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Chief of staff must be willing to ‘speak truth to power,’ says researcher

Nick Kachiroubas
Nick Kachiroubas is an associate teaching professor at DePaul University in Chicago. His research looks at leadership and the role of the chief of staff and their relationship with the U.S. president. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
CHICAGO — “With less than two years in office, President Donald Trump will have burned through two chiefs of staff, which is quicker than any other modern president. Such instability within in the role of chief of staff is a clear sign that the presidency is in chaos,” said Nick Kachiroubas, an associate teaching professor at DePaul University, whose research looks at leadership and the role of the chief of staff and their relationship with the U.S. president. Kachiroubas is available to discuss the qualities that make or break success in the position of a chief of staff.

“Every chief of staff serves at the pleasure of the president. When the COS becomes the story they become a liability to the administration no matter how strong the relationship is between themselves and the president,” said Kachiroubas. “When the chief of staff publicly provides his willingness to resign it is a signal that the administration may be making changes internally very quickly to shift attention away from the person who is serving as chief of staff.”

Kachiroubas has interviewed these 11 of the 19 living White House chiefs of staff:
  • Dick Cheney (President Gerald Ford)
  • Jack Watson (President Jimmy Carter)
  • James Baker (President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush)
  • Samuel Skinner (President George H.W. Bush)
  • Mack McLarty (President Bill Clinton)
  • Leon Panetta (President Bill Clinton)
  • Erskine Bowles (President Bill Clinton)
  • John Podesta (President Bill Clinton)
  • Andrew Card (President George W. Bush)
  • Rahm Emanuel (President Barack Obama)
  • William Daley (President Barack Obama)
Kachiroubas offers observations on what he learned from interviewing those former chiefs of staff as well as provides some history about the position of chief of staff.

Q: Following President Trump’s announcement that that current chief of staff John Kelly will be stepping down soon there was a news report that Kelly saw his role in the White House to be “chief of the staff, not to control the president.” Do you agree?
A: One of the main roles of the chief is to manage the staff. And while a chief of staff must respect that they themselves are not the president, the chief of staff also has to be willing to speak truth to power. There has to be enough of a relationship and trust between the two where the chief can tell the president when they are hindering the process of being able to achieve the president’s overall policy objectives, and this could be construed as a form of managing the president.

Q: What are the main attributes or characteristics of effective chiefs of staff?
A: My research revealed there are four main attributes to an effective chief of staff:
  • Allegiance to the president and the president’s policy agenda.
  • Ability to organize the staff and create a research and decision-making process where the president’s agenda can be executed into action.
  • Strong relational abilities in order to build relationships to advance the president’s agenda and speak on behalf of the president.
  • A deep sense of responsibility and commitment to the greater good in the sense of making the president successful as well as the greater office of the presidency.
Q: You’ve interviewed 11 former chiefs of staff. What are some of the takeaways from those interviews?
A: The chief of staff must always remember, while they have a lot of power or authority, they themselves are not the president and it is not their presidency. Their job is to help the president accomplish his (or her) policy objectives. This is where the term allegiance comes from in my research model, as the chief of staff must always realize that they may have to fall on their sword if that’s what will help the president be effective in the long run. Also, an effective chief of staff’s job is to make sure the president hears all the diverse points of view on a particular issue, even the perspectives that the president may not wish to hear and facilitate a robust decision-making process so the president can have all points of view represented when making a decision.

Q: Have all presidents had chiefs of staff? Or, is that a modern phenomenon?
A: The role of the chief of staff first came out of a report commissioned by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on how to re-organize the White House and make it more effective. However, the role and model was not implemented until President Dwight D. Eisenhower with the first chief of staff Sherman Adams. It was used on and off by subsequent presidents and Presidents Ford and Carter both started their presidencies without a chief of staff and realized it was necessary. Every President since Reagan has always had a chief of staff.

Nick Kachiroubas is an associate teaching professor in the School of Public Service in DePaul University’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, where he has taught since 2012. He received his doctorate in leadership learning and service from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. Prior to that he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Illinois at Springfield. In 2017, Kachiroubas was awarded a Fulbright Teaching Award to Panama where he working to develop leaders in public administration in cooperation with the University La Antiqua Santa Maria during the summer months of 2017 to 2019.


Nick Kachiroubas

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