The Power of “Process” for Superintendents

Ryan Donlan, assistant professor, Department of Educational Leadership, Bayh College of Education, Indiana State University

DonlanThe Apache Junction School District in Apache Junction, Arizona, began using “Process” over a quarter of a century ago. Initial results brought the dropout rate from 42% down to 8% and staff turnover from 65% to less than 6%. Authors Michael Gilbert of ATOIRE Communications and Judy & Joe Pauley of Kahler Communications, Washington D.C., cite these and numerous other success stories as evidencing educational transformation with this model. As a K-12 school leader, I experienced incredible success with “Process.” Now as a faculty member, I focus on “Process” in teaching, scholarship, and service. Superintendents are incredibly well positioned to study and use the power of “Process” in their leadership.
It works. – Ryan Donlan

As a superintendent, you have a monumental leadership challenge. With current demands placed upon teaching and learning, all in education are feeling the pressure. You may find at times that boards of education and even board meetings are difficult to navigate. People communicating with you are in distress. The best of people can display behavior that, if ignored or minimized, can hinder the business of education, and thus your leadership.

How refined are your skills at communicating with those who are, on their not-so-best days: critical, suspicious, defiant, manipulative, mistake-prone, or timid? As a superintendent, can you say the things your board and constituents need to hear – both those positive and those not? I have found that with deft understanding of people and personalities, superintendents can connect with others in ways that bring out their best. Here’s how.

The Process Communication Model (PCM)®
The Process Communication Model (PCM)® informs us that miscommunication is a mystery only as long as people and behavior are a mystery, as discussed by Taibi Kahler in his 2006 book, The Mastery of Management: Or How to Solve the Mystery of Mismanagement. Further, communication can be improved if we learn that all people have specific, positive personality strengths, which are aligned with psychological needs and motivation. If these needs are not met, predictable, negative behavior can occur.

If superintendents recognize these patterns, they can communicate more effectively with their boards and the public. In his 2008 book, The Process Therapy Model: The Six Personality Types with Adaptations, Taibi Kahler noted that six distinct personality energies (or types) exist within each of us, as we are not just one type of personality or another. Some predominate more than others. Kahler offers the following terms, their character traits, and the perceptual frames through which each personality within us experiences the world and communicates. They are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Personality types

Personality Types/Energies Perceptual Frames Typical Character Traits
Thinker Thoughts Responsible, Logical, and Organized
Persister Opinions Dedicated, Conscientious, and Observant
Rebel Reactions Spontaneous, Creative, and Playful
Promoter Actions Persuasive, Adaptable, and Charming
Harmonizer Emotions Compassionate, Sensitive, and Warm
Imaginer Inactions Calm, Reflective, and Imaginative


Underneath each of our six personality energies lie our psychological needs. When our psychological needs are not met positively, we attempt to get the very same needs met, but negatively through observable and predictable behaviors. (Terrence McGuire, NASA’s Lead Psychiatrist in the Manned Space Program, used PCM to predict accurately what astronauts would do in space when in distress.) As a superintendent, your focus on others’ psychological needs is important, as a lack of their fulfillment results in the distress patterns that make leading a school district very difficult. Let’s consider the six typical distress sequences that occur in people – at our board meetings – when psychological needs are not met.

Those Who Are Critical
From time to time, we experience those who are critical of others or ourselves. This is someone in distress who predominates in Thinker personality. When not in distress, Thinkers are motivated by having their ideas and accomplishments recognized. They are responsible, logical, and organized – good with data, problem solving, and organization. When they do not get their needs met for time structure or recognition of work, they can go into distress. Second-by-second, they may use big words and either over-explain or over-qualify. Daily or weekly, they may become perfectionistic, failing to delegate appropriately or taking on too much. Further in distress, they may become frustrated and angry, and verbally attack others for their lack of intellect or not thinking clearly. “Can’t people get here on time…?!?!” “That was a stupid thing to say …!!!”

