When Mitch Daniels left the Governor’s Office after two terms, some of his oldest friends and supporters honored him by creating the Mitch Daniels Leadership Foundation to give an annual prize to someone who “lifted the state to a new plane of thought, aspiration, expectation and action.”
It was a gesture Daniels appreciated, particularly in its goal of inspiring Hoosiers to “new levels of possibility and achievement.”
But Daniels, who had moved on to serve as president of Purdue University, thought an even better way to achieve that goal would be to train new generations of leaders to study and tackle the state’s biggest challenges. And so he recruited some of the people he had mentored while serving in state government to broaden the foundation’s mission with a statewide fellowship program that would continue and expand the work his administration started.
The statewide emphasis is key, Daniels told IBJ, as is the focus on advancing Indiana.
“We want to enlarge [the fellows’] sense of what’s possible and, I hope, provoke them to think about the next round of changes, big changes that would make this a better state,” Daniels said. “And we want them to get to know each other. … Because there might come a time when they come together around some cause or issue or big reform that makes Indiana better.”
This year, the foundation welcomed its sixth class of fellows—a group of 25 Hoosiers from 10 counties who range in age from 23 to 49. In all, 125 people from 23 counties have taken part in the program and worked on challenges related to early childhood learning, literacy, workforce development, hunger and more.
Thinking big and inspiring others to do so as well has been Daniels’ hallmark through five decades in business, public service and higher education. “Aiming higher” was the slogan the Republican used in his gubernatorial campaigns and throughout his time in office.
That mission has motivated a generation of leaders who have themselves spread the message to the people they are mentoring and training.
Ryan Kitchell, who worked on Daniels’ first campaign for governor and later served as director of the Office of Management and Budget in Daniels’ administration, called his former boss “the most impactful professional relationship or person that I’ve ever worked with in my career.”
“His biggest contribution has been to change the culture of our state and to begin moving from a laggard to a leader in many areas,” said Kitchell, who helped expand and redesign the foundation’s programs. “And that cultural change is seen through people.”
For that reason, as much as for his eight years as governor and 10 as president at Purdue, IBJ is naming Daniels the 30th recipient of the Michael A. Carroll Award, given annually to a man or woman who has demonstrated the former deputy mayor’s qualities of determination, humility and service. Carroll was among six people killed when two small planes collided over southern Marion County on Sept. 11, 1992.
Starting with Lugar
Daniels met Carroll in 1971 when he went to work for then-Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar. Carroll was deputy mayor, a position in which he oversaw some of the Lugar administration’s biggest projects, including the construction of Market Square Arena.
Daniels recalls the administration as a team determined to build a thriving community: Lugar “made this city, got this city on the move.” And Daniels said Lugar and Carroll welcomed him twice as an intern and then as a full-time staffer and partner in executing big ideas.
Lugar would go on to the U.S. Senate, where Daniels served as his chief of staff. In all, Daniels worked directly with Lugar for 14 years.
“Nobody had more of an impact on me than he did,” Daniels said of Lugar, who died in 2019. “But most of it was just by example. And I’m sure that kept me closer to the straight and narrow later—knowing that the people you’re working with, especially the younger people, are watching. They’re probably noticing things that you don’t even think about.”
Lugar, he said, “made a better person out of the people around him.”
Today, that’s just what the people who have worked in and around Daniels for years say about him—and what they say they strive to do for others.
Ben Ledo is one of them. He was not far out of college—maybe 23 or 24 years old—and recently back from a year in Costa Rica when he went to hear Daniels speak. At the time, Daniels was working as director of the Office of Management and Budget in President George W. Bush’s administration, mulling a run for governor and talking about why Indiana could be doing bigger and better things.
The message resonated with Ledo, who was interning at the Indiana General Assembly while figuring out what he wanted to do with his career. A state senator connected him with Bill Oesterle, the co-founder of Angie’s List who was putting together a campaign to persuade Daniels to run for governor.
Oesterle gave Ledo plenty of grunt work to do and then asked if he could drive an RV. Months later, Ledo was the driver—the guy who drove Daniels in his RV1 mobile campaign headquarters thousands of miles crisscrossing Indiana for 16 months, listening to him talk about his vision for Indiana and making plans to implement it.
Daniels was determined to tell every Hoosier he could find that Indiana could be a better place to live and work, to raise a family and start a business.
“No one outworked him,” Ledo said of Daniels. “I remember there were long days when I thought we were done, and he was like: ‘Hey, on the way home, one more stop. Try to find a place. What’s between here and there?’ He was just relentless.”
On the road, Ledo—the son of a Cuban immigrant—helped Daniels practice his Spanish. But Ledo said he was the one gaining the incredible education.
“He didn’t need to be doing it all, but he was working tirelessly at it,” Ledo said. “So, when he talked about changing the state and aiming higher and all those things, there was no one who knew more than I did that he was honest and forthright about it.”
