09 May 2011

What makes a good Chief of Staff?

The question, from A loyal reader: What makes a good Chief of Staff? (See this blog post.)

The response: The short answer is: Discipline, loyalty, clarity, and "a passion for anonymity."

Aside from the military chiefs (who are high-ranking officers but only advisers), the most familiar chief of staff is the White House Chief of Staff. Of course, these days practically everyone who is C-level in the corporate world or at the assistant secretary level or above (even congresspeople!) have chiefs of staff. But what do these people actually do?

To a large extent, the position is defined by what it is not. Chiefs of staff cannot be personal assistants. And they never have been. A highly effective executive assistant or secretary is fairly invaluable to a high-level executive, if only because so much of the clerical work of the top jobs is so routine as to require both a high tolerance for tedium and the kind of focus on minutiae that is largely incompatible with the creative and high-touch work involved in executives' lives. (Yes, Stanley Kubrick and Steve Jobs are perfectionists, but they don't want to be bothered with literally mundane details, unless they decide they are important.)

Nor, however, can the chief of staff have an independent power base. That is fatal. The chief of staff must be entirely dependent on his or her principal for the daily conduct of his duties, because neither the principal nor his interlocutors may doubt for even a second that when the CoS speaks that he speaks for his boss and not for himself. Given that the CoS exists to handle the medium-priority issues (human resources, week-to-week strategizing, negotiating of second-tier considerations, and so on) that require the confidence that the principal has expressed a position, but which also do not require the principal to actually check up on the daily execution of these matters, it is immediately obvious that the CoS exists in a world in which absolute fidelity and discretion are always required.

Unsurprisingly, then, the success of a CoS also largely depends on the degree to which he can relieve his superior from the burdens of the office without in any way blocking the principal's light. That is why Brownlow's phrase--that a successful White House staffer should have a "passion for anonymity"--is both apt and unattainable. True, from time to time, the incumbent CoS is highly visible (such as Rahm Emanuel or James Baker), but usually they try not to be (H.R. Haldeman was barely known outside of the Executive Office of the President until late in the Nixon Administration, for instance). And that is for the best. If a CoS succeeds, he succeeds because he implemented the President's will, and so the President should receive the credit. If a CoS fails, then he must be fired, quickly and without remorse.

Thus, the job demands a rare, valuable, and unstable combination of skills and temperament. The CoS must have enough gravitas that people take him seriously, must be intelligent enough to act independently, must be loyal enough not to trade on his own account, and must be savvy enough to realize that the brighter his principal's star shines, the brighter his own reflected glory--but that the higher his principal rises, the likelier he himself is to be replaced by a figure more fitting the principal's new station. (Note that new presidents rarely place their senatorial or gubernatorial staffs into the West Wing at the same rank.)

I say "unstable" because anyone who possesses these skills will want to leave after a couple of years to run their own show. The list of qualifications is exactly that for being the principal, save that the principal has either earned or been given an office and that the principal's success is judged on strategic victories or failures. In either case, it is likely that a good CoS should at least always be considered for subsequent command, even if his talents are such that he is unsuitable for supreme command. (There are qualities demanded of the top person in an organization that are qualitatively different from that expected even of lieutenants who exercise highly independent judgment. Think here of the difference between a supremely talented staff officer and U.S. Grant, or between a highly efficient secretary and General Secretary Stalin.)

The prevalence of the title means that it has been degraded so much. A man might well think that his goal in life is to be White House Chief of Staff, much as another might want to be OMB head or still another to be Secretary of Defense; these are weighty roles, and the exercise of even the limited portfolios given to their incumbents are nevertheless a fair test of one's abilities. Yet if we were to rename the bulk of CoS offices as "private secretaries" we would see that it is something of the equivalent of a war college, or even better of the old apprenticeship system. It is impossible to learn how to act independently until one is given independent responsibilities, and the CoS job (if both the CoS and the principal understand it properly) is one in which the chief will be given a lot of latitude in order to achieve well- (even if broadly-) defined goals.

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