Leaving a legacy in a role with no job description: The Gatekeepers and the Chiefs of Staff to the President

The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple is an enjoyable read all about the role of the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States and the men (so far only men have served in the role) who have held the title.

The President’s Chief of Staff is a peculiar, non-elected and non-Senate confirmed role and its definition is wholly dependent on how the President and his Chief of Staff craft it intentionally or by inertia. The amorphous nature of the role is part of what makes it so unique and extremely personality-dependent, which gives depth to both the stories and the characters in the book.

The GatekeepersThe Gatekeepers is filled with many excellent anecdotes that give the reader an insider’s view into the workings of the White House during different administrations. For example, Donald Regan, President Reagan’s second Chief of Staff was not long for the job after hanging up on the First Lady.

Each Chief of Staff defines the job a little bit differently such as using different analogies or nicknames; a CEO and COO, Chairman of the Board and CEO, spokes of a wheel, reality therapist, heat shield, or the Secretary of S**t. But, what they all had in common was a seemingly impossible job, with no clear job description, that serves at the pleasure of the most powerful person in the country.

There are descriptions of the men who performed the job exceptionally, such as H.R. Haldeman (Nixon), Vice President Dick Cheney (Ford), James A. Baker III (Reagan and Bush 41), and Leon Panetta (Clinton). They all approached the job humbly, taking advice from many past Chiefs of Staff and studying the role. They had a plan coming in and clarified their role with the President, the Cabinet, and other advisors. Finally, they were all able to play both good cop and bad cop when needed.

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There are also descriptions of the lackluster Chiefs of Staff, such as Hamilton Jordan (Carter), Donald Regan (Reagan), and John Sununu (Bush 41). These men approached the job arrogantly, had oversized egos, couldn’t manage, some became the subject of scandal and did not generally treat people in and out of the White House well or fairly.

Other than just being an enjoyable, interesting, and provoking read, The Gatekeepers has been on my mind for two other reasons: 1) The emphasis on the structure, or lack there of, of the role and 2) The beyond-partisan bond that the Chiefs of Staff share with each other.

In my current role, I am the first full time executive leader of patient experience for our health care system. I frequently think about structure and foundation of the position in order to make sure the role is successful well beyond my tenure.

The book describes how H.R. Haldeman’s “staff system” was the foundational structure for every Chief of Staff that followed his tenure. The great Chiefs of Staff who followed like Cheney, Baker, and Panetta used Haldeman’s system as a starting point and tailored the role to the current administration from there. Haldeman also correctly identified that his main job was to protect the President’s most important asset: his time.

My goal is to create a similar approach and program that serves as a solid foundation for getting the job done today and in the future. I work tirelessly to read and research, as Haldeman did, to make sure that I am setting up patient experience at the organization for success in the future. I still have more work to do, but I believe it is critical work in starting a new function, no matter what the size or the scope of the organization.

The Chiefs of Staff are a bit like a fraternity and usually get together at the beginning of a new administration. This bi-partisan group shares wisdom with the incoming Chief of Staff and shares their experience and answers any questions. Meeting past Chiefs provides an opportunity for a new person in the role is indispensable, especially because the job description is so malleable. The humble Chiefs understand this dynamic and take the advice seriously. It seems that the current Chief of Staff can always call any of the others for guidance or advice.

Not only a great read, The Gatekeepers contains many good lessons in leadership and “followership”, helping an executive leader accomplish their goals. It is a great read for anyone interested in politics, business, or organizational development.

KEY TAKEAWAY: In a role without a real job description, relationships, structure, and adaptation are essential. Further, understanding your role in relation to a CEO when you are in the senior leadership of an organization involves humility, keeping your ego in check, and establishing and following clear rules for communication, preserving everyones most important asset: their time.

The Gatekeepers is available for purchase on Amazon for $17.00 (does not include Prime discount)