‘The big and the bold’
Chris Ruhl was another early volunteer on the Daniels campaign. He was an attorney at Baker & Daniels with every intention of staying with the firm. But after months helping Daniels craft ideas related to taxes and finance, he couldn’t resist going with him into state government.
“I believed in how Mitch was going to run with these big ideas in a state that had been sort of sleepy,” Ruhl said. “I liked the agenda around using taxpayers’ money and resources more efficiently and effectively. And I liked what he wanted to do to make the state more attractive for investment.”
Ruhl was part of the team that set up Indiana’s first Office of Management and Budget, where he worked in strategy and in legislative affairs. Working with others at OMB—including Kitchell and Daniels’ first OMB director, Chuck Schalliol—Ruhl helped create the financing plan for construction of Lucas Oil Stadium, worked on the lease of the Indiana Toll Road and developed the deal to privatize management of the Hoosier Lottery.
What he learned working for and with Daniels, though, was about far more than how to make a deal.
“It’s about doing your job well, delivering results, delivering outcomes, keeping score and taking pride in the success of others,” he said. “Mitch was always focused on results, focused on the big and the bold.”
And Ruhl said he learned from Daniels that, to achieve those goals, you have to understand all sides of an issue, do the opposition research about ideas and look at the questions other people will raise. They’re lessons Ruhl has taken with him—first to Ivy Tech Community College as the school’s chief financial officer and then to Purdue University when Daniels called him to join the team there. The latter move was an easy decision, he said.
Daniels had bold ideas about freezing tuition and building the Purdue brand—and he brought Ruhl on in part to lead the acquisition of Kaplan University, now known as Purdue Global.
“You know you’re going to make a difference, you’re always going to see an impact,” said Ruhl, who is now Purdue’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives, overseeing finance, human resources, information technology and more. “And that’s exclusively attributable in the end to Mitch, who gets people to rally around the big ideas and come together as a team.”
Expanding the foundation
Claire Fiddian-Green didn’t work for the Daniels administration, but as president of The Mind Trust—a not-for-profit education organization—she was paying attention to his policies and his leadership.
“He made a big impression,” she said. “He did a few things that really appealed to my values, which is why I decided to go work in state government. That had not been part of my plan.”
She was appointed executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, a position that was affiliated with the Indiana Department of Education. And while the education agency operated independently at that time, the job gave Fiddian-Green an even better view of Daniels’ work.
“He was really clear-eyed about challenges that Indiana faced, and he always used data to diagnose the problems and set goals—and then he measured progress in a really transparent way,” Fiddian-Green said.
But Daniels never dwelled on the problems as much as on taking action, she said.
“I heard him say some variation of, spending too much time admiring the problem was a one-way ticket to falling further behind, and that really appealed to me,” she said.
Fiddian-Green would later work in the Pence administration as special assistant to the governor for education innovation and then became president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.
It was only then that she actually met Daniels. She had been talking with leaders she admired to gather their thoughts on what was going well in Indiana, what challenges existed and how the Fairbanks Foundation could help address those problems. Daniels was on her list, and his thoughts helped shape the recommendations she made to her board.
Soon after, she was invited to serve on the Mitch Daniels Leadership Foundation’s board. It was just as the group was expanding its mission to engage people from across the state in efforts to solve problems. She eventually became the board’s chair and spent more time talking with Daniels about the need not just to identify problems but to empower people to address them.
“He was really instrumental in helping us shape and firm up the current state of the fellowship,” she said.
The two-year program starts with learning about Indiana and researching its challenges. Fellows choose a capstone project through which they will address one of those challenges. In the second year, the foundation works to connect fellows with the people and resources to implement their ideas.
“It’s really up to each person to say: ‘This is the problem that I think needs to be addressed.’ Then they become passionate about it,” she said. “And so, if you keep growing that network of leaders who are constantly trying to make Indiana better, that’s going to make our state better.”
Lauren James was working at TechPoint—after jobs with the Indianapolis Colts, ExactTarget and Salesforce—when she was named to the inaugural class of Mitch Daniels fellows. That was 2016, and there were 14 people in the fledgling program.
Daniels, she said, met with the fellows, hosted them at his home and “gave us glimpses into his roles as a father, as a grandfather, as a colleague and as a friend.”
“He instilled in us that our state is poised to be better because of leaders like us,” she said. “And I knew in that moment that I had made the right decision of saying yes to this really special opportunity. And I didn’t take that charge or commitment lightly.”
Six years later, James was named executive director of the foundation. And she said Daniels’ retirement from Purdue has meant he has more time to spend working with the fellows and on the foundation’s mission. That’s exciting for the program, the fellows and the state, she said.
“Our goal is not only building the bench of next generation leaders,” James said, “but also ensuring we have a pipeline of leaders that are serving in the same spirit that he has served in and embracing those same values that he holds truly as well.”•