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The Romance of the Professional

Extraordinary competence. Single-minded dedication. Infallible instincts about what's important. The most intriguing TV characters are also the best employees
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The conclusion of Homeland’s second season last month left many of us with two kinds of depression. First, the depression worn into the edges of our seats, where our rear ends spent most of each adrenalin-soaked hour. Second, the depression that follows the adieux of any quality series whose characters and stories merge with and enhance our lives for eight or twelve weeks every year.

Fortunately, I still have three seasons remaining of The West Wing on DVD. I missed that program’s first run due to the absence of Tivo and the presence of young children in my home. It’s a good time to catch up: West Wing tickles the same pleasure centers of my brain as Homeland. That’s not because both shows are set in Washington, D.C., involve the highest of stakes, and don’t pretend anyone’s love life is as compelling a subject as national security. No, what I love about those two programs--and others including Mad Men, The X-Files, and Breaking Bad--is that they are about people who are really, really good at their jobs.

People call the The West Wing “Democratic porn.” I call it “professional porn.” Or--since that sounds like a San Fernando Valley export--let’s try “the romance of the professional.”

I became aware of my weakness for this stuff last year, while churning through six seasons of Breaking Bad. I had earlier abandoned that show after a few episodes. Walter White was a loser, and Jesse was worse. The villains were crude and stupid. Who cared about these people? But a critical mass of best-show-on-television chatter sent me back. I watched as Walter exploited his genius at chemistry, combining the precision of a scientist with the artistry of a great chef to create methamphetamine of unparalleled quality. All great characters grow and develop. So, too, did Walter, who is now also a drug lord, dominating his adversaries not by being scary but by being scary smart. (OK, sometimes he’s a little scary.) Similarly, Mike, the hit man, was a maestro of literal execution; Gus, a brilliant entrepreneur and master of business synergies (fast food and narcotics); Hank, the shrewdest agent in the DEA. Even hapless Jesse is now a first-rate cook thanks to Walter’s hard-love tutelage. Don’t mentor stories make your eyes well up?

Yes, everything these characters do is just awful. But they do it so well, so effortlessly. I can’t exercise my moral condemnation muscle because I’m too damn busy being impressed.

Aaron Sorkin, of course, is the grand poobah of professionalism. His characters on The West Wing are not only preternaturally smart but also quintessential craftsmen, strategic and tactical wizards, and--perhaps most impressive--unfailingly accurate judges of what is and is not important and how much attention should be paid to each issue. In Sorkin’s early sitcom, Sports Night, TV journalists ride high on crackerjack repartee and stories of mythic athleticism. I don’t give a hoot about sports. But the team’s show-in-show broadcasts, complete with pull-off-that-powerful-human-story-at-the-last-minute drama, made my pulse flutter.

So, too, are Sorkin’s White House characters, who make masterful policy by never putting a word wrong. The actor Josh Malina appears on both Sports Night and The West Wing as an owlish wonk and fact repository with a soul-deep commitment to what is right and true in each show’s context. There’s a moment in The West Wing’s fourth season in which Malina’s character, an unknown temporary speechwriter named Will Bailey, shyly reveals his facility with words and ideas to White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler. In a weird way, it is as sexy as any scene of a frumped-up beauty doffing her glasses before the leading man.

(There are many more romance-of-the professional examples, including House and The Good Wife. I just don’t watch ‘em. Sorkin’s Studio 60 and the current Newsroom are platonic ideals of ro-pro programming but compromised by flaws not germane to this discussion.)

And here, at last, we arrive at the lesson for business. More and more, I hear people bragging that they hire for fit and train for skills. That makes sense: a cohesive culture is critical to organizational success. If you accept that none of us is as good as all of us (which I don’t, by the way) then the facility for teamwork and collaboration is paramount. Ro-pro quality performers pose a risk. The addition of one to an organization can either clot the cream or curdle it.

Ro-pro performers tend to be right about things. And if they care deeply about their jobs (and they all care deeply about their jobs) they will fight the hard fight until their points carry the day. The pursuit of perfection energizes them at the same time it exhausts everyone else--and may, from a practical standpoint, be unnecessary. And they have difficulty embracing failure--everyone’s favorite mantra--because they both perceive failure as personal (even when it isn’t) and believe that the world is somehow diminished because of it.

Bipolar disorder notwithstanding, how many companies would hire Carrie Mathiesen if they knew how she operates? How many would hire The X-Files’ Fox Mulder? Josh Malina’s characters would get jobs (he’s an unassuming kind of guy), but would the organizations that hire him have patience with his ideals or perfectionism? Would they promote him? Or would they stick him in the corner near the supply cabinet and look the other way when he tentatively raises his hand?

Ideally, I suppose, you would hire an entire staff of people like those on The West Wing: talented, dedicated, and willing--when they do disagree--to argue civilly to a conclusion that generally turns out to be the best one possible. Running an operation like that, or just working there, would be heaven. If I could have any job in the world I’d ask to be on the communications staff of the Bartlet White House, although, as a non-ro-pro-performer, I would be way intimidated. And of course assembling a workforce as uniformly remarkable as that has proved impossible even for real Presidents.

Business is business. Entertainment is entertainment. You can’t fill your company with Aaron Sorkin characters. But don’t establish policies that would keep them out or a culture in which they wouldn’t feel comfortable.

Last updated: Jan 4, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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