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.
Growing up I was very fortunate to have taken art lessons for years. I’ll never forget how much I looked forward to heading to Mrs. Jennings’ house several afternoons a week to learn how to draw, use pastels and ultimately how to paint. I also grew up writing poetry and short stories and dreamed of one day becoming a writer for a living. Although that dream never came true, I came to realize during my time in office just how much having been exposed to the arts in my youth benefited me everyday as a mayor.
All too often in politics it seems as though there’s a zero sum game being played in which two sides take an either/or approach without exploring alternate routes to solve the issue at hand. Painting helped to teach me creative problem solving and to always view what’s in front of you on your canvas from different angles, points of view and perspectives. Through creative writing you learn to weave a narrative that draws the reader in while keeping them moving forward through the story they’re reading. You also learn a great deal about communicating and how best to connect with a broad and diverse group of readers. The skills I developed through painting came in handy everyday during my time as mayor as creative problem solving and viewing issues from different perspectives helped me to build consensus around a path forward to address problems that were very complex and were never simply black and white. I can honestly say the same about the communication skills I developed through the creative writing process. I never did meet many artists serving as elected officials while I was in office, although I know they’re are plenty and based on the skill sets developed through an arts education we certainly could use a few more of them in my humble opinion.
Growing up I loved playing and watching sports. I’ll never forget the feeling of being part of a winning team or getting caught up in the moment when your favorite team won the championship. Sports taught me to be competitive but they also taught me that on great teams everybody knows their role and puts the team’s goals above their own individual goals. I was also blessed to have a father who taught me the value of sportsmanship above winning at all costs. I’ve carried with me this love of sports into adulthood and have completed several half ironman events which taught me that what I thought was an individual sport actually is the ultimate team experience through being out there with people who are giving their best at something and the encouragement you give each other along the way. In office I applied these lessons sports taught me along the way as I always focused on the good of the team and didn’t care who got the win; I always tried to use good sportsmanship while treating my colleagues with dignity and respect; and I always tried to encourage everyone around me in an effort to get the best out of my team. I know there are a lot of them out there but in the end we could definitely use more athletes who are team players in politics.
In 2011 I was fortunate to participate in the Mayor’s Institute on City Design, a national program which helps mayors learn how to think like the lead architects in their cities. The program helped teach me to think about the key role design plays in developing buildings that contribute to, rather than detract from, the built environment and the overall feel of the city. Though I could not issue edicts during my time in office I always made the point that any building we built should engender a sense of civic pride and should be something that one hundred years down the line people would fight to save from demolition. At the MICD conference in Chicago later that year my friend Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston made the point that all too often local elected officials get bogged down with infighting over petty issues where six months in the future nobody will remember what the fight was about. He went on to say that a focus on building things is what people will truly remember and what will ultimately stand the test of time. With this in mind my focus was always about thinking like an architect and building things as opposed to tearing things down. I met an architect or two during my season as mayor but there’s no doubt we could use a few more people in elected office who are willing to set aside petty differences and focus on building things together.
I’ve long stated that in my opinion transformational change for the better in our country has got to start at the grassroots of the local level with good people offering themselves for public service and not looking for a career in politics. More artists focused on creative problem solving, athletes who put the goals of the team above their own personal goals and architects focused on building great cities certainly would be a great start.