California Forum

Are we seeing a leadership style of creative tension in the West Wing, or something else?

President Donald Trump’s advisers, from the left, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, are sworn in along with other members of White House senior staff on Jan. 22.
President Donald Trump’s advisers, from the left, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, are sworn in along with other members of White House senior staff on Jan. 22. The Associated Press

Years ago, I asked one of President Lyndon Johnson’s former aides what it was like working for LBJ, who by that time was retired and back on his Texas ranch.

His response was not surprising given all we knew about Johnson, a man who always seemed to drive himself and those around him to the limit of human capabilities; a man described once by an assistant, Jack Valenti, as someone with “extra glands that give him energy that ordinary men simply don’t have.”

“What the president would do,” the aide told me, “is take you up to the top of an imaginary mountain and tell you to look down and see the rest of the world. And he would say that together we are going to conquer the world, you and me together.

“Then just when you were feeling incredibly great, he would push you down the mountain, and there you were at the foot of the mountain, bruised and bloody, and he would put his arm around you, fix you up, give you a gift, and take you back up to the top of the mountain. And do it all over again and again.”

And he did that with every one of his closest aides, I was told, never letting anyone feel entirely comfortable or safe in his or her job.

I think about that long-ago exchange when the almost daily reports of turmoil in the current West Wing dominate the latest news cycle.

It’s said to be the Jared Kushner-Ivanka Trump squad facing off with the Steve Bannon forces, with Reince Priebus somewhere in the middle ground and Kellyanne Conway.

Then there is press secretary Sean Spicer tasked with trying to answer questions about the wrestling match while so aptly fitting ESPN’s Chris Berman’s famous description of “rumblin’, stumblin’, bumblin’.”

And just how is President Donald Trump handling this power tug-of-war?

“Work it out,” he has been quoted as telling at least some of the combatants. No trips up that hypothetical mountain or even to the woodshed. And certainly not his most well-known line, “You’re fired.”

Given what we know about his style of leadership, disorder rather than order is just fine with him. Chaos triumphs over calm.

Some might call it creative tension. But how can any environment that intentionally creates strain and pressure and conflict be creative?

Trump is the least experienced of the 44 men who have been president. He is truly learning on the job. And he deeply needs people around him who can set aside their own ambitions and assist him in that learning process.

And there seems to be a real shortage of those kinds of folks in his professional household.

So as Trump moves ahead we can hope he finds the humility to ask himself some questions about the handling of his staff and the leadership of the country.

A starter might be:

What am I doing to create a culture that is tolerant and diverse, a culture where people of different viewpoints can come together to seek excellence, build trust in each other, and understand the need for compassion and for the elimination of one of our original sins, the sin of arrogance?

And while we know the president doesn’t read much he might want to take just a few moments to read what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech in which he was talking about how we are all caught in a network of mutuality, tied together in a single garment of destiny.

There was a wonderful paragraph in the speech that all leaders, or perhaps everyone, should write on a Post-it and keep it handy.

“For some strange reason,” King said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Co. He can be contacted at gfavre@sbcglobal.net.

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