Inspiring future leaders to take the high road and be changemakers

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Deke Copenhaver is a familiar face to the CSRA. He is a man who can seemingly do it all from lead a city to host a radio show, run a business and compete in an Ironman. Now he has put on the hat of “author” and sits down with Brad Means to talk about his new book “The Changemaker: The Art of Building Better Leaders“ and following your moral compass as a leader.

Brad Means: We have brought back, I think, the man who holds the title, the distinction of Most Frequent Means Report Guest Ever and seriously, that’s a testament to the relationship that we’ve had with Deke Copenhaver for lo, these many years, and Mayor Copenhaver, thank you for being back two and a half terms as the leader of Augusta, Georgia, 05 to 2014, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Deke Copenhaver: Brad, thank you for having me and I will wear that mantle well, the dubious distinction of being the most, biggest visitor, most frequent visitor, that’s cool.

Brad Means: No, it really is cool. We were looking at some video from back in the day and there’s some pictures in your book, which is the reason Mr. Copenhaver’s here today that just kind of take you back and make us realize how long we’ve been together. He does have a new book. We talked last time about Copenhaver Consulting and this business when you launched it, you’re still the principle of Copenhaver Consulting but there is this book, The Changemaker that Deke Copenhaver has written. It is a book that is certainly a look back at his life, a memoir, of what he has gone through in the public eye and because of that, how he’s equipped to help people be better leaders. And so my first question to you is to ask you, by the way, before I get to my first question, I see this book everywhere. I go through my Instagram feed. One minute it is in New York City, the next minute it is at the beach, this thing’s showing up everywhere.

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, which is really cool about social networking because I’ve had people say, well how are you getting all these places? And I’m like, well I’m not. But the book is, it’s been to the White House, it’s been to New York City, to San Francisco, somebody in Africa downloaded one so it’s neat to see the way that it’s really taking off but I think that’s organic, which is what I really like to see.

Brad Means: Who can benefit from it? Is it people who are running companies or cities or want to? And who else?

Deke Copenhaver: It’s really anybody can benefit from it if you’re in a leadership position and it really frustrates me to see in politics, I’ve said if you have to use fear and manipulation to get your desired outcome, that’s really bullying and that’s not leadership. So a lot of what we’re seeing politically is driven by anger. I was able to do it completely differently. I never went negative. I never threw my colleagues under the bus and it worked and I won three elections and an average of 64% of the vote and so at least in the political field, if people are presented with an alternative, they’ll go to it, but it’s for everybody.

Brad Means: Did that sometimes, though, make your desired outcome take longer when you had to play nice and it seemed like from my vantage point on the anchor desk that I would see a goal that you had or an outcome that you desired and you would be so calm and so patient. Doesn’t that make it take longer to happen?

Deke Copenhaver: It does and we live in a very impatient society but a lot of the focus in the book, I tell people it’s nothing new, it’s lessons my father taught me while I was growing up to maintain your character and integrity, to treat people with dignity and respect and it works. I mean, it works in business. He was a very ethical, very successful CEO. And we have examples of that, but it oftentimes seems, in our world that it’s the people who are bullying and manipulating that are getting their wins or their desired outcome. It takes longer to go about it this way, but I think it’s much more sustainable.

Brad Means: And so, if people read this and they heed it and they implement it, they can reach their full potential.

Deke Copenhaver: Absolutely.

Brad Means: That’s the goal. Did Dad help you reach yours or is that a journey you’re still on?

Deke Copenhaver: It’s a journey I’m still on but I talk a lot in the book about reaching out and mentoring the next generation of leaders and so I had, my dad being chief among them, but great mentors in my life and I had, even in politics there were statesmen who I wanted to emulate when I became an elected official and you know, these days, there’s not a tremendous amount of statesmen-like behavior going on but that’s what my father taught me. He lost his father when he was 12 years old and was raised by a single mother, one of five kids during the Great Depression, went on to be a CEO but he flew B-17 bombers in World War II and I think it was really the military that taught him those lessons, you know, and taught him how to be a man, which is what hopefully he passed along to me.

Brad Means: The Changemaker, what is a changemaker? Is it somebody who doesn’t let things stay the same for too long?

