Straight from childhood, I was a frequent mental inventory taker, scanning my consciousness for objects of concern, kind of like pressing a bruise to see if it still hurts.

— Dan Harris, 10% Happier

My alma mater was books, a good library – I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.

— Malcolm X

‘It’s like the internet, or cable TV – there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stumuli.’

— Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction—the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin in Harlem in the ’60s, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the ’80s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitably be writing, too, about the “war on drugs.” And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood were doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he’d get so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table of the beautiful but deadly silent Lane Reading Room of Green Library of Stanford University. And if he slammed the book down, then everyone in the room would stare and all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they’d think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that had justified putting his great-grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was.

— Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing: A Novel

 

 

2017 Fiction & Nonfiction Recommendations

This year was more about reading textbooks and peer-reviewed journal articles but somehow I found time to squeeze in a few books as well. Two books stand out and conveniently one is fiction and the other’s non-.

Fiction: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

I’m not sure I would read this if I just looked at the book jacket or an Amazon review. It came as a recommendation from my sister Larraine and I’m glad I followed her advice. My Absolute Darling is an extremely challenging read; it centers on an 8th-grade girl who calls herself Turtle and lives off the grid in NorCal with only her father, as he “prepares” her for a post-society world. Turtle’s dad sexually abuses her and there are many scenes, whether sexual, psychological, or physically violent, where I cringed as I read. Through that, though, is a book where you learn about a unique, brave character whose voice is so clear it becomes ingrained in your mind and you think about her long after you’ve read the last page.

Non-fiction: The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple

Part of our post-election delusions is that someone might be able to control Trump. It wasn’t Priebus, Jared, Ivanka or now Chief of Staff Kelly. The Gatekeepers is about the history of the Chief of Staff position and covers Chiefs of Staff from the Nixon White House to Obama’s. The book covers failed approaches like the “spokes of the wheel” model used and abandoned by Gerald Ford or having no Chief at all, which hurt Carter. It also gives insights into how Chiefs mold their office and approach depending on the Presidency as well as how Hillary and Obama made Chiefs of Staff course-correct early Presidencies. I’d recommend this book if you’re into politics, organizational design, management/leadership, and team dynamics. I shared more details about The Gatekeepers in an earlier post as well.

My other 2017 reads:

Fiction:

  • Homegoing
  • The Last Novel (re-read)
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Nonfiction:

  • Work Rules!
  • The Everything Store
  • The Happiness Industry
  • A More Beautiful Question
  • Chaos Monkeys
  • The Coaching Habit

My notion is that once progress made it easy to acquire the necessities of bodily life, other forces set about making those needs complicated and hard. Much of daily life is turned over to life maintenance at the very moment you’d think we’d be free to pursue higher goals.

Spectacles, sights and sounds, measures and sums, are made from former areas of privacy. This exposure to sight generates all sorts of new pleasures and new fears. But the ceaseless grooming and optimizing of ordinary life stands in the way of finding out how else we could spend our attention and our energy.

— Mark Greif, Against Everything: Essays.

At its core, accountability is about having the courage to confront someone about their deficiencies and then to stand in the moment and deal with their reaction, which may not be pleasant. It is a selfless act, one rooted in a word that I don’t use lightly in a business book: love. To hold someone accountable is to care about them enough to risk having them blame you for pointing our their deficiencies.

— Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage:  Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

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.

. . .

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 Healthcare.gov 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.