Lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff

by seangljacobs

RAW Rhodes and Anne Tiernan, The Gate Keepers: Lessons from the Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2014

In 1990 Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s office had seventeen staff. In 2010 Prime Minister Julia Gillard employed fifty three. Many view such growth in purely cynical terms – either political staffers undermine the public service or simply feed the media machine. Rarely examined are the professional skills to manage the political and administrative demands of a modern prime ministerial office.

In The Gate Keepers RAW Rhodes and Anne Tiernan provide unique insight into Australia’s machinery of government. The work of a chief of staff is obvious – know the boss, coordinate the policy agenda, manage political expectations and so forth.

The book, however, reveals other prime ministerial insights rare for a nation not usually enchanted by its political leaders. Here is Grahame Morris, for example, on the dietary habits of Liberal leaders: ‘Andrew Peacock would pretty well eat anything but, despite the playboy image, had to be in bed by eight o’clock. Hewson would eat anything providing it came from McDonald’s, and John Howard would eat anything but it had to be three times a day on time or he got glassy-eyed.’

Keeping the leader’s tummy full is one thing but managing tempers is another. Hawke’s chief of staff Sandy Hollway, for example, only saw Hawke ‘lose his temper twice.’ In both cases, he adds, ‘it was on a matter of substance that he felt strongly about, not a petty matter.’

Doing away with the petty and keeping leaders focused is critical for the chief of staff. Don Russell, usually reserved about his time running Paul Keating’s office, reveals that Keating ‘shed anything he thought was peripheral.’ Keating would supposedly read stacks of Treasury paperwork until he worked out that his efforts would need to be targeted if he was to be effective.

The idea of focusing on priorities is essential for not only a chief of staff but an effective politician. As former Reagan adviser and conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza concludes of Reagan’s ingredient to success: ‘Reagan set his priorities. He wanted to defeat inflation, revive the economy, arrest the advance of the Soviet empire – and that’s about it. The other stuff Reagan didn’t care about.’

Many readers can appreciate that leaders in any context who get too bogged down in the detail undermine not just themselves but the people around them.

Rhodes and Tiernan note that chiefs of staff usually fit into two camps – ‘street smart trouble shooters’ or those adept at operational efficiency. ‘It is rare,’ they conclude, ‘for an individual to have both skill sets’ and ‘rarer still for them to perform their tasks to the satisfaction of the prime minister.’

Being a good trouble shooter and efficient at process, therefore, are two skills worth refining. This is useful not just for an aspiring chief of staff but any young professional.

The book can be purchased here.