Wednesday, May 4th, 2011
Lori and I have rarely watch television, but a few shows are worth re-watching. Currently at the top of our list is The West Wing, a political drama that ran on network television between 1999 and 2006. The U.S. President and his staff have their offices in the West wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., hence the series title.
The West Wing series gives us an intimate look at the lives and work of fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his senior staff. These people are true believers. They helped Bartlet win the election and now serve as his staff because they are passionate about creating meaningful change in the world. Every member of the West Wing staff is a true Hero. They also have an outspoken liberal agenda and often have trouble convincing Congressmen and Senators to vote for their proposed legislation.
Here are seven important lessons I picked up from watching the series:
Let Bartlet be Bartlet
As a Democratic President with a hostile Republican Congress, Jed Bartlet often had to choose between doing what he believed to be right versus doing what seemed to be politically expedient. Whenever his staff advised him to do the latter, the President came across as weak, and he lost ground in the polls. When they let him stand up for his beliefs, even though he made political enemies, the public respected him more. The staff realized that they had to let Bartlet be himself – a man of strong principles and vision.
Be yourself. You may compromise on minor issues and where you don’t have a strong opinion, but when it comes to the things that really matter, say what you mean and mean what you say. You might not win every battle, but make sure you fight passionately for the most important ones.
Great Results come from Really Hard Work
On The West Wing, the senior White House staff work from early morning until late at night nearly every day, even on most weekends. Like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, they need to run as fast as they can just to stay in one place, and twice as fast to get anything done. The President and his staff don’t just show up for work each day; they put everything they have into their work.
Important work doesn’t do itself. If you want extraordinary results, you have to put in much more than ordinary effort to achieve them. Creative work is no exception – Images of writers frequently show them near a wastebasket overflowing with the words that didn’t quite work. Today we do it digitally, but we still discard thousands of words and multiple drafts before a finished article hits the Web, book, or magazine.
The computer game industry is known for a lack of “work-life balance”. Programmers and other developers regularly spend 50 hours or more in the office every week. They don’t always do it just because management orders them to work overtime. They do it because they love what they are doing. I know a Nurse Practitioner who works equally long hours at her job. Great results come from people who go the extra mile to make them great. They do it because they care.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Some of the great crises in The West Wing come out of a few careless words. Some of these are jokes, others simply ordinary phrases that seem to take on additional meaning out of context. One plot point hinges on whether the Press Secretary asked the President, “Is there anything else I need to know?” or “Is there anything else I should know?” Other stories become blown out of proportion when one of the staffers makes an offhand joke about them.
I love making word plays and jokes, and sometimes that backfires. Beware of joking about a topic that someone else takes very seriously. They are likely to take your words as mockery or insults. Think about what you say before you say it. People rarely have much perspective or sense of humor about the things that consider important. Their agenda is not yours; you may need to do a little role-playing to empathize with their position.
Making a Mistake is not the End of the World
The West Wing staff members are really smart people, but they make plenty of mistakes. One character is an alcoholic, another falls in love with a prostitute, and even the President has secrets. When some of the staff are pressured to resign, the President supports them. He knows that loyalty, intelligence, and commitment to doing good count for more than anyone’s past mistakes. As a result, they remain fiercely loyal to the President and each other when events challenge them.
We all make mistakes. Most of them are trivial, but some of them hurt other people or ourselves. As the saying goes, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” If you want to live a valuable life, you must take many risks. Pretty much by definition, you will fail at some of them. When you make a mistake, admit it and move on to the next challenge. When you see someone make a mistake, accept it, help out if you can, but don’t dwell on it. If you aren’t making any mistakes, you aren’t doing enough with your life.
Any time the West Wing characters try to compromise their ideals to win, they end up losing. They succeed only by having absolute integrity and passion for their beliefs. The opposition might break the unwritten rules and use underhanded tactics, but heroes need to be above reproach and fight for the things that matter.
That seems a little unfair, but it balances out. Good guys get some compensating advantages. Heroes have the strength of their conviction and usually more support from others than the villains get. It doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative. People with integrity and the strength of conviction are the ones who get things done. Besides, every time you cheat, you burn a little hole in your brain and soul; do it enough and you will forget what you’re fighting for. You will also lose any trust or respect from the people around you.
Just because You are Passionate does not give You the Right to be Arrogant
Some of the toughest fights the White House staff face are against members of their own party. A Black inner-city Congressman votes against a gun control bill because it is poorly written and he believes that passing it will make it harder to pass stronger legislation.
When your friends stop supporting you, it’s time to listen to them and find out why. Stop and re-examine your beliefs from time to time. Do you still accept the premises that led to them? Don’t be arrogant. There are a lot of other really smart people out there, and you can’t learn from them if you are too busy making your own point over and over.
Learn to Listen
There are very few real villains in the world. Most people truly believe in what they say and do. The West Wing staff maintains a tradition of opening their doors to the public on “Big Block of Cheese Day” each year. The staffers think that listening to “crackpots” is a waste of their time, but many of the visitors have important things to say. Each is passionate about his or her message, and some of their ideas really matter.
Every meaningful decision has social, political, environmental, economic, and other issues. You might be focusing on one consequence of the decision, but others might consider another side more important. Tax the rich to feed the poor? Sounds great; most of them can afford it. It doesn’t sound so great if you’ve worked harder than everyone else you know for 50 years to get that money. Or if the tax causes your company to downsize, costing jobs for people who are willing and able to work. It still might be a good idea, but it is no longer simple and obvious. That is the origin of most political conflict – Each party focuses on one side of an issue and fails to consider other aspects. The law of unintended consequences tells us that issues are rarely as simple as we think they are. We have to stop, listen, and learn when others have things to say – friends and opponents alike.
Lessons from West Wing
We can all learn from the lessons of The West Wing. The White House staffers are Heroes trying to do what is right in the pressure cooker of the political arena. They need to find ways to get Congress to pass good laws, and they need to get and keep public support for the President and his ideas. We all face similar challenges in making friends and in doing our work competently and ethically. When we hear messages of prejudice and hate, we must find ways to answer them even when it is uncomfortable or dangerous to speak up. That is the only way we can make a positive difference in our work and in the world.