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.
Learn from coworkers, says Andrew Card.
Card, a political veteran long before he was tapped to be White House chief of staff, credits much of his ability to provide President Bush with guidance to lessons learned early in his career. Like all smart professionals working their way up the ladder, he spent his formative years taking mental notes on how to best serve the most demanding of bosses.
"I was very fortunate because I worked under every chief of staff that worked under President Reagan to President [H.W.] Bush," he says. "They were very different experiences under very different scenarios, so I had an opportunity to watch different personalities at different times manage unbelievably difficult challenges."
Taken under the wings of Republican Party power brokers like Jim Baker, Howard Baker, and John Sununu, Card had years to figure out which strategies were most effective when dealing with the president. "I learned good things and bad things from every one of my predecessors," he says. "And there were many more good things I learned than bad things, but I did try to avoid some of that which I saw didn't work with other chiefs of staff."
Each boss is different – their power, their personality, their responsibilities – so strategies for dealing with them ought to vary accordingly. Therefore, effective workers must adapt to the needs of their employer. As Card points out, the easiest way to know what adjustments need to be made is to watch and learn from those around you. Copy their successful strategies and avoid repeating others' mistakes.