The Gatekeepers

“It has the most awesome responsibilities of any corporation in the world, the largest budget of any corporation in the world, and the largest number of employees. Yet the entire senior management structure and team have to be formed in a period of seventy-five days.”

This is the intro to The Gatekeepers, a book from Chris Whipple about Chiefs of Staff in recent history, starting with H.R. Haldeman in the Nixon White House and ending with Denis McDonough in Obama’s. The Gatekeepers is a quick, fascinating read and doesn’t necessarily require you to be interested in politics. If you are interested in Organizational Design, how you manage competing power structures, and the ultimate coaching up situation, you will highlight many excerpts and take away several lessons.

My intention is to give a broad overview and not any sort of Executive Summary-like substitute for reading the entire book. In fact, if you’re reading the first two parts and find yourself enjoying it, just go ahead and purchase the book right away. I could have knocked it out in a day.

Finally, most of the excerpts I’ve selected are focused around the discipline and structures that Chiefs of Staff did — or didn’t — maintain in the White House. While the book covers several policy and political moments in recent history, it ultimately came  back to the dynamics in the White House that either diffused or poured gasoline on these events.

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How the Chief of Staff position was created

When Ike made his first entrance into the Executive Mansion, the story goes, an usher handed the new president a letter. ‘Never bring me a sealed envelope!’ Ike barked. Nothing, he decreed, should come to the president without first being screened by someone he trusted. Soon Adams was installed as the president’s gatekeeper—and the first White House chief of staff was born.


The “Spokes of the Wheel” system doesn’t work

From the start, Gerald Ford’s White House resembled a kids’ soccer game, everyone running toward the ball. Ford had announced that he would govern with eight or nine principal advisers reporting directly to the president—a circle, with Ford at the center. He called it “the spokes of the wheel.” But the result was chaos and dysfunction.

As Ford wrote later: “I concluded he was right. The ‘spokes of the wheel’ approach wasn’t working. Without a strong decision-maker who could help me set my priorities, I’d be hounded to death by gnats and fleas. I wouldn’t have time to reflect on basic strategy or the fundamental direction of my presidency.”

Carter, who many regard as the most intellectual President in the modern era, didn’t learn from Ford and the errors of decentralization.

The day after the election, Watson gave a memo to the president-elect, titled “Some Thoughts on Organizing the Executive Office of the President.” At the beginning at least, I think your five to eight top aides should be equal in their status, salaries and access to you. In effect, you should act as your own chief of staff. There is no way for you to predict how your choices for the top jobs will cope with the unique challenges of the White House. If a “first among equals” naturally emerges later, and you decide that designation of a chief of staff would help you, you can name him then. Watson would later admit that he had trimmed his convictions to match Carter’s. “What I believed was that the chief of staff was imperative for a smoothly functioning White House, but that was not going to happen.”

White House staff would be surprised at how many large memos Carter would read in one night, returned with corrections on typos. Clearly not the way a President should spend their time, but Carter, even after his Presidency, maintained that his early research did not show any clear result that a Chief of Staff was a necessary position.


Baker as the model for successful Chiefs of Staff

Baker, who served as Chief of Staff under Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, is widely considered to be the most effective Chief of Staff since the role had been conceived. A few key tenants of his leadership follows:

  • Surround yourself with really good people. “The most successful managers are those that are secure enough to surround themselves with extremely strong-willed, talented people.”
  • Focus is essential. Baker created three goals in the Reagan agenda, and all three were tied to the economy.
  • Know when to say “no” to the President.
  • In Baker’s bible, preparation was the first commandment. He wrote everything down, logged 16-hour days, and returned every phone call, no matter the hour.
  • Maintaining a servant leadership mindset. “The people who don’t succeed as White House chief of staff are people who like the chief part of the job and not the staff part of the job,” says Baker. “You’ve got to remember that you’re staff even though you’re powerful.”


How Clinton and Obama express disappointment

This passage is a sad “what if” for me. Bill Clinton ran an undisciplined White House early in his first term and Hillary, “with lawyerly precision,” explained the unhealthy and unproductive dynamics hampering the President’s agenda. Hillary can be knocked for campaign staffing issues but I doubt that would carry into governance:

The first lady’s frustrations finally came to a head at a meeting ostensibly called to discuss a gas tax. Instead, it became a day of reckoning. With lawyerly precision, Hillary Clinton delivered a brutal critique of White House management. The economic team and the political team were not communicating. The communications team was ineffective. She was furious. “This is unacceptable and unfair to Bill,” she said.

And this excerpt about Obama, at a low point in his Presidency when the demand of web traffic caused the site to crash when it was unveiled. Obama knew he had to take the blame but from the beginning he asked McDonough to have weekly status updates to make sure the technology was there and the site could handle the traffic:

[Obama] did a slow burn. He did not yell—which only made McDonough feel worse. “He didn’t say much. That was the problem. If I could’ve had it out with him—that’s better, you know? Finally, he said, ‘Look, I asked you to put together a meeting a week. I said at the end of the meeting what I needed. And this is what I got. What the hell?’

. . .

I reflect often on my experiences as a member of a team and a leader of teams. Teamwork has many variables that require a constant, mindful attention toward balance. If you have a laissez-faire mentality, leadership and delegation leads to decentralization, which will often lead to a clot in some area within the organization. On the flip side, a dictator will often engage the wrong behavior and lead to both sides digging in their heels. Teams in that space play a low-stakes game because fear and lack of commitment prevent them from doing truly amazing work.

My takeaway from reading The Gatekeepers is how discipline is the most important function for a Chief of Staff. Discipline determines the systems, processes and efficiency that leads to outcomes. While our decisions are not dictating the world stage, we can learn so much from the organizational effectiveness of a disciplined White House.