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.

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7 Responses

  1. Bryan Woods says:

    Do you believe that finding the proper “fix” in education is finding the right leverage point? Instead of the chase relflex, this becomes more of a structured approach to identifying problems and producing solutions that work.

  2. Doug Stilwell says:


    Yes….sort of… I don’t believe there is any one fix for our educational system. That said, there are multiple leverage points that can be addressed and improved in order to make improvements to the system.

    I would offer that perhaps the area of highest leverage is for educators to become familiar with the tenets of systemic continual improvement. This more “structured approach,” with an eye on the system, can have a cascading effect, improving every part, and ultimately transforming the system.

    In order to make these improvements it will be necessary for educators, whether at the local, state, or national levels, to agree on what the aim of education should be. Without an identified and agreed-to aim, improvement efforts will continue “hacking at the leaves,” while the roots remained unchanged. In other words, without a focus on an aim, there will be many improvements that occur at the “event” level, none of which fundamentally improve the system as a whole, perpetuating a culture of “fixes” that never result in the transformation of our educational system.

  3. Matt Smith says:

    In an educational setting where results are expected sooner rather than later. How do you balance the “chase” with the “process”? How do you know you are “chasing” the right thing?

    Secondary question: You know you have been “chasing” the right thing, but staff is not on board. How does one go about changing the culture?

  4. Doug Stilwell says:


    The first consideration is whether we should “chase” anything. Back to Landry, remember that he possesses what I described as the “predatory chase reflex.” Reflex, by definition, is “an action that is performed as a response to a stimulus and without conscious thought” (Dictionary). In this context, as educators we would do well not to “chase” anything. Our work should be grounded in conscious thought, through which we identify a “problem” (something needing improvement) and responded to first with a theory, then knowledge, action, and finally a method to assess the effectiveness of the plan. It is by initiating this process, known as Plan Do Study Act (PDSA), and letting it run its course that we will know whether or not we have addressed the right issue with the most effective methodology. If we achieve our desired results, great! If not, we will have still gained new learning that will support our future improvement efforts.

    Changing, by which I mean “improving,” the culture of an organization begins with leadership. Based on the comments made above, leaders should never “chase” anything, for doing so establishes a culture, based on the misguided belief, that only the “boss,” imbued with some special instinctive nature, knows what to do. Rather, leaders should invite and engage staff in the improvement process, making transparent the methodology (PDSA) by which the opportunity for improvement is being addressed. When staff are aware, involved and engaged in the improvement process a culture of trust is inspired throughout the organization. By empowering others, leaders clearly send the messages that people, whom they hired as “winners,” are undeniably capable and that indeed “transformation is everyone’s job” (Deming’s Point #14).

    There will always be external pressures to “fix it now,” for we live in a culture of immediate gratification. Leaders can acquiesce to this pressure (which is understandable for their jobs may be at stake) and deliver instantaneous results, although they may not be the ones that are most desirable. Historical results over the past 35 years bear out that little to no improvement has been made in the performance of our educational system, despite chasing one initiative after another (the Landry Principle). Our “antidote” is for leaders to withstand this pressure of immediacy (easier said than done and a complex discussion for another time) and focus on long term improvement and transformation of the systems they lead, requiring what Dr. Deming called “Profound Knowledge.” This is both the great challenge and opportunity for leaders.

  5. Becky Parks says:

    Doug, I really like your article and thought that you raised a lot of good and true ideas about the current educational climate. My question for you is about what an instructional leader can do to bring a school- that has been chasing every idea that they come across- into a more PDSA, process-based model? How can one person work to shift a whole school culture, one that has more than likely been operating under the “chase” mentality?

  6. Jon Aldrich says:

    Doug, I believe the first of the fourteen points for managers from Deming is the one that is being violated in this story. When leaders bounce from initiative to initiative there is no constancy of purpose for the staff. Instead the employees become worn down and possibly apathetic to new ideas.

    A remedy for this could be to create a universal vision from the staff and create a team of leaders to determine together how to best improve the school systems. This team should have a focus on research-based improvement and capacity building.

    My question is how do you build capacity with teachers without burning them out by having them on too many committees?

  7. Ryan Fedders says:

    Dr. Stilwell – I enjoy this story every time that I hear it! One of the questions that I have after reading it is how does an instructional leader decide on what is the most “high leverage” change that needs to occur within their system?

    Being new to Deming’s work, I took a look at the 14 points for management. I think that the Landry Principle falls into two of these points: 5 and 13.

    I say that this goes with point 5 because while chasing new initiatives may improve the performance of the system (although not all change equals improvement, as we discussed this weekend,) the costs of these initiatives most likely did not decrease the overall budget.
    This also fits with point 13 as, in my opinion, chasing multiple new initiatives over the course of a year or two doesn’t equate to a “vigorous program of education and self-improvement.” Many teachers may become quickly burned out by constant change, so their implementation of this new change will definitely not result in a vigorous program.

    Again, I love the idea of the Landry Principle. I often find myself chasing many new ideas to implement with my own classroom. However, I realize that I need to take a step-back and really think about what problem – if there is one – that I may be trying to solve by implementing the change.

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