Those Who Are Suspicious
Those who are suspicious may be critical of the way leadership is being conducted or situations are being handled. This is someone in distress who predominates in Persister personality. Many of these folks have an opinion about everything and will often caucus with others for support. When not in distress, Persisters are motivated by having their convictions recognized. Those strong in Persister personality are dedicated, conscientious, and observant. They can be very mission-driven and are loyal to causes; they fight vigorously aside those they admire. When their psychological needs for recognition of work and convictions are not met, they may exhibit the second-by-second behavior of using big words, expecting others to be perfect, or asking overly complicated questions. Daily or weekly, they may focus on things that are wrong, rather than what things are right. Further in distress they may become hyper-convictional, pushing their beliefs with righteous anger. “You should….!!!” “I can’t believe that you…!!!”

Those Who Are Defiant
Those who are defiant are very easy to get to know, as they say what they like and don’t like, and are not at all afraid to tell you, “This sucks!” This is someone in distress who predominates in Rebel personality. When not in distress, Rebels are spontaneous, creative, and playful. Innovation is their strong suit; they prefer a laissez faire style of leadership and are very quick to LIKE something or HATE it. When their psychological needs for playful contact are not met positively, their second-by-second behavior may present itself by not answering questions directly, such as by saying, “Uh,” “Huh?”, “I don’t get it.” They may want others to take workplace responsibilities for them. In deeper distress, they can become blameful. “Yes but …” or “It’s not my fault!”

Those Who Are Manipulative
Those who are manipulative are very challenging, indeed, as they have good knowledge of where people’s buttons lie, and they’re not afraid to push them. This is someone in distress who predominates in Promoter personality. When not in distress, Promoters are persuasive, adaptable, and charming. They can schmooze; they can sell. They prefer to lead, make deals, and live in the fast lane. They have a psychological need for dramatic incidents – action and risk. When meetings do not provide enough positive excitement, they may provoke negative excitement and drama. Promoter distress may bring about an attitude of, “Why do we have to do it for them?” In distress, Promoters may manipulate others, saying “Did you hear what he just said about you?” or “Are you going to take that?”

Those Who Are Mistake-Prone
Some with whom we work self-denigrate and are prone to mistakes while in distress. This is someone who predominates in Harmonizer personality. When not in distress, they are compassionate, sensitive, and warm – the world’s nurturers, having psychological needs for recognition of their personhood and sensory sensitivity. When psychological needs are not met, those strong in Harmonizer may become over-adaptive to others. On a daily or weekly basis, they may become wishy-washy in making decisions, overly concerned with everybody’s feelings in the matter. At the next degree of distress, those strong in Harmonizer begin doubting themselves and make mistakes or otherwise invite others to criticize their behaviors. “Oh, never mind … I didn’t really mean to say that…”

Those Who Are Timid
Those who are timid may manifest distress by shutting down. This is someone who predominates in Imaginer personality. When not in distress, they have characteristics of being calm, reflective, and imaginative, and derive their psychological motivation by being alone. Imaginers use well their reflection and oftentimes, if given space and solitude, derive the best solutions to overall, big-picture school district problems. They oftentimes cannot, however, produce impromptu answers or participate readily in a group project. When those strong in Imaginer do not have their psychological needs for solitude met, they may withdraw, and their capability may come into question because they will not further a project without precise directions. In further distress, they question their adequacy and initiative and withdraw until engaged. “I wasn’t give the authority, so…”

Proactive Processing for Better Meetings
Are you recognizing anyone from the descriptions above? Board members? Principals? Faculty? Parents? Constituents? Although we all have each of the six personality types within us, typically one or two predominate, and our distress will come from the patterns described. With this knowledge, an ounce of prevention on your part as a superintendent is worth a pound of cure. You can proactively provide an atmosphere that helps meet the psychological needs of the people attending your board meetings. Easy environmental arrangements are a good start. Let’s take the example of how your district’s boardroom can be arranged to get the best out of all.

