The Art of Grassroots Engagement: How to do it Best and Why it’s So Important

June 12, 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.
In surveying life’s subtle landscape for many years now it's become clear to me that real, substantive change for the better generally comes from the grassroots up and not from the top down. At the same time that I fundamentally believe this to be true, I’ve also observed a tendency in some leaders to become insular by surrounding themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear.

Whether it's in business, politics or any other field, the result of losing touch with the man (or woman) on the street usually leads to blind spots in the decision making process, with leaders often caught off guard by the consequences of, as well as the reactions to, the decisions they make. The ripple effect may be hard for us to fully comprehend when we find ourselves in echo chambers but it’s ultimately there just the same.

However, staying engaged at the grassroots level and keeping your finger on the pulse of the shifting environment around you in a leadership position isn’t impossible. It might not be easy at times, but the results of truly connecting at the grassroots level in whatever leadership role you’ve been called to can, and should, exceed your expectations. Here are five steps to begin the engagement process.
1.) Stay grounded
Whatever leadership role you may serve in, it’s always good to keep a focus on staying grounded. During my time as a public servant I regularly reminded myself that although I served as mayor, I was ultimately just one of 2700 employees who went to work for the city every day. My position may have been a bit more high profile than most of our other employees, but keeping this at the forefront of my mind kept things in perspective for me while at the same time giving me a real appreciation for the hardworking and dedicated people I worked with on a daily basis
2.) Stay connected and have a presence
In order to truly engage at the grassroots level you have to stay connected to, and have a presence among, the people you serve. A presence doesn’t mean a carefully orchestrated public event with the press invited, rather, it means interacting with the people you serve where they’re comfortable. During my time in office some of what I consider to be the most valuable time I spent was talking to people at the grocery store, in restaurants, or in the steam room at the YMCA. When you’re on common ground with the people you serve there’s a connection there and people are generally going to shoot straight with you.
3.) Listen carefully to what people are saying
As you engage at the grassroots level in whatever leadership role you may be serving in, always remember to listen carefully to what people have to say and not to be dismissive. A matter that may seem unimportant to you is important to them if they’re taking the time to bring it to your attention. Sometimes people just want their voices heard and want to know that someone is listening to them.
4.) Always remember that everyone has something to teach you
Whether it’s the guy who works in the mail room, the young lady who’s just out of college and has just been hired by your organization, or the elderly gentleman who’s been there for decades, everyone has a different perspective and something to contribute. When I first entered office I was thirty-eight years old and had only a functional knowledge of the ins and outs of running a municipal government. However, I was never afraid to ask questions of anyone I possibly could or to admit the fact that I didn’t know it all. Through the years the lessons I learned through talking to city employees at all levels proved to be invaluable and undoubtedly contributed to any success I may have had during my nine years in office.
5.) Be yourself!
If you truly want to connect at the grassroots level, just be yourself and strip away all of the pre-conceived notions of your title or your position. Don’t be afraid to let your guard down when you’re interacting with the people you serve in your leadership role.  Honesty and sincerity build bonds that will ultimately stand the test of time.

True grassroots engagement by leaders is a necessity in the fast changing world we live in. In order to adapt to an ever-changing landscape, leaders must keep their finger on the pulse of whatever environment they may find themselves in.

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