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Leadership during the new normal: Inspiring others

Leaders can create structures that inspire and empower employees. Here are examples from the former head of Procter & Gamble and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

7 min read


Leadership during the new normal: Inspiring others


This post is part of the series “Leadership behaviors during the new normal.” Read parts one and two of that series.

One of the most critical components of building strong leadership within an organization is inspiring others.

This includes the leader of the organization personally role modeling the purpose and values and acting consistent with what they stand for. The leader wants to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for the organization’s mission and its people. A big part of the energizing task is enrolling the organization in pursuit of the vision.

At Procter & Gamble, we would do this through annual leadership team meetings, called Year End Meetings, during which we would review what was accomplished over the past year, and the plans for the next year. Every leader left the Year End Meeting knowing what they had to do to deliver their share of the vision. Similarly, the agenda of the Year End Meeting was arranged around the capabilities we needed to train to get there.

We took this same tack at the Department of Veterans Affairs by creating a program called Leaders Developing Leaders. The most prominent comment I got from employees as I traveled around and held town hall meetings was that VA employees felt they were “prisoners of a system they couldn’t control.”

Leaders Developing Leaders was about training the skills employees needed to take control (e.g., Lean Six Sigma, human-centered design, giving personnel review feedback, and more), charging them to take control, helping each leader to develop a personal project they would work on to improve their operation, and then giving them a kit of DVDs and lesson plans to go back to their own unit to teach Leaders Developing Leaders.

In this way, we cascaded the program throughout the organization and helped each leader engage the next level down. We accumulated the projects by strategy and were able to track and help their accomplishment.

Again, in today’s coronavirus world, technology would need to be used to substitute for large, in-person meetings. The layered approach of Leaders Developing Leaders helps by keeping in-person meetings relatively small. Nevertheless, technology is a great enabler as a substitute for in-person interaction and also to connect individual projects back to the organization’s strategy and vision.

Every organization, no matter its size, needs an intentional process of engaging its employees and linking them to the vision.

My acid test of organization engagement is, when I walked into a P&G plant, did the individual technician on the production line know how their behavior each day tied  back to P&G’s vision of “touching and improving lives?”

Similarly, could I go into a VA medical center and talk to the individual cleaning a room, and they would understand how they fit into the VA vision of “caring for those who have borne the battle”?

President John F. Kennedy, while visiting NASA in the 1960s, reportedly asked a janitor at the facility, “What do you do here?” The man replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” This kind of clear line of sight from one’s daily work to the organization vision energizes us. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Wanting to be significant is a human need. A leader’s job is to provide that significance through energizing and inspiring others.

Enable, or building capability

During all my years teaching leadership and evaluating P&G’ers using the 5E Model, enabling or building organization capability was always the behavior each leader wanted to improve. It was also the behavior subordinates most wanted to see from their leaders.

This included building organization capability to deliver innovation, creating an inclusive entrepreneurial culture with strong results ownership, enabling others and oneself to do what they do best through effective career development and assignment planning, developing others and oneself though constant learning/coaching/teaching, and leveraging diverse approaches to get better results.

Practically, what the leader needs to do to enable is to encourage initiative-taking and risk-taking. The leader must establish a learning and training plan to identify individual strengths and get people into jobs that exploit their strengths.

At VA, we worked to move our culture from a rules-based culture to a principle-based culture. Government oftentimes is rules-based. Laws are passed that affect the culture. The VA is 65% unionized, which means we had a plethora of union contracts or rule-books. We even had a receptionist in one of our facilities in Washington state tell a disabled veteran in our parking lot that he would have to call 911 since the receptionist was unable to go outside and help the veteran into our facility.

Contrast that with the VA mental health nurse that called the police when her veteran didn’t show for his appointment and went with the police to break his door down. They found him wedged between furniture and saved his life. This nurse didn’t hide behind a rule; she took initiative. Great customer service organizations are built with employees who take initiative. These employees have the psychological safety to know that, if they take initiative and it fails, the leader will have their back.

At VA, one of the ways we built organization capability in addition to the steps already mentioned was to improve our systems. The scheduling system that contributed to the scheduling of veterans for medical appointments dated to 1986. My first trip was to Phoenix, where I sat with a scheduler, and saw a system that was like green-screen MS-DOS. The system clearly made the job of the scheduler more difficult.

We changed it. We also managed our $185 billion budget using COBOL. COBOL is a mainframe computer language I learned to code at West Point for our Honeywell mainframe computer in 1971. I discovered I could make more money working as a COBOL programmer for VA than I did as department secretary because knowing the language was such a rare skill. We fixed this by working with another government department to use their more up-to-date system.

Execute, or delivering outstanding results

Perhaps the most important leadership behavior is leading execution. Your organization strategy may be great, but your execution as an organization is what exemplifies it. I have seen great execution win over great strategy.

The key to great execution is the alignment of the organization we discussed earlier:

  • Does every employee have an individual work plan that is aligned with the organization strategy and vision?
  • Are people in the organization holding themselves accountable for delivering?
  • Do you have a system of regular reviews with operating teams that surface issues so leaders can help?

At VA, we had to work with Congress to create a culture of greater accountability. Even though we had several senior leaders who needed to be fired, the law said we could only recommend a  firing to a judge, and that judge had the power to overrule our proposal. While I understood the need for fairness given the political environment in government, we proposed – successfully — a new law that would give VA leadership greater control over VA employee accountability. Without accountability, a leader risks employee engagement.

We created a system at VA where we identified our top 12 priorities. I led six, and the deputy secretary, my West Point classmate Sloan Gibson, led six. We met every other week on each priority. We met with the working team, not just our direct reports. The purpose of these meetings was to identify barriers, eliminate them, and make sure each priority was properly resourced.

This created clarity in the organization and a sense of urgency. We celebrated success at each step and set stretch goals. We used periodic business reviews, like at P&G, and scorecards.

I hope that your organization can utilize these examples to build its own structure that helps to create world-class leaders.


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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