Tag Archives: The West Wing

Privacy – What Could Be More Fundamental Than This?

Sam Seaborn:
It’s not about abortion. It’s about the next 20 years. Twenties and thirties, it was the role of government. Fifties and sixties, it was civil rights. The next two decades, it’s gonna be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cellphones. I’m talking about health records, and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on a will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?
The West Wing — “The Short List”
Story By: Aaron Sorkin & Dee Dee Myers (script here).


I keep thinking about business decisions, and how much impact they have on others.

And I keep thinking about personal decisions, and how much impact they have on others.

And I keep thinking about when to make what public.  But, it may not be up to the company, or the individual, to say…  Not anymore.

Technology keeps moving forward.  What we can do, we seem to do.  And, so, if I can put a message on Facebook, everybody has a chance of seeing it.  And, if someone else has a message about me, a photo of me, a video of me, and if I am famous enough, or important enough, or silly enough, there is a pretty good chance it will spread far and wide.

In the first season of The West Wing, there is a “shoo-in” supreme court appointee who is rejected by President Bartlet because of his understanding of privacy.

The episode first aired in November, 1999, pretty much before any of us had high-speed for the internet, long before Twitter and MySpace were born, quite a few years before Facebook became so omnipresent. The script was written by Dee Dee Myers, and Aaron Sorkin, who recently wrote the screen-play for the movie The Social Network, about Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg.

In the news this week, Facebook’s security was breached, and a whole lot of information about actual people went tumbling out for many to see.

It’s being claimed that some of the most popular applications on Facebook have been transmitting information identifying users.
The company said that it would introduce new technology to limit the security breach.
Facebook developer Mike Vernal blogged: ” We take user privacy seriously. We are dedicated to protecting private user data.”
(Read the story here).

I do realize that I can choose what to post in my Facebook page, and in/on my Tweets.

But in a world where people secretly (and publicly) take pictures, and videos, and put them up for the world to see, it seems that this discussion of privacy from the first season of The West Wing is eerily prescient, and a still unsettled issue of our day.

“What could be more fundamental than this?” asked Sam Seaborn.  It’s a good question.

What’s Next? – Tomorrow is Next; and Coming Faster than Ever Before (insight from James Surowiecki)

When all is said and done, one leadership task that simply has to come from the leader, and only the leader, is the answer to this question:  “what about tomorrow?”

Verne Harnish put it this way (In Mastering the Rockefeller Habits): The two most important attributes of effective leaders are their abilities to predict and to delegate. It’s the “to predict” attribute that is critical.

Think of all the times, in movies, and in life, that someone has said, in one way or another, “what now, boss?”


"What's Next?" - "Tomorrow" is always "what's next..."


(Here comes my brief West Wing homage).  For example, the entire seven seasons of The West Wing can practically be summarized in one phrase:  “what’s next?”

When Jed Bartlet is in the early stages of his campaign, and his new young crew is laying out the terrain, he says: “What’s next?” – and then, When I ask, “What’s next?”, it means that I’m ready to move on to other things. So, what’s next?” When Josh Lyman is on his near-death bed at the end of “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” President Bartlet leans forward to hear Josh ask in a whisper “What’s next?’’ And when new President Santos, in his last scene of the show, finishes a quick meeting on his first day on the job, he says to Josh, his new Chief of staff, “What’s Next?”

And President Bartlett, when asked by Mrs. Bartlet what he is thinking about as he flies home no longer the President, says simply:  “Tomorrow.”

I thought of all of this as I read this article by James Surowiecki (a columnist for The New Yorker): The Next Level. Here are some lengthy excerpts.  (The entire article is worth a careful reading…)

Blockbuster’s demise, for one, was inextricably linked to the success of Netflix. But this raises a deeper question: why didn’t the category killers colonize the Web the way they colonized suburbia? That was what pundits expected. Companies like Blockbuster, the argument went, had customer expertise, sophisticated inventory management, and strong brands. And, unlike the new Internet companies, they’d be able to offer customers both e-commerce and physical stores—“clicks and mortar.” It seemed like the perfect combination.

