Anthony Scaramucci’s firing on Monday was interpreted by many as a sign that President Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, might begin to instill some discipline on a chaotic White House, even as the president denies that there is any. But what matters isn’t simply that Scaramucci, reportedly at the urging of Kelly, was dismissed on Monday. It’s also that it was Kelly’s first act – or at least one of the first – in his new job.

Reports of Scaramucci’s ouster – which came four days after the New Yorker published Scaramucci’s profanity-laced rant to one of its reporters – said that among the first things Kelly did was to dismiss the foul-mouthed communications director. The two reportedly had a face-to-face meeting in Kelly’s office where Scaramucci was dismissed “almost immediately” after Kelly was sworn in.

Finally, Trump’s White House has taken a page from the management playbook. Making big and symbolic moves in a new job managing a crisis is a classic – and critical – part of change management. “It sends a signal that he’s actually imposing consequences,” said Gautam Mukunda, a research fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, of Kelly. “One of the first things you do in a crisis is establish authority.”

What mattered wasn’t only that Scaramucci was shown the door, but that it was one of Kelly’s first moves, said Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It would be shocking if he hadn’t [removed Scaramucci],” Useem said. “The Mooch was unequivocally the wrong person to have in there.” But when it comes to making an impact in a new job, “you’ve got to send a signal,” he said, referring to what academics call “symbolic politics.” “It doesn’t solve the problems. But it signals that the bigger problems could get addressed.”

That people are saying the ouster of a top White House staffer just 11 days after he was named to the job is a sign of progress suggests how low the standards have fallen, Mukunda noted. Over and over again, President Trump – who campaigned on the idea he would bring a businessman’s sensibilities and judgment to Washington – has upended basic tenets of management.

President Trump indicates he won’t give up tweeting:


He didn’t fire his FBI Director, James Comey, in person or at least over the phone. His White House has been described as a case study in chaos and as “Game of Thrones”-style warring factions rather than a well-honed, cooperative senior team. Policies have been issued by tweet or executive order, resulting in confusion.

As a result, the president’s management has repeatedly been a point of criticism, rather than cited as an asset. One of his staunchest CEO supporters, former General Electric chief executive Jack Welch, called Trump out on CNBC for his “crappy management practices.” Surveys of current chief executives and chief financial officers have shown that plenty give Trump either failing grades for his management style or describe it in terms like “self-absorbed” and “obnoxious,” with “unconventional” amounting to a compliment. Journalists have compared how a CEO who managed his company like the president runs his White House would fare if judged by a public company’s board of directors. (The answer: Not well.)

The Washington Post’s Abby Phillip and Damian Paletta reported that Scaramucci’s removal was indeed meant to send a message. “Removing him from the communications post was not intended to be personal, but rather an effort to change the culture of the White House and to signal to staff that their comments always reflect on the president,” they reported Monday.

Yet while the removal of Scaramucci – and it happened so fast – may mark some adherence to management wisdom, it’s only a first step. Kelly will “have to be consistent over time, will have to impose coherence, and will have – to use an appropriately military metaphor – to get everybody marching in the same direction and in time,” Mukunda said. “Kelly’s ability to do that is limited by the fact that he’s the chief of staff, not the president.”

And of course, he’s chief of staff to not just any president, but one who appears to relish taunting his officials in public, shows little appetite for restraint and seems unlikely to relinquish his grip on his Twitter account. Kelly “has got to bring discipline to a boss who doesn’t want discipline,” Useem said. While everyone might applaud Scaramucci’s quick dismissal “as a take charge, make change first step,” he said, at least “nine steps have got to follow.”

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