Moving Beyond Labels and Perceptions

June 13, 2019

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.
Since my book, The Changemaker: the Art of Building Better Leaders, was released several weeks ago, I’ve had some interesting experiences I’d like to share with you in this month’s column. I’m still learning lessons generated by the conversations around it I believe are worth sharing.

Many people who have read the book have shared with me that it is not at all what they expected. The book isn’t about politics, but about leadership, with many of my GMA columns woven into its content. At first I was a bit perplexed by these comments as my motivation for accepting leadership positions in and out of office have never been political in nature. However, after considering this feedback in the context of the hyper-partisan political climate we currently find ourselves, I’ve come to understand how people would have an expectation that a book by a former public servant would be about politics. Thankfully, people are now sharing with their friends that the book isn’t political in nature which has helped others to get beyond their preconceived notions of what a book by a former politician should look like.

Along these same lines, at a recent speaking engagement, prior to making my remarks, I was asked by a gentleman in attendance what the book was about. I shared with him that at its core it was about the fact that you can be successful in politics, or in any leadership endeavor, by treating people with dignity and respect while maintaining your character and integrity. His reply? “I can’t wait to read it because I don’t think that’s possible.” When I pointed out that approaching politics with this mindset had worked for me for nine years in office, he told me that I was basically an “unusual case.”

Several weeks ago I was interviewed by a young reporter from a local television station about the book. During the interview she asked me if I didn’t think appealing to the middle ground came off as “luke-warm.” I pointed out to her that in my opinion, bringing people together on common ground and rallying them around a common purpose was actually very cool. After the interview I realized that while growing up I had been influenced by statesmanlike political leadership on both sides of the aisle, but that today, people in their twenties had been raised in an age where bitter hyper-partisan politics have become the norm. Who are their statesmanlike political role models younger people can emulate should they choose to offer themselves for public service?

At lunch the other day with a father and son who are friends of mine, the son stated that I was a “political outlier.” In considering this for a moment in the context of some of the feedback I’ve noted above, I replied “Well maybe that’s true, but I bet there are a whole lot of outliers out there and if I can use the book as a platform to reach them, to rally them, and to bring them together, can you imagine what we could accomplish?”

All of these experiences since the release of the book have underscored for me something that I’ve known for a long time and referenced often in this column…local elected officials, now more than ever, have a chance to change our nation’s political climate at the grassroots level by purposely embodying what true servant leadership looks like. I was recently told by a new friend, Deborah Torres Patel, who’s an internationally renowned public speaker, that my book sounded like a movement waiting to happen. I’m not at all sure that this will be the case, but I do know that at the local level, elected officials will always have the opportunity to implement lasting positive change in the communities they serve.

In closing, I would once again like to thank all of the committed public servants at the local level who are working to implement change and positively impact your communities for generations to come. Your work is not only much appreciated but critical to helping inspire the next generation of public servants!

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