New Horizons for Sanger Leadership: A Farewell to Brian and Welcome to Jeff

by | Jul 28, 2020 | Sanger News

The Sanger Leadership Center is announcing some role changes on our team. Brian Flanagan, the Center’s first managing director, will be leaving his role on July 31. Jeff Domagala, who has been an associate director since 2016, will be stepping up into the interim managing director role starting August 1, 2020.

Brian has served for eight years as managing director of the Ross Leadership Initiative (2012-15) and Sanger Leadership Center (2015-20). In those capacities, he’s worked with a variety of stakeholders—faculty, staff, and partners—to build the Sanger team, shape its initiatives, and create transformative learning experiences for students. Brian will still be a familiar face at Sanger and at U-M—he plans to work with us throughout the year facilitating Michigan Model of Leadership workshops, course integrations, and our Legacy Lab program. He’ll also be a lecturer here at Ross and at the Ford School. We’re grateful for the many years of strategic and humanistic leadership he provided at the Center.

Jeff is looking forward to leading the Center moving forward, along with the support of our faculty director, Lindy Greer, and a team of professionals. He’s been the moving force behind many of our successful programs over the years (such as the Ross Leaders Academy, LDRx, and orientation, to name a few), and he co-created our 1:1 coaching offering, which he hopes to expand to more students over time. He’s an experienced manager and is looking forward to his new role.

Brian and Jeff took some time to reflect on their experiences at the Center and to look toward the future.

Brian Flanagan at the Ross Leaders Academy

Brian Flanagan at the Ross Leaders Academy in 2019

Brian, you managed the Center during critical periods of its history. Notably, after we received the gift from the Sangers and expanded greatly. What are you most proud of?
We’ve launched something special at the Sanger Leadership Center. Thanks to Steve and Karen’s generosity, we’ve had the opportunity to build one of the most admired centers for leadership development in the world. There’s so much to be proud of. The Sanger team is one of the most competent and inspiring teams I’ve ever worked with. We genuinely admire each other, invest in each other, and have felt privileged to advance a meaningful mission together. There have been so many committed, creative, and visionary people—faculty, staff, students, and supporters—who have seen what we’re doing at Sanger and felt compelled to join the effort. I’m proud of that. Together, we’ve created engaging and impactful programs that bring the most exciting research and transformative practices to life for our students. Some of these are now imitated by leading business schools on four continents. We’ve created something special for Ross, the University of Michigan, and the world, and I can’t wait to see its continuation and growth. For so many reasons, I’m stepping away from the experience of the past eight years with a sense of gratitude, humility, and pride.

I suppose what I’m most proud of is the impact we’ve had on the lives of our students. They have fully embraced Sanger’s work and been changed by it. They’ve come to us to deepen their self-awareness and define life and career success for themselves. They’ve come to us to develop a personal vision and a sense of adventure about the future. They’ve come to us to dialogue with peers and share their stories, going way beneath the surface of your typical daily conversation. And they’ve come to us to build the knowledge and skills they need to be dynamic and transformative leaders in the world. There are so many students who have, in turn, had an impact on my life. I get to take those connections and memories with me. What else can you ask for?

How would you describe the culture of the Sanger team?
Brian: This is an important question because I believe Sanger’s culture is what has enabled us to accomplish what we have together. From my perspective, the cornerstone is the quality of our relationships and trust. We hire really good people: high-skill, high-character people. We’re invested in each other’s learning, growth, and success. We take the time to appreciate and support each other personally. We pay attention to our working relationships and proactively nurture, even repair them when needed. We encourage all voices and shape our culture and operation together. In fact, I could point to each member of the team and name the ways they’ve shaped our Center and made us better. We create opportunities for each member of the team to lead. We challenge each other, give each other feedback. We don’t shy away from difficult conversations. All in all, we’ve built trust within the group—implicitly and explicitly.

This has been the jumping off point for everything else. We can be visionary and creative together because of that trust. We can be bold, audacious in our plans and aspirations. We can have high expectations of each member of the team and hold one another accountable. Yet there’s room for failure and learning. Learning is a huge area of emphasis. We operate with strategic clarity and a high level of alignment, but people have the freedom, discretion, and autonomy they need to move forward with high levels of motivation. We all believe we own the Sanger Leadership Center, contribute significantly to its current successes, and have a role to play in shaping the future. That’s what it ultimately boils down to. All of this is captured in our core values—unity, audacity, creativity, and excellence—which were written to describe both who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s a special place, and I’ll always be proud of my affiliation.

Jeff Domagala kicking off a program in 2018

Jeff Domagala kicking off a program in 2018

Jeff: Brian’s notes are spot-on, and I wholeheartedly agree. We are a learning organization. The best discoveries we have made as a team have been the ones we made together. Whether that comes from asking each other challenging questions or having quick huddles to seek the details we need to move forward, we work collaboratively and at a high level of excellence. We work hard, and we take the time to celebrate our accomplishments together. At the core of our organization have been organizing principles of team engagement, team learning, and team performance. In each of those areas, we actively take the time to set intentional goals that help us reach higher levels of engagement, empowerment, and excellence.

