Where Trump's White House shake-up should begin

Infighting causes clashes in Trump White House
Infighting causes clashes in Trump White House

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Story highlights

  • David Gergen: President Donald Trump is weighing the possibility of a staff shake-up
  • Unless a leader is willing to look inward, changing the rest of his team is pointless

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)A few years ago, the CEO of a Fortune 100 company confided that earlier in his career he had decided his company needed a serious shake-up. So he engaged a top consulting firm and searched for ways to change and realign his team. But then came a light-bulb moment: He realized that actually the first thing he needed to do was to change and realign himself. Both he and his team went through a major, thoughtful transformation and together moved swiftly ahead.

There is a serious lesson here for President Donald Trump as he weighs a shake-up of his White House team. Clearly, changes are needed. But he also needs to see and embrace a central idea for anyone running an organization: Leadership starts from within.
David Gergen
You can't lead others until you learn to lead yourself. For much of human history, a leader could dictate what others did. Today, one must lead through example and persuasion. A White House staff takes its cues from the president -- his temperament, his character, the tone he sets, as well as the course he chooses. Unless a president has his own act together, reshuffling the team is ultimately pointless.
Consider a couple of recent examples from White House history. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter was flailing two years into his presidency. His legislative agenda was ailing, the Russians were testing him overseas and the nation was dispirited. Looking for answers, Carter went to Camp David and called in a parade of prominent thinkers. Reporters waited breathlessly for him to return and report, but Carter stayed ... and stayed ... and stayed ... for a full week!
Finally, in what seemed like Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, Carter descended from Camp David to give a prime-time speech to the country. But instead of taking any responsibility himself, he blamed his fellow citizens for losing their way -- his famous argument that the country was suffering from malaise. A few days later, he demanded resignations from several Cabinet members.
It was one of the biggest shake-ups in memory, and instead of stabilizing, Carter's presidency continued to slip. One of the most decent men ever in the White House soon lost his presidency. How different it would have been had he taken time to look inward, not be so defensive and improve the way he governed.
The alternative example is President Bill Clinton. Like Carter, he had a difficult transition from serving as a governor of a state in the Deep South to the most powerful office in the world. In his early months, he stumbled several times, notably on the issue of gay people in the military, and by June 1994, his Gallup approval rating had tumbled to 36%.
Clinton knew he was in trouble and reached for some outside help. But he didn't start heaping blame on others or make wholesale changes in staff. Rather, he saw that he needed to concentrate on improving his own game. On staff, I -- and others -- tried to create a safe space around him so that he could regain his footing and his self-confidence.
But he was the one who then did the hard work of pulling himself together, and by late September that year, his Gallup approval had climbed to 56%. Clinton was the chief architect of his own recovery.
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Clearly, Trump needs to overhaul his White House operation. Like other successful presidents in recent years, he needs to create a pyramidal structure with a strong, mature chief of staff who exercises a steady hand over everyone else and enjoys Trump's full trust. (Think Jim Baker of the Reagan days). He needs an adult friend in the White House who loves him for who he is and isn't afraid to speak truth to power. (Think Valerie Jarrett of Obama days). He needs a much smarter, bigger and more experienced team in the White House and out across the government. (H.R. McMaster of the Trump National Security Council seems to be showing the way.)
But most of all, Donald Trump needs to make course corrections of his own. Some say that he is 70 -- too old to change -- but he is a man of strong will and clearly wants to succeed. His friends must help him see that until he masters himself, he won't achieve mastery of his job. Like other presidents before him, Trump's fate rests fundamentally upon himself, not his staff.