“Just stand there in your wrongness” and other lessons from The West Wing

The ACRL/LLAMA Joint President’s Program Committee is hosting a “leadership moments” competition:

Using an example from a book, film, play, TV show, presentation or any other context where a “leadership moment” might be found, participants are asked to define and discuss how that moment contributed to their own conception of great leadership or inspired their own development as a leader.

West Wing

I loaned out Season 1, and never did get Season 7

My favorite pop culture source of leadership lessons is the TV show The West Wing. First up is the scene in Season 1 of the West Wing (The White House Pro Am) when Abbey Bartlet concedes she was “wrong about the thing”, but tries to slip in a “however …”. The President responds with “No. No ‘however’. Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”

When I’m wrong, I try to remember to just admit it and move on. No “howevers”, no equivocating, no excuses. I think a willingness to “just stand there in my wrongness” is important because it takes some of the drama and the power out of being wrong. None of us is perfect, and in fact, most of the leaders I know think it is important to create a culture where staff aren’t afraid to fail. Another by-product of a willingness to “just stand there in my wrongness” when I’m wrong, is that it helps me stay open to learning from my mistakes and learning from others.

Speaking of willingness to stay open to learning, in addition to being a fellow Dukie, Sam Seaborn was always my favorite character because of the way the show consistently portrayed him in learning mode. A favorite example is the wonderful scene in Hartsfield Landing where President Bartlet uses a chess game to teach Sam about international relations. I also love the exchange in that scene where Sam says “I don’t know how you do it,” and the President responds with “You have a lot of help, you listen to everybody, and then you call the play.”; which is a pretty good approach to leadership. There are any number of scenes in the West Wing where Sam’s job requires him to learn just enough about something — usually quickly — to advocate for it; for example, in Dead Irish Writers he has to learn about the super-conducting super-collider from his former college physics teacher.

I’m not nearly as smart (nor as good-looking) as Sam Seaborn, but my job often requires me to talk about things and advocate for projects and programs where I’m not really the expert. One of the most useful tactics I’ve learned in those situations is to ask “what do I need to know about X to effectively advocate for it?” Like the scene where Sam has to learn enough about partical physics to defend funding for the super-collider, this question allows me to learn what I need to know without pretending to be an expert and without wasting my staff’s time or insulting them by pretending that I could become an expert in their area after a few quick conversations.

Finally, my favorite West Wing lesson is “What’s next?“, Bartlet’s signature phrase signalling that it is time to move on. “What’s next?” conveys an attitude of forward movement, and of executing on a decision once it is made instead of continuing to rehash the arguments.

So there you have it — everything I know about leadership I learned from the West Wing.

4 Responses to ““Just stand there in your wrongness” and other lessons from The West Wing”

  1. 1 sophylou March 4, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I’ve been marathon-watching The West Wing on Netflix lately (only watched it sporadically when it was on TV) and one thing that’s really jumped out at me is how we see major characters making mistakes — in some cases, quite serious mistakes (I’m in season 6 now watching Toby struggle with taking over CJ’s old job, but also thinking about Josh’s Big Mistake that had him being monitored by Donna for awhile) — and learning how to regroup and move forward. There’s a lot of space for learning, including learning from mistakes, in the series.


    • 2 Chris Bourg March 4, 2013 at 12:14 pm

      That’s so true! I suspect that is one of the reasons I love the series so much — the characters are these incredibly smart people, but the writers allow them to be wrong sometimes and to learn from that.


      • 3 sophylou March 4, 2013 at 12:23 pm

        And was just thinking of the great moment early on between Leo and Josh, when Leo tells him the story about the man who fell in the hole — “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.” There’s a terrific sense of teamwork and a kind of companionship running through the series that I think adds to the characters’ ability to learn and recover.


  1. 1 Links of interest : April 5, 2013 « A Modern Hypatia Trackback on April 4, 2013 at 2:43 pm

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