Why John Kelly’s military leadership skills may play a critical role in Trump’s success

President Donald Trump shakes hands with John Kelly after he was sworn in as White House Chief of Staff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 31, 2017.

Joshua Roberts | Reuters
President Donald Trump shakes hands with John Kelly after he was sworn in as White House Chief of Staff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 31, 2017.

At age 13, President Donald Trump — a troublemaking, attention-seeking young boy — was shipped away to the New York Military Academy by his parents. While many kids become desperately homesick in the strict, disciplinary environments fostered by military schools, Trump thrived.

As president, Trump has expressed an affinity for generals and military personnel, surrounding himself with the likes of Michael Flynn, H. R. McMaster, Joseph Dunford, James Mattis and — the latest addition to his inner circle — Chief of Staff John Kelly, the Marine General who had been heading Homeland Security. Trump came into office with the honor of being the first “CEO president,” but it’s the second-ever “military chief of staff” whose career experience may be critical to White House success.

Military leadership has a proven record of success in the field of business, where the president has spent the last 50 years. Learning from military management tactics has also been made part of management theory and MBA school curriculum. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, for example, is one of several MBA programs that incorporates military leadership principles. By engaging with top leaders from the armed services and participating in military training exercises, MBA students experience the real-world application of leadership principles, according to a Harvard Business Review article by Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management.

CEOs of major multinational corporations have also applied their military background to business operations. In 2008, former Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon — who spent 25 years in the U.S. Navy — began sending recruiters to job fairs and headhunters with military connections. In four months the company hired 150 junior military officers, citing their ability to lead under pressure as a valuable skill in the talent pool. Word soon got out about the benefits of recruiting military talent, and G.I. Jobs’ annual list of Military Friendly Employers, first published as a top 10 in 2003, swelled to a top 100.

Kelly is not the first general to serve in the role of White House chief of staff. Alexander Haig, a four-star Army general who served in Vietnam and Korea, took over as White House chief of staff in 1973, during the height of the Watergate scandal. Haig is largely remembered for keeping the government running while Richard Nixon was preoccupied with the investigation, viewed by many as the “acting president” during Nixon’s last few months in office. The decorated veteran also played a key role in finally persuading the embattled president to resign.

4 leadership lessons from Kelly’s career

Some, including White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, have speculated that Trump “wants a little more discipline, a little more structure” in what has at times been a chaotic administration. This week, in fact, it has been said that federal officials are increasingly choosing to “ignore” the president.

General Kelly, a former Marine who served primarily in Iraq, is expected to bring a management style heavily informed by his 45 years in the military. There are several high-profile lessons from his military career that can be applied to running a successful White House “business.”

Be diplomatic. Kelly was first promoted to brigadier general in 2002, prior to the commencement of the Iraq War. After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, he took control of Task Force Tripoli, whose mission was to secure the Iraqi city of Tikrit. Kelly was at first reluctant to work with the tribal sheikhs in power, who were “hardly a democratic body and had done business with Saddam Hussein,” according to Colonel Nicholas E. Reynolds.

Ultimately, Kelly decided the sheikhs represented as good an interim local government as any, and he sought to establish a working relationship. As a by-product of Kelly’s good faith, the sheikhs later assisted in the peaceful liberation of Bayji, a city 25 miles north of Tikrit.

For a president who likes to drive a hard bargain — and has recently even clashed with members of his own party on Capitol Hill — Kelly’s diplomatic outlook may offer a more conciliatory voice. Make no mistake, Kelly’s politics swing conservative. But Trump has thus far failed to reach across the aisle for any major piece of legislation, while also attacking Republicans over health-care legislative failures and the Russia sanctions bill. Kelly’s experience pushing past reservations about counter-parties is exactly what the president needs.

“Gen. John F. Kelly brings career experience in running large-scale operations with diverse and conflicting players — and getting results — what the White House lacks at the moment,” Wharton professor Michael Useem told CNBC.

Create a personal link with your employees to inspire loyalty. Kelly was deployed to Iraq again in 2008, this time as a three-star lieutenant general. It was here that he discovered what he truly loved about serving: “One of the worst things about getting promoted as an officer is that you get further and further away from day-to-day contact with young Marines,” Kelly said.

Of his leadership style, Kelly said the best thing you can do is look out for your Marines and let them know someone has their back. He apparently modeled his entire career around this concept.

Donald Trump’s White House has been described as insular, with the president himself largely isolated from the Washington establishment. In fact, you would have to go back to Andrew Johnson in 1865 to find a president as isolated as Trump, said Michael T. Corgan, a U.S. presidency scholar at Boston University.

“[He] has got to find someone who can work between him and the Congress controlled by his (supposed) own party,” Corgan told the Washington Times in June. “An obsequious Cabinet isn’t enough.”

More recent developments suggest a widening gap between Trump and many power players in Washington.

“Creating a personal link is crucial to leading people through challenging times”-Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management.

General Kelly’s experience working with young Marines allows him to recognize the value of perspective and the purpose of authority: to lead and effect change for the people that matter. Trump’s populist messaging during his campaign is part of the reason he was elected to office, but the chaos of his first six months has cast a cloud over that constituent-first mentality.

“Creating a personal link is crucial to leading people through challenging times,” wrote Useem. Even at a gathering of thousands, “an individual handshake, a brief look in the eyes — those small actions make an indelible impression, serving to focus attention and ensure retention of the mission and message that a leader seeks to convey.”

Know when to back down. Kelly’s last role in the military before retirement was as commander of U.S. Southern Command, a job that included overseeing Guantanamo Bay. It was an experience that demonstrates a military principle Kelly adheres to, and a reminder that only one person sits behind the Oval Office desk.

He was known for strongly voicing his opposition to President Barack Obama’s determination to close the detention center. But when it came down to action, Kelly was fully prepared to shut down the facility at the direction of the president.

“I think that John Kelly’s military leadership style is exactly what the Trump administration needs at this point,” said Chad Storlie, a retired U.S. Army Reserve Special Forces officer and the author of Combat to Corporate, a book on making the transition from the military to the business world. “The first thing that John Kelly brings is undisputed loyalty to the president and to the U.S. government.”

…But don’t be afraid to speak truth to power. The most-successful CEOs don’t just bark orders — when necessary, they take them from their executive teams. This is the management needle Kelly has to thread working for a strong-willed president who is used to operating on his own in dealmaking.

During his Wednesday earnings call with Wall Street, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk corrected investors on a previous, bold comment he had made about a potentially radical change in manufacturing for a new SUV model.

“Upon the council of my executive team — thank you. Thanks, guys — who reeled me back from the cliffs of insanity — much appreciated. … I’d like to thank my executive team for stopping me from being a fool,” Musk said.

President Trump has provided mixed signals on his willingness to cede decisions to military commanders, even those that apply directly to their daily operations. While Trump notably reversed his own view on the value of torture in intelligence gathering on the advice of Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump used Twitter to informally announce a ban on transgender service members reportedly without consulting the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Kelly spoke to this tension during his confirmation hearing to become Homeland Security Secretary. “I believe in respect, tolerance and diversity of opinion. I have a profound respect for the rule of law and will always strive to uphold it. I have never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations.”

— By Zachary Basu, special to CNBC.com

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