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?

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Golden Rule - Reframed?

Everyone knows the golden rule, right? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's so much a part of our consciousness that we rattle it off without too much thought. It's like - what's the expression - motherhood and apple pie? A couple of weeks ago I saw a fridge magnet with a variation. It said, "do unto others as they would have you do unto them."

That got me thinking of a bumper sticker I saw once that had another variation: "do unto others before they do unto you." There are probably other versions floating about. So, it makes me think. What's the best one line summary for how we ought to treat others?

The Christian version of the golden rule - and by the way, there are similar edicts in all of the major world religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism and Islamism (see - comes from Luke 6:31 (TNIV) which says: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Pretty straightforward. But is this a verse that can be lifted out of it's context and applied to every person in every situation? Is it a universal command? Here it is in the context of Luke 6:27-31 - embedded in a section entitled "Love for Enemies":

27 "But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Aha!!! This puts a different spin on it - at least it does for me. It's not so much "do unto EVERYONE as I want them to do unto me" as "do unto my enemies, those who curse me, mistreat me, abuse me, steal from me - unto all of them - do unto them as I would rather they were doing to me." So - treat the people who are mistreating me, as if they aren't mistreating me. Treat them with respect, care, compassion - love! Treat my enemies like they are my friends. Lavish them with love.

Luke goes on to say (in verses 32-36):

32 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."
So - if I'm to treat my enemies like friends, how should I treat my friends? Should I treat them like I want to be treated? Or, should I treat them as they would like to be treated? Or, is there yet another option: to treat them in such a way as to do them the most good? I think these would all result in different actions on my part.

When I think about it, I realize that the way I'd like to be treated may not always be what is best for me. It follows, then, that the way others like to be treated may not be what's best for them either. Actually, it may be a lot easier to treat ourselves in ways that make us feel good - who doesn't like to be indulged or flattered? But is that all there is to love? Maybe the highest expression of love is to treat others, not as we like to be treated or as they would enjoy, but in the way that does them the greatest good.

I know. Who decides on what's best for any of us? It's not easy and in our society - let's face it - it's a feel good, indulgent culture we live in - there's a good chance we may be misunderstood if we're aiming higher. Teenagers, for example, often don't appreciate parents who make decisions based on what they believe to be in their teens best interest. Our friends and enemies may be similarly skeptical of our motives if we suddenly stop indulging them. Well - think about it and if you're very brave, try it out. Maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised.