Atop the stack of great books on my summer reading nightstand is Chris Whipple’s “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.” It was a great read the first time around, and, given all that’s transpired in the last couple weeks, I’m reading it again.
Whipple takes his readers inside the second most important job in the White House, showing how chiefs of staff are often the difference between success and disaster.
In his introduction, Whipple chronicles a December 2008 meeting in the West Wing, when all but two of the living chiefs of staff gathered in an unprecedented meeting to offer incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel some advice.
Their words are especially compelling right now.
Ken Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff, reminded the incoming chief, “Always remember that when you open your mouth, it is not you but the president who is speaking.”
“Always tell him (POTUS) what he may not want to hear – because frankly, a lot of people in the White House will always tell the president what he wants to hear,” advised Leon Panetta.
John Podesta told him to “slow down and listen.” Finally Donald Rumsfeld delivered the clincher. “You are NOT indispensable.”
In fact, the chief of staff has historically been a revolving-door-type position. The average tenure has only been about 18 months. However, all lasted longer than Reince Priebus who left just six months into the new administration.
His successor, retired Marine General and former Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, arrives at a critical time. The White House has been mired in internal squabbling and a stalled legislative agenda. His opportunity to restore discipline, maintain order and move the agenda will be an additional test of his leadership, a test he’s consistently passed with flying colors.
The advice of one of the two men who couldn’t attend that historic meeting in December 2008 may be the key. “You can focus on the ‘Chief,’ or you can focus on the ‘of Staff,” counseled James H. Baker, the only man to serve twice as chief of staff to two different presidents. “Those who have focused on the ‘of Staff’ have done pretty well.”
There’s no question that John Kelly is an exemplary leader. You don’t become a four-star general in the United States Marine Corps without demonstrating exceptional leadership ability every day.
His willingness to embrace Jim Baker’s model of servant leadership and “other-oriented” management is already evident. It began with his obvious recognition that experience and expertise really do matter. He clearly believes that staffing the most powerful office of the world is an awesome responsibility to the nation and the leadership of the free world.
Within hours of Kelly taking his post, Anthony Scaramucci, whose 10-day tenure as White House communications director was highlighted by a vulgarity-ridden interview he believed was “off the record,” was gone.
Kelly had won his first battle. There are many more to come.
“It’s a goddamn difficult job in the best of circumstances,” Jim Baker reminds us.
The principal challenges for Kelly will be restoring discipline, stemming the tide of leaks, developing a consistent and cohesive message, and making the Trump agenda a reality.
Restoring a sense of teamwork and professionalism, essential to any organization, will flow from the servant-leadership model advocated by Jim Baker. When the focus is on the mission, rather than any individual, success is the far more likely result. Such focus curbs leaking, most of which is motivated by self-interest. It also allows for controlled access, as all understand that the chief of staff must be a true gatekeeper, controlling who sees the president and what goes into the Oval Office and flows from the White House.
Kelly made a vital first step in insisting that all White House staff report through him. Scaramucci was one of a couple of “direct reports” to the president.
Ultimately, Kelly’s ability to do his job depends on the man at whose pleasure he serves. If he’s given full reign, General Kelly can aggressively move the president’s agenda, even in the face of staunch external opposition.
Ted Sorensen, one of President John F. Kennedy’s most trusted and closest advisors, once summed up the critical role of the chief of staff, “All of our presidents select for various positions cronies or political hangers-on or whatever. But every president knows when he’s picking his chief of staff, by God, he’d better get the right man in that job or he’ll be ruined.”
If John Kelly’s first week on the job is any indication, Donald J. Trump certainly got the right man.