Leon E. Panetta, former White House Chief of Staff, makes the case for the chief of staff as a strong leader.

As a former White House Chief of Staff, I appreciate the opportunity to provide some thoughts on the importance of this role.

I believe there is a strong relationship between the quality of leadership required in our democracy and the support of an experienced and loyal staff, particularly a chief of staff. I say this not just as a former Chief of Staff to the President of the United States but as someone who had to lead as an Army officer, as a member of Congress, as Director of the Office for Civil Rights, as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Director of the CIA, and Secretary of Defense.

There is no way I could have performed these roles without the support of a strong team and top aides who gave me what I needed to lead others. I strongly believe that the purpose of public service is to give others a better life. As the son of Italian immigrants, I often asked my father why he came all of that distance from Italy to a strange land leaving both family and friends. I never forgot his response: ‘Your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life.’ That is the American dream. But my parents also taught me that dreams are just dreams unless you are willing to work hard, to be disciplined, to take risks, to have courage and to fight to make those dreams come true. In other words, to be a leader.

‘But my parents also taught me that dreams are just dreams unless you are willing to work hard, to be disciplined, to take risks, to have courage and to fight to make those dreams come true.’

I often tell the students at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy – an Institute my wife and I established to inspire young people to lives of public service – that in our democracy, we govern by leadership or crisis. If leadership is there, we can avoid crisis. But if leadership is not there, we will inevitably govern by crisis. Today, we govern too often by crisis. And the price we pay is to lose the trust of the American people in our democracy.

The key to restoring trust is strong leadership and the key to strong leadership is a strong chief of staff. I recognize that every leader has unique qualities that play an important role in moving up the leadership ladder. Leaders know how to make decisions but to make the right decisions requires complete and accurate information, an analysis of all consequences, and a plan for effective execution. That is what chiefs of staff are supposed to do. But to make that work requires the following key elements in the relationship between leader and chief:

1. Trust. There must be a bond of trust between the leader and his chief of staff. Both have to be honest with one another. And most importantly, the chief has to have the courage to tell the boss when he or she is wrong.

2. Discipline. The chief of staff must be a disciplinarian. He needs to establish a strong chain of command, define a specific role for each staff member, and require close supervision.

3. Policy process. Critical to the ability of a leader to make the right decisions is the policymaking process that analyses various options for action, discusses all of the consequences, and recommends possible plans of action for consideration. Organizing the staff to participate in this policy process is the job of the chief of staff.

4. Time management. Because each day is filled with different and unexpected crises on top of events and other obligations, it is essential to establish a clear schedule both for today and the future. Disruptions are bound to happen, but it is up to the chief to keep the trains running on time.

5. Loyalty. It is in the nature of the relationship between a leader and a chief of staff that the leader may make decisions that the chief may disagree with. But it is the leader who occupies the chair of responsibility for decisions, not the chief. It is important for the chief to maintain total loyalty to the leader and make sure that the staff does the same. This can be one of the toughest challenges in the relationship, but in many ways it can determine the success or failure of the bond between leader and chief.

These are some of the important elements of the role of chief of staff, but they work not so much as checks in a box but have to become ingrained in the basic instincts of a chief. It has to come naturally to the individual to implement each element in a way that fulfils the overall responsibilities of the chief and best serves the leader.

Leadership is fundamental to our democracy and to our economy. And in many ways the quality of that leadership will be determined by whether his or her chief of staff is a strong leader as well. We live at a challenging time in our country that will test each of us in our commitment to the American Dream and the future success of our democracy.

Leon E. Panetta was a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993. He served under President Bill Clinton as White House Chief of Staff from 1994 to 1997. Serving under President Barak Obama, he was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009, and Defence Secretary from 2011. Since retiring as Secretary of Defense in 2013, Secretary Panetta has served as Chairman of The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which he co-founded in 1997.

Further Reading

Panetta, Leon with Jim Newton, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace (Penguin, 2014).