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, it’s somebody who’s not afraid to go against the status quo in the pursuit of a good cause and I’ll tell you, and I talked about it in the book, when I announced, or shortly before I announced that I was gonna run for mayor, I had a group of business leaders who I’m friends with to this day, but call me in a room and tell me that I would be the best candidate, but that I had not paid my dues and told me not to run. And I am very competitive and so I told them, look, I’m gonna run and I’m gonna win whether your guy’s in the race or not. Now, what if I had taken their advice and said, they’re right, I don’t have any experience? I would say that Augusta, it needed an intervention of new leadership and I think that worked out okay.

Brad Means: Yeah, I think it worked out fine. What do you think the biggest change you made is as mayor, that moment where you said, whoa, the status quo is shifting. The town is changing.

Deke Copenhaver: Well, I can see it at the grassroots level. I think one of my major focuses was on healing the racial divide, which I think is necessary in every community, but to be able to bring people together, I think made a difference. But it’s interesting, when I told somebody who was a potential supporter at the beginning, I wanna use this campaign to bring people together and I guess I’m naive and generally, political campaigns are so divisive, but really, through those campaigns, we were able to do that. It was a broad base of support and the community came together around those campaigns.

Brad Means: So changemakers, by definition, are not only people who lead but who build better leaders? You mentioned the importance of mentoring and helping the next generation of leaders. Have you been able to do that a lot and were you able to do that a lot as mayor, not only with young people who want to have your job one day but for your colleagues at City Hall?

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, you know, and that’s the thing. I had a good working relationship with commissioners, but that was built on trust. And it’s not like they liked every decision I made, but they trusted me and they respected me and those bonds of trust take time to build, but as far as the younger generation, you know, I used to go into schools and speak all the time and people would say, well why do you do that? Kids don’t vote. But now I’m having it come back to me and I had a young lady that was in this year’s Class of Leadership Georgia, I mean Leadership Augusta, Ashley Strong Green, amazing lady, she’s an instructor at Augusta Tech, but she told me when I went to Atlanta with this Leadership Augusta class, I remember your first campaign and you were the first person I ever voted for and so it really, it did get through to that younger generation and now, she’s going through Leadership Augusta.

Brad Means: You know, when you’re so positive and you’re so calm and you’re so nice and you’re so willing to wait for that desired outcome that we talked about, that goal, doesn’t that make you more vulnerable? There’s a part of your book that advocates being vulnerable, but that scares a lot of people saying wait, if I’m vulnerable, I’m gonna get steamrolled.

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, well I would say that being vulnerable is a huge strength and not a weakness. None of us know it all, but it takes a tremendous amount of courage to put yourself out there. I grew up such a shy kid that I couldn’t go to birthday parties and so I still have that piece of me within me so for me to offer myself for elected office and to go through that, it took a leap of faith. But the connection with the community is because I think I was vulnerable. I admitted I didn’t have all the answers and I didn’t try to be fake or try to be something that I wasn’t and that vulnerability really connected with people.

Brad Means: Yeah, but when you’re that vulnerable and that transparent as the book addresses, how can you do that in politics? You can’t show all your cards all the time, can you?

Deke Copenhaver: Locally?

Brad Means: Yeah.

Deke Copenhaver: I think you can. Vulnerability comes in a lot of different ways but I would say having an open door policy to the media, George Eskola would walk in my office pretty much every morning.

Brad Means: He sure did.

Deke Copenhaver: But that was making myself vulnerable and I didn’t have anything to hide. I wasn’t putting up any artificial walls and that really, I think that built a great relationship between me and local media.

Brad Means: I’m not gonna ask you how you feel about the current leadership in Augusta because I just don’t want to. I don’t know that that’s necessarily fair and you know, you should be able to be a former mayor and a business man and an author, but my question is do people ask you a lot what you think about what’s going on in Augusta and lean on you for guidance to do differently?

Deke Copenhaver: They do. And I will tell you that I’ve shared this with, I’m still friends with commissioners and with the mayor but one of the things I’d like to see them do more of is we need to understand that we don’t operate in a vacuum. I may mention to you that my book has made it to Africa in three weeks.

Brad Means: Three weeks.

Deke Copenhaver: So, and people are looking in on our community, people thinking about moving here. I was in a meeting earlier today at the Cyber Center, people from Silicon Valley are looking to potentially move to Augusta, but local government needs to realize that we’re not operating in a vacuum and some of this infighting does not put a good face on the community to the rest of the world as we’re really at this transformational point.

