Blog Post: Dr. Diane Ryan – Women In Leadership Speaker Series

With a new school year comes a new amazing lineup for our APH Women In Leadership Speaker Series! In the past, The Academy has hosted a number of influential, trail-blazing women including WCVB Channel 5 anchor, Maria Stephanos, Chief Justice Paula Carey, MIT Iron Professor, Dr. Renee Gosline and Olympian Abbey D’Agostino, who have all shared their stories and inspired our students to strive for authentic leadership. On Thursday, October 1, we welcomed Dr. Diane Ryan as our first speaker of the new academic year.

Dr. Ryan is the Associate Dean for Programs and Administration in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, overseeing a number of programs that service the entire undergraduate and graduate student body, with teaching and research focused on leadership development. She is a co-investigator on Project Arete, a five year study of character and leadership development at the United States Military Academy.

Prior to joining Tufts, Dr. Ryan was an Academy Professor, Director of the Eisenhower Leader Development Program with Columbia University and Deputy Department Head in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. During her 29-year career as a U.S. Army officer, she served in a variety of command and staff assignments both stateside and abroad. During her last combat assignment with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, Iraq she founded a US-Iraqi partnership for military women and worked with several NGOs on peace and security initiatives.

Speaking with our community, Dr. Ryan shared her incredible journey and life’s work while also answering very thoughtful questions from our students. Below are listed the questions from students and answers from Dr. Ryan.

Question from Dr. Barozzi’s Advisory: What advice would you give to high school girls on how to become leaders in the world?

Dr. Ryan: Be open to possibilities. When I was applying to colleges, I knew that a big factor would be finances. In order to avoid going into financial debt, I saw the opportunity to join ROTC, even though I was not interested in applying before, and apply for scholarships I really needed. Next, ask for help along the way. As a first generation college student, I struggled with imposter syndrome. Know that you are enough and there are people who take great satisfaction in helping and mentoring those who ask for it.

Question from Dr. Kimberly’s Advisory: As a woman in the army were you treated differently from men?

Dr. Ryan: Yes! There were very few accomplishments I had where the response wasn’t “You got this because you’re a woman!” I was able to have accomplishments because of my abilities, not because of the group I represented. There needs to be more freedom in the workplace for others to be themselves and not tokens or poster people for an entire group they may represent. You accomplish your goals because you are the best person for this particular job.

Question from Dr. Cervantes’ Advisory: Describe your leadership style and how it differs from traditional military leadership.

Dr. Ryan: There actually is no type of traditional military leadership! That image of commanders yelling into the faces of cadets is served by the media. Every Westpoint cadet has to learn discipline, but not in a way that breaks their spirit. I always aspire to lead with the trust of those that I am leading. Listening is the key to trust. Leaders listen first and speak last. It’s a foundation of really good leadership no matter what gender.

Question from Dr. Hidalgo’s Advisory: What does leadership mean to you?

Dr. Ryan: I’m inspired by a woman named Frances Hesselbein, Girl Scouts founder and presidential medal of freedom winner. We were office mates at Westpoint and I saw how she treated everyone in her life with the same respect and dignity no matter what they did for a living or who they were. This brings to mind the story of my late father who was a bus driver. I was so embarrassed by his profession that I would hope no one would ever ask me what my father did for a living. When he passed away, a woman with down syndrome came to the funeral who rode on his bus every day to go to her job at Burger King and every day, my dad would affirm her for who she was and the great job she was doing. My dad was a leader and inspired another woman to go to work every day and feel worthy. Everyone has this type of leadership in them regardless of what they do in their lives.

Question from Mr. McLean’s Advisory: Has there been a moment where you’re leading a group and you just wanted to bail? What stopped you?

Dr. Ryan: I was in a very coveted leadership position and people kept reminding me that I only got it because I’m a woman. It felt like people were constantly trying to expose my weaknesses and to make me fail. I’m a slow runner. One day, we were out on a big unit run and someone, who was constantly trying to get me down, was in charge of that run. He took off and it was way too fast for me and for others as well. I chose to keep a steady pace instead of following him. I was told that I was terrible at leading my unit because of how slow my pace was, but I was just trying to take care of others whose strengths weren’t running either. Someone then came up to me and said “Don’t let them get you down!” That phrase gave me the confidence I needed to not give up on myself or these soldiers. Whenever things get tough, I think “Don’t let them get you down” Believe in yourself and believe what you’re doing is the right thing and persist!