The vision of the new centre's director, Graham Peeke, of transforming the traditional idea of the leader as superhero into the modern "shared leadership" model (see FE Focus last week) provoked outspoken comments from two key speakers.
Dame Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, scorned the plan to create a ladder of leadership qualifications from certificate to diploma and master levels.
She told the conference: "Thank God, I never went to business school or got an MBA," she said. "If I hear another word about education being performance-led, I'll go mad."
The Rev Andrew Mawson, executive director of Community Action Network, said leadership was essentially based on experience, and on people not structures. He saw "smartness" and innovation as the key attributes of the "social entrepreneurs" of the future.
He told principals to embrace the new culture. "They must take off the traditional glasses, throw them in the bin, and put on the glasses of an enterprise culture."
Alan Johnson, minister for lifelong learning, told the conference the new centre would have a budget of pound;14 million over the next few years.
The cash was to be spent on transforming management skills in the sector, making it one of the best vocational education and training systems in the world.
Dame Anita said she was not sure that leadership could be taught. It should be based on morality and values, she said, like those of the early Quaker businessmen who built colleges, houses and evening institutes. "Leadership should be experiential and ideas-led, not based on profits or market-share."
In his speech the minister referred to the need for a new generation of leaders to replace the large numbers who were retiring over the next few years. "Diversity too is an issue: only 1 per cent of principals are from an ethnic minority and only 5 per cent of senior managers. Women too are under-represented," he said.
But for Dame Anita the problem was that management was still too dominated by the white macho spirit of global capitalism: the new sector should use the feminine values of caring and kindness in its leadership programme.
Staff and students should be encouraged to be politically active and protest at the rapacious behaviour of big business.
At the end of the conference, Sir Geoffrey Holland, chairman of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, said Dame Anita had made an important contribution to their thinking by insisting on moral values and "stickability" as keys to leadership.
The Centre for Excellence in Leadership was indeed an entrepreneurial venture, he said, adding: "We are not out to subvert the idea of leadership and management as an academic discipline. But we are trying to get away from the short-termism of the current target-driven system, which can be very damaging."
Professor Ron Glatter, head of the Open University centre for educational policy and management, said that modern theory supported the idea of leadership based on experience.
He said: "The important thing is how you reflect on that experience and draw lessons from it." He questioned the notion that leadership was instinctive or intuitive. "This theory is fashionable in high places at the moment. But in practice it has had some pretty disastrous results in colleges."