Brad Means: We’re talking about Deke Copenhaver’s brand new book, The Changemaker: The Art of Building Better Leaders. It is a fascinating book and it’s a good handbook if you want to go from being a good leader to a great leader and we’ll talk more about what’s inside the book and how what he’s experienced has shaped him when we come back.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report. We’re talking to former Augusta mayor and current author, Deke Copenhaver. He has just penned the book, The Changemaker, The Art of Building Better Leaders. You can check it out now, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Surrey Pharmacy, we’ll let you know all the places you can get it in just a moment but first of all, Deke Copenhaver, there is a definition, if you kind of Google it is what I did, maybe went to Dictionary.com, but it says that changemakers are people who have faced triumph and tragedy. Your biggest triumph, if you can think of it right offhand and then a tragedy that taught you the most.

Deke Copenhaver: You know, I would say the biggest triumph would be getting through nine years in office. It’s not easy at all, particularly, I lost my father when I was in office. We lost Malisa’s mother eight days after I announced that I was running for office. So being in that position and constantly in the public eye, I tell people it’s really, you can have a bad day. I tried to keep it positive in everything, but there were days when it was a struggle. And I talk about it in the book, most people don’t know I lost my first wife to suicide and lost my mother a week after my 25th birthday to cancer so by the time I was 30 years old, I was a widower who had lost his mother and there were times at that point where I’m like, golly, what am I gonna do with my life? I was in real estate and development, but I like to share with people, I did not see the whole mayor thing coming. And my life, and Malisa and I often talk about it, we have big families and lots of friends and it’s a lot of times, is dealing with loss, but you have to just keep getting up and coming back and really trying to set the example for other people that you can get through tragedy and still be successful, but anybody in a leadership position, you can go through triumph and tragedy in equal measure, usually pretty much at the same time.

Brad Means: Right so, if the definition of the changemaker, as we mentioned at the top of the show is somebody who doesn’t let the status quo exist for too long, kind of keeps things moving forward, has anything that you accomplished as mayor been undone or changed yet?

Deke Copenhaver: You know, I don’t know. It is interesting because I look at the foundation that we laid and while I was in office, we were fortunate to build a lot of buildings, we built the convention center, the judicial center, the law enforcement center, the new library, so I think we laid the foundation for the growth that we’re seeing now, but I don’t know that anything’s really been undone. I would say that I felt like through building those strong relationships with commissioners, even if it got out of hand at times, we were still willing to work together which led to building these buildings and seeing good things happen. I don’t pay as much attention anymore as I did, but there was a sense of camaraderie. Sometimes from what I hear, that sense of camaraderie is gone so if that’s the case, I hope it comes back because you don’t have to believe in what everybody, your colleagues think, it’s okay to disagree, but just not be disagreeable.

Brad Means: Why is that sense of camaraderie gone?

Deke Copenhaver: I don’t know. It just doesn’t sound like, we would actually have a group of commissioners that we’d go out and grab a beer after commission meetings and so the camaraderie takes work but it also takes time together outside of the commission chambers and as I say, I’m not paying as close of attention to it, but I hope they’re doing that. And if they’re not, I would suggest to the commissioners, take time to really get to know your colleagues and you might not agree with them always politically, but you guys are there to serve the public and to do the will of the people.

Brad Means: Do other towns call on you to teach them the Augusta template?

Deke Copenhaver: You know, the most interesting thing I’ve had to this point is I got a call from a lady, Tracey Laurence, who is VP, Vice President for Rogers Communications, the largest communications company in Canada, she’s out of Toronto. Well she was with Unisys when we recruited ’em so she was in Calgary, and they’ve been in a recession for two years and she said, she was talking to their economic development folks, and she said I know exactly who you need to talk to, you need to talk to Deke Copenhaver in Augusta because they did community-wide, economic development in an integrated fashion better than any city I’ve ever seen. So, I did not expect to get a call from Calgary. We’ll see how that works out, but I thought, well that was really nice to hear.

Brad Means: Back to your homeland!

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, back to my homeland, which I’ve never been back to since I left at four years old.

Brad Means: Listen, I wanted to ask you about how people reach out to you, leaders reach out to you and they get advice from you and you cover this in The Changemaker, how people can learn from what you’ve experienced. So my question is, there’s a part of the book that deals with following your moral compass and so I saw that and I started to think about how you could do that in politics because I think it would be tough, so do you mean follow your moral compass most of the time or follow it when you can?

Deke Copenhaver: I mean follow it all of the time.

Brad Means: Do you really?

