The Ottumwa Courier

September 23, 2013

Leading the way

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — An Ottumwa graduate who also taught and coached in the district was influenced by his hometown while writing a book.

Specific teachers, administrators and coaches have contributed to Sam Miller's leadership style. Those theories started solidifying while he was superintendent of the Davis County school district. He's now superintendent at the Solon Community School District in Solon.

"The Secret Solution: How One Principal Discovered the Path to Success," uses some of the hard-won secrets he's learned about leadership, delivered in an easy-to-follow, "parable" form.

The story is that of a new principal; readers follow along as the former teacher works through various leadership categories (or "quadrants") in which two characteristics are examined: "To have organizational success, you have to have culture and accountability," Miller said. "Sometimes when you hold people accountable, if you have to confront them, it can harm the culture."

There are workplaces that have a very pleasant atmosphere where no one is expected to get much done. There are also places where there's a lot of accountability to get work done, and done well — but everyone hates coming to work.

He likes to use sports to explain the theory to his principals. When he uses college basketball coaches, it gets easy for an audience by the time he reaches the demanding but unpleasant quadrant.

"When I'm out speaking, right away, people call out, 'Bobby Knight.' He had high accountability, but the culture ... wasn't the best."

Miller had most of the book written, telling the story in a way that school principals would grasp. He wanted leaders to wonder, what level are we at? But he needed someone to look it over, someone with even more experience than he had. He took a chance and contacted nationally known speaker and author Todd Whitaker.

"You talk to most [school] administrators, they know who Todd is," Miller said. "I contacted Todd and said I'd really like to get your thoughts on it. At first, he was sort of like a mentor. [As time passed], he had a lot of input. At one point, I said, 'How would you like to be a co-author?'"

The biggest change didn't affect Miller's theory of leadership. It did affect the day-to-day adventures of his character, the principal.

"When I contacted [Todd Whitaker], his first question was, 'This is great; what do you need?'"

But Miller wasn't looking for a pat on the back; he wanted an education expert he respected to give an honest evaluation.

"He said, 'I think your theory is pretty solid, but if I were to be critical, I'd say you were only telling the story for one group.' He's right. Leadership is leadership. If you're in a management position, I think this book will resonate with you."

After revising parts of the book with feedback from Whitaker, Miller feels like the story could now work for principals or for teachers who manage a class of students — and need to get the best out of those students. Anyone who works with people, Miller said, could benefit from the theories in the book.

"I look back on who influenced my leadership [when I was] in Ottumwa," he said. "Teachers, coaches and administrators who did a good job. They are people who are effective at developing relationship. They demanded excellence, and I wanted to be around them."

Rather than being in an offensive confrontation, young people felt challenged to be the best player or student they could be.

"... and you rose to the challenge," Miller said. "There's that balance at that [best] quadrant. Where staff and students want to be there, in that positive culture, and the organization has high expectations of them, so the organization succeeds. That's what a really good leader can do."

"The Secret Solution: How One Principal Discovered the Path to Success" by Todd Whitaker, Sam Miller and Ryan Donlan is now listed on multiple book seller sites, like and

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark