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 Wharton professor Michael 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, though Mattis did know.
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