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Secrets of the White House Fellowship: What Everyone Needs to Know

Posted by on Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Papers.

by Elizabeth D. Pinkertonformer Director, President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, 2017-2021

UNIFYING THEME: Hours of Hope: Case Studies in American Progress

SUMMARY: For more than 55 years, White House Fellows have made important contributions to American democracy, and this program can serve as a model for those seeking to push back on polarization.

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Founded in 1964, the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships is generally regarded as the flagship fellowship program in the nation. The program serves as an example of what motivated young leaders can accomplish when they set aside the blinders of partisanship.   

So, what makes the White House Fellowship so successful? Obviously, the marquee name doesn’t hurt, and yet no program can succeed for long without the ongoing success of its participants, which include Colin Powell, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Elaine Chao and Bill Hagerty.   

White House Fellows 2020-21
2020-2021 White House Fellows with Export-Import Bank of the U.S. President Chairman Reed (front row, center) and Director Elizabeth Pinkerton (front row, far right).

As it happens, I was fortunate to have a close-in vantage point to the unfolding history of the Fellowship; from 2017 to 2021, I served as the program’s director.  From my office on historic Jackson Place, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, overlooking Lafayette Square, I worked with the 36-member commission to select a total of 58 White House Fellows to supervise their placement in top slots across the executive branch of the federal government, and then to coordinate their educational and training programs.   

And while my time at the Fellowship was personally transformative, I can claim no special status; I was merely one director, just another link in the great institutional chain, which stretches  back six decades—and will hopefully reach forward even longer. 

So, what, exactly, did I learn from the Fellowship? Why does it work so well? And what lessons can it teach those of us looking to push back against the forces of polarization? Here are five takeaways:  

  1. Be nice, or at least, be polite. To some, such injunctions might sound sappy, and yet, sappy or not, they’re true. You can’t make any organization work for long unless people are decent to each other. The addition of such grace notes might sound simple, but they’re not always easy to add. Not surprisingly, the Fellowship attracts thousands of applicants a year, and just about all of them are Type A  super-achievers— a number of whom had been in military combat.  And of course, the rest of the world has its share of rough-and-tumble. Yet in such situations, minding one’s manners is all the more important.  Yes, drive and energy are great, but the Fellowship is just that: a community of fellows. And communities have norms, which enable its members to get along.  Does this sound a bit like the Golden Rule?  Yes, and that’s no accident; every successful culture in the world has some version of the credo: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And it starts with niceness and politeness.  (Note to any prospective applicant to the White House Fellowship who might be reading: This means you.)   
  1. Walk in the other person’s shoes. For a person to be effective in an interactive situation, he or she must have an understanding as to where the other person is going through—and thus where they are coming from. We can note that “understanding” is not the same as “agreeing,” and yet understanding offers at least the hope of commonality. In the Fellowship, people from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs systems came together—to talk, to learn about one another and to work together.  Yes, the Fellowship puts great emphasis on group-socialization and mission-orientation.  And the walk-in-the-other-person’s-shoes approach proved itself in each year of my four years: In one of the most politically polarizing times in our nation’s history, the Fellows came together as a cohort, building lasting friendships, working together to find solutions to our nation’s challenges. In that same spirit, Fellowship alum Samar Ali, Co-Chair of the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy, has been inspired to establish Millions of Conversations, an interactive effort aimed at scaling to the nation, and the world.   
  1. How you say it is often as important as what you say. Fellows are always communicating: the selection process requires them to be quick on their feet in response to interview questions, the orientation process requires them to share with each other, and their work in the federal government requires them to share what they know (as well as, of course, to listen closely).  So at all times, considered and measured communication is at a premium.  The world is full of fast-talkers whom nobody wants to listen to; what we need more of are people who have something constructive to say—and the first indicator of constructiveness is that the words come out in an ordered fashion.  I can add: If you care about the listener, the reader—or the mission—then your communications will be careful. 
  1. Be ready to do whatever it takes. “I’ll make coffee!”  Those were the words of a talented Fellow who had his heart set on one particular placement.  He was way overqualified to make coffee, of course, and yet his expressed willingness to do anything needed was endearing to the office.  And sure enough, he got the placement, and did a whole lot more than make coffee.  And in his new gig, he was doing much more than making coffee; he is doing important things, fully in keeping with his skills.  Thus, the lesson: Do whatever it takes to help; no task is too small..   
  1. Have a Vision. As they say, if you don’t know where you’re going, there’s not much chance that you’ll get there.  The Fellowship itself has a vision: service and leadership.  And all the Fellows have an internal gyroscope, a psychic mechanism that guides them toward diligence, hard work, effectiveness—and perhaps greatness.  So where do we get such men?  And women?  Credit goes to the alchemy of their beliefs, of their families, of their communities, and to the nation as a whole.  Hmm.  That makes me think: Perhaps some interested academic institution could seek to study the virtuous sequence of how talent is identified, recruited, and deployed.  And how that sequence might be replicated—and multiplied.  

These are five of the lessons that I learned from the Fellowship. One could immediately say that these aren’t really secrets; instead, they are simply common sense—and that would be a fair point. As I said, they are lessons. The truth of the matter is that when it comes to the basics of human nature, there are no secrets. As we are told in the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes, “there is no new thing under the sun.”  

If good-hearted and motivated people come together around a worthy common goal, and then work hard in pursuit of that goal, they’re more than likely to succeed.  

So, here’s the non-secret secret of the Fellowship that’s been hiding in plain sight: If good-hearted and motivated people come together around a worthy common goal, and then work hard in pursuit of that goal, they’re more than likely to succeed.     

That’s an open secret, fully available to all. The White House Fellowship provides a model for creating an environment in which people are polite, empathetic, deliberate, eager to work, while sharing common goals.    

Across the nation, there are other models, and they can work just as well—or perhaps work even better. Right here, right now, we need all the good models we can get.    

Elizabeth Pinkerton headshot

Elizabeth D. Pinkerton served as director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships from 2017-2021 and was responsible for administering all aspects of this uniquely non-partisan program, which provides Fellows with an opportunity to gain first-hand work experience at senior levels within the federal government. Previously, she served as Special Assistant for President George W. Bush and worked at the U.S. Department of Commerce. A South Carolina native, she worked in the gubernatorial administrations of David M. Beasley and Carroll A. Campbell, Jr. and is a graduate of Columbia College in Columbia, S.C.  

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