Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

2021 McDonald Conference for Leaders of Character (MCLC) (Virtual)
Washington, DC
March 26, 2021

Everett [Spain, Head, USMA Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership], thanks for that kind introduction. Everyone, good afternoon. ­ Everett, Bob and Diane [McDonald], thanks for inviting me, for allowing me to be counted among this global community of character-grounded leaders. And thanks to everyone who did the hard work bringing MCLC 2018 and 2019 alums back together to keep these important discussions on leadership going, in spite of the pandemic.

Here in D.C., tulips are blooming. The cherry blossoms are on fire. It’s beautiful. But there’s little more beautiful than springtime in the Hudson Valley. It would be wonderful for all of us to be there together on the back porch of the West Point Club looking over the river and enjoying a cool drink in the warm sun.

But now’s not the time. Not yet. Next spring. President Biden is moving the country in the right direction to get us through the pandemic, and I expect a full-blown MCLC on-station at the Academy next year.

Bob, let me give you a quick shout out. Bob graciously served President Biden on the transition team’s advisory board. And when I was White House Chief of Staff, Bob was VA secretary, working to turn VA into the #1 customer-service agency in federal government.

Your experience as the 8th Secretary of VA and Chairman, President, and CEO of Procter & Gamble were critical to shaping a successful transition. But beyond all that, I’m especially grateful for what you call your “first leadership belief” about a purpose-driven life. You’ve advised that “living a life driven by purpose is more meaningful and rewarding than meandering through life without direction.”   

So, thanks again for your devotion as VA Secretary, your help making the transition as productive as you did, and for your life’s purpose that drives everything you do, making people’s lives better. I’m a direct beneficiary of that purpose.

And in the spirit of a sort of gift exchange, I’ll share some thoughts on leadership challenges of two vastly different roles, and the common denominators I’m seeing.

I joined the MCLC conversation back in March 2017, just a few months after finishing work as President Obama’s Chief of Staff. That was only four years ago, but it seems like a lifetime ago. Today, I’m sitting in Bob’s old seat as VA Secretary. I’m feeling refreshed.

I’m excited by the new challenges. But I’m learning how different those responsibility sets are—Chief of Staff, Secretary. One’s a staff guy. The other’s a decision-maker.

As White House Chief of Staff on any one day you can deal with everything from national security to foreign affairs, from national disasters to legislation, from health care to trade, to the budget, to the economy. And then you have breakfast.

As chief, you have to know what’s in every staff member’s portfolio, and what the top issues are that need decisions. You have to know which decisions among all those need to go to the president. Decisions for the president have to be the hardest decisions, the biggest decisions for the country.

And you have to make sure that every decision going to the president arrives on his desk in a square fashion. That means it’s a clean and clear decision, it’s been fully considered and vetted from every perspective, and all the people with skin in the game are on board.

So the set of leadership challenges are about promoting and protecting transparency in the decision development process. They’re about facilitating the free flow of information to inform the decision, so everyone is up front, candid in their assessment and positions. Nobody’s hiding cards. They’re about encouraging the participation of all the people in the debate around the decision. That is, people are talking to each other, they’re sharing information and perspectives, and they aren’t afraid to make their positions and interests known.

And during the course of that arduous process among a bunch of smart people, a bunch of committed people with a lot of experience and a lot of confidence, the single greatest leadership challenge is keeping that team together, making sure that as the decision evolves and develops everyone’s in and has a sense of ownership. Because when the decision’s made and you call the play, everybody has to run the play together, even the president. Nobody can be off-sides.

In short, it’s about keeping the team together to transform the president’s agenda into reality for the American people. All that is staff work. You’re not the decision-maker. You’re the staffer. But don’t let anybody tell you that staffs don’t need good leaders. Staff work is a rigorous exercise in leadership.

