Cultivating Leadership at West Point

Photography by Brian Ambs, assisted by Vanessa Nordmark

On July 7, 2014 President Barack Obama nominated former chairman of the board, president and CEO of Proctor & Gamble Bob McDonald to the post of Secretary of Veterans Affairs. On July 23, the United States Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs voted unanimously to forward McDonald’s nomination to the full Senate, and on July 29 the Senate confirmed McDonald in a 97-0 vote. 

Before he was confirmed, LEAD Cincinnati had a special opportunity to interview McDonald at his second annual McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference at West Point. This piece ran in Venue Magazine the following year. 

The third annual McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference will take place from April 16 - 19, 2015 at West Point. For more information, check out their website.


As a young man the value of leadership was forged into Bob McDonald as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA). Years later the fruit of this investment would pay dividends as Bob assumed the helm as chairman of the board, president and CEO of P&G in 2009 (retired in 2013). The economy was in a state of crisis − one of the most challenging economic times since the Great Depression. On the day he became CEO, P&G’s stock was $51.10. The stock price closed at $81.64 on the day his last quarterly results were announced – a 60 percent increase for P&G’s shareholders. The value of leadership continues to be a part of Bob’s daily life.  

Bob’s wife Diane shared his passion for helping others develop their own leadership skills. Together, they made it their personal mission to create a conference that would impact the lives of our world’s future leaders.

The couple saw their vision come to fruition in October 2012 as 50 students from around the globe gathered together with world leaders for the first McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference (MCLC) at West Point. As a graduate of the academy, Bob experienced firsthand the leadership development that has made USMA known throughout the world. 

Founded in 1802, the mission of West Point is to educate, train and inspire the Corps of Cadet so each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of duty, honor and country. Cadets of the nation’s oldest service academy spend four years undergoing academic, physical and military training while developing their leadership skills. Upon graduation the Cadets are commissioned as second lieutenants in the United States Army. 

According to the MCLC vision, the conference is the premier short-duration, transformative leadership experience designed to assess, challenge and support young, emerging global leaders. 

“The whole idea for the conference from my perspective was I wanted to give something back to West Point. I benefited from a great four-year education and experience there and I wanted to give something back,” says Bob. “Secondly, I wanted to use the experience we (he and his wife, Diane) had to help provide a transformative experience for young people. As we moved around the world with P&G for over 30 years, I would go into homes and watch people use our products. At the end of every visit I would ask the people to, ‘Tell me your dream.’ No matter the country, the dream was the same and the dream was, ‘I want the next generation to have a better life than I have.’ 

“During these international assignments we discovered that once people know each other it is much easier to work together. So bringing these students together from around the world was one of our dreams – I think the global nature of it is fundamental.” 

The mission of MCLC is to “bring together top undergraduate student leaders from diverse backgrounds to participate in a team-based, experimental and analytical exercise that bolsters leadership skills, fosters critical thinking and collaboration and develops potential strategies for addressing pressing global issues.” 

The 2013 MCLC conference was held October 17-20 at the West Point Leadership Center. Forty students from leading universities across the U.S such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Massachusetts Institute of Technology attended. Students from local universities such as Ohio State, University of Cincinnati and Xavier University were also among the 40 American students. Ten international students from universities such as University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Singapore Management University also participated. The students were selected by the presidents of their respective universities. 

“I want leaders who have integrity, who have the character to do the harder right rather than the easier wrong, which is a part of the USMA Cadet prayer; who put the needs of the organization above themselves; who make a difference; who in Jim Collins' words, ‘Build a clock, rather than just telling time’; who make a difference in the lives of others,” Bob says.

The participation of students from around the world is a crucial element of the conference; students are challenged to think outside of themselves, their community, their state and their nation to consider the needs of the world. 

“A lot of times I think it (solutions to problems) is compartmentalized by country to country rather than being viewed as something that is going to help everybody at one time. Having the interaction with these students from different countries was interesting – to see their views change as they were at the conference,” says Diane. “Hopefully now through the network they have they will be able to stay connected as they go into the workplace.”

The overall goal of the conference is for student fellows “to move beyond the idea of ‘leadership is something I do,’ and pursue the maxim that ‘a leader is who I am’ – leadership is ingrained in every activity and endeavor I pursue.” 

