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.
Remember, your boss is human.
When things get tough, it's easy to imagine your employer as a malfunctioning robot devoid of human compassion. Unless you work in a dystopian near future, this is unlikely. Make things easier on yourself and recognize that your boss is at the mercy of the same stresses and frustrations as everyone else.
"What is not well understood by most is that [a chief of staff's] responsibilities also include helping with the president's state of mind," Card says. "You have to make sure that when he's faced with really challenging issues, he's not hungry, angry, lonely, or tired."
Because being the president of the United States is rather stressful (for proof, look no further than President Obama's gray hair), it can be difficult for the chief executive to think clearly or leave his job behind to spend time with his family. "The president needs to have time to eat, sleep, and be merry, so that he's not consumed by [his] responsibilities to the exclusion of that which allows [him] to be human – to talk with the spouse, or worry about the children, or pay attention to the grandchildren, or see what's going on with friends," Card explains. By understanding that the most powerful man in the world is still just that – a man – and adjusting his expectations accordingly, Card decreased his own anxiety about day-to-day arguments.
While the average boss-employer relationship is not quite as scrutinized as the chief of staff's rapport with the president, the lesson still applies: Understand that work is only part of your boss's life and be considerate (but not nosy) about his or her well-being outside the office. Physics applies: Respect that what goes up will come back down.