The problem—in Blockbuster’s case, at least—was that the very features that people thought were strengths turned out to be weaknesses. Blockbuster’s huge investment, both literally and psychologically, in traditional stores made it slow to recognize the Web’s importance: in 2002, it was still calling the Net a “niche” market. And it wasn’t just the Net. Blockbuster was late on everything—online rentals, Redbox-style kiosks, streaming video. There was a time when customers had few alternatives, so they tolerated the chain’s limited stock, exorbitant late fees (Blockbuster collected about half a billion dollars a year in late fees), and absence of good advice about what to watch. But, once Netflix came along, it became clear that you could have tremendous variety, keep movies as long as you liked, and, thanks to the Netflix recommendation engine, actually get some serviceable advice. (Places like Netflix and Amazon have demonstrated the great irony that computer algorithms can provide a more personalized and engaging customer experience than many physical stores.) Then Redbox delivered the coup de grâce, offering new Hollywood releases for just a dollar.

Why didn’t Blockbuster evolve more quickly? In part, it was because of what you could call the “internal constituency” problem: the company was full of people who had been there when bricks-and-mortar stores were hugely profitable, and who couldn’t believe that those days were gone for good. Blockbuster treated its thousands of stores as if they were a protective moat, when in fact they were the business equivalent of the Maginot Line. The familiar sunk-cost fallacy made things worse. Myriad studies have shown that, once decision-makers invest in a project, they’re likely to keep doing so, because of the money already at stake. Rather than dramatically shrinking both the size and the number of its stores, Blockbuster just kept throwing good money after bad.

Netflix isn’t going to have decades in which to bask in its success. Its domination of the DVD-rental market comes just as people are moving toward streaming and downloadable video. As has already happened with music, the business of renting and selling movies will soon be about moving digital files rather than physical objects. Streaming is already a big part of Netflix’s business, and it has signed up partnerships to let consumers get movies via video-game machines, Blu-Ray players, and so on. But this is a market in which Netflix’s expertise in shipping red envelopes as quickly and efficiently as possible will no longer be a competitive advantage. It’s a market that’s already quite crowded—with Amazon, Apple, the cable companies, and now Google (which just rolled out its own TV product) all competing. And it’s a market that remains wide open technologically—no one really knows how, or on what devices, most people will watch movies in the future. In this environment, it would be easy for Netflix to fall back on its safety cushion, milk the existing DVD business for all it’s worth, and try to slow down customers’ migration into streaming, particularly since a customer who streams movies is less lucrative than one who rents three DVDs a month. But then, a decade from now, we’d be writing Netflix obituaries that sounded just like the ones for Blockbuster. Sometimes you have to destroy your business in order to save it.

This is a nice and to-the-point description of the changing terrain in one industry.  But it is an object lesson for most other business arenas.

What will tomorrow be like?  What’s next? Getting there early, and then being willing to jettison what got us there to get to the next tomorrow, the next new, new thing, is quite a challenge in this ever-shifting world.

“Opportunity Cost” and Botched Priorities – a Never-Ending Challenge

Here’s a brief slice of dialogue from The West Wing, Take This Sabbath:

I gotta tell you, Sam, this was bungled. We were totally unprepared for this.

What the hell are you…?

We were caught in the headlights…



Opportunity Cost:
“Any time you are doing something, you could be doing something else.”
(This definition comes from the Real John Green, from his VLOG brothers video, I Hate Pennies).

Let’s start here.  You really cannot do two things at once.  And that is ok, except that sometimes the thing that you are doing is keeping you from the thing it would have been better to do.

That was the situation in the West Wing episode, quoted above.  And this is the problem described by “opportunity cost:” – when you are doing something, you could be doing something else.