On the first day of the conference, both student and senior fellows were invited to take in the rich history and beauty of the West Point campus through guided tours. Attendees were also invited to observe the Cadet Brigade review that took place in Ceremonial Park to honor the 2013 Thayer Award Recipient. The award was established in honor of Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, “Father of the Military Academy.” The award is presented to an outstanding citizen who exemplifies the Military Academy motto of “duty, honor, country” through their service and accomplishments in the national interest. The award has been presented annually since 1958. The 2013 recipient was Madeleine Albright, who was the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State when she worked in the administration of President Bill Clinton.  

During the conference, students attended a number of unique seminars where they listened to a panel of select senior fellows’ views and interpretations of some of the major issues world leaders are facing today – education: a leader’s responsibility to educate; global economy: responsibility to all stakeholders; preparedness: responsibility to prepare for the unexpected; and media: media access, participation, empowerment and shaping.

“We would do panel discussions on a particular topic. For example, on the global economy panel we had Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings; Xiao An Ji, chairman of the board of Beijing Hualian Group; Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico and director of the Yale Center for Globalization; and myself. We all talked about the global economy – we had different views and disagreed with each other on some things,” says Bob. 

After listening to each panel discussion, students would break away into smaller groups each mentored by one of the panelists from the discussion. During the small group sessions, students would deliberate on the purpose of the panelists’ discussions. Students were then asked to work together to write an op-ed piece for The New York Times Leadership website as part of their small group work. 

The conference wasn’t comprised of just panel discussions, however. Diane and Bob ensured that there was plenty of time to have fun while building leadership and trust. 

“It wasn’t just all academic work or seminars where they were taught how to think and interact; there was also social time that we thought was really important because for people to really open up they need to feel comfortable to do so,” says Diane. “On the first night the icebreaker was bowling. It is really hard to go to a seminar like that and sit at a table and start – especially with people from different cultures – it’s just not comfortable. So it is really important that they feel you care about them and they care about each other.”

The Thursday night icebreaker wasn’t your typical night at the bowling alley. Participants were blindfolded and challenged to trust one another to guide them as they approached the lane to bowl. 

The following day the students were split into two groups for another round of team-building activities. One group participated in the Core of the Corps teamwork and leadership exercise with the United States Military Academy led by Lieutenant Colonel Jim Keene, commander and conductor of the USMA band. 

“The idea is you sit amongst the band and the conductor, Jim Keene, explains how each person plays a virtuoso part – sometimes it isn’t even the melody but how you bring it together. Then he invites the students to get up and direct the band and the band surprisingly follows the instruction,” says Bob. “The students discover that conducting a band is not easy – if you go slowly, they will go slow – if you smile, they will play like they are smiling.”

The activity taught the students that as leaders you have to work together – you can’t work independently. 

“The other interesting thing that came from the activity is a lot of times students were shy and they didn't know what to do,” Diane says. “The interesting thing was when one student asked the band director, ‘How do I do this?’ The band director said, ‘That is actually a really good point.’ Leaders a lot of times don’t ask questions. It is very important for leaders to know to ask questions. As a leader if you don’t know how to do it and someone else knows how to do it better, you should be asking those questions before you decide what you’re going to do so it was a really powerful day.”

The other half of the group went with Ray Jefferson, a West Point graduate, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and leadership consultant, where they were asked to commit to what was going on in their lives. For example, he asked, “Are you happy with the friendships you have?” If the student was happy they were asked to take a step forward. If they weren’t happy they were asked to take a step back.

“The activity caused them to expose to the others how they were feeling about themselves. I thought it was a good exercise, too – to make ourselves vulnerable,” says Diane. “Vulnerability in leadership is important. If you’re leading others you need to sometimes put yourself in a position that you’re not comfortable in.”

Diane and Bob participated in every aspect of the conference, which surprised many of the student fellows. The senior fellows were invited to participate in the social activities as well. 

The response from both students and senior fellows has been overwhelming. The attendees were introduced to a number of new people who truly made the experience memorable. As student fellow Emily Calkins, a senior at Williams College, put it, “I could write about the speakers, the panels, but that wasn’t the point. It was the people – rather than the itinerary – that left me tingling with excitement, teetering on the verge of resolve.”

The conference challenged the students to think of their life as a whole – where they want their life to take them, not what they need to do to make it to the next step. 

“Both years I talked about value-based leadership and I encourage young people to develop their own statement of purpose and their own list of beliefs about leadership,” Bob says. “I think it tends to have a profound effect on them because so often we get into what I call a hamster mentality where we are constantly running around this wheel and we don’t stop to think about if we are headed where we really want to go – where is it that we want to go? We encourage them and we help them. We give out our contact information to keep in touch with these kids and try to help them develop.”

