A General Takes Charge

As the new White House chief of staff, Ret. Gen. John Kelly may find that cleaning house is just the first leadership challenge.

It may not be surprising that, on his first day working in the White House, a retired Marine general would demand more discipline from his new “troops” and force out an employee who he didn’t think could do the job. It remains to be seen, however, whether new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly will be successful in one of the most difficult civilian jobs in the United States.

Kelly, who took over just last week, is the first military veteran to hold the role post since Leon Panetta. According to news reports, he played a key role in removing White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. But experts say that from a leadership perspective, both government and corporate leaders often find that's the easier part of the job.

It’s not as if veterans can’t do well managing civilians. The military develops several skills, such as teamwork and the ability to work under pressure, that translate well in civilian life. According to a recent Korn Ferry study, veterans also tend to display more people agility than civilians do. Veterans, more so than civilians, can gauge someone’s strengths and limitations and then use that person effectively to accomplish an organization’s goals.

The White House chief of staff is a complex job with multiple roles. The first is act as gatekeeper to the president and ensure that the entire staff is working toward the same objective. Senior military officers have a lot of experience doing that, says Scott Harris, an associate principal for Korn Ferry Hay Group and a former captain in the U.S. Army.

“There are clear roles and responsibilities and a strong command and control structure,” Harris says. Even if that environment doesn’t exist, generals can often create it since by they’ve probably had experience somewhere in their careers where they may have had to direct strategy or make policy.

The other principal job of a chief of staff is to persuade members of Congress to support the president’s agenda. That networking role, one where the leader doesn’t have direct authority, is not something often found in the military. “Can he get the Trump staff to be disciplined, organized and working on a common purpose? That’s probably an easier task than navigating Congress,” Harris says.