But for Leadership Florida…

Thelma and Louise? No…Wendy Spencer and Wendy Walker two of Florida’s best leaders.

This Friday, Diane and my son Ben will join me at the Palm Beach Yacht Club to thank one of our personal heroes for 28 years of service to Florida and to an organization that has meant so much to so many.

Wendy Walker is retiring after 28 years of stellar service as the President of Leadership Florida, considered by many to be the premier statewide leadership organization in America.

And while the organization is a ‘who’s who’ of talented people from business, politics, education and the non-profit world, it would not have soared without Wendy’s steady and humble leadership.

This is from a recent feature on Wendy in the Tallahassee Democrat.

“It’s impossible to spend time with Walker and not walk away inspired or impressed, but likely both. A tall, beautiful woman who is clearly comfortable in her own skin, Walker commands a room when she walks in, but gives credit for her success to great parents, good luck and often being in the right place at the right time.  She is the only person who will tell you that she is undeserving of the honor of being named one of the 2017 25 Women You Need to Know.”

That’s our Wendy.

She is our Wendy because she dedicated her life to her Leadership Florida family and made us all feel very special. Now imagine a constituency that includes governors, university presidents, senators, state legislators, mayors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, scientists, high powered attorneys, prominent journalists and Jon Levinson (sorry, Jon , it was there, so I took it). How do you keep them all happy?

Sure, they are wonderful people: generous, talented, accomplished and smart. But the lion’s share of her constituency are Type A personalities who are wildly opinionated and ambitious–often code words for hard to please.

In lesser hands, this is a combination that could easily go off the rails.

But with Wendy Walker at the helm, the organization has thrived.

Here’s what one of those really smart people—a former Leadership Florida Chair and top aide to Gov. Chiles– had to say in the Tallahassee Democrat.

“Many governors and other public officials in Florida only aspire to the pinnacle level of respect, recognition and appreciation that Wendy Walker enjoys among some of our state’s most important and influential leaders in every sphere of influence,” said Ron Sachs, CEO of Sachs Media Group and a longtime friend. “Her real secret power is a quiet but always effective style of leadership in which she brings people of divergent views together on really big issues that matter most, such as creating a greater sense of statewide community in Florida.”

That’s the magic of Wendy Walker and of Leadership Florida. We need more people like her. It’s easy to divide and polarize. It’s much harder to bring people together.

I applied at the encouragement of former Commissioner Levinson who was a graduate of Class VII when obviously the standards were relaxed to let him in (wink). Actually Jon became Chair of the organization and was recognized with a special award two years ago for his tireless devotion to the organization—a devotion that Wendy inspires in many people.

When I applied my interest was to see if Jon was being truthful– because let’s face it– he tosses around compliments like they are manhole covers and he was always raving about Leadership Florida.

I am a passionate devotee of leadership, was interested in the information I would glean from the experience and wanted to meet many of the people who were in the organization.

I was accepted—which in itself is an honor and devoted the better part of a year to attending weekend programs all over the state—Tallahassee, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and a rural  camp where we had no cellphone service and we woke to frogs and other critters in our shower stalls. But we bonded and we learned from each other and a fascinating array of speakers who gave us a deep appreciation for our state.

Among those we met were Florida icons ranging from Gov. Askew and the first African American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court to Army Generals, nature photographers, professors and experts who helped us understand our state and our own individual leadership styles.

Regular readers of this blog understand my love for Delray—but it was my Leadership Florida experience which cinched my love for Florida. Leadership Florida made me believe in the concept of statewide community—even in a state as transient, diverse and large as Florida.

In my class, there was another Wendy who became a good friend.

Her name was Wendy Spencer and she ran Volunteer Florida for Gov. Bush at the time. When President Obama was elected,  he tapped Wendy Spencer to run his national service program because he recognized that Wendy Spencer was special.

Wendy Spencer would make it back home for Leadership Florida’s legendary annual meetings including an infamous event at Epcot Center in which Wendy and I got lost in the park and couldn’t find our way back to the hotel. It was a rather hot and humid Central Florida evening and there were moments when we felt that we would not make it back alive. It was that hot and that uncomfortable. Navy SEALS we are not.

Alas, we did find our way back to the air conditioned comfort of the hotel. And it’s a good thing too.

Wendy has now come home to take over for Wendy Walker. As a proud classmate, I couldn’t be happier. She’s an inspired choice to step into some very big shoes.

Over the years, I have gained much from my membership in Leadership Florida. And tried to give back as well.

I have seen and met great speakers and thinkers: documentarian Ken Burns, author Jon Meacham, Tom Brokaw, Colin Powell and experts on history, presidential power, communication, entrepreneurship, the environment and health policy.

You leave smarter and inspired, every time. And the goal is to bring these insights back to make your part of Florida better.

But it’s the personal relationships that are just as transformational—when we were hit by hurricanes we were able to call a Leadership Florida classmate who was a senior engineer to help us with equipment that helped to keep our sewage systems from breaking down. When I needed advice as a member of the board at Delray Medical Center, I was able to ring up an alumni expert on healthcare for advice and counsel. In between, there have been presidential primary debates, governors debates and senatorial debates—all sponsored by Leadership Florida. We are great conveners.

On a personal level, my son graduated College Leadership Florida and now attends meetings with me and it has been a great bonding experience for us. It’s nice to share and to see his mind expand as he’s exposed to great thinkers and doers.

My daughter, an ESE teacher in Tampa, attends annual meetings as a guest and last year had a chance to meet Vice Chancellor of Education Brian Dassler, who inspired her as he has so many.

When Brian passed away tragically last month at the age of 38, Leadership Florida members found comfort in each other and gratitude that we had a chance to know such a special man and educator thanks to our involvement in Leadership Florida.

The stories go on.

Wendy Walker made a lot of this possible for me and my family. So did Jon Levinson.

Leadership Florida’s annual meeting will be at The Breakers in Palm Beach this June.

It’s a big year…the official send off for Wendy Walker and the official welcome for Wendy Spencer and the 35th anniversary for the organization.

If you have a good resume of civic involvement and desire to immerse yourself in a community of generous and smart leaders, I urge you to apply for one of Leadership Florida’s amazing programs.

Visit www.leadershipflorida.org for more information. It will change your life.

Thanks Wendy Walker and welcome Wendy Spencer …we look forward to see where you lead us.




  1. Courtney Curatolo says

    What a beautiful tribute not only to Wendy Walker, but also to Leadership Florida. As a graduate of Class XXVII and someone that has committed the past 8 years since graduating to volunteering for LF, and now the Gulfstream Regional Chair, I couldn’t have said it any better…including all the comments about one of my LF mentors, Jon Levinson. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I look forward to seeing you on Friday as we celebrate Wendy and Wendy.

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