A lesson from the West Wing

| April 11, 2018

In the Take this Sabbath Day episode of hit US TV show The West Wing, President Bartlett is asked by his senior staff to consider commuting the death sentence of a convicted drug dealer whose appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court.

The advisors seek their own advice from various sources including a rabbi, and a Quaker campaign adviser.  President Bartlett, a devout Catholic, requests his parish priest, Father Tom Cavanaugh, come to the White House for his guidance on the matter.

President Bartlett had his advisers look for a way the public would find palatable to commute the sentence.  But in the end, he tells the Priest “I’m the leader of a democracy, Tom. 71% of the people support capital punishment. The people have spoken. The courts have spoken.”

Father Cavanaugh asks if President Bartlett has prayed about the issue, and the President replies that he had prayed for wisdom.  “And none came?” Father Cavanaugh asks to which the President replies “It never has. And I’m a little pissed off about that.”

Father Cavanaugh then tells the President the parable of the ‘The man who lived by the river’.

You know, you remind me of a man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town and that all residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.”

The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, “hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.”

A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and take you to safety!” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him, and that God would take him to safety.

Well …. The man drowned.

And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded and audience with God. “Lord,” he said “I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?”

So, put aside the underlying reason why Father Cavanaugh told this parable – I’m not going to debate the rights and wrongs of capital punishment – and let’s focus on the message of the parable.  There are actually two messages to me and they both relate to business.

The first message is this parable makes me think about our expectations and how we sometimes miss the blessings around us because we are too focused on them appearing the way, or by the means, we want or expect.  Sometimes we don’t even realise our prayers have been answered because it didn’t happen the way we had in mind.

One reason people leave good paying and secure jobs and go out on their own is they think they’ll be richer and better off.  More often than not they are disappointed and frustrated that this hasn’t eventuated or is taking a lot longer than they expect.  What they don’t see though is they have greater flexibility and freedom as to how to spend their day and prioritise both their work and home life.

There are only three reasons to be in business – to make money, to ‘fun’ have, or to make money and have fun.  I think a lot of new business owners get into trouble because they feel they don’t meet their own expectations or goals.  I have never been asked by a client what my business goals are – it’s not important to them and they are your goals.  Be nice to yourself and manage expectations.

The second lesson is simple – focused, successful people are often myopic.  The parable asks you to think about the messages, signals, factors that you might be missing by being so myopic.  To change from ‘buying a job’ to ‘building a business’ the blinkers need to come off and you need to focus working on the business and not in the business.

Read more about these ideas in my book Run Your Business Better and visit Byronvale Advisors for one-on-one consultations.