the rest of the school? 

And others,

“Have all the theories and professed best practices paralyzed our abilities to swing naturally?”

“Are colleagues able to subtract-away the mainstream distractions in order to get back to why they went into our profession?”

“Are we too focused on the large bucket of data when there is a small cup of wisdom?”

And finally, “Can we perform simple subtraction, that which builds upon addition?

Subtracting for Additive Leadership

Knowing One’s Stuff, and Self
Meeting People Where They Are
Doing What Needs to Be Done
Excess Learning
The WAY … The PATH


Tzu, L. (1977, Reprinted Work) Tao te ching. Hertfordshire, SC: Wordsworth Editions Limited. (Original text published 480-222 BC).

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Dr. Ryan Donlan and Dr. Steve Gruenert made sure to write this Leadershop article at a place free of distractions, said differently, a place minus any learning that would get in the way of their subtracting for clarity.  Please feel free to subtract time from your schedule and write them at or  They would be happy to erase something on their calendars for you.

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