WBLI History

Relive the institute's origin, partially told in first person by Warren Bennis Leadership Experience creator Jack FitzGerald, A&S ‘17, ‘20. 


Jack FitzGerald address the audience at the Warren Bennis Leadership Experience.

When I was a teenager, my dad had me read Warren Bennis’ "On Becoming a Leader" as a punishment for staying out past curfew. I recall my dad asking me, “Do you want to be a leader or a follower?” Years later, I was reading about Bennis' work to establish a leadership program for first-year students and was surprised I could not find a more visible legacy of Bennis on UC’s campus. Then I met Tom Humes, Bus ‘71, A&S ’77.

A man in a blue shirt and a man in a blue shirt and black jacket smile.

Jack FitzGerald and Tom Humes.

Humes, who worked for Bennis during the 1977 campaign to gain state status for UC and was the chairman of the UC Board of Trustees at the time, challenged me to start something that would bring Bennis’ legacy back to campus. Humes believed it was important this effort came from a student because he received the same challenge and mentorship from Bennis himself.

I met with Humes, and several students and key players at UC, to form the initial Warren Bennis Leadership Experience (WBLE) planning team, which included:

  • Bill Mulvihill (Bus '70), who worked for Bennis during the conversion to state university
  • Jay Chatterjee, FAICP, Dean Emeritus and Professor Emeritus, DAAP
  • Charles (Chuck) Matthews, PhD (Bus ’90), Distinguished Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy
  • Donna Chrobot-Mason, PhD, Associate Psychology Professor

Before graduating in the spring of 2017, I spoke at TEDxUCincinnati to share the history of the Warren Bennis Leadership Experience to inspire students to get involved in the planning of future events.

From event to initiative to institute

UC alumni Neal Novak, JD (A&S ’73, LAW ’77) and Joan Linhardt, MD (A&S ’72, MED ’76) contacted me in fall 2017, while I was living in San Diego as a Jesuit Volunteer after graduating from UC. They explained that they had learned about my work with WBLE. Neal worked as Bennis’ driver and Joan as a nanny, both living at the Bennis residence in Clifton for a period of time during their undergraduate studies.

They were contacted by the University of Southern California to donate to USC’s efforts around Bennis, but felt more of an affinity for an effort at their alma mater instead, given their relationship with the Bennis family. Neal and Joan commissioned me to travel to where Bennis taught at USC and go through the “Bennis papers” at the USC libraries to find information that would be helpful to their work back at UC.

A man and two women pose for a photo.

From left: Jack FitzGerald, Jennifer Heisey, vice president of alumni and donor experience for the UC Alumni Association, and Kate Bennis, daughter of Warren Bennis.

When I completed my Jesuit Volunteer Corps service in fall 2018, I relocated back to Cincinnati to attend grad school at UC. Joan extended the same generosity and experience to me that she received from the Bennis family, and invited me to live at her family’s residence. In the two years that followed, I continued to work with the Warren Bennis Leadership Experience while Joan and Neal became more involved in the legacy work. I completed my Master of Arts in Psychology, submitting a thesis on what it would take to establish a leadership institute at a major university, an effort that involved benchmarking, needs assessments and a review of Bennis’ work.

Linhardt and Novak formed what became the Warren Bennis Leadership Institute Preliminary Advisory Board. This advisory board was formed to discover what it would take to create a leadership institute in the name of Warren Bennis at UC. The board was made up of family and friends of Bennis, alumni, faculty, staff and students, including:

  • Kate Bennis, daughter of Warren Bennis
  • Will Bennis, son of Warren Bennis
  • Jay Chatterjee, FAICP, Dean Emeritus and Professor Emeritus, DAAP
  • Donna Chrobot-Mason, PhD, Associate Psychology Professor
  • Bruce Hopple, Bus, JD
  • Tom Humes, Bus ’71, A&S ’77, Hon ’16
  • Peter Landgren, CCM ’78, President, University of Cincinnati Foundation
  • Chuck Matthews, PhD, Bus ’90, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy
  • Bill Mulvihill, Bus '70
  • Jack Rouse, Emeritus Professor, former chair, UC's College Conservatory of Music
  • Richard (Dick) E. Thornburgh, Bus ’74, Hon ’09
  • Dave Williams
  • Myron (Mike) E. Ullman III, Bus ’69, Hon '06
A pair of Lindner faculty pose for a photo with students.

From left: Donna Chrobot-Mason, Lindner dean Marianne Lewis, WBLE co-founder Jack FitzGerald and former members of the WBLE student team.

The board created a proposal for UC President Neville G. Pinto, PhD, connecting the legacy of Warren Bennis and the Next Lives Here strategic direction to the opportunity to create a leadership institute in the name of the "Father of Leadership."

President Pinto accepted the proposal and welcomed the pursuit of creating the Institute, tasking Lindner Dean Marianne Lewis, PhD, with leading the effort.

In the summer of 2021, Lewis formally appointed Donna Chrobot-Mason as Thornburgh Academic Director of the Warren Bennis Leadership Initiative to create the infrastructure required for an interdisciplinary institute focused on leadership development. During this period, Chrobot-Mason and Fitzgerald laid the groundwork for the institute and solidified its three pillars: student leadership development, research and executive education.

Over the next two years, multiple student programs were piloted, research examining leader identity development was conducted, and executive education began. In fall 2022, Alex Mason and Matthew Toigo were hired as the first Student Fellows to help cement the groundwork for the forthcoming institute. 

The institute today


From left: Warren Bennis Leadership Institute Academic Director Donna Chrobot-Mason, UC Provost Val Ferme, Lindner dean Marianne Lewis and Ryan Hays, Executive Vice President and Chief Innovation & Strategy Officer at UC.

On September 15, 2023, the Warren Bennis Leadership Institute officially launched and cut the ribbon at its new home at the 1819 Innovation Hub.

In her remarks at the ribbon cutting, Chrobot-Mason included a favorite quote from Warren Bennis: “Leaders learn by leading, and they learn best by leading in the face of obstacles. As weather shapes mountains, problems shape leaders.”

As the institute continues to grow and impact more students, community members and alumni, we seek to create a leadership movement. 

  • We want to leverage our incredible capacity at UC for research innovation to transform how we develop leaders.
  • We want to transform who we equip as leaders by ensuring everyone has access to evidence-based leadership development opportunities.
  • Finally, we want to transform why we develop leadership skills. And that is because like Warren Bennis, we believe that by developing tomorrow’s leaders, we will have a profound impact on those about tasked with solving our most wicked problems.

Warren Bennis Leadership Institute staff and champions at the institute's ribbon cutting.

Today, the institute is impacting students across all UC colleges, conducting research on leadership development, and partnering with organizations across the Greater Cincinnati area. The history of the Warren Bennis Leadership Institute is a testament to the profound impact of Bennis’ work and how importance of great leaders.

“I believe that Cincinnati is filled with some of the most amazing people who can change the world. We desperately need great leaders in our world, and as I look around at the University of Cincinnati, I see countless stories and lives of people who can lead our city, country and, ultimately, our world. At the Warren Bennis Leadership Institute, we inspire change leaders by helping them believe in their potential and equipping them to lead, wherever they are in their development journey.” — Alex Mason, Student Fellow, A&S ’23, Bus ’24.

Contact Us

Warren Bennis Leadership Institute 
1819 Innovation Hub
Suite 350D
2900 Reading Road
Cincinnati, OH 45206