It may not pack quite the star-power punch of a former U.S. president. But the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum kicks off Monday evening with a featured speaking duo that could prove both poignant and inspiring.
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, will take center stage at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center at 8 p.m.
Giffords will begin the presentation by leading the audience in a recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, a moment itself that could prove emotional for the former congressional rising star who was shot in the head by a deranged gunman at a public appearance in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2011. Six other people were slain that day, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. Amid the pain and sorrow, they now are pushing for gun control legislation.
Kelly, who commanded the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, will then give a keynote speech titled "Endeavor to Succeed." There also will be a 20-minute question-and-answer session with the couple, which could bring both laughs and tears because of the paralysis and nerve damage suffered by Giffords from the shooting.
"She knows what she wants to say, but it's very difficult for her to get it out," said Ed Helton, executive director of The Leadership Institute, a Columbus State University organization hosting the two-day event. "So he will speak and then he will ask her questions, and she will then have time to answer. Her presentation will be responding to the questions that he's going to ask her."
This is the 8th annual Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum, its namesake the retired chairman and chief executive offficer of Synovus Financial Corp., a local
ly based Southeast banking firm that is the parent of Columbus Bank and Trust.
The theme a year ago was "Resilient Leadership in Turbulent Times," with former President George W. Bush the featured speaker filling the large convention ballroom on the opening night. It was a sellout.
Helton on Thursday said about 900 of the 1,000 tickets available had been purchased for this year's forum, with the theme, "Leadership in the New Normal." Tuesday's speakers include a church pastor, an Army general, an online marketing expert and top executives from three well-known U.S. corporations -- Ford Motor Co., AT&T and Yum! Brands (the purveyor of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell).
"When you add two of the most effective CEOs in the world with Alan Mulally from Ford and David Novak with YUM! Brands, the second day of the forum is about as strong of a second day that we've ever had," said Helton, noting the Ford executive does not do a lot of public events such as the forum. "It's really unique that you get to hear Mullaly in person ... I'm very anxious to hear him."
The event kicks off Tuesday morning with Tom Mullins, founding pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Florida. He will be followed by Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the commanding general of Fort Benning, and John Stankey, group president and chief strategy officer at AT&T.
Next up will be Novak and Blanchard heading into the lunch hour. After the meal, marketing guru Seth Godin will take the podium, with Mulally closing out the event and likely touching on how the second-largest automaker in the U.S. not only overcame the Great Recession, but also revamped itself into a profitable machine amid a still-turbulent global economy.
At the conclusion of the forum, as is customary, next year's featured speakers will be revealed. A year ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was touted as the headliner, a premature announcement that did not materialize.
"I promise you we won't make that mistake again," said Helton.
Registration for the full event officially ended Friday, although Helton said if tables remain, reservations will be taken on Monday. The cost for the two days is $429 per person or $3,400 for a table seating eight people. For more information and to register, visit www.jimblanchardleadershipforum.com.
"It's one of the largest gatherings of business leaders in the Southeast, so it's a huge deal for the university and for us," said Helton, pointing out attendees this year are coming from as far away as Texas, Florida, Tennessee and the Carolinas.