Launching Leadership

Dr. Ryan A. Donlan


Ryan A. Donlan
An Irish proverb once said, “A good beginning is half the work.”

A superintendent’s rookie year would be a case-in-point. Educational leadership is arguably one of the most important professions worldwide, in that it makes all other professions possible through the inspiration of children. With such a heavy load entrusted to superintendents, time is well spent in considering the factors that affect the success of a superintendent’s first year in a new position. As we do so, let us consider that good beginnings in new communities may offer heartfelt opportunities for sustainable success, if launched smartly.

How so?

People are key to the equation, as school organizations embody the identity and capacity of the folks within. I have wondered at times, why we are experiencing the revolving door of leadership in education or the suggestive selling of the Superintendency, where school leaders seem continually to supersize their aspirations toward a focus on the future, at the expense of the present. I now believe that this lack of focus on what is important today and continued pining for what’s beyond the next horizon has to do with people’s relationships with one another.

Communities and superintendents need a relationship quite monogamous, a covenant conducive to trust and longevity. Part of this commitment is to know fully with whom we are sharing a mission. When superintendents and communities nurture compacts and better understand one another, they find themselves more efficacious in supporting each other toward what is important. 

Let’s explore integral components to Launching Leadership, as we consider an approach that will work for us in assuming our first, or maybe even our next Superintendency. Either way, I’ll refer to you as a new Superintendent, as you’re “new” to a community that is eager to help you begin a career in its hometown. 

Two Key Elements: Pride and Hope

A first step in the successful launch of any leadership career is for new Superintendents to understand the need for offering pride and hope upon their arrival – pride in the past and hope for the future. 

Robert Frost once wrote of an elderly man, Silas, in The Death of a Hired Man, who came back to a farmer’s home where he had labored for years (Lathem & Thompson, 2002). Warren, the farmer, perplexed as to why Silas would return, asked his wife Mary why anyone would come back to the farm at such an age. Soon thereafter, Silas died. Silas had nothing to look back upon with pride; nothing to look forward to with hope. It killed him. 

Leaders can apply Frost’s lessons in schools, especially in an era where criticism of education’s best efforts is rampant. Some at times find pride hard to come by; some at times have little hope.  

This doesn’t have to be.

Folks don’t have to die, even figuratively. 

As new Superintendents, we can communicate with our constituencies in such a way that they have something to look backward upon with pride and forward with hope. Or … we could misfire with our own preconceived notions about what needs to be changed. Let us avoid the latter, even as we find that the conditions upon our arrival aren’t going to win anyone a merit badge. In these circumstances, we can still allow those we lead to look backward and forward, properly. We’re in the business of saving lives. 

Resting upon the important foundations of pride and hope are eight key action steps of a new Superintendent, key in Launching Leadership. They include one’s ability to Embrace, Adapt, Observe, Connect, Move, Own, Live, and Study.  

A short discussion of each follows. 


Let us assume the “good news” call comes your way, because it will. Upon hearing your career offer over the telephone, you may not yet feel as if you are walking away, “a Superintendent.” That’s natural. It is a big identity shift. Yet, new Superintendents must immediately begin embracing their roles, both inside and out. They must truly believe that they are right for the challenges ahead. More importantly, they must believe that they are ready. Sometimes this may be difficult for you, especially if you still working in building-level leadership, handling the urgencies of the present. Nevertheless, you must embrace the new persona, if only for the benefit of others. You must honestly confront your internal apprehensions, while at the same time stepping-up into the Superintendent you need to become. How can you embrace the new “you”? 

Deft professional preparation and education is invaluable, of course. If you were in a quality graduate program, it will help as you look in the mirror. Also critical during this transition is the necessity for leaders such as yourself to get your needs met. Rest, recreation, and relationships are key; wellness can provide the confidence that the job will demand. Initial impressions of your “fit” and “fitness” are important, as the perceptions of others help define your leadership brand and can work to build your confidence. Use them as you energize yourself. 

Donning the “outfit” itself is helpful. One suggestion is for you to take a “Victory Lap,” shortly after hire but before you assume formal responsibilities. Visit your new school district, with a courtesy call to the outgoing administration of course. Enhance your social capital by making critical contacts, ensuring that everyone from the cab driver to the church lady has the opportunity for a million-dollar first impression. It’s your campaign trail. At this point, Launching Leadership is all about perception and relationships. Adopt the persona that you wish to project as a Superintendent. 

