Lessons From The West Wing: Building Relational Capacity

November 15 2017


  • Brian Williams, Principal, Windsor Middle School, Windsor, CA
    Brian Williams
    Principal, Windsor Middle School, Windsor, CA

I’m going to make a bold statement here: President Josiah Bartlet from the television show The West Wing is the greatest fictional president of all time. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, was able to write lines that, when delivered by Martin Sheen, would rival Kenneth Branagh in Henry V. While it may seem odd to spend time on a blog post about the importance of administrators creating a culture of kindness, and how that leads to better educational outcomes, by debating the merits of fictional presidents, there can be some lessons gleaned from an idealized fiction.

Presidents, or for that matter all leaders, have an obligation to inspire. For instance, in one episode of The West Wing, there is a line in a speech given by President Bartlet after a disaster where he seeks to comfort the nation by saying “every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.”

As school administrators we have a moral obligation to build in our staff the “capacity to meet the challenge” of educating today's students. However, in this instance, the capacity that we deal with is known as relational capacity, or the level of trust and safety between a teacher and a student. Our capacity to meet the needs of students can vary depending on what else is going on in life.  A teacher dealing with a personal illness may not, at that moment, have the capacity to deal with a challenging student. This is why a positive staff culture is essential for developing a positive school culture in order to ensure that collectively we can meet the needs of all students.

The way we work collectively and collaboratively as a staff is far more important and impactful than what any one of us can contribute to a school. None of us have the capacity to meet the needs of the 30 or 150 students we see each day. This is why it is imperative that we must learn to trust each other before we can earn the trust of our students.  

The question for all site administrators is this: how will you develop limitless collective capacity in your staff? How will you inspire others to forsake their own needs in order to meet the needs of others?  It begins at the top. It begins with modeling gratitude and kindness toward a staff so they may do the same toward students. Relational capacity is not only the teacher/student relationship, but it is also the teacher/teacher and teacher/administrator relationships.    

We do not live in a fictionalized world. Our decisions and abilities have consequences. However, we can be the hero in our own story. We can inspire others to do the impossible—to have “limitless capacity”. Yet despite the stark reality that we live in, there is still one part of me that will secretly hold out hope for Bartlet in 2020.  

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