Now, we see this all the time.  While I am reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis, I cannot be reading the book Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System — and Themselves by Andrew Ross Sorkin. Which is the more important book to read?  I do not know.  I’ve only read The Big Short, and not the other book.  When I could have read the other book, I was doing other things, like writing blog posts about not having time to read the Sorkin book.

Do you see the problem?

I thought of all this as I was reminded again of a real world problem in business.  Take the classic dilemma:  “the average American company is over-managed and under-led.”  Let’s say that this is, in fact, true (by the way, I’ve argued that the average company is actually both under-managed and under-led.  Read that post here).

Consider this problem.  A person who is really good at a job is then promoted to supervise/manage/lead/oversee others doing that job.  The person is really good at doing the job, but really, really bad at providing the kind of leadership to help others do their job better.  Picture a good sales person promoted to sales manager, and failing, because he/she is good at sales, but bad at managing — or, a good engineer, promoted to managing engineers, is good at engineering, but bad at managing.  This kind of situation happens in all areas of business, over and over and over again.  The list can get long in a hurry.

In fact, I recently spoke to an audience where an engineer said to me:  “my boss said that he knows he is not any good at leading people.  He was just an engineer promoted to management, and he never should have been promoted.  And he knows that.”

It is a bad, discouraging, energy draining thing to work for such a boss.

I have a proposed solution.  When a person is bad at managing people, that person should spend the next six months working on developing much better managing people skills.  Really.

You don’t get better by accident.  At anything!

Now, I would suggest that the place to start on this project is to read a good book on how to manage better.  And I would recommend this book to start with:  Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others by Kouzes and Posner.  (You can purchase my synopsis of this book here, with handout + audio, on our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com).

I’m going to write more about this problem in coming days/weeks.  But let me simply begin with this:  if your job is leading/managing/supervising/encouraging people, and you are not very good at it, then spend time getting better at it.  You can only do one thing at once.  Let your next thing be to get better at leading/managing/building people.  Your people need you to do this – starting now.

So start.

This Might Help You Focus – A Time/Time Management Reminder

Leo McGarry with President Bartlet

I am slowly re-watching some of my favorite episodes from The West Wing.  In the episode 365 Days, Leo – after his heart attack, no longer chief of staff – is called in to “help out.”  It is the day after President Bartlett’s final State of the Union address.  At the end of the episode, in a very busy day, with the staff depleted (they are off trying to help the next President get elected), and a dawning realization that ”time is running out,” Leo meets with President Bartlett and his now smaller circle of key advisors, and he writes these three numbers on a White Board:


and then he says:

“…Busy day around here today…. Problem is we’re running out of them.”
Leo looks at the board and then goes and erases the ‘5’ of ‘365’ and replaces it with a ‘4’ and adds the word ‘days’ and circles it and says,
“That’s how much time we have left. We have the ability to effect more change in a day in the White House than we will have in a lifetime once we walk out these doors. What do you want to do with them?”

This is always the time management question – what will you do, what will you accomplish, with the days you have left?

And remember Alan Lakein’s timeless question:

“What is the best use of my time right now?”

Aaron Sorkin Reminds Us To Keep Our Focus

Folks, a lot of people got killed last night. Let’s try to keep our eyes on the ball, okay?
(Fictional President Andrew Shepherd, The American President, after the press corps wants to know more about his private life than about the international incident that prompted the press conference).


Aaron Sorkin -- could somebody please talk him into writing a business book!

If Aaron Sorkin wrote a business book, I would immediately buy it, consume it, and then most certainly put it at the top of any list I compiled as the best business book ever.  Not because he knows much about business (I don’t know if he does or not), but because I am addicted to anything/everything he writes and puts on the screen.  Take your pick:  The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and of course the greatest program in the history of television that never found enough of its audience, Sports Night.  (and this is not all).

I realize this is a business book and business issues blog.  And I’m quoting from an article by Sorkin written about quite a controversy regarding a Newsweek contributor’s opinion regarding a gay actor playing straight — definitely not on subject for this blog.

