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December 8, 2010

Leadership Lessons of ‘The West Wing’

Many of you will remember that I’m steadily working my way through the 7 seasons of ‘The West Wing’ boxed set. And so far, it’s not difficult to appreciate why so many Americans (and others) would readily take Jed Bartlett as their President.

There are many aspects of Bartlett that are agreeable and none more so than his tremendous leadership of others.

In an example I watched just the other night, one of his senior team takes an incredibly brave step to ask Bartlett personal details of his relationship with his father. Whilst this might seem a step too far in his relationship with ‘Mr President’, Toby Ziegler is performing an ideal, if rather intimate service to his boss.

Initially, Bartlett is rather incensed at Ziegler’s impertinence and then, in the next couple of episodes, we see the true leadership come through, where he responds to the raw edge that Ziegler has exposed. Bartlett sees past his own bruised ego and ‘gets’ the point of Ziegler’s intervention.

In his own way, Bartlett shows Ziegler how much he values the man’s courage to speak up in such a sensitive area – and, incidentally, an area that Bartlett really does need to investigate.

In too many cases, leaders are so engrossed in their own ego that they fail to appreciate that giving feedback to your boss is a tough thing to do.

Bosses very often intimidate, whether they mean to or not.

To have the courage to give feedback is a rare thing in an employee. Even when they do get brave enough, the handling of this feedback has to be very careful indeed, or valuable relationships will stutter and the most likely outcome is that no more feedback will ever be forthcoming.

(Hint – never start to argue or justify your side of it, just thank them and accept the feedback very graciously and ponder on it honestly).

Great leaders – like the fictional character Bartlett that Martin Sheen plays so effectively – value both the very feedback they are given by acting on it constructively, as well as respecting the generosity and courage shown by the employee who has the kindness to offer it.

We see feedback as a one-way street – often interpreted by employees as ‘criticism’ (and negatively as a consequence) – where we dole it out downwards when we lead others (often more for our benefit than theirs).

Where we graciously accept feedback given that is intended to help us ourselves evolve, we make best use of the gift for our own benefits and also show our people that it adds value and is to be appreciated, which, in turn, makes it much more likely for them to value too when they are on the receiving end.

When we accept and look into feedback that seems hard to take, we are being provided with a perception of us that sometimes – often indeed – is just where our blind spot is.

And that’s such a valuable steer for someone to take the time and trouble to share with us.

Filed under Blog, Building the Future, Developing Your People, Management Basics, Managing Me by Martin

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