Now, as a cabinet secretary I’m not the staff guy anymore. I’m the decision-maker. And I depend on my chief of staff for those decisions. During transition, our acting chief of staff was an incredibly capable leader named Chris Diaz—a Navy combat Veteran and Pat Tillman Scholar, an entrepreneur, a man who’s personal goal is “to change the world through individual relationships” and who “strives to be the best version” of himself every day. Hard to beat that for a clear, purpose driven life.

Last week I swore in our new chief of staff Tanya Bradsher, an Army combat Veteran who served on the National Security Staff in the Obama White House, served as Chief of Staff to a Member of Congress, served in the Department of Homeland Security, and helped the White House with Veteran, Wounded Warrior, and Military Family Outreach initiatives. And Tanya’s leading a staff of some of the most competent and caring people I’ve ever met, a diverse team of highly skilled, dedicated professionals—many Veterans themselves—who bring a wealth of knowledge in government and Veterans’ issues.

So, I have a great chief of staff to make sure decisions coming to me are the right ones, are square, and my chief has a great team of excellent leaders to make that happen.

Now, as secretary, as a decision-maker and the senior leader in the organization, my most fundamental leadership challenge is two-fold.

First, I have to articulate a clear, achievable vision for the staff and department, an agenda that Tanya, the staff, the leaders, and all 420,000-plus of the employees can turn into a reality for America’s Veterans.

Second, I have to inspire them to achieve the vision.

And let me tell you, they are inspiring people themselves. So that’s a tall order, a leadership challenge in itself: inspiring them. But they are all capable self-starters. So, the most important thing I can do is point them in a direction and unleash them.

I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago, Leadership Lessons from the Fast Lane with Gary Heil. Gary was talking with General Joe Dunford, a remarkable leader—retired Marine Corps four-star general who served as the 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the podcast, Gary and Joe talked about effective team building in what Joe calls a distributed large organization. That’s VA, a distributed large organization: over 420,000 people across all 50 states and our five territories to serve America’s Veterans.

General Dunford calls his leadership philosophy Positive Persuasion. Positive Persuasion. As he describes it, positive means “creating a climate where there’s a degree of energy getting after a common vision: the team is ready, and they all want to do it, so you’re convincing them on a vision.” The persuasion of Positive Persuasion is “giving [your people] what you want them to do and guiding them towards that mission . . . .”

“Persuasion,” he said, “is guiding [the team] to unleash their initiative and let them figure out the best way to solve the problem.” That’s about as simple as it can be—vision, broad guidance, unleash them. And in short, that’s what I’m working to do in leading VA—vision, broad guidance, unleash them.

So, when it comes to those two leadership roles, White House Chief of Staff and VA Secretary, there are some differences. Staff work versus decision-maker. Preparing decisions versus making decisions. Turning a vision into reality versus defining a vision the team makes reality.

But the most important point isn’t the differences in the two jobs. It’s what I’m seeing as the three common denominators bridging them.

First, in both cases, I’m surrounded by great people who built their expertise over the life of their career. And they’re in senior positions because they excel.

Second, we’re fulfilling a noble mission. At VA, that’s caring for Veterans and their families, their caregivers, and survivors—caring about selfless people who have given so much to the nation, and to all of us.

And third, the leadership principle guiding me, that keeps me from “meandering through life without direction” as Bob would say, is about embracing the inherent dignity of all people.

That principle underwrites everything I do, whether that’s staff work or decision-making or talking to people on the street. That principle gives my life direction, from how I do my job to how I treat my family to how I treat myself. That principle defines how I interact with my colleagues, the staff, and all the people working at VA. That principle of embracing the dignity of all people helps me figure out who I want to work for, or who I wouldn’t want to work for.

And as I’m thinking hard about the right direction for VA at this moment in the department’s and the country’s history, it’s a good place to start as I work with the staff to define our vision. In the final analysis, that vision has to be about helping give Veterans the opportunity to live the fulfilling, dignified, rewarding lives they want to live, that they deserve to live after serving and sacrificing so much for this country.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to join you this afternoon. And I’m happy to take some questions.