I’ve watched The West Wing start to finish no fewer than 30 times. And if we’re talking individual episodes, I guarantee you can triple that for “Celestial Navigation,” “Two Cathedrals,” and “Posse Comitatus”—because sometimes I need a good cry.

Friends have begged me to broaden my episodic horizons. Watch Breaking Bad, they said. Game of Thrones, Stranger Things. When I give them polite nods and blank looks around the watercooler, they implore me to step into the worlds of The Office, Veep, and Ted Lasso.

No, thanks. I’m good with Sam and Josh and Toby and C.J. and Charlie and Leo and President Bartlet. I like it here on the fictional Pennsylvania Avenue of the early aughts. These characters feel like old friends. Their stories are hot chicken soup to my achy and feverish soul.

I may be in a rut when it comes to my TV, but I like it.

And that’s how ruts get you. They tempt you with their comfy trappings, their cushy chairs and warm blankets. They lure you to linger with a pervasive, but not unnerving, sense of well-being. They lull you into a state of indifference, if not relative satisfaction, and keep things blissfully knowable and safe. Why would you ever leave?

But for a leader, safety is the refuge of the uninspired. You may have achieved a certain level of professional success. You may have a position you love, a routine that works for you, and a team that trusts you. You may feel complacent, even content.

Or you may just be in a nice, predictable, comfortable rut.

How To Know When You’re in a Rut

Being in a rut, even a nice one, can prevent you from growing as a leader. It can blind you to new opportunities, keep you from adapting to changing circumstances, and kill your motivation. So, be on the lookout for these signs that you may be stuck and, if you are, try these simple steps to help you break free:

  • You’re bored. You know the feeling: monotony, fatigue, even sleepiness. You’re just going through the motions, and the motions are so familiar and mundane that you could do them with your eyes closed.

What To Do: Get curious. Volunteer to tackle a new task or a project outside your normal scope. Seek out a mentor or coach who will switch up your methods and challenge you to grow.

  • You avoid risk. Like the captain of a ship that never leaves port, you stick to the status quo and stay the (same old) course. This may be hard to hear, but you fear failure, rejection, and criticism.

What To Do: Adopt a growth mindset. Right. How do we do that, again? Try to see your failures as merely first tries. Armed with valuable new information, you’re much more likely to embrace the risk of a second attempt—and a third.

  • You’re overconfident. Complacency results when you think you have learned all there is to learn. Even the best of us can get caught in the trap of “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

What To Do: Bring in fresh blood. Seek out input and feedback from others who are different from you and have varying experiences and perspectives. Challenge yourself to listen and learn.

A Rut Is a Rut Is a Rut

Ruts are well-worn for a reason. I return to West Wing over and over again because I know what’s coming. Even the dramatic and exciting bits, like when Josh gets shot or Zoey is abducted or C.J. has to select which turkey to pardon, play as a familiar and comforting refrain for me, like a verse from a favorite song that unexpectedly comes over the radio.

In a world and time of great change, that predictability is incredibly appealing. But it keeps my perspective narrow. The more I re-watch Jed Bartlet, the less I learn of Selina Meyer. The more I stick to Sorkin, the less I explore, well, just about anyone else writing for television these days.

The point is, even if I like it, a rut is a rut. And to fulfill my potential as a leader, I need to branch out.

So, what series should I watch next?

Sarah Stall

Author Sarah Stall

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