The Joy and Irony of a Leadership Career

Doug StilwellGuest post from Dr. Doug Stilwell

After serving for the past eight years as an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Drake University, I officially retired on July 30, 2023. This marks not only the end of my tenure at Drake, but also brings to conclusion a 43-year career in education. Of those 43 years, 30 were dedicated to leadership in one form or another and I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity here to share the impact of Dr. Deming’s teachings on my work.

First Contact

My first (brief) contact with Dr. Deming came during my master’s work in 1991. I recall reading some of his work and thinking something to the effect of, “That really makes sense.”  Unfortunately, that is as far as I got, as I returned to what the system at-large was asking me to think about and learn. I began my leadership career as a school principal, practicing in the way typical of many school leaders: chasing the next best idea and mistaking “change” for true transformation. I had the right attitude, just not profound knowledge.

Turning Point

For many years I had this feeling that things in education just weren’t right. It’s not that they were necessarily wrong based on the way current education worked; it’s just that there was something important missing, and I could never put my finger on it. Then, in 2009, as I was serving as the associate superintendent in Urbandale, Iowa, I discovered the Four Day Quality Learning Seminar, facilitated by David Langford, in Billings, Montana.

Those four days changed my career and my life.


What David shared, based on Dr. Deming’s work, brought to me that overwhelming “aha” moment. This is what had been missing for me in education! From that moment on, Dr. Deming’s ideas guided nearly everything I did as an educator. In 2010 I was named as the superintendent of the Urbandale system, and I made no bones about my intent to transform our district based on Dr. Deming’s work. We brought David to Urbandale to facilitate his seminar for three summers and the vast majority of people from our district participated. Several of us attended more than one year, and every time learned something new.

At the end of my fourth year as superintendent, our students achieved the highest levels of learning in 17 years, in both reading and mathematics. We thought this might be a statistical fluke, but the following year we improved our achievement once again. In addition to improved student learning, we also witnessed the transformation of many of our leaders, teachers and employees. In short, we became immersed in Dr. Deming’s work and began to think and work differently than we had before.

Shifting Focus

At the end of my fifth year in the district as superintendent and my 35th in public education, I decided to retire to pursue work in higher education. I was hired by Drake University to train future principals and superintendents. This gave me another leverage point to transform education in Iowa.

Drake had a fine program, but it was typical of most programs in the state. Our team worked to develop our mission, vision and values, but realized later that this was not enough. We were still missing something: a theory to guide our work. As Dr. Deming tells us, “Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning” (Deming, p. 70).

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that many organizations develop mission, vision, and values. But seldom, if ever, have I seen an explicitly stated theory that guides their work.)

After multiple richly rewarding conversations with my colleague Dr. Randal Peters, we landed on our theory:  

If we are guided by and teach Dr. Deming’s system of profound knowledge to our students and embed it in all we do, we will develop leaders with the capacity to transform the systems they will lead.

My Good Friend

As a result, we modified courses to reflect our new theory and provided experiences to students that encouraged them to think in new ways. Students often heard me use the phrase, “According to my good friend Dr. Deming,” and it got to the point where all I had to do was mention “My good friend…” and they completed my phrase with “Dr. Deming.”

Dr. Peters and I were clear that it was Dr. Deming’s teachings that framed and guided our work. In Dr. Deming’s words, “We made no apologies” for this. Based on our 60+ years of experience as educators, we did not know of anything else that could have the same impact on the preparation of school leaders and, consequently the schools they would lead.

By What Method?

We created an FBLE (Field Based Learning Experience) that required students to improve something in their schools using the Plan-Do-Study-Act model. According to my good friend Dr. Deming, a leader’s job is to improve/transform the system they were leading. To do that, we needed to answer the question, “By what method?”  In a positive and productive manner, we provided multiple opportunities for students to practice and saw drastic improvements in their understanding and application of PDSA.

Being grounded by Dr. Deming’s work made our program unique.

Simply learning how to manage schools and school systems to achieve the same results was not enough for us. Our desire was for our students to be champions of transformation. While we always had more to learn, we felt satisfied with where our work had taken us, our program and our students.

Irony of the End

Now, preparing for the end of my career, I am learning that retirement is a double-edged sword. While there is a sense of accomplishment and joy about a career that has impacted thousands, there is also a sense of loss in leaving a profession that has been such a significant aspect of my life. However, there is a significant irony at the end of one’s career in leadership. It is, in fact, the realization that when one finally reaches a place where they have achieved a level of profound knowledge and gained real wisdom about the work…it is time to retire. I think this is best illustrated in the words of T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

There’s an old adage that “If I’d only known then what I know now…”  But it doesn’t work that way. It has been the journey, or what Dr. Deming might call “the method,” that produced my current state, or my results, as a leader. There was no shortcut.

I cannot adequately express my sincere gratitude to all those who have helped me to learn about and operationalize Dr. Deming’s work. I am grateful for the many opportunities to share my own thinking and learning by writing multiple blogs for The Deming Institute. The journey in learning about and applying Dr. Deming’s ideas has been the most profound and rewarding of my 43-year career.


Deming, W. E. (2018). The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (3rd ed.). MIT Press.

Eliot, T.S. (1943). The four quartets. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

5 thoughts on “The Joy and Irony of a Leadership Career”

  1. Dr. Stilwell,
    Thank you so much for all you have done and continue to do. Dr. Peters and you came up with an excellent theory that I find true on so many levels. There will always be “our good friend Dr. Deming”, but there will also be “our good friend Dr. Stilwell”. I can’t thank you enough, and I wish you a very happy retirement.

  2. It takes a special person to take on the challenges of leadership and still produce incredible results. From preschoolers to future educators, you have continually impacted lives in a monumental way. I am honored to have learned from you, and your journey. Your good friend, Dr. Deming, would be proud!

  3. Thank you Dr. Stilwell for your service to this profession and sharing you knowledge you have learned a long the way. Best of luck to you in the coming phase of life.

  4. Doug,
    Thank you for your incredible impact on school leadership across Iowa. I feel blessed to have been along for the ride during this learning adventure.

  5. Doug, thank you for being a terrific teacher. And thank you for sharing your experiences here. Congratulations and good luck in your retirement.

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