Our History & Founders

Leadership at Michigan

The University of Michigan has long considered itself home to the “leaders and best,” a claim immortalized in the school’s fight song.

It has supported its claim through an enduring tradition of excellence in leadership research and teaching. As the #1 ranked public university for research and leadership, it has been a source of pioneering ideas about leadership since Rensis Likert’s Michigan Leadership Studies of the 1950s. Its 100+ top-ranked graduate and undergraduate programs have helped bridge from research to practice and prepared one of the world’s largest alumni bases to serve as leaders across all professions and human endeavors. These leaders have included a U.S. president, two dozen governors, three U.S. Supreme Court justices, eight Nobel Laureates, and more CEOs currently serving in Fortune 100 companies than any other university.

Today, leadership development continues to be at the forefront of the University of Michigan experience, and Sanger is proud to help build on a tradition of excellence.

ranked public university for leadership

top-ranked graduate and undergraduate programs

“Leading with enthusiasm is one of the things that makes people want to follow you.”

Steve Sanger

Founder, Sanger Leadership Center


In 2006, Robert J. Dolan, then dean of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and Susan Ashford, then associate dean for leadership programming, founded the Ross Leadership Initiative (RLI). RLI was a forerunner to Sanger and one of the first organized leadership programs among business schools worldwide. It was influenced by Professor Ashford’s research on learning leadership via experience, and action-based learning models created by Noel Tichy and other prominent faculty at the school. Early programs—including the Leadership Crisis Challenge—established a blueprint for how we have approached leadership development ever since. We focus on transformative, action-based experiences that integrate stakeholders from across our community in an inclusive, reflection-based space where students can learn and try out the most cutting-edge, evidence-based tools for leaders.


In 2013, a group of Michigan staff and faculty, including Scott DeRue, Gretchen Spreitzer, Brian Flanagan, Benjamin Allen, Robert Quinn, and Kim Cameron, launched the Michigan Model of Leadership, building on decades of research at Michigan Ross on the Competing Values Framework developed by Bob Quinn and Kim Cameron. This framework guides the leadership philosophy of the center to this day, focusing on the need for leaders to be adaptive across the key sets of paradoxical skills leaders need to be successful.


In 2015, Michigan Ross alumnus Stephen W. Sanger, MBA ’70, and Karen Sanger made a defining gift of $20 million to establish the Sanger Leadership Center and continue the legacy of leadership development to which Steve had devoted his career. This gift was made under the stewardship of Dr. Scott DeRue, who played a pivotal role in elevating leadership development at Ross as the faculty director of Sanger from 2011 to 2016.


Sanger launched three new programs to complement our Crisis Challenge experience—Legacy Lab, Story Lab, and the Ross Leaders Academy (sponsored by the Deloitte Foundation)—which continue to be foundational programs for our students to this day.


Sanger formalized its role in required leadership touchpoints through Collaboration Lab, expanded its experience to include several new opt-in programs (Leadership Dialogues, Leading Inclusive Teams), and added a means for students to integrate their experiences across these programs (the Michigan Ross Leader Endorsement). Additionally, Sanger developed new tools to guide leader learning across the many experiences at Ross (including the Sanger Leadership Journey, the Leadership Roadmap, and the Leader Behavior Encyclopedia), established the Sanger Advisory Board to better integrate corporate and alumni voices into leadership development at Ross, and updated our 5-year strategy and DEI strategy.