But…  the article is Now That You Mention It, Rock Hudson Did Seem Gay, written for the Huffington Post. And, here’s the paragraph:

When I need the audience to know that a piece of information they’re about to hear is important, I can use words, a close-up, a push-in, music… when the authors of the no-longer-private-lives “A” story want the audience to know that something’s important, it shows up on our Yahoo homepage. (The third story on my homepage yesterday was that Britain, our closest ally, has a new Prime Minister. The first story was about Justin Bieber. Unless the new Prime Minister is Justin Bieber, something’s obviously gone wrong.)

And here’s the lesson.  It is an old lesson.  A society that becomes consumed with trivia is a society that really does need to pay attention to the right issues.  And Sorkin rather passionately makes that argument in this article.

And for business people, the lesson is this:  focus on the right things, and do not, ever, get bogged down on the wrong things.  Your moments are incredibly precious.  Do not waste any of them on inconsequential trivia.  You’ve got important matters to think about and plan and implement.  Stay focused and get to it!

Let’s try to keep our eyes on the ball, okay?

Trying to Make a Difference? – Tell a Story Well (Here’s One: Norman Borlaug, and the Rockefeller Foundation)

Without question, foundations are the primary source of start-up support of a whole spectrum of civic-sector organizations on the left, right, and center…  foundations often continue to support for many years organizations they helped to start.  Moreover, foundations provide civic-sector organizations with the wherewithal to launch the widest possible variety of major new initiatives.
Joel Fleishman: The Foundation — A Great American Secret: How Private Wealth is Changing the World


Yesterday, I spoke at the Leadership Academy for the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance.  (I asked if Peyton Manning would be there, but he couldn’t make it.  Something about getting ready for some big game on Sunday against the Patriots…).

The other speaker for this Leadership Academy was Mark Sedway, director of the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative.  He spoke about, among other things, the power of stories — that telling stories well is a powerful way to make a difference.  I agree.  One of his current projects is this: helping Foundations tell their stories in ways that get heard.

So, I have a question for you:  do you know what Foundations have brought to this world?  I could tell you many stories, but here’s one worth telling and re-telling.

Have you ever heard of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug?  He died in September of this year at the age of 95.  He didn’t accomplish much in his life other than saving one billion lives.  So, yes, the real story is about the genius and the determination and the hard, hard work of Norman Borlaug and the team he pulled together.  But it is also the story of the foresight and focus of the Rockefeller Foundation, who made his work possible.

Here’s a quick summary of the Borlaug “miracle” in a moving scene from Season 2 of The West Wing (“In This White House” — script here).  (And, I’m sad to say, I had not heard much about Borlaug until this West Wing episode, and then I started reading…)

It was called dwarf wheat, which produces heavy yields without its stalk falling over from the weight of the grain.

Was it a hybrid?

What am I, Farmer Bob? It was wheat, and there was more than there used to be.
You ever read Paul Erlich’s book?

“The Population Bomb”?

Yeah. He wrote it in 1968. Erlich said it was a fantasy that India would ever feed itself.
Then Norman Borlaug comes along. See the problem was wheat is top-heavy. It was falling over on itself and it took up too much space. The dwarf wheat… guys, it was an agricultural revolution that was credited with saving one billion lives.


Foundations are not perfect, and the stories are not always as successful as the Borlaug story.  But – one billion lives saved.  It’s enough to justify a lot of false starts and half-successes.

There are many other Foundation success stories  (ever heard of Sesame Street?).  But I think it may be tough to top the Norman Borlaug story.  And this story is equally the story of one foundation:  the Rockefeller Foundation, and its determination to do something that mattered.  People lived that would have died because of the decision to hire Norman Borlaug and give him the resources he needed to pull off his “miracle.”

Norman Bourlaug

Norman Borlaug: The Green Giant

We could all benefit if we learned a few more of the great stories of what Foundations accomplish.  (And you might start by reading Fleishman’s book, The Foundation).