Drive it.

Embrace it. 


New Superintendents like yourself need to become more like the culture of your new school systems than they need to become more like you. Let me expand. If the school community is down to earth, you may want to ease back a bit. If the school community is a bit more sophisticated, you may want to don a more professional press. Adapt.

Quinn (personal communication, 2000) spoke of the need for leaders to take themselves and those depending on them “from where they are to a better place.” Where your community is upon your arrival is all-important. You must shift to connect with your constituents at their level. Much akin to Covey’s (1989), “Where you stand, depends on where you sit,” you need to apply your specific leadership attributes in a local context.

Play to your strengths.

Understand others’.

The goal in adapting is for you to unearth the values of those in your school district that lie below the surface, yet at all times … “fit-in.” Once doing so, you can adapt and see things from others’ perspectives, in order to see things as you should. 


You’ll be doing a lot of watching as you launch leadership, but you will want to do it with a purpose -- to learn about how things are done and to see if your initial attempts to disclose your expectations are taking effect. You can use observation as a tool for confirmation.

As an example, let us say that you serve breakfast to the district’s staff on the first day of school. You might say the following, after everyone was plated, “As Superintendent, I want to thank you for enjoying my good cooking. My children have given up on this long ago. Seriously, though … I’m honored to be among you, and I’ll be taking time to visit you in the days ahead. I’m sure our custodians have the buildings in tip-top shape and principals and teachers are running things so smoothly that I’ll be able to stroll by your open doors, seeing your great work without interrupting. Mostly, I look forward to doing this on a regular basis so that I can better understand how I can meet your expectations as Superintendent.” 

Note the expectations for building discipline and open classrooms you can reinforce through messaging, followed in confirmation by your management through wandering around (Frase & Hetzel, 1990). Your observations, as well as others’ observing your observations, lend credibility that you are paying attention to things that are important and celebrating what is deserved. Moreover, it sends a message that you will do what you say you’re going to do. 


Covey (1989) stated, “Seek first to understand; then be understood.” Your inquisitiveness as a new superintendent regarding people is an invaluable trait, so take time to get to know the folks. In such, you will connect, finding that some are more responsible, logical, and organized, and as such, they need a certain type of leadership. Others may be dedicated, conscientious, and observant and need a style slightly different. Still others may need spontaneity and fun. Many in education are compassionate, sensitive, and warm, while others are persuasive, adaptable, and charming. A few may even be calm, reflective, and imaginative (Kahler, 2008, 2006). All are amazingly unique. Many need your individual attention. 

The intertwining of all of these personalities is virtually endless, yet suffice it to say that connecting with others’ strengths of personality is a tool through which you can get the best out of people (Kahler, 2008, 2006). The key here is that in every situation of one-on-one communication, you shift to a style of communication that establishes a connection with THAT particular person. In a sense, you must launch leadership by speaking many languages, individualized to each person with whom you are interacting. 


New Superintendents are hired to get things done, not to be resident philosophers. Sooner or later, something will command your attention that needs fixing, or at minimum … doing. Smart action is key in the launch, as is your preconceived perspective on that action. For example, if you are planning on initiating a course of action that will result in some pushback, please consider having a preconceived perspective to “forgive in advance.” 

Not everyone will be with you.

Change is difficult. 

Folks who fail to see where you need to go and resist are simply experiencing a brain barrier through which you need to help them (Black & Gregersen, 2003). This is ok. People typically don’t want to resist change just for the sake of being difficult; many are worried that what they currently know how to do well will be replaced with something they don’t do well. They’re right. Human nature sometimes results in our desire to be good at the wrong thing, rather than bad at the right thing (Black & Gregersen, 2003), if that makes any sense.  

Your followers will rely upon you to communicate the benefits of moving a different direction where risk and failure are tolerated, thus breaking those brain barriers. You need to move forward while sending the message from the top – Let’s do it; all will be “ok.” 


Launching leadership demands a certain level of confidence. It demands ownership. Owning allows new leaders such as yourself to say, “If students are not learning, it’s my fault.” Healthy ownership includes allowances for risk-taking, and from that follows the need for your embracing the intermittent failure that will occur in organizations that are doing their jobs. 