Describe one of your favorite programs or experiences you had in your years here.
Brian: It’s funny, some of the most memorable experiences at Sanger are the ones where the wheels came off a bit. A Crisis Challenge here, an Impact Challenge or Innovation Jam there. Big, complex, action-based programs like these have a way of creating moment-by-moment crises for our team—ones the students can’t really see. We’ve had to jump into action, create order out of chaos, and then go away to learn from our mistakes after the fact. One that stands out is the 2012 Ross Impact Challenge. I literally broke my ankle as we were preparing to head to Detroit’s Eastern Market for a back-to-school rally we organized with our community partners and students, but it was a heck of a learning experience for all of us. Ironically, from my vantage point, these programs have become less memorable as we’ve gotten better at them. Today, they’re less memorable, more impactful, and more rewarding, which is truly a tribute to how far our team has come.

My favorite experiences have been more subtle: a powerful conversation with a student or teammate, a well-delivered presentation or exercise, a dialogue that got a group of students thinking together. Many of these have occurred within our Ross Leaders Academy. Every year, I’m amazed at the caliber of students and the quality of their engagement. There’s a clear hunger to pause the frenetic activity of their daily lives, zoom out to see the bigger picture, engage in meaningful conversations, challenge and learn from each other, and gain new insights, perspectives, and skills. Inside the Ross Leaders Academy, we’ve been able to create a venue for that deeper level of engagement, and it’s been my favorite part of the Sanger experience.

Jeff: This is a hard one because I believe all of our programs offer something unique based on what a student is looking to gain. I’d have to say the Ross Leaders Academy because it is multi-faceted and allows students to go the deepest in understanding who they are as leaders and how they can translate the learning into their organizations, the world, and in relationships with others. The program offers 50 students the unique opportunity to be on an interdisciplinary team and engage with topics such as integrity, purpose, resilience, and courage using research-based methods. Our students receive 1:1 coaching to further enhance who they are as leaders and make sense of their journey through teams, journaling, and reflective activities. This program sticks out to me as memorable because each year I get to witness lightbulb moments, and change over time, in the way students view themselves and their credibility as leaders. Not only is the program highly rated, but the community that is created practices vulnerability and curiosity, which makes for a thought-provoking discussion each time we are together. Every single time I am in a room with members of our RLA cohort, I learn something new and that’s because we have created a community of learners and contributors.

Jeff talking to a group of students

Jeff talking to a group of students

Jeff, what are some of your goals as you step into a new role on the team?
First and foremost, continuity for the Center is key. We will continue our top-notch programming and preserve our internal team culture. During turbulent times, we need to carry forward our important work by staying committed to serving our students, while at the same time being proactive about experiments we can take to continue to advance our Center. Now more than ever, we are committed to advancing our new mission of accelerating leader development through bold ideas, transformative experiences, and inclusive communities.

We have a vision of becoming the #1 leadership center in the world for bold ideas, student impact, and stakeholder engagement. We have quite the journey ahead, and to be able to achieve this, we’ll need to continue to advance three main levers; here are a few exciting things on our agenda:

  • Bold Ideas: We have abundant opportunities to utilize our growth in the online space to disseminate our bold ideas. Alongside our faculty director, Lindy Greer, we will be able to support the new generation of faculty by building out labs and research groups for thought leadership. Additionally, we will continue to amplify and support under-represented voices in our online spaces.
  • Student Impact: Our goal at Sanger is to accelerate student growth. To achieve this, we are launching the Sanger Leadership Journey, a way that students can integrate their experiences and intentionally experiment with new behaviors as a way to develop leadership skills and put themselves on a lifelong learning journey of development. This five-step process allows a person to examine who they are, where they want to go, and what they’ll need to do to chart their course and reach their ultimate destination. In addition to the Journey, we’ll be building a one-stop platform to access and learn about leadership, including videos, research, and reflective activities. To make sense of this journey, it’s our hope we can expand our 1:1 coaching services to students to help build more self-aware leaders who are grounded in their values and clear about their vision and their goals.

    Along the way and over time, our team will be evaluating our programs and expanding our programming to include experiences like outdoor leadership, scholarship programs, and a student board. Within each of our existing programs, we are also conducting a very important and timely audit of experiences to ensure DEI is a part of the fabric of our Center. To do this, our team has committed to learning together, participating in anti-racism training, and executing our action plan for equitable and inclusive leadership programming. Developing current and future business leaders is a privilege and responsibility that we do not take lightly.
  • Stakeholder engagement: As we look to the future, we will need to maintain and build a connected stakeholder community. We will look to build a venue for dialogue at the intersection of leadership and society via the creation of an alumni and corporate board. As more and more alumni graduate from Sanger programs, it will be important to utilize their experiences to shape the education we provide to our students and the future of the Sanger Leadership Center.

