The Landry Principle

Guest post by Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership at Drake University, originally featured as a post at    Follow this link to listen to our first podcast with Doug.


I am the proud owner/friend of a one year old 75 pound golden retriever named Landry, affectionately named after the former and well-respected coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, Tom Landry (my wife is an avid Cowboy fan!).  On a recent walk, I unexpectedly gained an insight from Landry about myself connected to the principles and practices of leadership.

Let me preface my new learning by sharing that while I have always known it, given my 22 years in school leadership positions, it continues to become clearer and clearer to me that quality leadership is perhaps the highest leverage “strategy” in any organization that must be in place for improvement to occur.  An effective leader is needed to help develop, articulate, and operationalize the vision of any organizational system and to help the “parts” to work together, in a coordinated fashion, in order to achieve the aim.  Continual improvement, or quality, according to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, “begins in the boardroom.”  In other words, continual improvement initially lies in the hands of leaders and without steadfast commitment from leaders, organizational improvement and learning are not likely to occur.  With regard to education, it should never be overlooked that in addition to a district’s “formal” leaders, the teacher is the leader of the classroom system.

About three weeks ago I was on a walk with Landry and my wife.  As we neared the end of our walk we emerged from a wooded pathway and onto the sidewalk of a fairly busy street in our neighborhood.  As cars, moving in the same direction we were walking, drove past us Landry lunged towards the street in an effort to chase them.  Attempting to chase after cars is not a new phenomenon for Landry and neither was the force I needed to apply to keep him from separating my shoulder.  Since he first joined us on walks, Landry has demonstrated a strong inclination to chase…rabbits, squirrels, deer, cars…you name it.  If it moves, he chases it!  While I love his spirit and energy, I must admit I can at times get tired of constantly anticipating when the next chase will ensue, for not only does it grow irritating, but the health of my arm is at stake!  In hopes of better understanding and possibly minimizing his chasing without impeding his youthful energy, I began conducting some research (aka “Googling”) to learn more.

“Predatory chase reflex,” also known as “prey drive” is the “instinctive inclination of a carnivore to find, pursue and capture prey” (Source: Wikipedia).  Levels of this “prey drive” or “predatory chase reflex” vary from breed to breed and from dog to dog.  Landry, as it turns out, is teeming with this drive, much more so than our previous goldens.  In short, “chasing” is part of his nature, perhaps even his biology, even though the vast majority of the time (well, actually all the time) he comes up empty-handed (or empty “pawed”), so to speak.  Despite his lack of success, he persists (I wonder if this means he possesses a growth mindset!).

As Landry attempted to chase cars during that walk, I was struck with a new insight.  During my experiences as a school leader, I have exhibited the very same “chase reflex” as Landry.  In my most sincere and well-intentioned desire and efforts to improve learning for the students at the schools and district I led, I chased multiple initiatives.  The problem was, much akin to Landry, I chased one initiative for a little while and then another, and then another.  As I reflect back, the vast majority of these chases did not result in any significant, lasting improvements in the organizations I led.  They were exciting and fun for a while, but when I didn’t see immediate results, off I went in another direction.  Had Yoda been mentoring me he likely would have commented (cue the Yoda voice), “The chase reflex is strong in this one.”

I do not believe I am the only leader who suffered or suffers from the “Landry Principle,” as I now refer to it.  It describes the tendency of leaders, with the very best of intentions, to chase “shiny baubles;” the “soup de jour” of programs/initiatives advertised to guarantee improved student learning results. However, we know all too well where these initiatives lead and the impact they have on our budgets, and more importantly, our people.  For people, there is a cascading psychological effect.   As a result of chasing one new idea and then another and another, initiative fatigue sets in – like the fatigue that my arm and shoulder feel as a result of Landry’s constant chasing and pulling – ultimately leading to cynicism (sometimes I dread my walks with Landry because of the constant chasing).  In order to protect themselves, people adopt the “this too shall pass” mentality – an emotional wall, so to speak – for it serves as a method for people to protect themselves psychologically and keep some sense of predictability and control in their work; two factors Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky cites as the foremost contributors to stress.  As far as the budget is concerned, I cringe when I think of the money that may have been wasted with each “new fad,” that was pursued as we fell prey to the Landry Principle.

Chasing new ideas as educators is indeed understandable and perhaps even rational, for amidst the external demands and the many challenges and subsequent frustrations that exist in educating children, sometimes it just feels like we should be doing something…anything.  Alas, longitudinal results over time (as demonstrated through the use of control charts) typically show little, if any improvements as a result of these “quick fix” schemes.

Truth be told, during my final school leadership position, five years as superintendent of the Urbandale Community School District, I gained control of my “chase reflex” as a result of my interaction with Dr. Deming’s work and my desire to fundamentally improve the system I led.  I am happy to say that armed with new learning, new knowledge, and new methods we began the transformation of our system, achieving for two consecutive years (my last two) the highest levels of student achievement in 17 years, as measured by the percentage of students reaching levels of proficiency and above.  The district, I am pleased to say, continues on with this work, improving all aspects of its performance.

