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.
Respect the hierarchy.
"You have to accept the consequences of your own behavior," says Card, when discussing valuable traits of a good employee. Sometimes though, personal relationships with a superior can not only diminish employees' ability to respect boundaries, but they can also make it hard for a boss to hold underlings accountable.
Card, who had known President Bush for years prior to serving in his White House, was worried about his future boss's potentially clouded judgment before he even took the job. "When the president asked me to be chief of staff, I literally said to him, 'Mr. President, you know that if I'm your chief of staff, I can no longer be your friend. You'll be my friend, and I won't ever want to let you down, but I will just be a staffer who also happens to be in charge of the rest of the staff," he remembers, noting that the president was taken aback at first.
There must be a level of unfeeling calculation for a good employee-boss relationship to prosper. It's not good for anyone – including you – if a friendship with your boss is preventing them from getting the best out of you. It means neither of you is working to the best of his ability. This was especially true for Card, whose boss's position didn't allow for the luxury of tact. "I said, 'You can't feel guilty about hurting me or arguing with me. You have to let me know what your real thoughts are,' " Card says. "I didn't want President Bush to not tell me his real feelings. If it hurt me, so be it."
Personal relationships create blind spots, and it can be tempting to take advantage of a friend's affection. Don't. Even in a job with less at stake than White House chief of staff, it's important to find a happy medium where your boss can be your friend without either of you forgetting who's the boss.
Credit: White House photo by Eric Draper