Monday, December 17, 2007


I'm a real fan of the tv series, The West Wing. I started watching it in the first season and was faithful pretty much to the end (though I have to say that the last season was a bit of a disappointment for me - I watched more out of loyalty than conviction!). I watch the re-runs when I get a chance and I own the first five seasons on DVD. So yeah - I'm a fan.

I've always enjoyed the political content - specifically the issues and the way they're handled - the tensions and energy generated by working in the White House, the "faith and politics" dynamic (though the "religious right" is often hammered), the personalities of the staff of the West Wing and the way they work out of their strengths. I love the way senior staff - Leo, Toby, Josh, CJ, Sam and even President Bartlett can disagree passionately on a particular issue but never take it personally. It's about issues and the way issues intersect - it's not so much about being right or wrong or even gaining the approval of one's colleagues. At the end of the day, decisions are made and whether they agree or not - for the most part - they stand behind the process. For me, it's a study in leadership and most of the time, I'm inspired to imitate principles like working hard, standing up for what I believe, being open to integrating new ideas or information and even changing my mind or my position based on new evidence or old evidence seen in a new light. Most of the time.

But lately I have to say that I've found myself getting frustrated. I'm watching the fifth season on DVD these days. Maybe it's this particular season, or maybe it's got something to do with my own journey, or maybe it's my age (mid-life!!) or my idealism confronting reality - or probably a combination of all of the above. Whatever it is, I find myself feeling irritated. The verbal witticisms and clever put-downs that I used to love are more often these days striking me as arrogant and elitist. The compromises (ENDLESS compromises!) needed to move priority issues ahead are looking more like weaknesses (sell-outs) than strengths and wise governance. The achilles heel of North American democracies - where it's all about gaining and retaining the power to govern - means issues (and that is ALL issues) become politicized. Virtues like integrity, honesty, appropriate loyalty, faithfulness - they all have a shelf life and are often tainted by ambition, pride, fear and plain, old-fashioned poor judgment. I feel like I have a front row seat to watch the demise of principles on the altar of success. Is this leadership that's worthy of emulating?

Actually, my favorite characters in the show are probably Donna and Charlie. Donna is Josh's assistant and Charlie is - hm, I don't know his official title, but he is President Bartlett's personal aide or something. So as I think about it, both Donna and Charlie are in the middle of the action but neither really has any formal authority. Donna and Charlie often provide grounding - a bridge between the real world and the halls of the West Wing where the machinery of government hums along. Like, for example, when none of the senior staff know the price of a gallon of milk, but Charlie does. Or when Donna argues with Josh about Democratic party policies that seem to be out of step with the lives of the little people.

So, I think a lot about leadership as I'm watching The West Wing, and I'm feeling increasingly frustrated. I guess it's because integrity always seems to take a back seat to expediency. The system is built on compromise - give a bit here and there to gain a tiny bit somewhere else. Is this the best we can do?

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