The day after General John Kelly was appointed While House chief of staff, nearly everybody and their sister were offering gratuitous advice on how Kelly should handle his unimaginably difficult job. The advice seemed a bit presumptuous, given that the U.S. military provides its officers with the best available leadership development, and Kelly has more than demonstrated his chops as a leader in the Marine Corps and head of the Department of Homeland Security.
Nonetheless, it was obvious that the White House lacks the discipline of the Marines, and the Platonic order of a government bureaucracy. Faced with an organization lacking a well-defined hierarchy, and staffed with a motley and backstabbing crew whose duties and responsibilities are ill-defined, even the general’s vast experience seems a bit inadequate to a task that amounts to herding bobcats.
Clearly, his first task with the staff is to tame and then corral them. On his first day on the job he addressed the taming with admirable aplomb, issuing what amounted to a dishonorable discharge to communications chief, and wildcat supremo, Anthony Scaramucci, thus putting other staffers prone to freelancing and loose lips on notice that further such shenanigans would not be tolerated.
Corralling the remaining staffers might not be quite so straightforward a task. From a managerial perspective, Kelly needs to clearly define every staffer’s responsibilities and limits of authority—that is, who will be involved in what kind of decisions, who reports to whom, and who has the right to speak to outsiders (on the Hill, in foreign governments, and in the media). But his job isn’t simply to manage the White House staff; he also has to lead them and other members of the administration (the chief executive seemingly is too preoccupied with a personal agenda to attend to such matters).
Kelly’s many years in top organizational positions doubtless have taught him that leading by fear and intimidation is ineffective. Instead, he knows that great leaders create willing followers by engaging them with a compelling vision and motivating values. Alas, both those desirable ingredients are in short supply in Trumpland. Thus, Kelly will likely have to build esprit de corps at the White House around the collective pride of being part of an effective team. To do that, he needs to win their respect and trust. Fortunately, he starts off with more than enough accumulated capital in the respect category; gaining trust may take some time and effort.
Scholarly research indicates that leaders gain the trust of followers when they are candid and honest with them, listen to them, support them, act consistently, give unambiguous directions, and when they don’t play them off against each other. Additionally, leaders create willing followers when they add value—when they create the conditions under which everyone can do their job effectively. Moreover, followers are likely to be loyal to leaders who have their backs, and won’t not throw them “under the boss” if they make minor mistakes. In essence, by doing those tested things Kelly may be able to transform the crowd of lone rangers now competing for the attention of the president into a cohesive team who understand that they, and the administration they serve, will be more effective and admired if they work together cooperatively and with organizational discipline.
Kelly also faces the more formidable challenge of taming and corralling the chief executive. His best chance of winning President Donald Trump’s respect and trust is to “lead up” in the same way he “leads down” by demonstrating to Trump that Kelly’s role as chief of staff adds value to the presidency. If, by his actions, Kelly can show the president that his agenda is more likely to be implemented when coordinated by the White House chief of staff, there is a chance Kelly might succeed in bringing some discipline to Trump’s behavior and, thus, make him more effective and publicly admired. Since that is what the president seems to want, it makes sense for Kelly to show him how to get it. Realistically, however, if Kelly does all the right things, even that might not succeed with this president. And if it doesn’t, we must remember not to blame the general.
James O’Toole is an emeritus professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.