Leadership in crisis: Former mayor gives message of empathy and listening

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – The Means Report is shining the spotlight on leadership, especially leadership in crisis. It is important to try to find common ground with those who are on the other side of the table from you and create a healing environment to make sure everybody gets along as best as possible and makes it through that crisis. That is what we’re in right now – a crisis. To help navigate the issue is former Augusta Mayor, Deke Copenhaver. He used to be a frequent guest on The Means Report when he was in office from 2005 to 2014. Now he runs Copenhaver Consulting and he’s also the author of The Changemaker: The Art of Building Better Leaders.

Brad Means: Deke Copenhaver, thank you for being here today.

Deke Copenhaver: Brad, thank you so much for having me.

Brad Means: Listen, before we talk about leadership, let me talk to you about The District 3 Commission Race that just wrapped up because that’s what was in the headlines this past week.

Deke Copenhaver: Absolutely.

Brad Means: My question to you though is about endorsements. Your candidate did not win. My question is as a leader, how do you mend fences with the winner and not just in the commission race really, but anytime an endorsement is given, how does somebody get past that and get along with the person who didn’t receive it?

Deke Copenhaver: You know, I consider Catherine a friend and I’m thinking the world ever, I applaud her for running for public office. I reached out to her and you know, I don’t do dirty politics and I’m hopeful for all the new commissioners elect, that they’ll do a great job. And so you start at the beginning but there was, I backed Sean Mooney because I helped get him to run for office. But I have no, you know I think politics can be ugly, but it doesn’t need to be. And I’m, I applaud Catherine on her great win.

Brad Means: And it seems for all intents and purposes, like you two will get along going forward. I know you’ve known each other forever.

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, actually I had a great conversation with Cher Bass yesterday who supported Catherine and I said, I do think, you know a lot of people wanted to see more women on the commission and not understand that. I think the commission should really be reflective of the diversity of our community and share our discussion. I’d love to see a day when we had a Latino Commissioner or an Asian Commissioner. So I think the dynamic will be different. Jordan Johnson, you know was a fine young man, so I’m just hopeful that they can establish a core group of commissioners who can work together and I’m here to help them anytime they need.

Brad Means: Well, I appreciate you addressing that here, I was talking about the District 3 Race folks, Sean Mooney versus the winner Catherine Smith McKnight. All right, let’s look at leadership during crisis. I know that you address all aspects of leadership in your book, The Changemaker: The Art of Building Better Leaders. What was your biggest crisis? Was it the ice storm? That’s the first thing that pops into my mind.

Deke Copenhaver: It was the ice storm, it was the great recession and the financial meltdown. There were a lot of situations that sometimes like the, being mayor of Augusta is leading through crisis at all times, but really one of the things that I make the point of it, I’ve done extensive blogging for Forbes, I’ve done a lot of nationally syndicated radio shows. People can check out my media page on my website, deke-copenhaver.com. But remaining calm is key and I always tell people that it’s kind of like, if I’m on a flight and you hit turbulence, I’ll look at the flight attendant. And if the flight attendant’s calm, I’m calm. But if the flight attendant looks panicked, I’m panicked. And it’s the same thing in a leadership position that people are looking to you for calm in the situation and for hope that things are gonna change.

Brad Means: I’ll say this about Mayor Hardie Davis and you tell me if you agree or disagree. No matter what he’s talking about, whether it’s the controversial mask requirements in Augusta or any other issues, he always does present his beliefs and his presentation is always done in a calm, straightforward manner. But based on what you just said, that’s got to inspire confidence in the city, right?

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, I think he’s done a great job of dealing with this, we’ve chatted on several occasions. It’s just, it’s not an easy time to be an elected official in general, but I think he has done a really good job of remaining calm.

Brad Means: Let’s take a look at the national crisis. I know you’re big on information being key during times of crisis. If that’s true, who do we believe? Because you can change the channel on your radio or your television and get a different opinion from one end of the spectrum to the other. In this tough time that we’re going through, who do we believe?

Deke Copenhaver: It’s, that’s really tough Brad, because it’s, there’s so much misinformation out there. And one of the points I made in a recent blog that I did for Forbes is that, you have to focus on being a trusted leader before you go into crisis. Because if you’re not a trusted leader, when you go into crisis, you’re not gonna build trust in that situation. But I believe in talking to professionals, I’ll give you a great example. I had a local business person call me when the demonstration started and asked if Malisa and I were gonna get extra security at Surrey Center, I said, do we need it? He said, “Well, we’ve heard that, “you know truckloads of people are coming in from South Carolina.” I said, let me call the Sheriff’s deputy, U.N. security at Surrey and ask him. So I called Sharkey, my friend, he said, “Look, there’s been chatter ” and there’s been rumors, but there’s nothing confirmed.” So I go to the professionals and you know, that’s a situation where people were in a bit of a panic mode, but I’m gonna talk to law enforcement, who monitors the situation every day, as opposed to believing rumors.

