West Wing Leadership lessons

For the past few months I’ve been catching up on the West Wing series on DVD. I absolutely love it and how it highlights the dilemmas of political life.

I’m now at the story line of the Democrats deciding on their new candidate for the next election. President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is in the final year of his two terms. He has been a great President, but one who despite his liberal beliefs is continuously balancing his agendas of personal ideology with the reality of what will be passed in legislation. This has often meant turning to the populist view with great personal conflict.

The last two men standing in the race for the Democrats’ candidacy to run for the election are polar ends of the leadership spectrum, and in part represent Bartlett’s sitting terms dilemmas.

There is Vice President Russell (Gary Cole) who seems to have lost his soul to the popular vote that he will almost agree with anything the polls and advisers tell him; he purely wants the President’s job, know matter what his beliefs – in fact we wonder if he can even remember what he stands for politically.

Then there’s the ideology of Congressman Santos (Jimmy Smits), the underdog wanting to make a difference, make a real change to America.  He didn’t join the race thinking he’d win – he purely wanted to make some strong sound-bite statements on what he believes to be the potential of his country. But, at the back of his mind, there is still the ego and his campaign manager pulling him into line to sometimes contradict his beliefs to remain in the race.

I know what happens – I watched the last season years ago on tele. I am sure the liberal writers of the series had delight in choosing a fairy tale ending for America. And that’s what is getting to me; I’m watching this story unfold of how leaders seemingly have to balance their innate beliefs versus the reality of popular consumerism.

We all have choices, within our every day life and business. Sometimes the choices are blurred to keep the peace, to keep the status quo, to not upset the apple cart. I can tend to upset the apple cart and have never stayed quiet when things have upset me – when I observe things going against what I believe to be right and just. Many people find this confronting. Some understand that I am just being true to myself and not taking the easy path in life and business.

So I ask: Isn’t that what real innovation is about? Believing in your convictions, trying to sell your message and occasionally needing to rock the boat? Obviously we need to put our ‘political hats’ on to not tip the boat over all the time, but I always admire the leaders and businesses who live by their beliefs, whether it is (currently) “popular’ or not. And as a marketer, I can instantly see when a business is living within their true passion.

Personally, I’m frustrated by the lack of innovative leadership and businesses willing to follow their potential to be thought leaders. Yes, it can take courage, but the problem with being popular is that the public isn’t stagnant in their beliefs and is looking for the new and innovative thought leaders in the world.

So we have a choice: Be a Santos or a Russell. The choice is easy for me and I always encourage my clients to think of ways to be the Santos of their industry.

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