The art and science of leadership

Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Aileen Warren has experienced too many can’t-miss moments to recount at the organization’s annual ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference. But her first event as leader of the Omaha-based non-profit was most memorable—and stress-inducing.

It was the 2022 ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference, and National Basketball Association (NBA) Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall was scheduled as the afternoon’s closing keynote speaker. Thousands of conference attendees would be showing up in a few days to soak up insights from the first black female chief executive in the history of the NBA. There was one problem: The Mavericks pulled off a surprise and made the NBA playoffs and were now playing the same day Cynt was scheduled to speak.  

For Marshall to grace the stage in Omaha, ICAN had to make a last-minute agenda change. “We scrambled and switched her to the morning session, but we were afraid she still might not make it,” Warren said. “She arrived 45 minutes before she had to go on stage. We were so nervous and were all backstage wiping our brows when she walked through that door. She made it and knocked it out of the park.”

ICAN’s signature event has enjoyed similar fortune through its 31 years of strong growth and inspiration for local and regional leaders. Last year’s edition of the ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference set a record with more than 3,200 attendees who gathered in-person and virtually to listen and learn from international thought leaders. This year’s powerhouse event on May 15 promises to be even bigger and better with the theme “Elevate: The Collective Power of Women” and another world-class lineup of compelling speakers, including Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. 

A pediatrician, professor, public health advocate, and best-selling author, Attisha’s research exposed the Flint, MI, water crisis and protected thousands of children from dangerous levels of lead exposure. “To me, it almost feels magical, in terms of the engagement and the networking and the leadership development that people experience,” said Warren, who attended many of ICAN’s Women’s Leadership Conferences and other programs during a 35-year human resources career in Omaha-based companies. “It’s pretty amazing.”

The conference will also highlight a financial marketplace with banks, investment companies, and other financial institutions helping women take control of their finances, and the third installment of a Male Allyship session offering to stress the importance of men supporting  women leaders. Last year’s conference also invited 50 under-represented participants to attend on scholarship grants, and ICAN expects a similar-sized group of scholarship recipients this year. “We want to help women understand the power they hold and what a difference they can make when they come together,” Warren said. “Whether it’s in the workplace, in the community, or with their girlfriends, we’re going to lift up some of those stories around the U.S. of women who have come together and done things that brought remarkable change in their community.”

While the Women’s Leadership Conference has been the pinnacle event through the years for ICAN, the organization has fostered many other leadership development programs that impact local leaders over its 43-year history/since its founding in 1981. ICAN’s Defining Leadership Program is celebrating 20 years of helping leaders better understand their strengths to make them more effective and learn “how they want to show up as a leader,” according to Warren. 

To date, 1,300 leaders have graduated from the 4-month program that features a suite of assessments and exercises that highlight their skills and activate their potential. A Defining Leadership Alumni Association was also formed to help graduates stay in touch and encourage fellow attendees. “We have a saying at ICAN,” Warren said, “that to understand people, you must first understand yourself. Some people say, ‘I want to be like that person.’ But the best leaders learn what makes them authentic and what they stand on as a leader. That’s what Defining Leadership is all about.”

In 2023, ICAN partnered with Creighton University to resurrect its 7x7x7 Leadership Exchange event—seven presenters for seven minutes on seven different topics—with more than 400 participants in its first year back since the pandemic. ICAN also creates custom leadership development programs for companies of any size to address topics such as managerial essentials, team building, communication, and collaboration. 

ICAN’s programming is designed to help organizational leaders stay ahead of the pace of change, invest in their talent pipeline and respond to emerging trends—such as the impact of artificial intelligence on the world of work, talent acquisition and management in an increasingly competitive job market, and a hybrid-remote work environment that continues to reshape the workplace. “How work gets done has changed forever, and that’s something we continue to explore,” Warren said. “It’s almost a competitive advantage now if companies can master the new environment. People got a taste of remote or hybrid work, and most people appreciated it because it allowed them to have a better work-life balance they don’t want to give up.”

ICAN’s offerings nurture what Warren calls the “art and science” of leadership. The science of leadership comes in the form of theory, research, and strategy. While the art—the soft side of leadership—shines through in the emotional intelligence and empathy it takes to be an ever-evolving and improving people leader. 

“Not everybody is able to dig deep and find that,” Warren said. “Even though ICAN believes everyone can be a leader in their own way, we know for some people some parts of the art of leadership don’t come easy. True leadership is not easy, I don’t care how good you are. There is so much that goes into good leadership, some parts that are extremely rewarding and that keep you up at night. It’s something you have to enjoy doing to be good at it. The practice of leadership is the art for me—when a person can take all the science, internalize it and make it authentic to themselves in how they show up as a leader.” For more information, visit

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