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.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #11: Take risks. If need be, lay it all on the line to meet a challenge. Dale Carnegie once said, “Take a chance! All life is a chance. The man who goes the furthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The 'sure thing' boat never gets far from shore.” Leaders constantly challenge their team to take risks, and that encourages creativity and leads to organizational breakthroughs.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #12: Understand that not every battle is the end of the war. Too often leaders allow themselves to be sidetracked by other people’s prejudices and personal attacks. They focus too much of their attention on counterattacking those individuals and waste precious energy and time on irrelevant issues. Leaders who demonstrate grace under fire with a laserlike focus on their true mission are the ones who will achieve greatness one day.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Ron Quincy
Ronald Quincy (WHF 85-86) also had the opportunity to work with HUD during his Fellowship. During that time, under the direction of President Ronald Reagan, HUD worked with the Department of State to promote fundamental change in South Africa. Quincy was chosen to represent the HUD secretary in this inter-agency effort by helping to organize high-level diplomatic and private missions to South Africa during that critical time in the country’s history. This led to a promotion as the foreign policy advisor to the Africa Bureau of the State Department. Through his experiences Quincy developed friendships with many famous and powerful leaders, which led to an opportunity to work and travel with Nelson Mandela following his Fellowship year.
On one such occasion, Quincy had the privilege of escorting Mandela around the United States during his effort to work with groups of American students and their South African counterparts to help train over 50,000 South Africans in the election process. During the eighteen-hour flight back to South Africa, Mandela and Quincy were standing in the aisle of the airplane talking when a male flight attendant approached Mandela and rudely told him to sit down in his seat so that they could serve dinner. Quincy was appalled at the loud and disrespectful way that the man had spoken to Mandela, but decided not to take action and see how his mentor would handle the situation.
“Mandela turns and then points to me and says, ‘Actually, sir, I’m with him,’ shifting the blame to me as if I were the culprit, the important American,” explains Quincy. “He said it jokingly in a mischievous way, grinning with a blink of the eye to me, and completely disarmed the situation and quietly returned to his seat.”
It was a powerful lesson for Quincy: In an era when ordinary people throw self-important temper tantrums at the drop of a hat, this man of enormous international stature chose to sit down quietly and not make a scene. Reflecting on the incident, Mandela later told Quincy that when he was active in the African National Congress (ANC) as a young man, “I learned that leaders who last are those who understand that every battle is not the end of the war. That little incident was not the war. It was not important, absolutely of no consequence.”
Recalled Quincy: “[Mandela cautioned me to] never take your condition so seriously that it impedes you from accomplishing your personal mission, which, in my case, is a free democratic election in South Africa.”
Less than a year later, in April 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president and the first black president of South Africa.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #13: Energize your people. A great leader needs stamina and vitality to be physically energized, emotionally connected, and mentally sharp. Are you a leader like Nelson Rockefeller? He supercharged those around him with energy so great that they came away as buoyant as if they’d been filled with helium. Instead of being the type of leader who sucks the energy away from others, resolve to be the kind of leader who strives to bring passion and positive energy to the workplace every day.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: John Patrick Gallagher
U.S. Major John Patrick Gallagher (WHF 07-08) learned about leadership from General David Petraeus. General Petraeus was a colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division at the same time Gallagher was assigned to the division as a second lieutenant. One day Petraeus called his brigade together and asked them who could tell him the number one leadership priority of the brigade. The answers ranged from integrity to professional and tactical competence to marksmanship until finally someone hit the nail on the head. The answer? Physical fitness.
“We all thought he was kidding, and we couldn’t for the life of us figure out how that could be the number one priority in the brigade,” recalled Gallagher. “But we learned later that he was right. Self-discipline and being able to perform under pressure and exist outside our comfort zone would be the key that unlocked our success.”
Petraeus began leading his troops through seventy-five minutes of intense exercise every morning. And with every pull-up, push-up, and sprint, the brigade became more alert, had more physical and mental energy, and more individual and team pride.
“All those other things we wanted to do well got better, whether it was marksmanship or vehicle maintenance or soldiers going on leave and not getting arrested for DUI,” Gallagher said. “All these other indicators went up when Petraeus created this climate of self-discipline. He boiled down his leadership approach to this: Am I giving my subordinates energy or am I taking it away? Put another way, am I leading in a way that causes my subordinates to be more enthusiastic and creative about doing their jobs—to believe more deeply in what they are doing and why they are doing it—or am I leading in such a way that it is stifling growth and enthusiasm? If the latter is true, the job may still get done by the sheer force of your legitimacy or presence, but it doesn’t get done as well and it doesn’t last after you’re gone. Petraeus knows how to lead in such a way that it gives his subordinates energy. That’s an incredibly powerful leadership tool.”
Since leaving his Fellowship, Gallagher has been using that tool daily in his role as Director for the War of Ideas and Strategic Communications at the National Security Council’s Office of Iraq and Afghanistan Affairs.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #14: Be a great listener. The most effective leaders are the ones who take the time to listen not just to their team members' words but to the priceless hidden meaning beneath them.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #15: Be persuasive. To move people toward a position they don't currently hold, you must not only make a rational argument but also frame your ideas, approaches, and solutions in ways that appeal to diverse groups of people with basic human emotions. You must go out and meet the people you are trying to persuade and invite their opinions about the merits of your position and let them offer constructive feedback so that your final proposal reflects their concerns. The ability to persuade takes hard work and discipline.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #16: Know when to compromise and when to stand firm. Although it's not possible to resolve every conflict through negotiation and concession, it is feasible in most cases. The tougher decision is when not to compromise, which often puts your livelihood, your reputation, and the organization you lead at risk. Keep this in mind the next time you have to choose between seeking compromise and holding firm on a critical issue: If you can resolve the matter through give-and-take without sacrificing your core beliefs and integrity, find the middle ground. You'll soon learn that compromise is the art of making everyone a winner.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #17: Be a problem solver. Several years ago I returned from a business trip to find that my assistant had hung a gigantic fifteen-foot-long wooden sign above my office door. The sign reads, “Don't Bring Me Problems. Bring Me Solutions.” I suggest that you post a similar sign and then set about the task of guiding each person on your team toward the goal of becoming a top-notch problem solver. Sure, it takes time and effort to teach problem-solving strategies to your people, but when you experience the payoff, you'll know it was an investment worth making.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #18: Lead by walking around. Leaders who sequester themselves in the C-suite quickly become disconnected from their people. If you want to know how best to lead your organization, head down to the lunchroom, the shop floor, or the purchasing office and ask the “stupid questions.” Chances are good that your people will be delighted to help you answer them.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #19: Be a transformational change agent. A successful change agent must start by developing a clear understanding of the organization's past and present and then lead his or her team toward developing its own vision for the future. The most successful change agent helps his or her team overcome the urge to retreat into the comfort zone and encourages its members to put one foot in front of the other in a steady and optimistic march toward a brighter future.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #20: Lead through experience and competence, not through title or position. For more than four decades, by pairing young people with established leaders, the White House Fellows Program has given hundreds of young Americans the tools, experiences, and mentors necessary for them to become confident, well-prepared problem solvers and leaders.
The fundamentals of great leadership have not changed. The qualities that made President Lyndon Johnson or John Gardner great leaders translate perfectly to the workplaces and the government offices of 2009 America. If all of our leaders, public and private, and those young people who will lead America into the future, could re-embrace these leadership lessons, we’d see us once again live up to our image as the land of opportunity…the greatest, most prosperous nation on earth.
If you would like to apply for a White House Fellowship, please visit WhiteHouse.gov/fellows to learn more and to obtain an application.