In September 1999, television audiences were invited into The West Wing to watch U.S. President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet lead the free world as reimagined by the creative mind of Aaron Sorkin. Bartlet, an idealized version of a leader supported by a wise and witty White House senior staff, lasted two terms over seven seasons, confronting many of the most pressing issues of his time – many of them still relevant today.
Twenty years and 26 Emmys later, the time has come to look back at the many leadership lessons offered by The West Wing to both chief executives and those who advise them.
True fans will recall that Bartlet had a tough first year in office, with critics arguing he had retreated from the ideals on which he campaigned to the political safety of the middle of the road – “a long line painted yellow.” It wasn’t until a particularly memorable episode when the White House staff said, “Let Bartlet be Bartlet,” urging him to act on his strong personal beliefs, that the administration found its footing. Bartlet’s authority was tied to his authenticity.
The biggest crisis of President Bartlet’s first term was the revelation he’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had withheld it from voters before the election. It wasn’t until senior White House aide Toby Ziegler confronted him that Bartlet grasped the need to be transparent about his condition with the American people. Ziegler’s persistence, both in pursuing something that didn’t seem quite right and, then, in persuading Bartlet to come clean, was key.
A second lesson from the failure to disclose Bartlet’s M.S. is the importance of taking responsibility. When he accepted a censure over staff objections, Bartlet explained, “Lots of times we don’t know what’s right or wrong but lots of times we do, and, c’mon, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore…I’m to blame. I was wrong.”
Ziegler was right to urge Bartlet to disclose his secret illness, but he was wrong years later to leak word of a secret military space shuttle. Sensibly releasing information about potential improprieties can sometimes earn back trust, but the improper release of sensitive information erodes trust. As Bartlet told Ziegler, “When you walk out of here, there’ll be people out there, perhaps a great many, who’ll think of you as a hero. I just don’t for a moment want you thinking I’ll be one of them.”
As the Bartlet Administration and The West Wing were entering their final days, former White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry reminded staff, “We have the ability to effect more change in a day in the White House than we will have in a lifetime once we walk out those doors. What do you want to do with them?” Valuing time as a scarce and finite resource is crucial as is infusing your team with a sense of urgency to prioritize their work in the short time they have.
The lessons to be taken from the Bartlet White House are not just for leaders, whether in politics or in business, they’re also for those who advise them. The West Wing created a rich supporting cast of characters who spoke openly and honestly with the President when they believed he was making mistakes. Staff including McGarry acted as much as Bartlet’s conscience as his confidant. This led to dramatic tension, but the dynamic made Bartlet a better leader.
Yet, the key to the Bartlet White House wasn’t its authenticity, transparency, or responsibility but, rather, its fallibility. In the examples above the wrong course was pursued before they shifted to the right one. That’s because Aaron Sorkin knew that if they were flawless, they’d be unrelatable or, worse, unconvincing. No leadership team, in either the public or private sector, is perfect, which may be the most important factual principle we take from this fictional president.
Photo by: David Rose/NBCU Photo Bank