CentCom commander Gen. David Petraeus speaks in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — As he took to a ballroom podium Thursday night at downtown's Renaissance Vinoy Resort, Gen. David Petraeus wasn't concerned with saying anything profound.

Instead Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command and keynote speaker at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's 110th annual dinner, opted for the practical.

In front of a few hundred business leaders and local politicians, Petraeus spelled out what he called the four elements of "strategic leadership," weaving in lessons he said he learned during the surge in Iraq.

Outside, a group of about 25 people protested with signs and chants like "General Petraeus, you've betrayed us."

Petraeus, who received a standing ovation before and after his speech, didn't seem affected.

"Strategic leadership is fundamentally about big ideas," he told the crowd. "Big ideas don't fall out of a tree."

In Iraq, Petraeus said, it took several years to refine the big ideas that led to the surge.

Those ideas including putting the focus on the Iraqi people, rethinking insurgency and a focus on holding and rebuilding areas.

"The surge of ideas in Iraq was even more important than the forces that enabled the implementation of those ideas," he said.

But having ideas isn't enough, Petraeus said.

Leaders, whether in the military or in business, must communicate the ideas, oversee the implementation and then get feedback, he said.

"Clearly there is still much to be done in Iraq," he said. "But there has been very significant progress."

After thanking the local community for its support of the military, Petraeus encouraged those in the room to keep his strategies about leadership in mind as they deal with local issues.

"We certainly face challenges in 2010," Petraeus said. "We need strategic leaders who can chart the course."

Petraeus' appearance at the event had sparked a buzz even before his speech Thursday.

But organizers said the process to get him was surprisingly uncomplicated.

"We simply asked and got a response," said Bonnie Tefft, a chamber spokeswoman. "He was our first choice. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn't."

The appearance didn't cost the chamber anything.

"We definitely thought it was timely," Tefft said of Petraeus' appearance, adding that many bay area businesses have military contracts. "It affects a lot of our businesses in the area. We just thought it was the right time."

Protesters, however, weren't buying it.

"I really don't understand the connection between Petraeus and … St. Pete businesses," said Dina Formentini, 23, of St. Petersburg. "I'm trying to find the connection. There's got to be something bigger."

Formentini, a social worker and antiwar activist, held up a sign that read "Chamber business loves war, boycott them" and "Retool for Peace."

She said she wanted to see local businesses stand up against the war.

"I don't support war criminals coming into my community," she said. "They're basically advocating war (by bringing him)."

Petraeus was originally scheduled to take questions after the speech, but the Q&A session was canceled Thursday morning by his staff.

Petraeus wasn't all business, though.

The general, who threw out the first pitch during game two of the 2008 World Series at Tropicana Field, also shared his opinion on a very local issue.

"By all means, keep baseball here, please," he said.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

CentCom commander Gen. David Petraeus speaks in St. Petersburg 01/14/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 8:18am]

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