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Leadership Secrets of The West Wing

“I’m like Gatsby, but without the problems” (Jed Bartlet, The West Wing, Season 3)

IMG_0458It’s the summer so the box sets reappear and inevitably eat up more time than intended. I can’t stay away from The West Wing for very long at all, I’ve written about it before and about the love and admiration I have for the writing of Aaron Sorkin. The escapism and almost simultaneous optimism about, particularly leaders, is so very attractive. So this anomalous post is partly something I always daydream about being “commissioned” to do and inspired by posts like that of @TeacherTweaks  where Debbie (I think) looks forward to her own professional development needs as an Assistant Head and broadly as a leader as the new year approaches all too quickly – it’s a great reflective and honest post.

For anyone who has never seen or heard of The West Wing, first of all, put away the Breaking Bad DVDs and find The West Wing. It’s set in a fictional White House with a fictional Democratic president, Jed Bartlet, and his staff navigating their way through both running the nation and the “numbskull” stuff that pops up like targets in an old fashioned shooting gallery. “Chewing gum for the mind” my Dad would call it, but with every re-run and re-watch it underlines the quality of the writing, drama and messages that endure. It’s a drama about people first and foremost and about what they can be in the best and the worst of situations but it ranges into wider considerations of “modern” leadership (if such a thing exists).

“…there is no singular way of capturing leadership because it is pluralistic. Leadership is not monolithic, it is many things. (Southworth, Geoff, 2004, “Learning centered leadership : the only way to go http://research.acer.edu.au/apc_monographs/11 )IMG_0459

At its height of popularity the show was lampooned for what became its signature style, the “walk and talk”, a phrase that an ex colleague of mine actually used to name line management meetings where the participants would walk together, staying visible and as a presence, whilst having their meeting. In the show this was the fast walking shots and quick dialogue as characters moved on to their next meeting or engagement. With this was the signature phrase of the president, “what’s next?” At the start of Season 2, in a flashback he clarifies what is meant by this. That he understands and has enough information about what has gone before and wants to move on, he sets a pace and has a revolver like capacity for information and tasks. Bartlet’s mind moves quickly and looks to the future – to what is “coming next”. He is, quintessentially, always looking forward.

“Leadership learning is best seen as a series of complex relationships, often unpredictable, of varying levels of significance and multiple modes of engagement.” (West-Burnham, J, 2003, “Learning to Lead”)

The president is always reading in the show. In some episodes he makes direct reference to the fact he has to “learn something”, be it about National Parks or Farming. He is continually learning and, particularly in reference to military matters where it is made clear he is at a loss, he takes advice and grows in confidence. This was a promise I made to myself almost a year ago now: that if I didn’t know the answer to a question, I would admit that, but ensure that I found it out. I think I did this more often than not. The more frustrating aspect of my experience of leadership is more likely the moment when we “know” the answer but we can’t make ourselves heard.

“I recommend travelling with a good theory because theories never assume absolute certainty and are humble in the face of the future.” (Fullan, M, 2008, “The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do To Help Their Organisations Survive and Thrive”)

The show is unapologetically liberal in its outlook and makes direct reference to this in many many episodes, culminating in a wonderful episode in the final season where, during a presidential debate, Democratic candidate for president, Matt Santos, defends this position from the masterful Alan Alda as the John McCain like Republican candidate. The “theory” or position allows the characters to debate many issues, modelling a model of almost “group think” where, importantly they don’t always agree but they do find a way to ensure that everyone stays “on message”. The individuality of the characters is underlined constantly, their disagreements, the personal “baggage” that they bring, but is evened out by those scenes where they rehearse as a group the communication that they will pass to the president or to the media. They each have a hand. Not always equal, and in some cases, senior staff are kept “on the outside”, but the message remains the same.

“Few issues are more important to effective leading than deciding what will be the reasons why others are being asked to follow.” (Sergiovanni, T, 2003, “A Cognitive Approach to Leadership”)

Of the facets of Jed Bartlet’s character that fascinate me is his intellect. He is the antithesis of the image of the American President that we, in the UK, have from particularly the 1980s. He is supremely intelligent, a Nobel Laureate (Economics), speaks four languages and knows something about almost everything. The show deals with this as an image, that the intellect may almost be a factor about him that alienates some of his constituents, to the extent that he “dumbs down” until he is met by James Brolin’s “plain speaking” Governor Ritchie, the Republican challenger for Presidency with his famous “six word answer”. The show champions the fact that we should be reassured by the intellect of our leaders and, in fact, we should almost expect it from them. A position of leadership requires nuance and a wide ranging view of knowledge and experience. It’s not something that can be summed up in soundbites. It is complex and the respect that we should give it requires that we expect intelligence and thought – it is this which gives us the direction we crave.

“Teachers, for example, ought to follow not because leaders are clever manipulators who know which motivational buttons to press, or are pleasant persons who are fun to be with, but because leaders stand for something, are persons of substance and base their practice on ideas.” (Sergiovanni, T, 2003, “A Cognitive Approach to Leadership”)

The Senior Staff of The West Wing are a team. There is a clear hierarchy that works in a way that I have only experienced, or rather heard of, in one school. The President is, obviously, the figurehead, he has a Chief of Staff who has a Deputy Chief of Staff. This is complemented by the Communications Director with his Deputy and a Press Secretary. Speaking is plain and work is hard but collaborative and full of debate and discussion. They fall out but put these moments behind them swiftly, always considering their support for each other. They are not necessarily friends and many of the characters are shown as weak and with frailty but they stand next to each other more often than not. Indulge me by indulging in this wonderful extract of dialogue:

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“…leaders become lead followers who join with others in a shared commitment to the school’s idea framework.” (Sergiovanni, T, 2003, “A Cognitive Approach to Leadership”)

The John West-Burnham quote from the beginning of this post seems a reasonable place to, circularly, draw a conclusion to this labour of love that, if you’re still reading, I must thank you. Leadership is best seen a “series of complex relationships”. I’ve been lucky enough to deliver a course before the summer a few times to colleagues who are looking to take on leadership posts, middle leadership – specifically Head of English – and it may seem a far drawn conclusion to link that to the portrayal of a fictional American President. But it’s the theory that’s intact in the centre of the bubble I’ve been blowing here. Every time you look at the next job and doubt your ability to do it, you’re probably right. You know yourself best but you do need to take a breath for a moment and remind yourself of a few things The West Wing will tell you. You won’t be doing it on your own. You may be the cleverest and brightest person in the room and, if you are, don’t be afraid to show it – don’t allow yourself to be dumbed down by other peoples’ assumptions about what it means to be clever. Keep learning and reading and listening, above all else, listen, because, the likelihood is, if you’re leading well, there’s a chance that you won’t be the brightest person in the room. Listen to the advice and the counsel from those around you, both senior and otherwise and use this to allow you to make decisions before you decide “what’s next”. Above all, have the integrity to “travel with a good theory”. Substance can never really be measured, and, if you’re saying what you really mean, at least most of the time, it’s a hell of a lot easier to remember it than if you’re cleverly constructing something you “think” people want.

“Leaders have to provide direction, create the conditions for effective peer interaction, and intervene along the way when things are not working as well as they could.” (Fullan, M, 2008, “The Six Secrets of Change”)

So I’ll wait for the book offer for “The Leadership Secrets of The West Wing” (I have dibs, in case any of you were thinking of sneaking in there). The beauty of a blog is its support to allow reflection, like Debbie’s post I mentioned at the start of this one, I don’t assume an authority at all, I have written what I recognise in something of quality that relates to the job I love. Most of all, in the writing, we often discover what it really was we were thinking all along.

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