Diane adds, “Sometimes I think they sort of know what they want to do but they don’t know the steps they need to take to get there. So by actually writing it down it gives them a lot more clarity as to what steps they might need to do to actually get to where they want to go.”

 This exercise challenges the students to put in writing what they believe in, hope to work toward, achieve, and dream.

As Calkins eloquently puts it, “Write yourself a constitution. Think about the things you believe in, aim for, work toward, dare to think will happen. Write them all down. Today. Frankly, if you do it right, it should scare the hell out of you. It should be a list so naïve it’s progressive, so hopeful it’s inspiring, so comprehensive that it becomes pages long.”

For those who have already participated in the conference, the hope for them is to take what they have learned over the course of four days and never forget those lessons, to let those lessons impact the rest of their lives as they strive for greatness. As the conferences continue to take place year after year, it is the hope of the McDonalds to create a network of leaders.

“For the people who have completed the conference we hope they have a big impact. We’ve not left them a very good world – we have a lot of problems and we are hoping they will work together to solve them,” says Bob.

Bob graduated from West Point in 1975 in the top 2 percent of his class with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering. Upon graduation, he served in the U.S. Army as Captain, Infantry, Airborne Ranger, 82nd Airborne Division. During his service he completed his qualifications for Airborne, Ranger, Jungle, Arctic and Desert Warfare, Jumpmaster, Expert Infantry, Senior Parachutist, and earned his MBA from University of Utah. In 1980 he joined Procter & Gamble. Throughout his career at P&G, Bob’s passion for helping others and strong leadership skills helped him make a significant impact within the company. 

When asked where his passion for helping others came from, Bob says, “Well, certainly for me my marriage is part of it. I think I learned greater empathy for others from Diane than from any other source. Growing up as a young child I really enjoyed the idea of helping other people.

“Then when I went to West Point – I went there because honestly I believed that there were people living in non-free countries and that by being an officer in the military I could help free them. I actually expected to be standing in Tiananmen Square or Red Square with a parachute – not standing in a coat and tie leading the largest consumer goods company in both countries. I like the latter scenario a lot better than the former. I think that thread of continuity has always been there.”

After graduating from Chatham College and Purdue University, Diane taught elementary school where she loved working with young children. When Bob joined P&G, they had the opportunity to live in Canada, the Philippines, Japan, and Belgium. At each location, she played a leadership role in both the P&G community and in the lives of their two children. Diane acted as a Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts leader, homeroom mother, PTA officer, Sunday school teacher, American Women’s Club member, and a nonprofit organization called Procter & Gamble International Transfers Incorporated which helped P&G families that transferred adapt to their new environments, just to name a few. They have been married for 35 years and are the proud parents of two grown children. 

“The main thing is that they (the student fellows) step up and make a difference,” Diane says. “I was teasing them in saying, ‘We expect to see your name in lights – we know you are going to do great things, because you have already accomplished so much in the short amount of time you have been alive. It will be fun to follow them. Hopefully from the roles that they have, they then can become mentors themselves and continue to pay it forward. I think that is the whole idea – to pay it forward, but to pay it forward not only in your own country, but around the globe.”


Bob McDonald's Leadership Milestones as chairman of the board, president and CEO of Proctor & Gamble

  • P&G significantly expanded its developing market footprint and added nearly a billion more consumers.
  • From 2009 to 2013, during a period of economic distress, P&G realized annual sales of more than $84 billion.
  • P&G grew organic sales by an average of about 3 percent per year with core earnings per share up an average of roughly 4 percent.
  • The company’s stock rose from $51.10 the day McDonald became CEO to close at $81.64 on the day his last quarterly results were announced – a 60 percent increase.
  • P&G acquired Ambi-Pur and formed a joint venture with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries that will enable P&G to expand its Consumer Health Care business.
  • P&G divested its remaining food business (Pringles), exited the pharmaceutical business, increased its focus on innovation through the establishment of transformational platform technologies and a new business creation group, and initiated a five-year, $10 billion productivity program.
  • P&G was twice named the best company for leaders by “Chief Executive Magazine” and was named No. 1 in Hay Groups Best Companies for Leadership Study. The company was the first to receive the U.S. State Department’s Award for Corporate Excellence twice, for recognition of its operations in Pakistan and Nigeria.
  • P&G committed to save one life every hour by the year 2020 by providing two billion liters of clean drinking water a year through P&G Purifier of Water sachets.