A combination of seating arrangements can be offered, moving beyond the usual lines of chairs to small desk spaces and work areas arranged in one’s and two’s for those attending your meeting strong in Thinker or Persister. Round tables of five to seven seats can be offered for those stronger in Harmonizer and Rebel personalities. Flanking the room with a few comfortable chairs appeals to folks with different personality energies; overstuffed library seats work well, as do couches, especially for those strong in Harmonizer. Setting aside a few areas in the back, flanked with plants or barriers, so that those in Imaginer can have a bit of isolation, is a good idea. Allowing guests to stand at the perimeter, aside higher tables or bookshelves, works for those with Promoter energy, as they often enjoy elevated positioning and prefer to stand when contributing. You may want to have squeeze balls, candy, or something fun for those strong in Rebel, and consider that scents help those strong in Harmonizer meet their sensory needs. Fresh flowers are nice.

Agendas readily available, with enough copies for everyone, help meet the needs of those strong in Thinker and Persister. Allowing for at least two opportunities for community commentary (one near the beginning of the meeting and one near the end) helps those in Imaginer, who may need time to reflect before participating. Personalizing your meetings with recognition items meets the needs of those strong in Harmonizer, Thinker, and Persister, as you are oftentimes recognizing others for their personhood, work, or convictions. During the meeting, taking time to ask those strong in Thinker personality what options they see, and asking those in Persister their opinions, are smart moves. Likewise, asking those strong in Harmonizer what impact a decision would have upon people, especially students, will help build coalitions. Spicing up the meeting with a contest or friendly competition will work for those in Promoter and Rebel. Finally, encouraging your board president to call for a few breaks will allow folks to socialize or even take a walk and get away. This might help all, for a variety of reasons.

When conversing with different personalities, a superintendent skilled in Process Communication will speak in six languages, each subtly targeted to communication preferences. In his 2012 book, Communicating Effectively: Tools for Educational Leaders, Michael Gilbert noted that the requestive style works for those strong in Thinker or Persister. You might say to them, “Will you please share your thoughts and opinions with those attending our board meeting this evening?” The directive style works for those strong in Promoter or Imaginer. One example, aimed at Promoter personality, would be saying to a coach, “Bring us a winning season. We’re behind you. Give us your best.” Another, for those in Imaginer would be, “Tell us one thing that you imagine will have an impact on the curriculum.” Nurturing language works for those strong in Harmonizer. “We appreciate you and how much you support our children.” Likewise, an emotive or reveling style allows a board member to connect with those strong in Rebel. “Wow … that was an awesome presentation!!!”

Note that all of these techniques are proactive, rather than reactive. Earlier on, I mentioned the positive capabilities that each of these individuals exhibits on their “best days.” Your opportunity to become an architect of everyone’s best day is ever-present as a superintendent.

Reactive Processing for Better Meetings
There will come a day, however, when despite your best efforts at proactivity, you experience distress in those around you. These could be your board members, principals, parents, constituents, or staff. It’ll probably happen at a board meeting. It will then be incumbent upon you to shift your personality energy to meet their psychological needs and invite them out of distress. Suggestions for making “shift happen” (said with a smile) will now be discussed, based on the work of Judy and Joe Pauley in their 2009 and 2012 books, Communication: The Key to Effective Leadership and Establishing a Culture of Patient Safety: Improving Communication, Building Relationships, and Using Quality Tools. Let’s imagine we’re at a board meeting and the following happens.

If you hear, “This is patently ridiculous. Can’t we even have a discussion here without certain folks wasting our time on things that we have addressed before!?!” you can suspect that this is coming from one in Thinker distress. Those strong in Thinkers need to be recognized for their hard work, their ideas, and accomplishments. They need to hear “Well done,” “Good job,” and “Great idea.” Ask them a question about how they would address the situation, commending them for their mindfulness of everyone’s time and their logical approach to handling things.

If you hear, “Can’t you see, we should be more committed. Those letters to the board from our community prove they are losing confidence in this leadership!” you can surmise that this is coming from Persister distress. Those strong in Persister need to be recognized for their accomplishments as well, yet they also need to be affirmed for their values, integrity, and commitment. They respond well to “Excellent idea,” “We admire your dedication …” and “I respect the way you live your beliefs.” As these people value requestive communication, ask them how they believe you can maintain credibility with constituents, and thank them for their opinion and candor.

