“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly”

PaineWhat we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

It is the last year of President Bartlet’s second term. His confidant and former Chief of Staff is recovering from double bypass surgery. President Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis is forcing him to severely curtail activity. Key staff are leaving to support candidates for the coming election, brainpower is diminished, relationships are strained and everyone feels defeated, thinking that “it’s over.”

Reenter Leo, the former Chief of Staff, who comes back to help. He spends the first day observing the staff deal with crisis after crisis, not having a moment to talk to him about the strategy for the final year.

After kicking the President in the butt for feeling sorry for himself about his MS, Leo and the President assemble the staff at 10PM, and Leo proceeds to put a mirror up in front of each of the staff members, highlighting how they are allowing their busy-ness to keep them from the real work that needs to be done. He reads the Thomas Paine quote, above, to remind them that, as hard as it is, the feeling of doing something great is worth the hard work. They smile, and begin talking about their strategies for the remaining 364 days.

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of The West Wing; it may be idealistic fiction, but the messages are outstanding. This is a really good one and so timely for today’s organization. We put out fire after fire, we work ourselves silly, and we still end up like hamsters on a wheel.

We are so busy that we look for the easy way to get something done, without taking the time to think about what really is the problem. We throw solutions at issues, hoping they’ll work. When they don’t, we find new solutions.

It’s time to stop. The work of an organization is hard. It requires dedication and commitment to a common vision that excites and energizes. It requires leadership that is open to feedback, capable of really listening and having the courage to say stop.

The real work of the organization is actually simple. People are generally smart, and want to do good work. They have ideas which, when unleashed, make the work of the organization better. What foundation needs to be in place to unleash this energy?


It needs to be compelling, and it needs to be omnipresent. Someone needs to keep it in front of the team every moment of every day. It can be different “someones;” everyone has their moment of doubt, but others must pick it up. It takes continuously asking the key question, “is the work we are doing contributing to the vision?” If not, stop it.


The only way to hold a mirror in front of others is to have their trust. Without trust, there isn’t much point. Without trust, hard work is not energizing, it is demoralizing. The key question here, “can we trust each other to work toward the vision?


Trust enables honest and open communication, which allows asking the key question, “are we doing the right things to accomplish the vision?”


I heard someone say “leadership is a team sport.” Not a bad analogy, because keeping the vision, the energy and the focus requires leadership to be on the same page, to pick each other up when necessary, to call each other out when appropriate.


Time is a precious thing these days, and focusing on what is important requires collective thinking about what is really important. A disciplined approach to continuously reviewing the work that is being done, the energy of the people and the organizational results is necessary to put the busy-ness on hold for a moment.

Hard Work

It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work.  However, we don’t mind working hard when we see great things ahead. The great things don’t have to be White House level to be energizing. They can be as simple as figuring out the real problem and collectively solving it. Give it a try.

3 thoughts on ““What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly”

  1. Watching the episodes through for a 2nd time and this is one of my favourite episodes too. I have found it inspiring seeing a team work so hard and so well together and sometimes not, especially with how inattentive Josh is to Donna’s career path. I have to say CJ is great as is Toby. Top programme

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