Lessons from The West Wing #2 – Parable of the man that lived by the river

In the episode ‘Take this Sabbath Day’, President Bartlett is being is being 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 said “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 asked if president Bartlett had prayed, and the President replied that he had, and prayed for wisdom.  “And none came?” Father Cavanaugh asked to which the President replied “It never has. And I’m a little pissed off about that.”  Father Cavanaugh then told the President the parable of the ‘The Man who lived by the river’ (above).

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

The first message is this parable makes me think about our expectations and how we sometimes miss the blessing/missed being blessed because we are too focused on it 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 and is that 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.

Both these topics are addressed in my new book “Run Your Business Better– Essential information every business owner should know” which will be available in print and eBook towards the end of June 2017.

Stephen Barnes, Managing Director, Byronvale Advisors

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