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, I do. I think sometimes people think I’m naive but I do believe that. I saw my father do that as a CEO. I mean, he was very, as I say, ethical, he followed his moral compass. And you can be successful while following your moral compass. I always use Chick-fil-A as an example. Now, Chick-fil-A, how much more money could they make if they were open on Sunday? But you know, true to Cathy, and you can see the values. You may not agree with their politics all the time, but I’m like, you go into a Chick-fil-A, leadership comes from the top down. The people that work there enjoy working there. But that’s part of leadership too is you take care of the people that work for you and with you. So, I think that’s a great example so there are other examples, but it means to follow your moral compass all the time and I so often, in politics, see people, when they’re running in a race they’re out of character and I know them and I’m like, well that’s not really the person I know. But to me, if you have to compromise your character to get ahead in politics or in business, there’s no point in getting ahead. I mean, you’ve lost it.

Brad Means: So if you want to be a real changemaker, can you ever boss people around?

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, I would say so. People have different leadership styles. I believe in really bringing people together and making them feel valued. But you look at some head coaches and I’m sure Kirby Smart is not friendly with all his players all the time but he seems to be getting results. But they still know that he values them as people as well, so different strokes for different folks.

Brad Means: Should leaders set goals, make resolutions, write things down, is that how we get better?

Deke Copenhaver: Yes, yes, absolutely. And one of the things I talked about in the book is that everything, to me, is about the team. And no one individual can do anything alone and I talk about, really to me, the only power any leader should concern themselves with is the power to inspire. Because if you can inspire people to work with you, you can do great things.

Brad Means: Going back to government and how to run a successful one. Do you think the difference between communities that are successful and those that struggle is having leaders, commissioners in our case, who look out for the entire town versus just being district specific?

Deke Copenhaver: Yeah, I think you’ve gotta have that. And I do think that the way that our government was formed with the districts, it really, to my mind, if you wanted to change anything, make all commissioners run city-wide at large and I think that would make them more accountable to everybody in Augusta ’cause it’s not, when people talk about South Augusta, East Augusta, West Augusta, to me, it’s all Augusta. We live here together and a rising tide lifts everybody so we really, that collaborative leadership and valuing, just ’cause somebody doesn’t live in your district doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be concerned with their health and welfare and well-being.

Brad Means: How do you make sure that the content of this book gets in the right hands, that changemakers continue to pop up all over the country and around the world? Is it through speeches? Is it through private consulting with leaders who reach out to you? How are you spreading this word?

Deke Copenhaver: It’s all of the above. But I will tell you, Brad. It’s just been heartwarming to me to see, and I’ve spoke with my marketing guy from Forbes this week and he told me that he had never seen anybody do social media the way that I do, which is good but it becomes a job as well, but it’s touching people. And being associated with Forbes brand is great, you just can’t beat that. But really, I’ve told Malisa, I think it’s gonna be the little book that could and it’s gonna hit the right person at the right time. I mean, as far as it’s gone in just three weeks, I have no idea where this is gonna go, but really, consulting, speaking, but I want the business to do well, but I want to see more changemaking leaders in communities all over the place, more so than my bottom line increase.

Brad Means: Do they have to be young? Do changemakers have to be young?

Deke Copenhaver: No, absolutely not. And that’s, people have said, well you’re sort of the godfather of the millennial generation, but to me, they want mentors that, you can be a changemaker at any age. Malisa and I were in Bermuda recently for our anniversary, for our 20th. Met a lady over there that’s a bartender, she was raised in foster care, raised two daughters as a single mother, both of them college educated, have great jobs, and I’m like, now that to me is a changemaker. I mean, you’ve got somebody that was raised in a foster home that raised two single daughters but managed to educate them. Those are the stories that I’m looking for but what a great example.

Brad Means: Yeah, what a wonderful example and I think your book is gonna help a lot of people. Thank you for writing it and again, as I always say to you, thank you for your service to the city of Augusta.

Deke Copenhaver: Well Brad, thank you for having me. It is always a pleasure to be here, man.

Brad Means: Absolutely. We appreciate Deke Copenhaver for his time, always. His book is The Changemaker. You can pick it up, as we mentioned, at Surrey Pharmacy right here in the heart of West Augusta, also Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. The Changemaker available now and don’t forget to learn more at deke-copenhaver.com. Go to the Barnes and Noble book signing. It’s gonna be Thursday, July 11, 6:00 p.m. Go shake Mr. Copenhaver’s hand and get him to sign your book.

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