Leadership Lessons from White House Fellows

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Charles P. Garcia

The men and women who do it right—who lead and have led with integrity, wisdom, and selfless devotion—are the ones we should be focusing on right now.  While researching my book Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness, and Find Success in Any Organization (McGraw-Hill, 2009) I realized that if we take what they have to teach us and apply it to our own lives and careers, we can turn this country around.

The White House Fellows program, which was created more than 40 years ago by the bipartisan efforts of President Lyndon B. Johnson and John W. Gardner, former president of the Carnegie Corporation, provides some of the nation's most promising young citizens with a firsthand look at the behind-the-scenes workings of the U.S. political system. A select group of men and women—chosen through an intense application, interview, and deliberation process—spend an entire year working alongside top government officials.

Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows includes 20 inspirational leadership stories. Here are just three--enough to get you started:

Leadership Lesson #1: There's more to life than work. Great leaders have deep reserves of physical, spiritual, and emotional energy, and that energy is usually fueled by a strong and supportive relationship with the people they love, regular exercise, a healthy lifestyle, and setting aside time for reflection.

The story behind the lesson: Doris Kearns Goodwin

At 6:00 a.m. on a cold January morning in 1973, presidential historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and NBC news analyst Doris Kearns Goodwin (WHF 67-68) received a call from former President Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom she had become a trusted confidante while working on his memoirs.

"He told me to get married, have children, and spend time with them," Goodwin said. "He talked about how he should have spent more time with his family, because that's a different and more worthy kind of posterity than the public one that he had been seeking throughout his entire political career. That would be our last conversation, because he died of a heart attack two days later—but what a wonderful thing to leave me with."

Goodwin heeded Johnson's words. For example, she turned down the chance to be considered for the position of head of the Peace Corps during the Carter administration because she knew it would require her to travel often and be away from her young children. Over the years she's concluded that those who live the richest lives manage to achieve a healthy balance of work, love, and play.

“To commit yourself to just one of those spheres without the others is to leave open an older age filled with sadness, because once the work is gone, you have nothing left—no hobbies, no sports," Goodwin said. "Your family may love you, but they are not in the center of your life as they might have been had you paid attention to them all the way through. And I always argue that the ability to relax and replenish your energy is absolutely essential."

Leadership Lesson #2: Put your people first. No organization is better than the people who run it. The fact is that you are in the people business—the business of hiring, training, and managing people to deliver the product or service you provide. If the people are the engine of your success, to be a great leader you need to attend to your people with a laser-like focus.

The story behind the lesson:  Mitchell Reiss

Mitchell Reiss (WHF 88-89) has seen firsthand that a leader's focus on his or her people is an incredibly powerful tool. He learned that valuable lesson during his White House Fellowship from his principal, the National Security Advisor and former Secretary of State and former White House Fellow Colin Powell.

"Two weeks after I started my Fellowship, there was a picnic over the weekend for the National Security Council staff and their families," Reiss recalled. "We got there promptly, but General Powell was already there helping set up, helping cook the burgers and hot dogs, and personally greeting every single person, not just on the staff but their families. He came over to me and knew not only my name but introduced himself to my wife, Elisabeth, and thanked her for allowing me to work the hours that I worked at the NSC. He told her she should feel that she is part of the NSC family as well.

"That very brief but very personal interaction with Powell had an extraordinary impact on her. After he left, she turned to me and said, 'You better do a good job for that man. If you need to stay late at work, I will never complain.' That's the sort of transformative impact that leadership can have, and I was able to see it up close and personal with Colin Powell. This lesson was invaluable when I later worked at the State Department, where I tried to replicate this sense of teamwork and compassion."

Leadership Lesson #3: Understand that not every battle is the end of the war. Too often leaders allow themselves to be sidetracked by other people's prejudices and personal attacks. They focus too much of their attention on counterattacking those individuals and waste precious energy and time on irrelevant issues. Leaders who demonstrate grace under fire with a laserlike focus on their true mission are the ones who will achieve greatness.

The story behind the lesson:  Ron Quincy.  Ronald Quincy (WHF 85-86) was chosen to represent the HUD secretary in an interagency effort with the Department of State to promote fundamental change in South Africa. This led to a promotion as the foreign policy advisor to the Africa Bureau of the State Department. Through his experiences Quincy developed friendships with many famous and powerful leaders, which led to an opportunity to work and travel with Nelson Mandela following his Fellowship year.

On one such occasion, Quincy had the privilege of escorting Mandela around the United States during his effort to work with groups of American students and their South African counterparts to help train over 50,000 South Africans in the election process. During the 18-hour flight back to South Africa, Mandela and Quincy were standing in the aisle of the airplane talking when a male flight attendant approached Mandela and rudely told him to sit down in his seat so that they could serve dinner. Quincy was appalled at the loud and disrespectful way that the man had spoken to Mandela but decided to see how his mentor handled the situation.

"Mandela turns and then points to me and says, 'Actually, sir, I'm with him,' shifting the blame to me as if I were the culprit, the important American," explains Quincy. "He said it jokingly in a mischievous way, grinning with a wink of the eye to me, and completely disarmed the situation and quietly returned to his seat."

It was a powerful lesson for Quincy: In an era when ordinary people throw self-important temper tantrums at the drop of a hat, this man of enormous international stature chose to sit down quietly and not make a scene. Reflecting on the incident, Mandela later told Quincy that when he was active in the African National Congress (ANC) as a young man, "I learned that leaders who last are those who understand that every battle is not the end of the war. That little incident was not the war. It was not important, absolutely of no consequence."

Recalled Quincy: "[Mandela cautioned me to] never take your condition so seriously that it impedes you from accomplishing your personal mission, which, in my case, is a free democratic election in South Africa."

Less than a year later, in April 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president and the first black president of South Africa.

If you would like to apply for a White House Fellowship, please visit www.WhiteHouse.gov/fellows

About the Author(s)

Charles P. Garcia is a former White House Fellow and graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.  In 2006, he sold his investment banking firm, which grew from three people to sixty offices in seven countries. Inc. magazine identified it as one of the top ten fastest-growing privately held companies in the United States. Garcia was named entrepreneur of the year by three national organizations. He is on the board of Fortune 500 companies and serves as the chairman of the Board of Visitors of the U.S. Air Force Academy.  For more information: visit www.charlespgarcia.com