Brad Means: Is it best when you’re trying to dispel those rumors to have one point person, maybe in the City of Augusta situation, it’s the Mayor, maybe on the national scene, it’s the President or one leader of Congress. Do you think the fewer people trying to get the information out the better and the easier it is for the audience to grasp it?

Deke Copenhaver: I absolutely do and one of the things that different, the difference in politics these days is that, it’s fed by a 24 hour news cycle and by social media where misinformation can be getting out there discriminately, indiscriminately. So I think it is, it’s very key to have one trusted voice as best you can.

Brad Means: What do you think about Georgia? Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen the state of Georgia. He was one of the first in the nation to do so, you have the ability of using hindsight now, what do you think about it?

Deke Copenhaver: I’ll tell you the governor’s a friend of mine, I had lunch with him when he visited Augusta recently, but I, you know whatever you do, it’s gonna be second guess.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Deke Copenhaver: So I’m personally would have waited a little while to reopen the State, but that was not my call to make. And you know, I feel for him because he is a good man and I know, I mean whether it’s the mayor or other elected officials, the Governor, these are difficult times to be an elected official because the decisions you make and once again, during a pandemic, they’re always gonna be second guess.

Brad Means: We’re talking about leadership during crisis with former Augusta Mayor and current author and consultant, Deke Copenhaver. Let’s go back to Mayor Hardie Davis, Mr. Copenhaver are you and I discussed his mask mandate a moment ago and how he presented it to the public when it was first unveiled. What do you think about the mandate itself? It goes in direct contrast to kind of the way things are going in the Governor’s Office.

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, it’s here again, people are so confused, right? Because you’ve got state orders, you’ve got local orders and people are not sure whether to wear a mask or not. You know, it does supersede the governor’s order, but I personally try to wear a mask wherever I go in public. You know, I go work out at The Y and I wear my mask. But that’s, you know it’s just, it’s a difficult situation because once again, I do think it is confusing. I don’t know how enforceable a mask order is, you know with regards to, I know the Sheriff has said that he’s gonna enforce it, but it’s really difficult. How do you decide which business you’re gonna examine or which restaurant or it’s just, it’s a tough thing to enforce.

Brad Means: Yeah, you’re right and as a guest said on this show a couple of weeks ago, it does take those law enforcement officers away from their other duties when they’re doing mask duty. When The Means Report continues our conversation with Deke Copenhaver continues as well, leadership in crisis and how the man who led Augusta for more than two terms as mayor would handle things these days. We’ll be right back.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report. We are talking to former Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, currently in the consulting business at Copenhaver Consulting and recently the author of the book, The Changemaker: The Art of Building Better Leaders. Mr. Copenhaver, before we left we were talking about leadership and crisis. I wanna continue that conversation and talk about sort of the financial side of it if you will, when it comes to money, taxpayer money coming in to help cities and communities recover. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, brought in a lot of money for the city of Augusta. You as mayor had to be part of the team that helped figure out how to manage that. How difficult is it? How challenging is it when the federal government sends your town a massive amount of money and you have to allocate it?

Deke Copenhaver: It is extremely difficult because that at that point was the largest spending bill ever passed in the history of the United States. And so now we’re looking at, you know trillions of dollars. And so it’s really when a spending bill that large is passed, they can’t make the rules and regs to go along with it at the same time. So it’s a moving target continually and you know right now funding to direct from the federal government to local governments is only for cities, I believe it’s 500,000 and up. So hopefully Congress will remedy that and send money directly to local governments. I know that it helped when I was in office, but it’s just politically it is. I think that having all of this, whether it’s the civil unrest or the pandemic happened during an election year, politically is the worst possible time.

Brad Means: It really is. You know, racial harmony was one of your big goals as mayor, along with the economic strength of our community. Look at the racial front, did you make any progress there?

Deke Copenhaver: I think I did and I still have people coming up to me on the street on a weekly basis that they noticed that. And I think that’s something that you have to have like a community or a house divided will never stand. I was not worried going into the demonstrations that anything was gonna happen at Augusta, because I believe at the grassroots level. We are a peaceful community that has done a lot towards racial reconciliation.

Brad Means: If somebody mentions a racial divide in Augusta, if you think of a racial divide in Augusta, especially when you were mayor, were you picturing the divide on the commission itself or the community being divided?

Deke Copenhaver: Much more so on the commission and Brad you know that Martin Luther King Jr is a hero of mine. And I’m always told people that, for me to run and win three races with an average of 64% of the vote in a majority African-American city showed me that I was judged on the content of my character and not the color of my skin.

Brad Means: You think there’s still a lot of work to be done?

Deke Copenhaver: There always is, there are always challenges but I continue to work on these issues out of office. They are passions of mine. I’m helping group of consultants with some racial issues with the Charleston Police Department. So it’s just, this is a lifetime’s work for me. It didn’t end when I left office.

Brad Means: And one of the images that sort of ingrained in my mind from early on during this pandemic was a peaceful demonstration held downtown. And as the demonstrators walked down broad street, they were flanked by patrol cars from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. Don’t you think our Sheriff’s done a great job of managing that end of the situation?

