Leadership Lessons of White House Fellows

The White House Fellowship Program was created more than forty years ago by the bi-partisan efforts of President Lyndon B. Johnson and John W. Gardner, former president of the Carnegie Corp. The program provides some of the nation's most promising citizens with a first hand look at the behind-the-scenes workings of the U.S. political system. A select group of men and women -- chosen through an intense application, interview, and deliberation process -- spend an entire year working alongside top government officials.

Charles Garcia, author of Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness, and Find Success in Any Organization, shares some of the lessons learned.

LEADERSHIP LESSON #1: There’s more to life than work. Great leaders have deep reserves of physical, spiritual, and emotional energy, and that energy is usually fueled by a strong and supportive relationship with the people they love, regular exercise, a healthy lifestyle, and setting aside time for reflection.

THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Doris Kearns Goodwin

At 6:00 a.m. on a cold January morning in 1973, presidential historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and NBC news analyst Doris Kearns Goodwin (WHF 67-68) received a call from former President Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom she had become a trusted confidante while working on his memoirs.

“He told me to get married, have children, and spend time with them,” Goodwin said. “He talked about how he should have spent more time with his family, because that’s a different and more worthy kind of posterity than the public one that he had been seeking throughout his entire political career. That would be our last conversation, because he died of a heart attack two days later—but what a wonderful thing to leave me with.”

Goodwin heeded Johnson’s words. For example, she turned down the chance to be considered for the position of head of the Peace Corps during the Carter administration because she knew it would require her to travel often and be away from her young children. Over the years she’s concluded that those who live the richest lives manage to achieve a healthy balance of work, love, and play.

“To commit yourself to just one of those spheres without the others is to leave open an older age filled with sadness, because once the work is gone, you have nothing left—no hobbies, no sports,” Goodwin said. “Your family may love you, but they are not in the center of your life as they might have been had you paid attention to them all the way through. And I always argue that the ability to relax and replenish your energy is absolutely essential.”

LEADERSHIP LESSON #2: Always focus on the mission. To be a great leader, you have to be intensely focused on the core mission of your organization: know it, understand it, and live it. Make sure everyone in your organization can answer these questions: Who are we? What do we do? Whom do we serve? At the end of the day, the mission is the true North Star that guides every action you take.

LEADERSHIP LESSON #3: Put your people first. No organization is better than the people who run it. The fact is that you are in the people business—the business of hiring, training, and managing people to deliver the product or service you provide. If the people are the engine of your success, to be a great leader you need to attend to your people with a laserlike focus.

THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Mitchell Reiss

Mitchell Reiss (WHF 88-89) has seen firsthand that a leader’s focus on his or her people is an incredibly powerful tool. He learned that valuable lesson during his White House Fellowship from his principal, the National Security Advisor and former Secretary of State and former White House Fellow Colin Powell.

“Two weeks after I started my Fellowship, there was a picnic over the weekend for the National Security Council staff and their families,” Reiss recalled. “We got there promptly, but General Powell was already there helping set up, helping cook the burgers and hot dogs, and personally greeting every single person, not just on the staff but their families. He came over to me and knew not only my name but introduced himself to my wife, Elisabeth, and thanked her for allowing me to work the hours that I worked at the NSC. He told her she should feel that she is part of the NSC family as well.

“That very brief but very personal interaction with Powell had an extraordinary impact on her. After he left, she turned to me and said, ‘You better do a good job for that man. If you need to stay late at work, I will never complain.’ That’s the sort of transformative impact that leadership can have, and I was able to see it up close and personal with Colin Powell. This lesson was invaluable when I later worked at the State Department, where I tried to replicate this sense of teamwork and compassion.”

LEADERSHIP LESSON #4: Root out prejudice. Great leaders recognize that talent and leadership abilities are distributed randomly. Therefore, they do not form judgments about a person based on ethnicity, gender, religion, age, or any other factor. They root out prejudice and biases in themselves and others and ensure that there is an equal opportunity at all levels for everyone to rise to a position of leadership in his or her organization on the basis of merit and character.

THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Ron Lee

Even though people of color were not given access to many high-profile jobs in Washington in the 1960s, the White House Fellows bucked that trend and included African Americans from day one. Ron Lee (WHF 65-66) was the nation’s first African-American White House Fellow, and he made the most of his unique perspective during his year at the U.S. Postal Service.

Lee found that in 1966, the U.S. Post Office was the biggest civilian agency in the government, with 600,000 employees total, and yet out of 44,000 postmasters nationwide, only two were African-Americans. “It was disgraceful, and Larry O’Brien [Postmaster General of the U.S. Postal Service at the time] and I agreed that it was something worse than that—it was segregation, because about 30 percent of the postal service employees were minorities at that time,” Lee explained. “So O’Brien gave me the go-ahead to find people to promote.”

Within months Lee had hired minority postmasters to run the nation’s four largest postal responsibilities in the country. In all, during his Fellowship, Lee identified ten people for O’Brien to recommend to President Johnson for postmaster appointments and helped increase the number of African-Americans in senior management ranks at headquarters from 5 percent to 12 percent.

