As White House Chief of Staff, Gen. John Kelly is Using Same Tactic That Won WWII
“One must be a good butcher,” said William Gladstone, who served as Great Britain’s Prime Minister in the late 1800s. Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, was known as The Abominable “No” Man.
And President Trump’s new Chief of Staff, four-star Marine General John Kelly, is taking fire for cutting off access to the Oval Office. For saying, “No.”
He’s also drawn attention for vetting all the materials and proposals that reach the President’s desk. That may make him unpopular, but every president needs this if he’s going to get anything done.
Business guru Peter Drucker wrote that this information-refining process. “[A leader’s] most important role,” he noted, “is to say no to proposals … that are not completely … worked out.”
General Kelly’s management style has been honed through a lifetime military career. Will it make the White House more effective?
“Completed Staff Work”
Kelly is moving to control what he can to help the President make good decisions. General Kelly himself has said publicly “that he was hired to manage the staff, not the president.” That’s the job of the Chief of Staff. Think of this key position in the White House as the narrow point of an hourglass. It’s just where the energy of the executive is focused on decisions vetted by advisers. Kelly isn’t just in charge of making the trains run on time. He’s also the switchman in control of the tracks from 15 cabinet members and assorted counselors routed through the (now closed) door to the Oval Office.
General Kelly seems to be implementing a traditional military doctrine. Called “Completed Staff Work,” it dates from World War II. Peter Drucker once said that the Second World War was not determined by superior arms as we often imagine. It was determined by getting things done. “The Allies won,” said Drucker, “their victory achieved by management.”
The origin of the management phrase Completed Staff Work probably belongs to General Archer L. Lerch. As a Colonel, he wrote a memo to his staff. It was published in the January 13, 1942, edition of the United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette. And it was designed to pierce the haze and confusion in the fog of war.
Another memo on Completed Staff Work appears in General Douglas MacArthur’s papers, now declassified. The memo branded this security-sensitive issue, “RESTRICTED.”
The doctrine starts with the premise that
a) The boss makes decisions.
b) The staff anticipates.
The staffer starts with a crisis or opportunity. The best teams usually find these nuggets of gold or hand-grenades before the boss does. But the staffer does not ambush the manager with another wonderful idea or a fire alarm. General Lerch wrote,
“Completed Staff Work” is the study of a problem, and presentation of a solution, by a staff officer, in such form that all that remains to be done on the part of the head of the staff division, or the commander, is to indicate his approval or disapproval of the completed action.
It is your duty as a staff officer to work out the details …
Note that staff does all the work and research. From this background homework, staffers develop options. The team considers different and conflicting courses of actions. Out of this sausage-making comes a single recommendation.
The Chief of Staff is responsible for scheduling the presenter and delivering the decision-memo to the president. The president may accept or reject it. Or he may want to see other options. The decision maker might have ideas, but the president should not be — had better not be — the one who thinks of everything.
Lerch points out that the leader “is protected from half-baked ideas, voluminous memoranda, and immature oral presentations. The product … should … be worked out in finished form.”
Presidential Decision Making
John Sununu was a presidential Chief of Staff under George H.W. Bush. He recounts a story of a foreign policy crisis that required a recommendation from the President’s advisers. Sununu provides a window into the concept of Completed Staff Work:
[National Security Advisor] Scowcroft and I … learned that rebels … were threatening to attack the Philippine presidential palace.
We were fielding calls … to formulate a reasonable response.
The president [was] asleep. After Scowcroft and I were confident that the group had finally committed to a course of action, I woke up the president and asked him to approve the recommendation.
After thinking about [the proposed recommendation] for a few moments, Bush agreed. Then he went right back to sleep. The strategy turned out to work well, and it nipped the uprising in the bud.
The story is notable for three points:
- The Chief of Staff crafted a timely recommendation.
- The president signed-off without modification.
- The president went back to sleep.
President Bush had such confidence in the wisdom and judgment of his team that he — and the country — were able to rest assured. General Kelly is working to build the same kind of confidence-inspiring process in today’s West Wing. That’s Completed Staff Work. It won WWII. And it can win for President Trump.
Jack Yoest is Clinical Assistant Professor of Management at The Catholic University of America. He is a former Army officer and author of The Memo: How the Classified Military Document That Helped the US Win WW II Can Help You Succeed in Business on Completed Staff Work.