If you hear, “This is a bunch of BS … I don’t like it. It’s not our fault!!” you can bet that it is coming from Rebel distress, and you need to match the emotiveness slightly, saying something like, “No kiddin’ … Hey … I’m with ya! Let’s get out of this one alive...” Those strong in Rebel are motivated by using their creative energy in positive ways. They need playful interaction to stay productive and out of distress.

If you hear, “Hey … did you hear what folks are saying? Are you all just going to sit there and take that?!? I’m here to tell you that …”, this is Promoter distress, trying to manipulate. Those strong in Promoter need action and excitement, “a rush.” They respond to short-term goals with quick rewards and need to benefit personally from whatever they are told to do. Say something like, “Hey, [person’s name] I’ll make you a deal …” Then follow by telling them what you want them to do. You can be direct, but make sure something is in it for those strong in Promoter.

If you see folks being over-adaptive or making mistakes that they wouldn’t make otherwise, you may be witnessing Harmonizer distress. Those strong in Harmonizer need people to appreciate them – not for the jobs they have done but because of the people they are. While at work, they need to hear, “I’m very glad you are with us.” Take some time to personalize a conversation about their families and how everyone is doing or what they did over the weekend with friends. Be genuinely interested in friends and family. Use a nurturing tone. Be in the moment, and don’t talk about work or tasks.

Finally, if you see someone shutting down or not communicating, you may be experiencing someone in Imaginer distress who needs solitude. Imaginers need isolation and their own private time and space. Give them permission to go off by themselves. Tell them to consider what you are presenting and then to report back later in the meeting. It will reap dividends.

Recognizing the signs of distress in otherwise helpful colleagues and constituents at board meetings is critical to a superintendent’s success. Symptoms, such as those of being critical, suspicious, defiant, manipulative, mistake-prone, and timid, are simply like masks, behind which is the real person. The very masked behaviors that we see are merely symptoms that provide us clear direction on what we need to say and do to increase communication, build a more cohesive board, and get the work done. These are good people on their not-so-best days.

Our most effective school leaders understand that when people experience communication breakdown, they need leaders who are willing to shift their communication styles to meet people where they are. Using the power of “Process” allows superintendents to foster more optimal communication in all.

Suggested Readings
Gilbert, M. (2004). Communicating effectively: Tools for educational leaders. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Education.
Kahler, T. (2006). The mastery of management: Or how to solve the mystery of mismanagement. (6th ed.). Little Rock, AR: Kahler Communications.
Kahler, T. (2008). The Process Therapy Model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.
Pauley, J., & Pauley, J. (2009). Communication: The key to effective leadership. Milwaukee, WI: ASQ Quality Press.
Pauley, J., & Pauley, J. (2012). Establishing a culture of patient safety: Improving communication, building relationships, and using quality tools. Milwaukee, WI: ASQ Quality Press.


To Taibi Kahler, for his leadership, guidance, and contribution.

Author’s BIO
Ryan A. Donlan of Indiana State University’s Department of Educational Leadership served for twenty years in K-12 education, most of that time as a Principal and Superintendent in both traditional school districts and charter schools. Donlan has taught for a number of years at the college and university level. Once a frequent skydiver, Donlan today enjoys more conservative, contemporary pursuits, such as cooking, reading, and camping, and he has written and published two books with Rowman & Littlefield Education, one entitled: Gamesmanship for Teachers: Uncommon Sense is Half the Work, the other, a co-authored piece, The Secret Solution: How One Principal Discovered the Path to Success. You can follow Donlan on Twitter at www.twitter/ryandonlan, or on the ISU Ed. Leadershop, where he offers helpful information and thoughtful commentary each week to school leaders at

Contact Information
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education 326A
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, Indiana 47809
Telephone: (812) 237-8624
Cellular Telephone: (989) 450-0272
Fax: (812) 237-8041