What Will Make General John Kelly a Great White House Chief of Staff?
When General John Kelly was military chief of staff to the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, I was the 1-star military chief of staff to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. John and I would start every work day together with the principals and a few other personal staff members. We looked at operations and intelligence. We looked at legislative issues. We looked at the critical news driving the day. We synchronized ourselves and the department for that day and the upcoming days and weeks. John knows how to be a great chief of staff, and if empowered by the President, he will do a tremendous job. I think there are four keys to his success: remember this job is not about “him”; priorities, priorities, priorities; control access; and alignment/synchronization of the staff and the administration.
Our good military commanders know how to be in charge. Generals know how to be the head of the hierarchical pyramid. The chief of staff job is not that role. The position is to enable the head of the pyramid, the principal, to be successful. The job is selfless and often times thankless. This will not be the time to be the order barking Marine commander. The role is about moving forward the President’s agenda and not John Kelly’s agenda. The General knows how to be a good subordinate as well as a great commander or cabinet secretary. This will serve him well.
It has been difficult to determine White House priorities during this first six months of the administration. General John Kelly will be pivotal here. The calendar is perhaps the clearest reflection of priorities. John will have to set and maintain the focus of the staff on what is truly critical to move the President’s agenda forward. As a combat leader and operator for many years, this won’t be tough for Gen Kelly. However, it will require discipline in the system.
John will have to discipline access to the President as well. This will be a challenge given the familial relationships and the segmentation of the staff we’ve seen so far. But controlled access is tied directly to the management of the principal’s time and keeping him or her focused on priorities. Often this makes the chief unpopular but it’s the gatekeeper’s job. The President, and the country, will thank him later.
Along with controlling who sees the principal when and who is also in the room, I had an expectation of back briefing me, the chief of staff, on content following each engagement. The new chief will use these outcalls to help align the White House staff, another quality that is not readily apparent. John will have to align the team’s workloads, schedules, and messaging. This will be no more important than during national security crises. John will also have to keep the other staffs of the executive branch synchronized. He is instrumental in aligning the legislative and judicial branches with the White House as well. It was common place for Dennis McDonough, President Obama’s chief, to call a huddle to synchronize the cabinet members around political issues like progress on the Iran nuclear deal, or an upcoming critical vote on the budget.
General John Kelly has seen and he knows the inner working of cabinet level and White House staffs. His back ground as military chief of staff, as the legislative liaison for the Marine Corps, as a commander at all levels, and as a great American warrior have him duly suited for this position. I am pulling for him to succeed. Our country should be pulling for him. Ron Lewis LTC2 Consulting


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