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We Asked John Ryan of the Center for Creative Leadership: How Can We Grow Principled Leaders?

Chicago, April 9, 2019—At a time when social media amplifies every move, and new, game-changing challenges seem to emerge daily, many worry that the stakes are higher than ever for organizations in search of ethical, effective leadership. “Every era feels that way,” notes John Ryan. A former Navy pilot and admiral and current president of the Center for Creative Leadership, he adds, “Every era needs good leaders.”

The good news, according to Ryan, is leadership is a portable skill that can be taught.

In support of our work with the McGowan Fellows, student leaders from the nation’s top MBA schools, as well as the hundreds of nonprofit leaders we partner with, the Fund asked Ryan about the making of principled leaders.

How do you teach leadership? How much of learning to lead is experience?

We always talk about the 70-20-10 rule. The 10 percent is what we learn in the classroom. Then 20 percent is mentorship, learning by inspiration and example. The 70 percent is what we do as we finish an MBA program, as the McGowan Fellows are doing, or building a business, or working in an organization. Most of what we learn is by doing. There’s something important there. You wouldn’t begin to become a World Cup soccer player by trying to develop the skills at 30. Leadership is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the better you get at it. And you start early.

Your research has identified the characteristics of good leaders—honesty, confidence, sense of humor, and so on. But how much of this is character? A thing you’re born with?

I have an identical twin brother. You can be born with some things that give you an advantage in these areas. But these are things we work on—maybe you’re a bit introverted, and communication isn’t easy. I’ve seen with my own eyes how men and women can develop these things. … There’s research by Carol Dweck that says that some people are willing to risk, they’ve got a growth mindset, and that makes it possible to learn and succeed. That’s a great thing for leadership.

What makes an ethical leader?

We’ve never had enough ethical leaders. I’ve been in 105 countries and I’ve never had anyone say, “Oh, we’ve got enough good leaders.” It’s amazing that we don’t have more of an expectation of our leaders to be ethical. I’ve seen many good women and men who were ethical leaders most of their lives, and then they lose the sense of humility, which is a key trait for every leader to have. You can’t be truly humble unless you also have confidence. You must know that you need the people around you, the team, in order to lead. We need their insights to make the right choices. If we stay humble and we constantly ask for feedback, if we’re curious, it’s hard for people to go off center, as I say—you want to stay on the center line to land a plane.

Is leadership of a small nonprofit different from leadership of a corporation?

Leaders are leaders. Leadership is about fulfilling the mission of the organization and you do that through influence and trust. The difference is in the context. Take my example. I couldn’t lead in a university the way I had to lead in the Navy, where some things are life and death. The university is more of an interdependent setting where you’re counting on everyone’s input. No one’s dying in higher education, hopefully. So start with the context you’ve got the privilege to be leading in.

When a leader moves to a new organization, it’s a new context, and the best thing he can do is ask questions. When we lose our curiosity, we lose our effectiveness—we have data on this. When you stop asking your team questions, you’re thinking that you don’t need them and they think that you don’t respect them. That’s a downward spiral.

So we ask a lot of questions. We do a lot of listening.

For more info: See the ten characteristics of good leaders.