What Makes a Great Chief of Staff

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

I recently read The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple. Whipple writes about every chief of staff since the presidency of Richard Nixon. It’s a fascinating account of history through the prism of the most powerful men in Washington DC that most people have never heard of.

While the constitution does actually not talk about this position, it is certainly powerful. I agree with the title of the book, that is, a chief of staff can make or break a presidency and certainly they did so in the past.

An outstanding chief of staff should not have a big ego as he’s not the one that should shine. He should foremost be a good organizer and manage the people and the information getting to the president. In other words, he has to organize things in a way that the president can make informed decisions (not make it for him), while also making sure that the calls are really being made.

Presidents who wanted to run the White House themselves often either got lost in details or ended up in chaos and were not particularly successful.

A chief of staff also has to be strong enough to stand up to the president so as to disagree or break the bad news.

It struck me that even presidents who ran as outsiders such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, did best when they chose a chief of staff who knew Washington DC well. Outsider candidates who brought along with them a team of outsiders, however, often ended up beating their heads against DC walls.