Those with ownership know failure is not necessarily negative, as one can either fail forward or backward. Forward is preferred, as through it, you can use experiences and the feedback as springboards to navigate future challenges. Failing forward through ownership creates future wins. In owning, a new Superintendent solicits feedback and learns from it, not making the same mistake twice. Through owning, you send a message to others that it is ok for them to own as well. 

Ownership in Launching Leadership also involves waving-off and tracking, “must’s” for a new Superintendent. Both terms are borrowed from the sport of skydiving. Skydivers who work together in freefall enjoy flying (in actuality, falling) with each other, pushing themselves to accomplish formations, much as teams in schools work together for students and learning.  

Yet, in each skydive, skydivers must eventually go it alone to open their parachutes safely. Prior to opening, skydivers perform a wave-off, where they wave their arms to signal that all skydivers must prepare to open safely. All then move, or track as they refer to it, away from the formation, straightening their arms and legs while increasing speed and moving horizontally away from others. They go it alone, taking sole responsibility for their safety and survival.  

Ownership in the Superintendency involves much of the same. Leaders like you must, at times, perform a wave-off. In such, your staff can’t protect you. Your Board won’t protect you. They depend on you to protect them! You wave off, and in doing such, you must then track, leading with speed and dispatch to make something happen. When all is said and done, you take complete responsibility for the result, good or bad. Do you have this ability? 


Launching Leadership effectively involves living the journey over the destination. Success in education is not a matter of wins or losses; it is how much one experiences and grows while being involved. For you as the new Superintendent, the first few years might be cumbersome at times, but they could turn out in retrospect to be the finest years of one’s career – the years when you lived most, learned most, and loved your job the most.  

Do not wish away the struggle or the learning curve; be in the moment. Don’t make the mistake of those who are in the revolving door of leadership, supersizing your thoughts with one foot in the next perceived pasture, as this will be obvious to those you serve. If you’re real, and present, then you will maximize your success and that of all around you. Glassar (1992) spoke of the basic needs we all have, including fun, freedom, love, and belonging. Give yourself these gifts, unwrap them unapologetically, and enjoy. Share them selflessly.  

If you’re wondering whether or not you’re present, and “living,” ask a trusted colleague or your significant other if you are still the “you” who took that job or if you’re foregoing the present to wish for a future. An old Irish proverb once said, “The best looking glass is the eye of a friend.”  

You owe it to yourself to live … presently. 


In Launching Leadership, you must take off the business suit at times and put on the lab coat. You are also a scientist. It is time to study whether your Superintendency is effective. You must take “the you” out of the equation and perform exploratory surgery on your efforts. Study dispassionately. Avoid bias, and report your results with clarity and objectivity first to your Board President, then to your Board, and finally to your school community. Doing so will engender respect and trust.  

What you uncover may very well suggest another journey through the stages of Launching Leadership, once again, as this journey is not a one-way trip and can be traveled recursively, even backwards and forwards. The best part about another trip through is that you can benefit from footprints, if you choose to use them. 


Beyond your launch … a leader’s flexible, meaningful, and ongoing professional development based on an ongoing analysis of your district’s needs is one of the most practical and meaningful gifts you can provide for yourself and your institution. Continual assessment and collaborative refinement of what you have implemented may keep you “a fit” in your district for many years, until the time is right for you to sunset your stay on your own terms and seek out other challenges, opportunities, and vistas, in celebration of another Irish proverb, “All Happy Endings are Beginnings as Well.” 


Black S., & Gregersen, H. (2003). Leading strategic change: Breaking though the brain barrier. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Covey, S. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York, NY.  Simon & Schuster. 

Frase, L. & Hetzel, R. (1990). School management by wandering around. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.

Lathem, E., & Thompson, L. (Eds.). (2002). The Robert Frost reader: Poetry and prose. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Glassar, W. (1992) The quality school: Managing students without coercion. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Kahler, T. (2006). The mastery of management: Or how to solve the mystery of mismanagement. (6th ed.). Little Rock, AR: Kahler Communications, Inc. 

Kahler, T. (2008). The Process Therapy Model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.

Dr. Ryan Donlan is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University. He has spent over two decades in K-12 education, the majority of his career in educational leadership and is a consultant, educational trainer, & author. Dr. Donlan also contributes to the ISU Department of Educational Leadership’s, Ed. Leadershop at: and can be found on Twitter at  

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education, 326A
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, Indiana 47809
Telephone: (812) 237-8624