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On leadership from The West Wing

I’m pretty amazed that I’ve been writing here for over a year now and I have not yet written a post about The West Wing.

Rest assured; this is about to be remedied.

After all, it is quite possibly the best-written show ever. Everything about it feels so real. The characters, the events, the dialogue. Oh man, especially the dialogue. And good dialogue is incredibly hard to write. I know, I’ve tried, and there’s a reason I don’t share it.

But even after the embarrassing number of times I’ve watched and re-watched all seven seasons, there are still moments when I laugh out loud or tear up or argue or agree (also out loud, of course) or get the chills.

And recently, when I dropped in on season 4, episode 4 (October 9, 2002), I had just such a moment.

First, though, some background.

In this season, President Bartlet is running for his second term against Governor Ritchie of Florida. A large focus of the campaign has become this sort of ideological battle between the East Coast intellectual snob (Bartlet) and the plain-spoken man of the people (Ritchie) and which is better suited for the presidency.

So when Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman discovers that a prominent self-help guru has been advising the Ritchie campaign, he sends his assistant Donna to one of the guru’s seminars to do some reconnaissance.

When Donna returns and de-briefs Josh on the highlights of the seminar, she provides several slogans that were important takeaways from the guru’s message, which end up being cribbed from Emmanuel Kant, Plato, and Robert Frost.

Josh is incensed that the great work of these men has been boiled down to one-liners and that, worse, someone seeking the office of president would subscribe to it.

“What does it remind you of?” he starts just after they establish the guru’s misinterpretation of the Frost line ‘good fences make good neighbors.’ “I believe in hope, not fear; I’m a leader, not a politician; it’s time for American leaders; America’s earned a change; i before e except after c…it’s the fortune cookie candidacy!

“These are important thinkers and understanding them can be very useful and it’s not ever gonna happen at a four-hour seminar.

“When the President’s got an embassy surrounded in Haiti or a keyhole photograph of a heavy water reactor or any of the fifty life and death matters that walk across the desk every day, I don’t know if he’s thinking about Emmanuel Kant or not, I doubt it, but if he does, I am comforted at least in my certainty that he’s doing his best to reach for all of it and not just the McNuggets.

“Is it possible we would be willing to require any less of the person sitting in that chair?

“The low road?

“I don’t think it is.”

It almost makes my ears ring hearing its echoes in the present.

And while I’m certainly not going to claim that the current election is a battle of intellectualism, there are, I think, some other key characteristics of a leader in question.

Two important ones come to mind.

One, the capacity for humility.

No one is an expert at everything. Almost by its very definition, to become an expert at something, you have to eschew becoming an expert in other things. But a good leader tries their best to educate themself, then surrounds themself with experts they trust and respect and listens to them.

They don’t allow themself to become a puppet, certainly, but they understand and acknowledge the limits of what they know and take advice when necessary.

This is how you can be graceful in not knowing.

You can also be graceful in admitting you were wrong or even in changing your mind.

No one is right all the time and people change, people grow. I know that changing a position or “flip-flopping” is seen as a negative in politics, but my goodness, do we honestly want someone who doesn’t learn throughout their career?

When I look back at my own previous voting record, I made choices years ago that I would never think of making now and I’m proud of that evolution. Do we think that politicians are really so different? Would we want them to be?

Which leads me to two, the capacity for humanity.

Empathy. Compassion. Suffering. These are things that make us human and they allow a leader to better relate to the people they are meant to lead.

And someone who can’t experience these things? That’s not a leader, that’s a sociopath.

Valuing “cool” logic and “solid” reasoning is fine, but never forget that our emotional lives inform these things; they are not separate and I don’t honestly believe we’d want them to be.

Decisions made in that chair shouldn’t be black and white; they shouldn’t have easy, “logical” answers. If they do, you aren’t doing it right.

Struggle should be inherent when you are making decisions that affect people’s lives or may even take them. So I for one, don’t want to see the bluster of unwarranted overconfidence or hear the hyperbole of someone without something important to say.

I want to see struggle. I want to see graying hair and lines on your face.

I want to know you’re taking things seriously that need to be taken seriously.

You’re a leader, after all. Act like one.

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