The Art of Leadership and Leading for the Long Haul

Deke Copenhaver

Friday, February 14th, 2020

One of the key traits I’ve come to highly regard among the leaders I most respect is their ability to look beyond their season in their leadership positions. More often than not, this means resisting the urge to make snap decisions when there is a very vocal minority opposing a big idea which may take an extended amount of time and patience to see through to fruition. I’ve always found that placating the vocal extremes on any given issue for short term political gain is effectively the easiest way to go against serving the greater good and I have a recent example of this worth sharing.

Oftentimes major building projects at the local level can become controversial. Such was the case with the Augusta Convention Center. The project was initially approved by voters in 2005 in our Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) package and had been in the works for many years prior. Due to cost projections being done years earlier, the local governing body was asked to consider appropriating an additional $30 million in bond funding in order to provide citizens and visitors alike with a truly top-flight public facility. Despite a vocal minority of citizens opposing the project, the Augusta-Richmond County Commission was able to come to consensus and approve the funding package in 2007. However, final approval for the project had to include the approval of a parking deck to service the facility.

For the next two years, the controversy over the parking deck and the ownership of the property on which it was to be built swirled. During this period a group of self-appointed subject matter experts and citizen activists traded conspiracy theories online and at our public meetings in an attempt to derail the project entirely. At one point I remember asking one of the supposed subject matter experts for a list of references during a rather heated meeting. Needless to say, the references were never provided. Multiple new locations were suggested for the facility including, but not limited to, a long shuttered shopping mall. However, based upon a multitude of professional presentations, none of the suggested alternatives would have worked as attaching the new facility to the city’s existing convention space was ultimately a prerequisite for the long-term success of the project.

Although there were times when the project seemed doomed, in the end cooler heads prevailed with final approval coming in 2009. Ground was finally broken in 2010 with completion coming in 2013. Last month it was announced that in the seven years since its opening, the economic impact of the Augusta Convention Center has now exceeded $100 million. Ultimately the project has paid for itself and then some.

Five years out of office, and remembering firsthand what it took to help shepherd this project through to completion, this news brought a smile to my face. Although it took a great deal of time and effort on behalf of so many people through the years, in the end it was worth it. Our local governing body taking the long-view, while not allowing the vocal minority to derail the process, was simply the right decision to make and also a decision that served the greater good in the process.

I firmly believe in freedom of speech and allowing all voices to be heard. However, I would encourage any leader, elected or otherwise, to resist the temptation to allow a vocal minority’s opinion to distort your overall view of prevailing public opinion. To do so can easily lead to short-sighted decisions based on raw emotion without taking into equal consideration the views of the vast majority of those we serve who choose to remain in the silent majority. I’ve often shared my opinion that giving in to the vocal minority on every issue we face in leadership roles would be like giving in to a child every time they threw a temper tantrum and rewarding their bad behavior on an ongoing basis. In the end, taking the long-view in the decision making process can be difficult in the short term, but will always pay dividends in the long run.