President's staff should lead by example

Jarrett recently mistook a senior military officer—a four-star general, no less— in his dress uniform complete with stripes and medals, for a waiter, whom she asked for another glass of wine. 

The unintentional snub occurred at a high brow Washington event, the annual Alfalfa Club Dinner. Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Austan Goolsbee, who was seated next to Jarrett, did not improve the incident by laughing at Jarrett’s kerfuffle. Fortunately for Jarrett, the officer in question was Army General and Vice Chief of Staff, Peter Chiarelli who, always an “officer and a gentleman,” dutifully brought the requested glass of wine. 

His actions caused one media outlet to label the incident: “4-star general, 5-star grace.” Once Jarrett realized her error, she was mortified and apologized sincerely for the gaffe, and the man with the four stars invited her to dinner. So the story ends…or does it?

Perhaps such embarrassing incidents should be followed up with a course of action that would help eliminate confusion in the future. Maybe the White House should consider a few well-timed steps:

Conduct an orientation program to educate White House staff about the different uniforms worn by members of the armed services. While it’s true that a Marine stands outside the door to the Oval Office, and the President and his staff meet often with military personnel, the average person cannot easily distinguish one uniform from another. As we recently learned, even someone like Jarrett, who often has a uniformed military driver to take her to and fro, could benefit from such an education. 

Remind White House staff that it isn’t appropriate to laugh at misunderstandings that could cause further embarrassment and ill feelings between colleagues. At such high-profile government events, a greater semblance of professionalism and mutual respect should be of utmost importance.

Encourage the White House staff to visit hospitalized veterans of our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed or Bethesda, or to accompany the First Lady on one of her wonderful trips to military bases where she offers encouragement and vital support to military families. Doing so would give them a better first-hand appreciation for the respect men and women in uniform have earned.

Whatever the cause of these kinds of embarrassing faux pas—too little knowledge or simply being tired after a long day’s work—they are unfortunate. Without the exceptional professionalism and good humor of the general involved, this might have evolved into a bigger issue in the media or in White house dealings with the military. 

Jarrett and Goolsbee are bright, enormously skilled, highly valuable and industrious members of the Obama team. They have attended the best prep schools and universities in America where they have been exposed to the best and have been around the finest. If these two are subject to such blunders, what can be expected of lower-ranked staffers?

Ritch K. Eich, Ph.D., former chief of news, public affairs and marketing at Stanford University Medical Center, is president of Eich Associated in Thousand Oaks, CA. He is also a writer, columnist, adjunct professor of business and member of several boards of directors. He is a captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve (Ret), served in various command in Washington, D.C. including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is writing a leadership book called Real Leaders Don’t Boss to be published by Career Press in early 2012. U.S. Senators Richard Lugar and Dan Coats cited him for exemplary leadership in the Congressional Record and he served on U.S. Senator Carl Levin’s Naval Academy Selection Committee for several years.

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