Deke Copenhaver: I think our Sheriff has done a phenomenal job. He is a good friend, I check in, I just texted him words of encouragement regularly, as I do the Mayor And as I do the Governor. You know here again, people in leadership positions now need our prayers, I firmly believe that. And no, I think Sheriff Roundtree has done an outstanding job.

Brad Means: Yeah, Sheriff Richard Roundtree kudos to you. Coronavirus survivor in trying to lead our community through this pandemic. Look at the economic development side of things. So, you know the economy, economic development and racial peace and harmony, two of your big things when you were mayor. Can that diversity be our strength when it comes to economic development? In other words, might companies find Augusta pretty attractive because we represent everybody?

Deke Copenhaver: It is and I’ll tell you the first big economic development deal I worked on was ADP. A fortune 300 company that brought a thousand jobs to Augusta. Now it’s nearly doubled in size and really it’s close to 2000 jobs. But they spoke to me in our first meeting about their commitment to diversity. So a diverse labor force helped bring ADP here and is key. And I think with people and businesses leaving major cities which they are, Augusta had the real opportunity to take advantage because people now wanna live in places that they feel safe, that they’ve got a great quality of life and a low cost of living and because everybody can really work virtually now, I think Augusta stands to benefit tremendously.

Brad Means: Take us kinda behind the scenes of economic development when a company is touring the town, like I’m sure that ADP did. How do you show diversity? How do you say, look we’re diverse, please come here. Your diversity initiatives can find a happy home here. How do you show that off?

Deke Copenhaver: You know and I am so, it’s unfortunate that we’re not gonna have arts in the heart this year. But that festival which brings over 90,000 people to downtown Augusta to celebrate arts culture and diversity, that is what Augusta looks like to me and to potential businesses moving here. That is one of the events that I always point to, we celebrate diversity here.

Brad Means: How about the Masters? Were you sad this week when you saw the email that said they weren’t gonna have patrons or guests?

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, I was and I understand why they’re doing it. It’s gonna be here again, going back into it hopefully having the federal government fund local governments, that is a huge hit to the local economy. And so I understand why they did it, but it just, I had honestly believed that they could potentially have smaller galleries because they could potentially social distance better than any other tournament. But I understand, I mean, they’re looking out for the health and safety of the people that work there of our community. So I completely understand, I’m disappointed, but I truly understand.

Brad Means: Can we make it through, can our economy bounce back provided there’s a tournament April of 2021? Can we get through these next few months, you think?

Deke Copenhaver: We can and we will. And I had a drink with Cal Wray from the Augusta Economic Development Authority, about a month ago. And they are seeing tremendous amounts of activity of businesses looking to come to Augusta, which is exciting, you know it’s particularly during these times, but we can and we will bounce back. But I will say we have to pull together as a community. And I do hope our local government gets federal funding, but we can’t wait for the federal government to come riding in on a white horse and bail us out. You know, we need to support local businesses, we need to support each other. As somebody asked me the other day, a young man, “What can’t I do?” I said, if you know anybody that lives alone, you know whether they’re older or not, check on them regularly. We lost a friend here recently that lived by himself and had a difficult time of it, had lost his job going into the pandemic. So just check on your neighbors, particularly the elderly. But we’ve got to pull together as one community now more than ever.

Brad Means: Maybe time for one or two more questions as we continue to talk to Deke Copenhaver about leadership in crisis. President Trump is the leader of our country, Deke if you had a moment with him, what kind of leadership advice would you give him?

Deke Copenhaver: I would say, one characteristic of good leaders is they’re able to show empathy. And you know, President Trump is not really able, I mean he doesn’t seem to convey that calm and really soothing spirits. I’d say focus on that a little bit. And I tell people that nobody, I did a podcast last week with a lady from the Innovative Leadership Institute in Columbus, Ohio. No leader has all the answers right now and I would just, you know we have to say, I don’t have all the answers because nobody has all the answers right now. But having that empathy is key.

Brad Means: Well, it kinda ties into your viewpoint on vulnerability that you think leaders should be able to show that they’re vulnerable, but for the President, wouldn’t that make him look weak if he showed that side?

Deke Copenhaver: I don’t think so at all, I do not think so. I think as we’ve discussed before, that’s what connected me to the citizens of Augusta is I didn’t ever say I had all the answers, but I was willing to listen to people. And I think that’s another trait of good leadership. You’ve got to surround yourself with good people and I often tell people that it’s more important for a leader to know what they don’t know than what they do know and to surround yourself where you fall short. So I always did that, you know I have my strong suits, I have my shortcomings, but I surround myself with people that made up for my shortcomings and put together a great team around me.

Brad Means: Well, we appreciate your service to this community as I mentioned for more than two terms as Mayor of Augusta, Georgia. And we certainly appreciate your input on leadership today, Deke Copenhaver, thank you so much.

Deke Copenhaver: Brad it’s always a pleasure my friend, can’t wait to see you in person.

Brad Means: Me too, cannot wait for that day to come. Deke Copenhaver, author of The Changemaker: The Art of Building Better Leaders.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.