Our History & Founders


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 research university in the U.S., 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.

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

Steve Sanger
October 2017


In 2006, Robert J. Dolan, then dean of the University of Michigan Business School, 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 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 Grill for Glory and the Leadership Crisis Challenge – established a blueprint for leadership development that has been followed since. Ever since, RLI and Sanger programs have been:

  • Experiential, enabling students to learn leadership by practicing leadership
  • Designed to meet the demands of today’s world of work
  • Informed by practice-oriented research generated by Michigan’s innovative faculty

Later, under the leadership of Professors Scott DeRue and Gretchen Spreitzer, and current managing director Brian Flanagan, RLI grew and launched new programs that persist today, including Impact Challenge, Story Lab, Ross Leaders Academy, and more.


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 has devoted his career.

Steve Sanger served as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Mills, Inc., during the final 13 years of his 34-year career with the company. During his tenure as CEO, the company’s net sales nearly tripled from $5 to $14 billion, and its global workforce grew from 10,000 to 30,000 employees.

One of Sanger’s greatest accomplishments at General Mills was fostering a culture that attracted and developed excellent leaders. The company was regularly listed among Fortune’s Most Admired Companies and 100 Best Places to Work. In 2007 and 2009, it was ranked #6 and #3 in Fortune’s list of the top global companies for the development of leaders.

Sanger was elected Chairman of the Board of Wells Fargo in 2016, a position he held until his retirement from the Board in 2017. He is also a past director at Pfizer (since 2009) and served on the board of Target from 1996 to 2013.

Karen Sanger was a secondary school teacher before becoming an attorney specializing in small business law. She, her husband, and their children, Mark and Ashley, share a passion for U-M.

With the Sangers’ gift, the Center has created new, exciting offerings such as LDRx, an undergraduate Leadership Crisis Challenge, and many more custom programs and workshops. The Center has also been able to expand beyond Michigan Ross, offering leadership development programs for students across the university.