Leading an Evolution
Board chair Mike Warren traces the rise of Leadership Birmingham
Mike Warren (’86) has sat at many desks in the past 35 years. And on each one, he has proudly displayed his Leadership Birmingham pyramid, a treasured reminder of his class year. “I felt privileged to have been included among people I looked up to and recognized as community leaders,” he says. In 1997, he eagerly accepted the invitation to help shape the program’s future on the Leadership Birmingham board of directors, where he has served as chair since 2003.
Warren recently announced his retirement from the board and Children’s of Alabama—the culmination of a 50-year career in the Birmingham business community. Executive director Libba Vaughan calls Warren a “fierce and constant advocate” for Leadership Birmingham. “As a prominent leader in both the corporate and civic worlds, he innately understands the value of different voices in a room, which has inspired and guided his leadership of this organization,” she says.
Before his last day, he and Libba discussed what the program has meant to him—and to the community he loves—over the years.
Libba: What value has Leadership Birmingham added to your career and to the community?
Mike: I think about connections I made with people in my class. In those days, we said it expanded your Rolodex: You knew people well enough to call and ask for advice. That concept, absent the Rolodex, has persisted for the classes that followed. People who grew up in Birmingham, went to school here, and work here often find out quickly that they have a limited perspective. They don’t know Birmingham from the standpoint of the different people living here. And they learn that primarily from seeing their classmates’ reactions to different topics and hearing their expressions and questions.
Libba: I like to say Leadership Birmingham has done a million different things for the community. It’s not just one thing because we don’t tell you what to do or how to act.
Mike: That is a strength. It also is risky. It would be much easier to say we’re going to adopt a school, and then we’re all going to do something else. But if you attract a diverse group of people, then it doesn’t make sense to ask everyone to do the same thing. You’re not trying to make everybody just like everybody else. The payoff is tremendous because, like you said, Leadership Birmingham has done a million things through thousands of people. And they do them differently—and better—because they went through the program.
Libba: The program days—at least the big, overarching themes— have stayed the same over the years, but how have the specific issues changed?
Mike: I was looking through the directory of everyone who has graduated from the program, and I realized it’s the history of Birmingham. It’s a terrific group of people. And we all have a shared experience because there’s a great deal of consistency from year to year. But the content under those big headings has changed dramatically as society has changed. In my class, for example, we thought “digital” had something to do with your fingers. Over time, classes have talked more about the role of technology, communications, and entrepreneurship.
Libba: I looked at some old agendas and noticed the number of people in labor relations and media, like newspapers, who were in the classes. It’s interesting to see how those have diminished over time, unfortunately.
Mike: It’s difficult to find those leaders now. Today it’s important to include entrepreneurs and technology leaders and people who are active with the environment, just as it was important back then to include labor and media folks.
Libba: Tell me about some of your memorable moments working with Leadership Birmingham.
Mike: It’s tough for me to identify specific moments because you always find Leadership Birmingham people participating in efforts for good. For example, I think about what the community has done with the Civil Rights District. The establishment of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was an anchor for that activity, and the area has grown by fits and starts since then.
Libba: I feel like we’ll say something similar in 20 more years about initiatives to foster regional cooperation among our local governments.
Mike: Some other high points were low points in certain ways, like early efforts for Birmingham to address education funding or Governor Bob Riley’s Amendment One [to revise Alabama’s tax system]. Those were failures, but the people involved in those idealistic, wonderful projects were Leadership Birmingham alumni. So even when their efforts weren’t successful, they were efforts for good.
Libba: What challenges does Leadership Birmingham face?
Mike: A generation in the life of a city is short. By that I mean there is a significant change in the body of leaders, with some exceptions, every seven to 10 years. We also have seen significant changes in our business community. The world of financial services is dramatically different since the days when four large regional banks were located in Birmingham. The number of publicly traded companies headquartered here has diminished. That’s a challenge for the area; therefore, it’s a big challenge for Leadership Birmingham. Leadership Birmingham must accept the responsibility of being as relevant to the leaders of 2025 as it was to the leaders of 1985. How does it remain a hot ticket? How do we keep attracting leaders who are willing to invest the time required to be full participants?
Libba: We certainly will miss your insights and leadership. What has motivated you to remain active with our board for nearly 25 years?
Mike: Leadership Birmingham is the very best way to have a long-term impact on the community. Being a small part of that has been gratifying. Helping to shape the program and its path forward has been a highlight of my community service activities.
Libba: I feel like Leadership Birmingham, as a group, can feel pride in your success in this community because of how your experience in the class of 1986 impacted you.
Mike: My comment earlier about connectedness—that connectedness lasts for years into the future. On day one of your first session, you just don’t know the benefits that will come 10 or 20 years later. But you know there will be benefits.
Libba: What do you plan to do next?
Mike: I have been fortunate in my career, and I can’t imagine a better job than leading Children’s. But at the same time, Anne and I have not been waiting on retirement. We have not delayed living. We’ve got three grown children and 10 grandchildren, and we have delighted in being part of their lives. We have been lucky to travel a great deal, but we have two new national parks to visit. It’s been wonderful, and I expect that to continue.
My good friend Gary Youngblood told me that when he retired, his big question was, “What do I do Monday morning? What do I do on that first day?” I don’t know the answer to that for me. I’m not intending to do anything for a while, but I expect to be busy doing something.