Leadership was the theme as the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce held its 97th Annual Kick-off Meeting Thursday morning before a packed ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota.

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Wendy Walker, president and CEO of Leadership Florida

Wendy Walker, who is stepping down this year after 28 years as president of Leadership Florida, was the featured speaker. For 34 years, Leadership Florida has provided leadership training for businesses, governments and schools across the state.

As a source of inspiration, Walker told the audience of a woman barely 5 feet tall, absent two front teeth, unable to read or write, poor and suffering most of her life from seizures and debilitating headaches. Despite those obstacles, Harriet Tubman became an American icon as the conductor of the Underground Railroad, guiding hundreds of slaves to freedom, among many other accomplishments.

Walker also cited the legacy of former Leadership Florida board chairman Deanne Roberts, who died of cancer in 2012 at the age of 59. Roberts believed that boards should focus 80 percent on future goals and 20 percent reviewing what they have already done, a marked change from how many operate. Roberts was also instrumental in forming Connect Florida, the first to focus on leadership training for Floridians 25 to 39, a demographic that historically the state has had a hard time retaining.

Kevin Cooper, who in October became the chamber's president and CEO, also spoke about leadership. He told of his experience in the National Guard fighting during the second Iraq War. When his group leader was killed by a sniper, Cooper was put in charge. Feeling overwhelmed and unqualified, he sought the counsel of a veteran officer who told Cooper that leadership was about "observing the situation and the people" and "being who you are."

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