Collaborative Leadership: Why knowing what you don’t know is way more important than knowing what you do.

Deke Copenhaver
Jul 21, 2015 · 4 min read

In serving in office for nine years as mayor of Augusta, GA, I witnessed firsthand a tendency of people getting elected then somehow being miraculously transformed into subject matter experts on just about everything. From the law to engineering and finance, somehow the simple act of being elected tended in certain circumstances to make people feel as though they somehow were more qualified to influence the outcome of the decision making process than those who were well trained in their field of expertise.

Prior to taking office my career path had taken me from working in banking to getting into real estate and becoming a partner in a small firm and finally to four years running a land trust as well as the city’s greenspace program. Having had good exposure and some good successes in the financial world, putting together real estate deals and land conservation gave me a pretty broad based world view coming into my first elected position, but it also made me realize that this experience, while relevant, didn’t make me any type of expert on the job I was about to undertake and that I had a lot to learn.

Despite having served in numerous leadership positions throughout my adult life I knew that this new situation was different and that I’d never have all of the answers for a city of 200,000 people. It was at that point of knowing what I didn’t know that I made several key determinations. First, I’d seek advice and guidance from the people I deemed to be the best in my field. I did this by reaching out to and establishing relationships with mayors like Joe Riley in Charleston and Shirley Franklin in Atlanta, along with a slew of other mayors from across the State of Georgia and around the nation. Their sage advice on topics such as municipal finance, neighborhood revitalization and city design provided me with a wealth of knowledge, derived from years of experience I didn’t have at that point, which benefited me in doing my job in too many different ways to count.

Second, I determined to surround myself as best I could with a great team that had skill sets I didn’t possess. Having always been a big picture thinker with a focus on what the future of the city could look like and establishing a path to get there, I knew I needed some very organized, very detail oriented people around me who could effectively manage me and keep me on task. I managed to find these people in Karyn Nixon, my first Executive Assistant, Natasha McFarley, my Administrative assistant, and later Al Dallas, my second Executive Assistant. I never micromanaged the members of my team and I constantly sought their input in my decision making process using them as sounding boards while at the same time very much valuing their input. This led to the instilling of a collaborative spirit into the core of everything we did. We were lean and mean but we ultimately got the job done and the city is a better place due to the crucial work of each team member in our office.

Finally, I resolved to listen to the advice of the people within city government who were professionally trained to do their jobs. I realized early on that it was good to have a working knowledge of finance, the law, engineering and such as an elected official. However, I also realized I myself didn’t have a degree in any of these fields while the city had employed good people who did to help inform and guide the decision making process in order to make it easier for elected officials to make more informed and rational decisions to the benefit of the citizens they served. When given the opportunity for a tie-breaking vote, I made it a policy to always go with the staff recommendation as it simply seemed the most logical thing to do while also backing up and supporting the work of our department heads.

It has always been my belief that collaborative leadership in which leaders sincerely value the input of their team members while acknowledging that their leadership role doesn’t give them all the answers offers the best possible avenue to success in any endeavor a team can undertake. In the end it may very well not be what you know or who you know but knowing what you don’t know that ultimately determines your success in life.

Deke Copenhaver

Written by

Principal, Copenhaver Consulting LLC, former mayor of Augusta, triathlete, writer & runner focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.

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