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Leadership during the new normal: The importance of purpose and values

Learn what kinds of leadership are required in this uncertain world from former P&G CEO and Veterans Affairs leader Bob McDonald.

7 min read


Leadership during the new normal: The importance of purpose and values


Retired Gen. Stan McChrystal, a fellow West Point graduate, suggests in his book “Leadership: Myth and Reality” that different environments will require different leaders.

Similarly, Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in their Situational Leadership Model point out that leaders should change their leadership approach to be more or less directive, and more or less supportive, based on the situation.

The point is, aspiring leaders will be best served by learning to discern what is required in each situation rather than always mimicking a standard set of textbook leadership qualities. So what kind of leadership is required in this new normal of the coronavirus, polarized political beliefs and a rapidly changing workforce?

Leadership matters

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Effective leadership in the context of this new normal matters more than ever. A.G. Lafley, the retired chairman, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, said, “The scarcest resource in the world today is leadership — leadership capable of continuously transforming organizations to win in tomorrow’s fast-changing and increasingly more competitive world.”

I have always agreed with this statement, and that is why I have always led the organizations I’ve been in to develop a culture of leadership, making leadership pervasive in everything we do: recruiting, hiring, training and development, assessment, promotion, awards and more.

Any organization that aspires to be great over a sustainable period of time, which of course brings changing context, must have a model of leadership that is pervasive in the organization and creates a vocabulary in the culture. At P&G, we developed the 5E Model of Leadership (Envision, Engage, Energize, Enable, and Execute). We built it into every aspect of our operations and culture.

P&G, where I was CEO, has been widely recognized for its leader development prowess. For example, Chief Executive magazine named P&G the best company for developing leader talent. The Hay Group, a global management consulting firm, consistently cited P&G in its top-tier listing of the best companies for leadership. This focus on leadership is what makes P&G one of the world’s “most admired companies” with consistently excellent results over a long period of time.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we eliminated the multiple leadership models we had from about 75 consultants and created our own I-LEAD Model to build our culture of leadership. The I-LEAD model encouraged Innovation, Learning, Engaging, Anticipating, and Delivering superior service and care for veterans, and it inspired others to do the same.

I-LEAD advanced a common leadership language and philosophy and a consistent set of behavioral expectations for VA leaders everywhere. To institutionalize and perpetuate these principles, over 24,000 leaders and 111,500 employees benefited from Leaders-Developing-Leaders training that spread best practices across VA.

This year, I co-wrote with retired Campbell Soup CEO Doug Conant and Andrew Marshall the article “A Nonpartisan Model for Developing Public Service Leaders” for Harvard Business Review. Doug and I serve on the board of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the effectiveness of the federal government. We co-chair the Government Leadership Advisory Council, for which Andrew is the director for leadership development. The council is composed of former CEOs, eminent academic scholars, military leaders and former Cabinet secretaries.

In that article, we wrote: “To forge the leaders we’ll need to get through the next crisis, we need to implement a new model for training them today.”

To that end, we’ve carried out focus groups with dozens of government leaders. From this we developed and then stress-tested a leadership model, which we are now training throughout the federal government and integrating into the work of the Partnership.

The point is, if you want to develop a high-performance organization, the leader needs to train other leaders in leadership, the organization needs to have a single leadership model that is made pervasive throughout the organization, and this model must create the vocabulary of leadership in the organization.

The importance of purpose and values

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In uncertain times, the best organizations are undergirded by their purpose and their values. While the most effective leadership behaviors may change due to context, situation or a new normal; the purpose and values of an organization generally do not change. They are immutable. They are the foundation of any high-performance organization.

In analyzing any given business situation, it is best to start there — at the foundation. So when I became secretary of the VA due to a crisis in Phoenix where veterans were having adverse consequences waiting too long for care; many critics saw this as an access crisis. That was true, but I focused first on the VA purpose and values.

We had VA employees who were not living up to our purpose of caring for veterans, and we had employees lying about the speed of veteran appointments — a clear violation of our value of Integrity. So we did training on our purpose and values and asked each employee to certify their understanding and commitment.

High-performance organizations make their purpose and values pervasive in their organizations, never take them for granted, and are always training them and looking for ways to more deeply embed them.

When I joined P&G in 1980, we were a $10 billion company with only a third of our sales outside the US. When I retired in 2013, we were an $84 billion company with a third of our sales inside the U.S. In 1980, the culture of the company was communicated over lunch, when all of the senior executives — all men — would gather for lunch in our Cincinnati headquarters. As we globalized in the 1980s and beyond, our leadership realized we had to formalize this culture-building process. We had to codify our statement of purpose and a set of values.

As I became the leader of our company in Japan in 1995, one of the first things I did discuss our statement of purpose and values translated into Japanese with our Japan leadership team. Languages represent cultures. Purpose and values must be understood in the local language and culture.

An organization’s purpose and values can be the antidote to what the Army War College calls VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Institute for the Future Distinguished Fellow Bob Johansen talks about how purpose or vision is rewarded in a volatile world. The organization has relentless and intense focus. Oftentimes, the clarity brought by the purpose and values overcomes uncertainty and complexity. In fact, sometimes clarity about doing the wrong thing can win, at least in the short term, in an uncertain and complex environment.

Agility is the antidote to ambiguity. Agile leadership is critical in a VUCA world.


Leadership is the scarcest resource in our world today. To be better leaders, we need to focus on the purpose and values of the organizations we lead. These are the antidotes to our VUCA world we face today. We want to develop the organization we lead to be high performance. This requires the organization have a single leadership model, which is pervasive in the organization, becomes a part of the culture and vocabulary of the organization.

Given the VUCA world, leaders must act with agility. The 5E Model of P&G provides guidance as to how to modify behaviors to be even more effective in each context. In this way, the opportunity for effectiveness increases, and the organization flourishes.


Robert A. McDonald was the eighth secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as retired chairman, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble Co., chairman of RallyPoint, and an April and Jay Graham Fellow of the George W. Bush Institute.

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