During the thirty-one months he served as an aide to Postmaster General O’Brien and then as one of the six assistant postmasters general, Lee helped to hire an additional 50,000 African-American employees for a total of 110,000 and raised their average pay level by 40 percent. He also helped direct some of the postal service’s $25 million in daily postal revenue to African-American-owned banks, which until then had been overlooked.

LEADERSHIP LESSON #5: Act with integrity. The actions of great leaders are consistent with their words. Saying the right thing doesn’t mean much. Doing the right thing means everything when you want people to follow you passionately. By acting with honor and integrity, you build trust with your followers.

THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Jane Cahill Pfeiffer

When she was appointed chairman of the NBC television network and became the highest-paid woman executive in America, Jane Cahill Pfeiffer (WHF 66-67)—the nation’s first female White House Fellow—found herself squarely in the middle of a major scandal.

The network’s unit managers—the ones who took technical and support crews outside the studios to cover sporting events or film television shows on location—were using company money on luxury items and other non-work-related expenses. After interviewing many of them, Pfeiffer found that many had been acting on orders from a higher-level supervisor who had threatened them if they did not comply.

She hired an independent auditing company with 228 accountants and accomplished corporate crisis manager and lawyer Victor Palmieri to unravel the tangled web of issues at the network. When all was said and done, eighteen of the company’s fifty-five unit managers, including Vice President Stephen Weston, the unit managers’ supervisor, were fired.

Unfortunately, even though she eliminated one of the biggest threats to its reputation that NBC had ever faced, only two years after assuming her role as the network’s chairman, Pfeiffer was fired. While the termination was a blow to her initially, she now believes the experience was a blessing in disguise.

“I was dealt a different deck of cards than I expected, but I stayed there and fixed it as best I could,” Pfeiffer said. “I helped change the way a company operated for the better, and then I moved on. You think you know and have faith in yourself—that you’ll act a certain way when troubled times come—and sometimes you get the opportunity to find out. I have not one ounce of regret about any of it.”

LEADERSHIP LESSON #6: Create a sense of urgency. Effective leaders create a sense of urgency by communicating with their team to set a goal and a workable time line for achieving it. They hold team members accountable by checking their progress at regular intervals. They encourage their team by being responsive to their questions and concerns and by providing positive feedback. They are flexible and always willing to change course if something is impeding success. Great leaders create a sense of urgency by conveying a bold vision that captures people's imagination about what can be accomplished in the future. They go one step further by getting all members of their team to see and feel the need for change.

LEADERSHIP LESSON #7: Be passionate. When you gamble on your passion, the payoff can be greater than you ever imagined. It's been said that if you do what you love, personal success will follow. But it could also be said that if you do what you love, the team will follow. Ask yourself, Is "good" sufficient for me, or do I aspire to greatness as a leader? If you'd prefer greatness, remember this: If you want people to follow you, you must follow your passion, because if you don't care about what you're doing, you can be sure that no one else will care either.

LEADERSHIP LESSON #8: Be persistent. Great leaders learn to cultivate a habit of persisting. Calvin Coolidge said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with great talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

LEADERSHIP LESSON #9: Be a great communicator. Leadership is about influencing others, and this cannot be achieved without the ability to communicate. Once you master the ability to influence individuals intuitively by first connecting with them, and then choosing words that are impactful to carry your message, you need then to figure out how to communicate to a larger audience. Always keep in mind that your actions truly speak louder than your words.

THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Marsha “Marty” Evans

After learning the value of quality communication from her Fellowship principal U.S. Treasury Secretary William “Bill” Miller, Marsha “Marty” Evans carried on the tradition in her work with the Navy.

In 1986, former Fellow and Naval Academy Superintendent Chuck Larson (WHF 68-69) tapped Evans to be one of six battalion officers at the Naval Academy—the first female battalion officer in Navy history—placing her in charge of the training and well-being of hundreds of midshipmen. The academy was meant to be a place of discipline and decorum, but occasionally a lower classman would slip up by wearing nonregulation clothing. When Evans saw a third classman in a Budweiser t-shirt one day, she assumed there had been a break down in communication.

“I remember the lecture so well,” Evans recalled. “I said, ‘You know, my own basic leadership belief is that people generally want to do the right thing, and if they’re not doing the right thing it’s because they haven’t been trained properly. They haven’t somehow had the benefit of the teaching and the leadership of their seniors. So, I can only come to the conclusion that this youngster is wearing this t-shirt because he has suffered from faulty communication by his midshipman chain of command.’ Each person in the third classman’s chain of command was held accountable and punished.”

Evans’s commonsense approach to encouraging better communication in her organization helped her create a more cohesive team and also garnered the Navy’s attention. She was promoted steadily throughout her thirty-year career and retired as a two-star rear admiral, one of only a few women to attain the rank. Since leaving the military, Evans has used her outstanding communication skills in her roles as director of the Girl Scouts of the USA and president and CEO of the American Red Cross.

LEADERSHIP LESSON #10: Ask the tough questions that need to be asked. Whatever your station in life, there will come a day when you'll have to decide whether to speak out or forever hold your peace. When that day comes for you, remember that great results begin with great questions.

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