Diane Ryan, who spent 29 years on active duty, talks about four leaders who have inspired her (and not one is a general)
Diane Ryan, associate dean for programs and administration at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, was inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame on March 22. The award recognized not only her 29 years in the Army (she retired as a colonel in 2017) but her work supporting other women in service.
The foundation’s president, retired Brig. Gen. Anne Macdonald, called Ryan “the best of the best.”
“She led, advised, and mentored soldiers in two conflicts, in some of the most challenging leadership positions in our Army,” Macdonald said, adding that during Ryan’s tenure as deputy head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, she “instilled essential leadership traits and ethical values, positively influencing and inspiring a generation of cadets and Army leaders.”
As she reflected on what the award means to her, Ryan, a leadership scholar, thought first about the leaders who have supported and inspired her. Below, she talks about four of them—and they may not be the kind of leaders you expect.
Joan and Richard Ryan
Back in high school, when Ryan had to choose between studying Latin and taking a typing course because she couldn’t fit both in her schedule, her mother, Joan, told her to take the Latin—she would do the typing for her. And her mother did, staying up many late nights as her daughter handed her hand-written sheets for essays due the next day. And she never complained.
Ryan described her mother as an example of a “servant leader”—someone who leads through empathy, listening, and working in synergy with others.
“She selflessly did things for other people and appreciated what she could learn by doing them,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s father, Richard, was a bus driver, and she admits that she was ashamed of that. “He had dropped out of school in the ninth grade,” she said. “That was a point of resentment. I couldn't understand why he was always on my butt about doing well in school.”
He told her that whatever career she wound up with, she just had to do the best job she could, and while she loved him, she didn’t pay the words much heed.
It wasn’t until she was in her early 30s and he passed away that she truly understood what he meant. At his funeral, a young woman with Down syndrome whom Ryan did not recognize got up to read a letter. “She said, ‘Mr. Ryan was the best bus driver in the whole world. Every day for five years he took me to my job at Burger King and told me I did a great job. I’m going to miss him so much.’”
And there were others who said the same thing—the best bus driver in the world. For Ryan, it was a defining moment.
Ryan grew up in an exclusively white, working-class community. When she joined the Army, her first non-commissioned officer was Sgt. Maj. Clarence Plant, a Black Vietnam veteran from Macon, Georgia. "Our backgrounds couldn’t be any more different,” Ryan said, “but he taught me everything about how to be a caring and compassionate leader.”
“When you were screwing up, he would call you in the office and tell you,” she said. “When you were doing great, he’d call you in and tell you how you could do better.”
He also taught her the importance of small gestures. At the end of every field exercise, which was inevitably on a cold or rainy day, Plant was always waiting at the finish line with a giant vat of steaming soup that he spent all day working on. “I can’t really tell you that the soup was a culinary masterpiece—the stories of different things people discovered in their bowls are legendary—but I can tell you how it made us feel.” Since then, she’s tried to pass on that feeling—of being valued—to all her reports.
“Frances Hesselbein is hands down my favorite human being on the planet who is not related to me,” Ryan said.
Several four-star generals have called Hesselbein their mentor, including the current secretary of defense. Yet her claim to fame was not leading soldiers, but leading little girls. In 1976, Hesselbein was hired as chief executive of the Girl Scouts. Some thought she had only been given the job because the then-troubled Girl Scouts organization was expected to fail anyway. But in her 14 years at the helm, Hesselbein brought about more change than the group had seen in its more than 100-year history. Among other things, she updated the scout handbook, logo, and marketing materials to encourage and reflect diversity and inclusion, so that every girl would be able to see herself in them. She encouraged leadership based on ethics, values, and giving back, and the organization thrived.
Ryan came to know Hesselbein, who is now 106, several years later when she taught leadership at West Point.
“She has the gift of making every single person that she meets believe that they are the most important person she ever met,” Ryan said. “She's who I aspire to be like. And whenever I get into an ethical dilemma, I just ask myself, ‘What would Frances do in this situation?’”