Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
We live in a world fraught with chaos. From the ongoing global pandemic to demonstrations for social justice on a worldwide basis, these are turbulent times. In a world divided by fear, anger and hyper-partisan politics, we need heroes who can bring us together across all demographic lines while inspiring in us a sense of hope. Heroes who live their lives reflecting for all of us grace, humility, determination and the dignity of the human spirit. Chadwick Boseman was one of those heroes.
In July of 2014, my final year serving as Mayor of Augusta, our city was extraordinarily blessed to host one of the premieres for the James Brown biopic “Get On Up!” in which Chadwick played the starring role. In what was a true hometown affair, the event was attended by Mr. Brown’s family and longtime friends. I remember being awestruck by the virtuoso performance of Chadwick Boseman who, along with Director Tate Taylor, was also in attendance. That evening, the film and Chadwick’s electric performance instilled in those gathered a sense of pride in our city and the musical legacy of Mr. James Brown. He spoke the same way as Mr. Brown. He moved the same way as Mr. Brown. He embodied the personality of a complex man that- to this day – has never been recreated.
At the movie premiere’s after-party, I had the honor of presenting Mr. Boseman and Mr. Taylor with a key to the city. During our conversation beforehand, I was able to share with Chadwick what hosting the premiere and his attendance at the event meant to our community. The impact was palpable in the way he interacted with the James Brown Academy of Music Pupils, a group of student-aged African American singers and musicians who specialize in James Brown tunes. Many will seek higher education in music and the arts. It was clear they took pride in performing the same songs Chadwick had just performed on the big screen. The movie “Black Panther” had not yet been created, but Chadwick was already cementing himself as a hero in their eyes. A singer and performer himself, maybe some of them thought “One day I could be like him.” As we all danced to the music, the celebration represented a show of unity for a community oftentimes historically divided along racial lines. Though he might not have realized it, Mr. Boseman’s presence that evening helped to bring our city together.
Although our time spent together was not lengthy, I remember being struck by his kindness, his humility, his intellect, and his gentleness of spirit. We spoke of the warm reception Augusta had given him, his love for Mr. Brown’s family and his upbringing just ninety miles away in Anderson, South Carolina. During my life, I’ve met many celebrities and I can honestly say I have never met anyone more unaffected by the trappings of fame than Chadwick Boseman. He never once sang his own praises but rather heaped praise on all those involved in creating the film and Mr. Brown’s life as the inspiration for it. In his subtle, almost shy way, he seemed to experience the love and affection he received from the crowd in equal measure to the pride his performance instilled in those in attendance. Six years later people still speak reverently of Mr. Boseman’s character and presence in the moment that evening. Many of the children whose lives he touched that night are now young leaders in our community, undoubtedly influenced by the example of leading through humility and grace he set for them. He was the epitome of a class act and a role model for others to emulate.
As I watched the arc of his career culminating with his breakout role in “Black Panther,” I felt a sense of pride in knowing that such a good soul could achieve that level of success on his own terms without compromising his character along the way. A comic book enthusiast and fan of superheroes in my youth, the idea that good always triumphed over evil helped inspire me to run for office. Mr. Boseman renewed that hope in me in the way he was able to inhabit a role which inspired a new generation of leaders who finally had their own superhero who looked like them-a hero who transcended all boundaries of race, culture and identity. He simply was King T’Challa: a man and a leader for our times when we needed him most. As he battled with cancer privately, he continued to do the work he was called to do without fanfare or a want for public sympathy. Perhaps he knew his impact off-screen rose above the roles he played on it.
After winning a NAACP Image Award in 2019, he answered a question about purpose like this:
“I feel like I’m living in my purpose. But the funny thing about purpose is that, you know, it unfolds more and more to you every day. You could be living in what was revealed to you at a particular time, and then you might get stagnated because there’s more that you’re supposed to do. It doesn’t just stop as you do one thing. I think it’s [about] being open to what you’re supposed to do at this moment and not getting stuck in the past. Purpose is not related to career. Purpose is not related to a job. It’s related to what God put inside you that you’re supposed to give to the world.”
In his portrayal of historic African American figures Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, Chadwick Boseman was able to give nuanced performances showing both the greatness of America and the inherent difficulties of being a Black leader in our society throughout generations. Because of those roles, generations of Black children will learn their stories beyond the history books. Boseman created a legacy of his own, however, while playing the role of a fictional character. Comic book hero Black Panther was known for his stamina, endurance, kinetic energy and healing. What is stamina if not filming an action movie while receiving rounds of chemotherapy? What defines endurance more than suffering silently while amplifying the voices of sick children? How can you deny the energy transferred from person to person when someone crosses their arms and says, “Wakanda Forever!”? Is healing not the unified conversation around a man who inspired kindness in everyone during a year that seems to be ripping us apart? While telling the story of a Black hero, Chadwick Boseman became one.
In the end, Chadwick provided us all with hope, light and inspiration in a world with too much darkness. His lasting impact on our world will be felt for generations to come through a new generation of leaders, of all colors, he has undoubtedly influenced. I cannot help but think that this man of great intellect, talent and character was trying in his own way to teach all of us that the human spirit is indomitable.
In my life I’ve always looked to others for inspiration. Sometimes that inspiration can come through an intimate conversation and the still, small moments of life. For me, a brief conversation with Chadwick Boseman had a lasting impact on my life and I am eternally grateful that our paths crossed if only for that moment in time. I believe that in order to be a great man, you must first be a good man. Chadwick Boseman was both. He was truly a gentleman, a bright light in our world and a trailblazer in his industry. He will be missed and may he rest in eternal peace.