Emotions run high at leadership forum, with taste of World Trade Center tragedy


Day two of the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum was tearfully emotional at times, comical on occasion, but chock full of advice for being innovative and leading people, often through extremely difficult moments.

Taking place at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center Tuesday, the 10th annual event, a sellout, featured a former party boy who launched a charity for clean water in poor countries, a retired soldier and Army Ranger who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an investment bank executive who lost nearly 70 colleagues in the horrific Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

The latter’s experience was perhaps the most poignant, with James “Jimmy” Dunne, senior managing principal of Sandler O’Neill+Partners, at a golf event when learning of the terrible attack that fateful day nearly 14 years ago.

Choking back tears several times during the presentation, he recalled receiving a phone call about a star employee who had been in one of the 110-story towers as jets controlled by terrorists slammed into them, eventually toppling the structures.

“They found Kevin Williams (alive). It’s just not our Kevin Williams,” Dunne was told, explaining that’s when the levity of the tragedy hit him hard.

Dunne said the days following the tragedy were filled with anguished families of deceased employees, working feverishly to help them while saving the company. All the while, emotions ran hot.

“You were always a tough guy, an enforcer, pushing people. Now what are you going to do for my family?” he recalled one victim’s relative saying. The company, featured in a CBS piece, steered huge amounts of money to injured victims and families of the dead, with the firm ultimately bouncing back strong.

“I don’t know if we did everything right or wrong. We did the best we could,” said Dunne with a thick New York accent. “You have to be willing to make tough, tough decisions.”

Another speaker that made a huge impact was Scott Harrison, who worked a decade as an event promoter — essentially “getting paid to drink alcohol,” he joked — before searching his soul and deciding to volunteer as a photojournalist on a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia in Africa.

That two-year experience of seeing scores of villagers drink putrid water from ponds and filthy streams — often becoming sick and some dying — led him to launch charity:water. The organization raises money to fund projects for drilling wells and other methods for obtaining clean, safe drinking and bathing water.

“Our slogan is water changes everything,” said Harrison, whose organization has raised nearly $100 million to help supply safe water to people overseas. That’s with participation by celebrities, companies, churches and everyday citizens. “There are now 5.2 million people who now have access to clean water after years of work.”

A gush of emotion in Harrison’s story came from one everyday little girl, Rachel Beckwith, 9, who wanted to raise $300 for charity:water. Her life was cut short after a car accident in 2011, with $80 remaining on her goal.

A grassroots campaign went viral, with nearly $1.3 million being raised in her name and helping nearly 38,000 people have clean water. A video Tuesday showed villagers with big smiles on their faces and naming a park in Ethiopia after the young girl, her family visiting one year after her death.

Other speakers Tuesday included:

• Daniel Pink, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling author. Discussing sales and persuasion, he said the model has changed over the last decade. It used to be “buyer beware” of the seller, who had all of the information at hand. But now, he said, the buyer is armed with so much information online that the balance has tipped in their favor when it comes to buying cars, homes, just about anything.

• John Maxwell, an author, pastor and speaker on leadership. His primary point was encouraging people — leaders and followers — to live an “intentional life” in which they grow and change every single day. “Be intentional in really making your life meaningful, and adding value to other people,” he said.

• Simon Sinek, author, speaker, leadership expert and “visionary thinker.” He delved into the chemical elements that impact the brain — dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin — and how they influence everyone, leaders included. He also touched on trust in the workplace and the devastating impact of mass company layoffs. “Leadership is not an event. It’s a choice,” he said. “And not everyone is cut out for it. It’s hard and you don’t always get all the credit.”

• Ken Blanchard, motivational speaker and author of “The One Minute Manager” and “Servant Leader.” Said Blanchard, often with a twist of humor, “I want to get rid of your stinkin’ thinkin’ about leadership.” He said fear and self doubt are enemies of leaders, and that humility trumps false pride. “Effective leadership starts on the inside with your heart,” said Blanchard, calling Jesus Christ the greatest role model of all time.

• Retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, who commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning during his career. “Leadership today cannot be the same as it has in the past,” said the outspoken McChrystal, closing out the forum.

He gave a history lesson of sorts, discussing efforts against terrorists in Iran a decade ago, the failed U.S. mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1979, and the “efficiency movement” among the world’s armies since Roman times that ultimately led to less flexibility, which has become a necessity for today’s high-tech military. Coordination and constant communication among the various military branches also are a must, he said.

“In a complex world, you’ve still got to have efficiency. But that’s not enough anymore,” McChrystal said.

Opening the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum Monday was Tom Mullins, pastor, author and former football coach. The forum’s namesake, retired Synovus Financial Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim Blanchard, also spoke, with Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian, closing the day session.

The featured speaker Monday night was George W. Bush, his wife, Laura, and their daughters, Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager. It was the second appearance at the forum for both parents — each headlining the event on separate occasions.

The forum, organized by Columbus State University and its Leadership Institute, was sponsored this year by Synovus, TSYS, AT&T and W.C. Bradley Co. Admission to the event was $529 per person or $4,200 for a table of eight.