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.
I’ve come to realize that it’s physically impossible to join hands and work together if we maintain a constant focus on pointing fingers and placing blame, which seems to be a national obsession in politics these days. In speaking to your average man or woman on the street both here in Augusta and throughout the nation, I hear two recurring themes regarding the current state of hyper-partisan politics: “Why can’t the two parties just work together for the betterment of the country?” and “Politics have gotten so ridiculous that I’ve completely tuned them out!”
In all honesty, I find myself more and more in the latter category these days. Whereas I used to spend time at night surfing between CNN and Fox News and wondering if they were reporting on the same country, I now only check in every now and again. You know things must be really bad when a former politician and lifelong political junkie can’t stomach watching politics anymore. In the midst of it all, I sit and wonder what the ultimate impact of being bombarded with toxic politics on a 24 hour news cycle will have on the youth of our nation. Remember, they will one day be our political leaders.
Growing up, I had no shortage of statesmanlike political leaders who I watched and learned from and who had a positive influence on the way I governed while in office. Governor Carl Sanders, an Augusta native who was elected in 1963 at the age of 37, was a friend of my father. He was a man whose visionary leadership I’ve always admired and appreciate, now more than ever as I how his time in office helped lay the foundation for the thriving state we live in today. In the wake of his passing in 2014, former Governor and United States Senator Zell Miller stated simply, “He did more for the state than anybody I know.”
I hold the same admiration for Governor Sanders’ best friend, Congressman Doug Barnard, another family friend. At the age of 83 Congressman Barnard wrote the first letter to the editor on my behalf when I first ran for mayor in 2005 when I was a 37 year old political novice. He worked tirelessly on my campaign that year and undoubtedly helped me secure victory. Doug was highly regarded by members of both parties for his bipartisan leadership during his sixteen years in Congress and remained a pillar of our community up until his passing last year.
I remember as a small child the campaign commercials for Senator Sam Nunn (“Send Sam Nunn to Washington!”) and for coming to truly admire his statesmanlike leadership during his twenty-five years in the United States Senate. While serving in office in the 1980’s during the Reagan Administration a colleague once said of him “''If Sam Nunn didn't exist today, we'd have to invent him - a Southerner who rises above politics in times of crisis.'' Having the pleasure of spending time with Senator Nunn during my own time in public service is a memory I’ll always treasure. Mr. Nunn is said to have been inspired to run for the senate after participating in the inaugural class of Leadership Georgia. Ironically, or perhaps not, it was my own participation in the program as part of the Class of 2004 which helped inspire my own run for office the following year.
On Tuesday January 20, 1981 I was sick and home from school when I watched the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. With a legacy of bipartisanship, President Reagan was a transformative figure in American politics who was adept at using humor to ease tense situations, once famously telling his wife Nancy “Honey, I forgot to duck.” after surviving an assassination attempt. It was through studying and observing our 40th President that I learned incorporating humor into the governing process when appropriate can go a long way towards lightening the mood of all involved. I saw firsthand during nine years in office that humor, when timed right, helps to build consensus which ultimately leads to progress.
Having honorably served the State of Georgia for eight years as governor, I would also place Nathan Deal on the list of statesmanlike leaders who have inspired me and many others. Like all of the men I’ve highlighted above, his career in public service is defined to a large degree by an ability to work across party lines in order to serve his constituents as a whole as opposed to solely representing the interests of his political party. Leaving office shortly after Georgia was named the number one state to do business in for the fifth year in a row by Site Selection Magazine stands to underscore how Governor Deal has left the state better than he found it. Having had the opportunity to work with him during my time in office was both a privilege and a pleasure.
The men I’ve referred to above as statesman are not limited to one political party as statesmanlike leadership transcends any political affiliation. As we look to the future of politics and a new generation of leaders, it is my great hope that leaders of all political persuasions will remember what true statesmanlike leadership looks like.
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, the next generation of political leaders is out there and they’re watching, just as I did in my youth. I was fortunate to have good political role models growing up and I’m hopeful that elected representatives of all political stripes will commit to inspiring the next generation by putting the needs of our communities and nation above the needs of any one political party.