Lessons My Father Taught Me: Never Keep the Shiny, New Wheelbarrow

September 6, 2017

Deke Copenhaver

Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
“Once you start taking things from people you don’t know when they’re going to expect something from you and that’s always gonna lead to a slippery slope.” ~ Bill Copenhaver

When I was a child and first moved to Augusta, my father did something that has stuck in my memory to this very day. My dad Bill had recently been named President and CEO of Columbia Nitrogen, a chemical company that primarily produced fertilizer. Growing up on a farm had instilled in him a lifelong love of the land and he loved to garden. Shortly after moving into our new home, he ordered a load of compost to start a vegetable garden. The garden was still there when we sold the house after he passed over forty years later, having produced a cornucopia of fresh vegetables for family, friends and neighbors through the years.

When the load was delivered and the delivery truck was gone, I remember seeing a shiny, new wheelbarrow that had also been left behind. I remarked to my dad with childlike fascination how great I thought it was that someone had given him such a nice gift after we’d just moved to town. His reply to my observation? “I’m sending it back.” At that point in life I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to send back a gift, particularly one that he could put to good use immediately. It just didn’t make sense.

In his subtle way, and as a man of few words, he took the time to sit me down and give me this explanation: “Once you start taking things from people you don’t know they’re going to expect something from you and that’s always gonna lead to a slippery slope.” His simple yet profound words didn’t fully register on me for many years, but eventually ended up having a deep impact on the way I conducted my business when I was elected to the mayor’s office decades later.

Coming in to office, my eyes were wide open as to what a large percentage of people thought with regards to politicians using their office for personal gain. With the knowledge of what many citizens thought, I determined I’d do things in a bit of a different fashion.

During my time in office I did something pretty simple really: I took my dad’s advice. I knew going in there was a line where things would become a slippery slope in a hurry and I just decided to stay as far away from it as I possibly could. Fortunately, I was very blessed to have outside resources which put me in a position to choose this path, something I never took for granted as it allowed me to do things like pay for my own gas, my meals and most of my travel expenses. As to the wheelbarrow analogy, during my season in office, I simply tried to steer clear of people I didn’t know giving me things as my dad had laid out all those years before.

My time in office wasn’t perfect by any means and I know I, like everyone else who has ever served, made some mistakes along the way. That being said I firmly believe that the principle of choosing not to accept the shiny, new wheelbarrows along the way both made a difference and made things easier for me. I’ll always be grateful to my dad for sharing that little pearl of wisdom with me at a very young age.

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