Three things The West Wing taught us about passion and resilience

First posted on LinkedIn March 11, 2016

I had the great privilege of working with a health sector client this week, where I will be facilitating a learning programme in business partnering skills for a newly formed professional finance team.  This was a launch event and the Finance Director, as sponsor of the programme, addressed the participants.  He spoke from the heart about what he’s looking for from his team, using series one of The West Wing as inspiration.

I have never seen The West Wing, however I am aware of Aaron Sorkin’s work through the films A Few Good Men and The Social Network, and the wonderful TV series The Newsroom.

Spoiler Alert: Series one of The West Wing is set mostly in the White House as newly elected Democrat President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) goes about running the world’s most influential superpower (the series was aired before 9-11).  There are a ton of political and personal issues to deal with and the series ends in an assassination attempt.

What does this have to do with finance, business partnering and developing great teams?

1. A clear sense of purpose

In The White House, the President hand picks his team.  This is everyone’s personal, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do good.  Furthermore, the presidential team may only be together for four years, eight maximum.  In the show, they throw themselves in 100 mph.  Unlike some politicians – our speaker noted the series would not work in the UK as nobody would believe our PM cold be a hero –  Bartlet frames the team’s purpose as not to get re-elected at any cost, but rather to do good.  To set the direction they want to go and then to lead them on that path.  It is journey-based leadership rather than a destination-based goal

2. 100% commitment

This is about delivering on your promises.  There is a scene where it is getting late, near to midnight, and an aide has not prepared a brief that was promised ‘today’.  When challenged, he replies, “The day’s not over yet”.  Only if you deliver what you agree to deliver will you have the authority to advise and to influence others.  It requires 100% commitment.  It’s about being credible and reliable.

3. Challenge is crucial

You can imagine the behaviours that sometimes ensue in the pressure cooker environment of high Politics.  This is somewhat true for any workplace environment where power and politics play a significant role.  In The West Wing there is no animosity, however there is high challenge between senior leaders such as The Chief of Staff and the President.  In fact, Bartlet welcomes challenge to the point of hiring a Republican to bring challenge ‘up stream’ into the policy setting debates.  It’s business, it’s not personal, or as a colleague of mine often says, “Be tough on the issues and gentle on the people”.

And all of this is done with team members showing the utmost respect and support for each other.

So there it is – create passion and great teamwork through clarity of purpose, demanding 100% commitment and creating a climate of high challenge and support.  Easy to say, harder to do.  My goals for this team’s learning and development are clear, and we can work with that.

In The West Wing these three things went a long way to developing and inspiring the team, and helped to build the resilience the team needed in the face of everything the job threw at them, even bullets.

And as President Bartlet’s personal aide reflects later, “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right.”

Jeremy J Lewis

@growthepig

Posted in Resilience, Teamwork and tagged , , .

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