Robert “Bob” McDonald was born in 1953 in Gary, Indiana. His father had served in the occupation forces in Japan after World War II, and upon his return to the U.S., he used the GI Bill to pay his way through Butler University in Indiana. Once he completed his education, the family lived in the Chicago area, where Bob’s father worked in various marketing jobs.
“I had a loving and supportive childhood,” says Bob. “My parents taught Sunday school, my dad was our Little League coach, and when I was in scouting. My mother was the den mother, and my father was the scoutmaster. They gave their children values, the most important gift, and expected a lot from their children. I became achievement-oriented at an early age.”
At the height of the Vietnam War, when he was only 11, Bob wrote to his congressman, Donald Rumsfeld—the future U.S. Secretary of Defense—telling him he wanted to attend West Point when he was of age. “Rather than discouraging me, since I was only in sixth grade, he encouraged me,” says Bob. “I really appreciated that. I wanted to lead a different life than the ones I saw around me. I wanted to make a difference.”
Bob’s paternal grandparents lived around the corner from his house, and he had a close relationship with them. He enjoyed hearing their stories of the Depression and was particularly impressed when his grandmother told him that they always left their front door open in those days to encourage anyone who needed a meal to come in and share theirs. “They were kind, hospitable people, and it made me—from the time I was a boy—want to lead a life where I could do good things for other people.” My parents were the same.
An avid Boy Scout, Bob’s one regret in life is that he never achieved the rank of Eagle. “The one thing that held me back,” he says, “was my fear of swimming. I had nearly drowned when I was younger. After that experience, I was too afraid to learn to swim. Later, when I did finally make it to West Point, I not only had to swim; I also had to jump off a ten-meter tower with a pack and rifle, had to inflate my clothes in the water, and I had to accomplish survival swimming. I overcame my fear, but I wish I could’ve done that at a younger age. Much later, when I was the leader of a large corporation, my advice to employees was to have a big goal and overcome your fears to achieve.”
Athletically inclined, Bob performed well in high school sports. He was an All-Conference football player on an undefeated team that was ranked second in the state, and he was a third baseman on a district championship team. He also worked hard academically and was a top student. As a junior, he was finally eligible to apply to West Point. Donald Rumsfeld was no longer his congressman, but he still got his West Point nomination from Congressman Phil Crane.
Not every freshman at West Point makes it to graduation. Cadets are graded each day in each class, and Bob was shocked to learn upon his first check of the system that, in a class of 1,200, he was ranked at 200. “I’d never been 200 in anything,” he says. “I vowed to fully embrace the system, and I got to work.”
During his four years at West Point, Bob strengthened the foundation of values given by his parents and honed his leadership skills. He took advice from mentors, accepted leadership development opportunities, and he adhered to the West Point Cadet prayer, “Help me to choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.” By graduation day, he had earned a degree in engineering and was ranked 13th in his class. As a member of the Brigade Staff, he was among the top six cadet leaders. He received the Silver Medal from The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing, and Commerce as the most distinguished graduate in academics, leadership, and physical education.
For his military service duty, he chose to join the infantry in the 82nd Airborne Division. During his five years of service, he received jungle, arctic, and desert warfare training. He also earned the Ranger tab, the Expert Infantryman Badge, and Senior Parachutist wings. Upon leaving military service, then-Captain McDonald was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal. He also used his time in the service to achieve his MBA from the University of Utah.
Shortly before he transitioned to life out of the Army, Bob wrote to 130 companies, looking for a job. He interviewed with 30 of those companies and chose to join Procter & Gamble (P&G) in an entry-level position, in part because he liked their mission, to improve the lives of the world’s consumers, and values.
Bob began his rise at P&G in marketing in 1980. In 1989, he was asked to move to Toronto, Canada. “At first, I thought I had done something wrong,” says Bob. “But it was explained to me that the company was globalizing, and they needed to create a cadre of leaders with global business experience to be the future leaders of the company.”
Canada was just the beginning of Bob’s global experience. He later served the company in Japan, Brussels, and the Philippines. In 2007, he was named chief operating officer; shortly thereafter he was elected as the chairman and chief executive officer. Under his guidance, P&G’s stock price rose 60 percent. At the same time, P&G received awards and recognition for its leadership development and diversity and inclusion. By the time he retired in 2013, P&G were reaching 5 billion people—meaning at least 5 billion people used at least one P&G product each day.
In 2014, Bob was approached by the Obama administration to serve as secretary of the Veterans Administration. “I said yes immediately,” says Bob, “because it was so consistent with my purpose of trying to improve the lives of others, particularly to improve the lives of veterans. For me, it was the culmination of all I had learned at West Point, in the Army, and at P&G.” Once again in service to his country, Bob served admirably as the Eighth secretary of Veterans Affairs for three years. He is particularly proud of what he was able to accomplish in the way of improved veteran care by putting into place new leadership, new strategies, new systems, and new culture. He made significant progress in the quality of the medical staff, attention to veteran needs, and drastically cut down the wait time for patient care. By the time he left office, veterans could get same-day access for primary care and mental health care.
Throughout his education, military service, and business career, Bob McDonald has developed deeply held beliefs that drive his daily life. Number 1 on his list is to live a purpose-driven life. "I believe,” he says, “that my purpose is to improve lives. Each day, I try to have a positive impact in the life of just one person. The leader’s job is to understand and enable the dreams of those they lead. In this sense, the task of the leader becomes a calling rather than a job.”
Another belief of Bob’s is that success is contagious. “I have never in my life met a person who tries to fail,” he says. “The job of the leader is to catch people succeeding in a small way and use that to build a cycle of ever-larger successes.”
For Bob, the most important trait of a leader is character. He says, “You must live by your words and actions, knowing that is the most powerful demonstration of leadership.”
One way in which Bob has given back to his alma mater, West Point, is a conference he and his wife, Diane, sponsor each year called the McDonald Conference for Leaders of Character. The meeting includes 80 young leaders with diverse backgrounds from the world’s top schools to participate in a team-based and analytical exercise that bolsters leadership skills, fosters critical thinking and collaboration, and develops potential strategies for addressing pressing global issues. “I was in Ukraine last year to help them set up a Department of Veterans Affairs, and one of the presentations that was made to me was by a young woman who seemed very familiar to me,” says Bob. It turns out, she was a graduate of our Conference for Leaders of Character. Now here she was, helping veterans in Ukraine. It reminded me of something Robert Kennedy said about dropping pebbles in water and watching the waves that come from one tiny pebble. It was a moment when I saw that our actions are having a positive impact.”
Harvard did a case study on Bob McDonald about transitions in life. He transitioned from civilian life to the military, then from the military to business, and from business to public service. He says of these many transitions, “I think of life as multiple layers of experiences. What we need to do in life is to pursue opportunities to get a diverse set of experiences. You never know where an experience will lead you. The thread of continuity, of course, is purpose.”
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Bob says, “The most transformative experience in life is education. That is why I am so excited to become a Horatio Alger Member. The Association is giving young people the opportunity of education. What they do with this opportunity is up to each of them, but it can take them to places they can’t even imagine—and I am very happy to be a part of that.”