The Art of Leadership: Conversations Lead to Hope

Deke Copenhaver

Wednesday, January 15th, 2020

I've always been a huge fan of having conversations with people who don't look like or think like to see where we can find common ground. It has always been amazing to me how easy it is if we can focus on listening without prejudging an individual and keeping an open mind. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to have conversations with my Uber drivers. It may seem a bit unconventional, but it recently offered me some unique perspectives that I feel are worth sharing.

Each October the Exchange Club of Augusta hosts the Exchange Club Fair. All members are required to work the event and two of my assignments are working the parking lot and ticket taking. One of the most fun parts for me is that people from all walks of life seem to get a kick out of the fact that their former mayor is taking their ticket or helping park their car. I personally love the event in that it raises money for local charities while bringing people from different races, socioeconomic status and ages together in a family friendly environment simply to have fun.

As I enjoy hanging out with my fellow members in the Fellowship Hall to catch up and to have a few libations, I always Uber to and from the fair when I’m working the night shift. My first Uber driver last fall was a twenty-something year old young lady from Portland, Oregon. During the course of our ride she shared with me that she chose to move to Augusta because she had never lived in the south and she wanted to experience it. My first thought was that relocating from Portland to Augusta had to have been a culture shock. However, her unique perspective of all that our city has to offer and why she enjoys living here gave me a view of the place I’m proud to call home through a fresh set of eyes. The look of wonder on her face when she saw the lights of a fair, something she had never been to, did my heart good and she vowed she’d be coming back to join in the fun when she was off work.

The following week I had an Uber driver from Ghana. As we were driving he asked me about what I did. I shared with him that I had served as mayor, own a small consulting business and recently had published my first book on leadership. As we further discussed the book and its focus on rallying people around a common cause, the conversation turned to religion and politics. My driver was retired after having lived all over the world and had moved to Augusta from Atlanta to lead a quieter life. He shared with me his opinion that Islamic extremism had poisoned his chosen faith. He then went on to tell me that in Ghana his father had been an Imam but that he had attended a Catholic school. “Ghana is a small country.” he stated. “Most families have members who are Christian as well as those who are Muslim so there’s really no religious tension.” As he dropped me off we came to the conclusion that extremists of every ilk seem to be at the root of many of the world’s problems.

One final conversation with an Uber driver that week is extremely poignant to me in retrospect, given the current state of the world. After we closed the parking lot late one evening I was picked up by a young man who was from Iran. He and his wife had moved to Augusta for her to attend dental school at the Medical College of Georgia. During the ride I asked him what life was like in Iran. His response? “Man, our politics are crazy!” I smiled and said that sounded familiar to what we’re seeing right here at home. We discussed how he had moved to the U.S. to have access to more opportunity than he was afforded at home in Iran and the conversation flowed from there. When he dropped me off late that evening, I shared with him how encouraging it was for me that a Christian from Augusta and a Muslim from Iran could come to the conclusion that we had more in common than we had differences during a twenty minute conversation.

I’ve always been of the opinion that a major part of changemaking leadership is always focusing on bringing people together on common ground. In order to do so, we all must be willing to step outside our comfort zones and the echo chambers we so often find ourselves where we're surrounded by people who look, think and act like we do. I realized a long time ago that people are socialized differently and are going to have different world views and that this is okay. In a series of conversations during Uber rides last fall, I was able to learn a tremendous amount about the world and other parts of our country that I never knew before.

To me one of the most fascinating and encouraging things about cities throughout Georgia, throughout our nation and throughout our world is that they represent true diversity. Knowing that they can grow and thrive because people from all walks of life are committed to working together to making them the best places they can be gives me great hope and I hope it does the same for you as well.

In a nation and a world that can seem so horribly divided, I know that local elected officials from across Georgia can offer examples of how our communities have come together around a common cause. Thank you to each of you for all that you do and please continue to share your success stories as they are now more important and impactful than ever before.