Astronaut Mark Kelly, wife Gabrielle Giffords to headline Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum

It may not pack quite the power of a world leader. But Ed Helton believes the headline speakers — astronaut Mark Kelly and his wife Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords — will bring a powerful message that should be a strong draw for this year’s Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum.

“As a family, they have modeled the kind of leadership for how one deals with tragedy, and they did it on an international stage,” said Helton, interim executive director of the Cunningham Center at Columbus State University.

Kelly, 48, is a retired U.S. Navy captain best known for his career as an astronaut, flying four space shuttle missions, the last aboard Endeavour in May 2011. A prostate cancer survivor, he also is an author and a decorated Gulf War combat aviator.

Giffords, 42, married Kelly in 2007, about a year after being elected from Arizona to her first term in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was shot in the head in January 2011 at a supermarket gathering with constituents, a tragedy that left six people dead and nearly killed Giffords, who has been slowly rehabilitating. She resigned from Congress in January 2012.

“(Kelly) does a Q&A with her,” Helton said of Giffords. “I don’t want to say it’s rehearsed, but it’s within her capacity to do, and she obviously does it very, very well. It’s a very moving presentation.”

Kelly and Giffords fill a void left after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was mentioned at last year’s forum as a possible headliner, sent word through his office that he could not commit to an event months away.

“We were led to believe early on that he had tentatively given his blessing that he would do this. Then he had a hard time winning his election, so I’m sure he’s really focused there right now and we’re not on his radar,” said Helton, who would make room for Netanyahu if he were to agree to attend closer to the Aug. 26-27 event.

This year’s forum will have a tough act to follow. Former President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker on the opening night last August, packing the Columbus Convention and Trade Center banquet hall. It has room for 1,000 seats, although forum organizers squeezed another 100 people into the hall a year ago because of heavy demand.

“Certainly, it’s a greater challenge,” said of ticket sales this year. “Somebody like a former President of the United States can command a presence that very few people can. However, from a business leadership point of view, where else could someone go and hear Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford, and David Novak, CEO of Yum! Brands, on the same day?”

Mulally, who successfully guided the automaker through the Great Recession, and Novak, whose firm serves up Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut to consumers around the world, both are part of the second-day lineup.

Others include:

Seth Godin, an author and online marketing expert who Helton calls a “very provocative, compelling speaker.”

Tom Mullins, founding pastor of Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., one of the largest churches in the U.S.

John Stankey, group president and chief strategy officer with AT&T Inc.

Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander of Fort Benning and the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.

Helton said there’s a possibility another prominent speaker might be added to the forum, a person who has yet to commit but who “might add to the buzz.”

The Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum is named in honor of the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Synovus Financial Corp., a regional bank that owns Columbus Bank and Trust.


This marks the eighth year of the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum, which is hosted by the Cunningham Center Leadership Institute at Columbus State University. The event will take place Aug. 26-27 (Monday evening and full-day Tuesday program) at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center, 801 Front Ave. Registration for the two-day event is $429 per person or $3,400 for a table for eight people. For more information or to register, click on the link accompanying this story.

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