Finally, I asked our veterinarian about Landry’s “chase reflex” and how long I might expect it to last.  He indicated that while it may settle down a bit once he is through his “puppy phase” (2-3 years), it will likely always be a part of him.  I can live with the chase reflex in my dog, for despite my complaining it’s actually one of the many things I like about him.  However, as I reflect on the Landry Principle and how it might manifest itself in the work of leaders, it becomes a less lovable attribute and one with significant systemic ramifications, relative to the performance and psychological health of schools and other organizations.  I wonder which of Dr. Deming’s “14 Points for Management” are being violated as a result of the Landry Principle, and what remedies might exist as a counter.  While I have my own thoughts about it, I want to invite readers to consider the question and offer their own thoughts.

6 thoughts on “The Landry Principle”

  1. The instinctual drive of the Landry Principle resonated with me professionally. As a classroom teacher the Landry Principle plays out each day in my classroom. Considering each decision I make each day, nearly all of them are made with improvement in mind. When a student is disengaged, I reflect momentarily about my experience with that student, their experience in my class and many other factors, but nevertheless, I approach them with a mind on improvement. I have consistent practices that I have found work. For example, meeting a student at eye-level, using a softer tone, and being curious rather than accusatory. Where my inclination to chase gets me in the biggest trouble is in decisions related to instruction. Changing things in a lesson between two periods using a different strategy after my first choice was ineffective many times happens without a mental speedbump, or an arm holding me back, per se. Reflecting on the Landry Principle provides a check on my own chase instinct. It helps me think about my small change improvements in a more systemic way, and be more intentional with how I approach situations, and more importantly, measure the impact my changes have made.

  2. As a dog owner myself, Bentley Seamus Finnegan, a feisty Boston Terrier, I completely understand how the Landry Principle plays out on our walks. As a Kindergarten teacher, I see this play out each August as my district shares what new shiny toy we are going to focus on in the upcoming school year. As a student committed to continuous learning, I see why districts are constantly trying new things in an effort to improve student outcomes. However, as the Landry Principle shows us, this doesn’t equate to increased student learning. Instead, I would prefer to see our school leaders unite on an initiative and see it through, beyond one school year. This allows staff more of an opportunity to master the new learning which in turn will allow them to increase the differentiation possibilities to best meet student need. Though Bentley enjoys his fruitless attack on birds on each walk, as a teacher I would prefer a leader who provides me the time and professional development to increase my capacity to help all my students year in and year out.

  3. I appreciate your ability to reflect and be mindful as a school leader on this topic. Falling into the Landry Principle seems easy to do if you are not thinking of the system as a whole. I think when people do engage in this behavior, Dr.Deming’s principle of “driving out fear” is being violated. If your staff is watching you as a leader constantly change direction without rhyme or reason, as you said, staff will always be fearful of what is next.

  4. The question was posed as to which of Dr. Deming’s “14 Points for Management” are being violated as a result of the Landry Principle, and what remedies might exist as a counter. I believe two of the obvious points are “drive out fear” and “break down barriers”. As mentioned in this piece, stress is caused by a lack of predictability and control. When school leaders chase initiatives (ex. programs), this causes teachers, who are the leaders of their own classrooms, to worry about the unknown. This is sometimes also a barrier to their craftsmanship. In order to work against cynicism and the “this too shall pass” attitudes, I believe school leaders need to be aware of the archetypes, laws, and disabilities of their organization. They must communicate this with teachers and explicitly provide the why, what and how. Is this a response to a common cause variation? Have there been three data points? If so, what story does the data tell? Has there been a root cause analysis? Each of these should be addressed by school leaders before jumping on a bandwagon.

  5. For years our district fell prey to the Laundry Principle. We then had a superintendent that brought a consulting firm in to gather information and help figure out the direction we needed to go. One of the biggest concerns was the amount of initiatives we were working on or had done. We were not sticking with them to see if they were effective, initiative fatigue had set in. She then had us focus on one initiative, trained staff during the summer, focused professional development, structured lesson plans and made it our instructional focus. This was pursued with our current superintendents as well. As an instructional leader I will continue to be an advocate for my staff when it comes to focusing on mastery of an initiative. I do not want my staff to feel like a “Jack of all trades, master of none,” when it comes to our work.
    By focusing in on and supporting an initiative as a district you give your staff a unified purpose. Giving them a chance to work on mastery helps with autonomy. Having autonomy will improve morale and garner positive results within the system.

    1. Christina Dragonetti

      This is such a great example of Deming’s ideas about looking at the system, deciding on an aim, then giving people the tools to take pride in their work. Dr. Deming said: “A bad system will defeat a good person every time.” Congratulations on getting away from a bad system!

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