Jeff, what are you most excited about for the team or the Center this year?
I’m excited we have an ambitious team and a renewed sense of purpose. This year is about building the blueprint in a renewed phase of leadership development. We’ve often taught our students about the importance of leading in a VUCA world, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. That’s certainly the case this year, and it’s important that as we enter uncertain times, we adopt a reframing of the VUCA acronym—one with vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. It will be these things that will keep our team pushing forward despite what comes our way while balancing our team’s values of unity, creativity, audacity, and excellence.

I’m imagining it’s the end of the fiscal year 2021 and our team is coming together for our spring retreat where we celebrate our success in the form of pictures, testimonials, and new experiments we tried, and we get a chance to hear from every member of the team. We hear statements from our team like “I am more resilient than I thought I was” and “the experiments we tried when we engaged virtually helped us to become better leadership educators.” We sit there smiling and proud as we review the high standards of excellence from all of our existing programs, as well as images of the brainstorming sessions our team held to lay the blueprints for new initiatives like our coaching academy, embedment of DEI into the fabric of our Center, and the ways in which we explored new terrain with our Sanger Leadership Journey. We will have had trial runs of ways to tell our story through data and social media and made progress on the ways in which we can invest in our students through scholarships and outdoor leadership programs. Through all of this, the most exciting thing we are celebrating is that we learned and grew together as a team. 

I remain energized about working collaboratively to best meet the needs of our students in a changing and unprecedented time. I’m excited to put Sanger on a trajectory to set our leadership center apart and run experiments with bold ideas in mind.

Brian at the Crisis Challenge

Brian at the Crisis Challenge

Brian, what are your plans for the future?
I’m excited to stay involved with Sanger moving forward. I’ll continue to teach in the Center’s programs, while serving as a lecturer at Michigan Ross and the Ford School of Public Policy. In a variety of ways, I’ll still be engaging on campus and in the local community.

My big, new venture is the Water’s Edge Leadership Institute. It will serve client leaders and teams by helping them develop the clarity, vitality, and capabilities they need to be impactful in the 2020s and beyond. I’m still working out the conceptual framework, but I’m really interested in leadership development that draws on the social sciences, natural sciences, and even the philosophical and wisdom traditions. There’s so much rich, interesting work that integrates those domains today. I’m excited to contribute to the work, make it more accessible to students and professionals, and use it to power leadership development programs that I’m launching with colleagues early in 2021. Stay tuned!

What’s the best part of leading the Sanger team?
Brian: The people. Full stop. The faculty affiliated with Sanger include some of the most thoughtful and innovative leadership scholars in the world, and they care deeply about the Ross community. I’ve learned so much from their work and their mentorship. Our student leaders have enormous optimism and aspirations. They’re eager to contribute, innovate, develop their leadership, and learn from their experiences. They’ve given me so much energy and hope for the future. The Sanger team itself, from the beginning of my tenure at Ross, has been filled with diligent and dedicated professionals, all motivated to live up to our values, serve students at a high level of excellence, and partner in each other’s learning and growth. When I look back, I realize that I’ve worked on the Sanger team with 22 of the best people I’ve ever known—a few for several years—and they’ve each played a significant part in shaping me and making Sanger what it is today. I’m excited to see one of them, Jeff Domagala, stepping into the managing director seat next week. It’s been a real privilege to lead this team, and the experience will always be a source of gratitude and inspiration.

Jeff: I’d have to say the people; they’re the reason I’m excited to come to work each and every day. What makes our team so unique is the past experiences that each of us brings that enable us to think creatively, dream big, and see our work through various lenses. We have team members that have come from non-profit backgrounds, higher educational settings, research, event planning and marketing, training and development, etc. It’s allowed each of us to bring something unique to the table. Together we have been able to achieve so much. It’s each person’s commitment to our mission and values that have allowed us to reach new heights. I’ve learned so much from the processes we have created, from the experiences we have designed, and from the people I have worked alongside.


Jeff and Brian are both available on LinkedIn or email for questions and well-wishes. See their info in the sidebar.

Brian Flanagan
Brian Flanagan

LinkedInEmail: btflan @umich
Start Date: August 20, 2012
Previous experience:
Associate Director, Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, GVSU (2003–12)
Adjunct Professor of Public, Nonprofit, & Health Administration, GVSU (2010–12)

Favorite leadership books:
Ibarra, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader
Quinn, Building the Bridge As You Walk On It
Scharmer, Theory U: Leading From the Future as it Emerges

Favorite inspirational quote:
“There remains the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning … is the supreme capacity of man…. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.” -Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Best Food from the Siegle Cafe?
Chickpea Lentil Soup … or Slows BBQ when they have it

Jeff Domagala
Jeff Domagala

LinkedInEmail: jeffdom @umich
Start Date: April 4, 2016
Previous experience:
Associate Director, Sanger Leadership Center
Coordinator for Leadership Initiatives at Pace University, NY
Laker Leadership Programs, Grand Valley State University’s Office of Student Life

Favorite leadership books:
Ibarra, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader
Sinek, Start with Why
Currently reading: Cavanaugh, Contagious Culture

Favorite inspirational quote:
“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.” -Warren Bennis 

Best Food from the Siegle Cafe?
The Beyond Burger or the turkey chili!