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Lessons from “The Gatekeepers”

In a lot of ways, 2017 and 2018 blurred. Maybe it’s that I’ve mentality adjusted to the biennial session of the Texas Legislature. Another contributing factor is the fall-spring-summer academic semesters bridge across calendar years. Undeniably, the constant stream of headlines since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017 has also played into this time span feeling a lot longer than two years.

A book that has consoled me is “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” a New York Times best-seller authored by multimedia journalist Chris Whipple, featuring extensive interviews with all 17 living White House Chiefs of Staff. This 2017 book provides an “in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the White House Chiefs of Staff, whose actions—and inactions—have defined the course of our country.”

Often referred to as a “gatekeeper,” a chief of staff decides who meets with the elected official, and negotiates with others to push the elected official’s legislative agenda. The person holding this position is unelected and unconfirmed and can make or break an elected official’s time in office.

Since the birth of the United States, the Founding Fathers had trusted advisors and aides, but no defined role and structure for internal communication. At the height of unfavorable bloodshed in the twentieth century, with intensifying geopolitical challenges and expanding media resources, the new position was adopted. For a historical breakdown of how the White House Chief of Staff role came to be, read the final essay of my undergraduate career.

Here are some notes from “The Gatekeepers” that came into play for me.

Don’t take advice from anyone who hasn’t been in your position of taking the blame and receiving none of the credit.

Most of my journalism mentors graduated in May of 2017, so entering my senior year at St. Edward’s University, I was suddenly the oldest and most experienced editor at the school newspaper in a year where consistent writers and graphic designers were in short supply. As I waddled further away from my sports journalism career into the tide of publication leadership, there was a lot of internal pressure to be like Jacob — like both of them, Jacob Sanchez and Jacob Rogers, my predecessors. I learned pretty quickly that those who put in the least amount of effort will always offer the most criticism. And although someone’s lack of commitment contributes to your workload, it’s an opportunity to showcase your work ethic. Soon enough, I found my own voice as an Editor-In-Chief and I’m proud of the critical stories my dedicated writers produced during my tenure.

Know if a sparrow lands on the White House lawn.

In juggling working for the student newspaper, I simultaneously landed in the uncharted waters of Texas politics. There was a lot I had to figure out on my own, but there were also several people who were eager to teach me. My former Legislative Director always made it a point to introduce me to every staffer and lobbyist he saw while visiting offices or walking down the halls under the pink dome. He encouraged me to attend as many networking opportunities as possible and to utilize free time to sit in the gallery or in committee hearings to observe. When organizing a floor report of bill analysis, make sure the boss hears all sides of the issue, but make a case for your point. Twitter Notifications, Google Alerts, and a polished outfit are crucial to building connections and knowing key details. (Also, thank you to Mauricio for first suggesting I read “The Gatekeepers.”)

Your strengths can also be your weaknesses.

Some people swear by personality tests, others despise them. I think they carry a bit of truth. On the Myers–Briggs’ 16 Personalities Test, I am an INTJ Personality, which describes me as a strategic planner who favors logic over emotion. However, I can easily be overly analytical and tend to detach myself from emotionally charged conflicts. As a student journalist, my strengths helped in aiming to seek truth, report facts, and exclude biases. In the world of communications, I have struggled with expressing urgency, agency, and insurgency within a political or policy context. The moral is to appreciate those who can provide constructive criticism, because hearing only what you want to hear doesn’t help you grow. Surround yourself with people who recognize your ambition and feed your intellectual hunger.

If you’re looking for thank you’s, they rarely happen in politics; it’s a user business.

The difference between an elected official and a staffer is the spotlight. A staffer needs to know when to stay in the background and take the spotlight if necessary, but at the end of the day, you are the link between politics and policy. Per “The Gatekeepers,” a Chief of Staff holds other titles, too: a javelin catcher to prevent bad blows and protect best interests; a confidant who has the trust of the elected official; a consiliari who will serve as a trusted advisor in not just saying what a leader wants to hear, but what they need to hear; as well as a battlefield commander who will be decisive about plans and strategic in execution. Do the best you can with every new door that opens. Don’t expect a pat on the back for doing your job correctly, but appreciate when your boss acknowledges your behind-the-scenes successes. Whether you are in a position of power or not, remember that expressing gratitude is free and can mean more to someone than you may know.

What matters to you? I’ve been asked this question several times lately.

Whether you’re a recent college graduate, a veteran chief of staff, a newly elected politician, or someone with no interest in government, we all have pre-arranged talking points in our head for a glossy answer. What matters to you could be idealistic, realistic or materialistic to name a few adjectives.

Regardless of your New Year’s resolutions or 2019 legislative priorities, it’s important to find people you can talk to about what really matters. At the beginning of 2018, I lost one of those people. Since then, I gained a few more in the form of new friends, family members, and colleagues. My greatest lesson from this book and biennium was trust — not necessarily to trust that everything will fall into place, but rather trust that there’s a rhyme or reason for every place or person. As a trusted Chief of Staff of the Texas House of Representatives once told me:

If you can’t express your feelings to people you trust, then you can’t explain them to others. The good part about that, though is you get to control who you trust.”

The Yellow Rose of Texas symbolizes warmth, optimism, and friendship, all of which I wish upon you in 2019! P.S. Feel free to comment any book suggestions.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from “The Gatekeepers””

  1. This is awesome….I’m so happy your doing what you love and the places you have been…you deserve every bit of success, you worked hard to earn it!

    Liked by 1 person

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