Leadership Lessons from ‘The West Wing’

By Molly Altorfer

When "The West Wing" debuted on network television in 1999, I was finishing my undergraduate degree at a small private liberal arts college. Despite being a busy college student, I caught episodes of this tantalizingly written political drama airing on NBC. I fell in love with the characters, specifically the way in which their ethics and leadership were portrayed within the "work world" of the United States government.

At the time, I had no idea that the show would run until 2006 and that its lessons and subplots would be a model for me as I transitioned from student to college graduate to new employee at a nonprofit organization.

I am reminded of "The West Wing" even more lately as the nation gears up for the 2016 presidential election. But even more so, the ethical and leadership principles portrayed in the TV series remain applicable in my life today, despite professional career changes and personal reinvention. Some of my favorites include:

Speak truth to power.

This is certainly a challenging concept for a new employee at a company or young hires fresh to the working world. Yes, it can be easier to tell your boss what she wants to hear. But your worth to the company is much greater if you offer your true opinion. Leaders can never be people who refuse to speak truth to power, and vice versa. It is worth noting that "speaking truth to power" doesn't require a person to be brash or rude. Opinions can be shared professionally and calmly.

Do it, and do it right.

In one of my favorite scenes, Sam Seaborn, portrayed by Rob Lowe, works feverishly on a birthday message for a foreign leader. He is tasked with this by the president, acted by Martin Sheen. The entire episode focuses on Sam writing and rewriting a two-sentence message, which in the grand scheme of things likely had little relevance to foreign policy. But the point is clear: If you're asked by the president of the United States to do something, do it right. Granted, not many of us work for the president, but our output matters. Give 100 percent to your duties, no matter how menial.

Relationships matter

When a young, feisty and intelligent Republican joins the Democratic White House legal team in Season 2, she is mercilessly hazed. But at the end of the day, Ainsley Hayes, played by Emily Procter, is accepted by the core White House team, and rightly so. This episode is a good reminder that relationships are key to advancing a company's mission. In my career, I've realized that I may not want to join all of my colleagues for a beer after work, but our internal working relationships must be collegial in order to be productive.

These days, if I need a "West Wing" fix, I can binge watch on Netflix and relive my favorite episodes. But a constant I take with me is the timeless and universal leadership and ethical principles portrayed in the show, and I try to apply them in my daily life.

Article originally published in the Des Moines Business Record's Lift Iowa.

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