Almost everyone has a boss and almost everyone struggles to maintain a cordial personal and professional relationship with that boss. It can be tricky going. Now imagine that you're the White House chief of staff and your boss is the president of the United States. Your boss isn't just the most powerful man in the meeting, he's the most powerful man on Earth. You better learn to play nice.
As Discovery Channel's new special, 'The President's Gatekeepers,' proves over the course of its four hours, the position of White House chief of staff is no ordinary job. It's a relentless gauntlet of political chess matches, sleepless nights, and life-or-death decisions. Most bend, many break, and every WHCoS feels the pressure both from their overwhelming responsibility to the nation and their loyalty to their boss. In the doc, Chicago Mayor and former WHCoS Rahm Emanuel sums up the rigors of serving as chief with his trademark bluntness: "Brutal on you, brutal on your family."
Arguably no one has a more acute understanding of this than former chief and longtime Beltway veteran, Andrew Card. Card served as chief of staff to President George W. Bush for an almost unprecedented six years, helping to guide his boss through war and political gridlock.
Card is candid about his time in the White House – "I'm sure that I overstayed my welcome by a year and a half or so," he jokes – and pulls no punches when it comes to explaining what it's like to serve as consigliere to the leader of the free world. A chief of staff must manage "an incoming barrage of challenges that doesn't respect a 9-to-5 responsibility. It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he says.
The most important challenge: Serving the president. And given that he lasted three years longer than the average WHCoS, it's easy to argue that Card served his boss better than most. We asked the man who used to be the most famous and important assistant in America how he met the needs of a demanding boss and how we could learn from his example.
The second part of 'The President's Gatekeepers' airs tonight, September 12, at 9 p.m. ET, on Discovery Channel.
Whether you work in finance, retail, or the White House, there are always disagreements. Because not all arguments are between employees of equal rank or standing, it's important to to build a relationship of trust with your boss before explaining why he or she is wrong. Show your boss respect, and any combativeness you may have with him or her will be productive rather than destructive. And it makes for an honest work relationship that is essential for success; it's so easy for bosses to dismiss the misgivings of employees they don't know or rely upon.
Asked what allowed him to survive so long in a job with an average tenure of 23 months, Card responds quickly: "A candid relationship with the president that allowed us to disagree." He quickly adds that though the arguments were sometimes "disagreeable," both parties treated each other with a "high level of mutual respect."
The president of the United States – like a lot of bosses – is used to hearing yes (or "Yes, sir" in his particular case). Sometimes though, he needs to hear no – and that sort of tactful defiance can be hard to manage. Card believes that he maintained a strong relationship with his boss by choosing his battles and keeping the clashes about the bone of contention rather than the contention itself. He wasn't questioning the president, he was trying to help.