People - September 2007

Admiral takes helm of leadership center
By Chris Roush
John Ryan isn’t just president of the Center for Creative Leadership, he’s a former customer. In 2001, Ryan, then a Navy admiral, took a course while examining executive-education programs for top brass. “I was supposed to go see five other organizations, but I called the head of the Navy and said I had found the right place.”

Ryan, 62, took over in June, after John Alexander retired, and he has big plans for what’s already a large organization. The Greensboro-based nonprofit employs 535 and grossed $81.9 million last year, more than 85% from tuition and training. It has offices in Colorado Springs, Colo., San Diego, Singapore and Brussels, Belgium, and teaches classes with partners in Africa. Former students include Rick Weddle, CEO of Research Triangle Foundation, and Michael Dell, chairman of the Texas-based computer maker that bears his name. About 20,000 people from more than 120 countries came through its programs last year.

But resting on laurels isn’t exactly a hallmark of creative leadership. Ryan wants to expand in Asia, Europe and Africa and open an office in South America. The center recently added a Chinese-language Web site and began a joint research venture in India.

It’s all part of what he calls his third career. Born in Harrisburg, Pa., he went to the U.S. Naval Academy to become a pilot. After graduating in 1967, Ryan flew reconnaissance out of Iceland and commanded forces in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He got a master’s in administration from George Washington University in 1975 and in 1998 became superintendent of his alma mater.

He left the service in 2002 to become president of the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx. “Going from the military to higher education, I had to get a little more patience. It’s not like flying an airplane or turning an aircraft carrier. It takes longer to get things done.” That year, he joined the center’s board of governors. He later spent two years as chancellor of the State University of New York system, which has 80,000 employees. Running the center allows him to spend more time with his family.

Because of globalization and an aging work force, Ryan thinks leadership training is at a critical juncture. “There are millions of baby boomers out there in leadership positions getting ready to retire. Where are the next leaders going to come from?”