Treating Others with Dignity and Respect: Why it Still Matters

October 10, 2018

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.
G rowing up, I learned a great many lessons from my parents. Chief among them was to treat everyone I met, no matter what their station in life, with dignity and respect. Throughout their lives together, my mother and father set the example for our family to follow in this regard. Their words were never hollow but rather carried great weight as they walked it like they talked it.

Today’s world, particularly in politics, seems to be increasingly bereft of the idea that treating people with common decency is a good thing, much less as a character trait we should encourage current and future generations to emulate. How do we fix a problem that seems unfixable in a society all too fixated on the idea that “might makes right” combined with a win at all cost mindset?  My answer to this question is simple, but it’s not easy: we start with ourselves.

For nine years in elected office I kept at the forefront of my mind the principles my parents instilled in me growing up. I was often asked why I didn’t “go after” political opponents or my elected colleagues. My answer was always simple: if you patiently and consistently treat people with dignity and respect over time they tend to extend you the same treatment. I also pointed out my observation that it takes much more strength and discipline to hold your tongue with patience as opposed to releasing it in anger.

Early on I realized that if I was going to develop relationships of trust throughout the community, it had to start with me. To me, it seemed pretty simple: how could I ask others to treat me with dignity and respect if I wasn’t willing to afford them the same courtesy?  With this mindset in place I never went negative in three successful campaigns for office and always tried to avoid calling out any individual elected official, particularly as it pertained to questioning their character. Ultimately, I found that taking the time and effort to build trusting relationships with my colleagues made for a much more efficient and effective government. We were able to work together towards completing an array of major municipal construction projects while also attracting hundreds of millions of new investment through our economic development efforts. Although there were many instances where controversy arose and had to be confronted, in the end, a team approach led to helping lay the foundations of prosperity which the City of Augusta is building upon to this very day.

Several months ago I was engaged to chair the “All in Augusta” campaign, a city wide initiative to enhance and accelerate community and tourism development. In seeking to raise $6 million through an innovative public/private partnership, the campaign is beginning to build a broad base of support throughout our community. From the start, we’ve focused on making the campaign inclusive in that we’ll find a place for anyone who wants to be a part of it regardless of the size of the financial commitment any individual or organization is able to make. The inclusive nature of the campaign has created an energy and buzz around it which continues to grow as the campaign progresses.

Recently, we’ve begun discussions with many of my former colleagues on the Augusta-Richmond County Commission along with our Mayor on what a dynamic public/private partnership could look like. We’ve also met with other Commissioners who took office after I exited in 2014 but whom I’ve worked to build strong working relationships with through the years with the talks being extremely well received. We purposely did this after engaging the private sector first to begin raising funds which will help bring to fruition many projects our local government has discussed over the years. Ultimately, I anticipate a very successful campaign that’s a win/win for our local government and for our community as whole.

In the end, had I not stayed true to the lesson my parents taught me many years ago about treating everyone I meet with dignity and respect, I undoubtedly wouldn’t have the trusting relationship with our local elected officials that I consider myself blessed to have today. I’m hopeful these relationships built on mutual respect will help lead to a successful initiative to draw more tourism dollars into our community while at the same time improving Augusta’s quality-of-life for our current and future citizens.

Given the current political landscape we’re witnessing play out on a daily basis, I hope this serves as an example that treating each other with dignity and respect still matters and makes a difference in the communities we choose to call home. If we want our cities to embody the value of treating our neighbors with dignity and respect, those in leadership positions can set the tone by individually choosing to extend this courtesy to others. At the end of the day it’s our choice to make. 

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