When leadership coach and major award winner Marshall Goldsmith describes you as the greatest leader he has ever met, that’s saying something. Frances Hesselbein was one of the last of a generation that included Peter Drucker, a group of influential thought leaders who created much of what we know as great leadership today.
Hesselbein, born in 1915, passed away at the age of 107 in 2022.
I first met Frances Hesselbein some years ago, before she passed her 100th birthday. While she was well beyond Octogenarian status even then, I vividly remember her downing glasses of champagne and teasing the CEO’s gathered around her at a dinner hosted by well-known executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith.
I had no idea who she was. Perhaps you don’t, either. Some background follows.
When she was a young woman, women were not encouraged to be ambitious, and she was laughed at for some of her more outrageous ideas – that she could possibly be a pilot, for example.
She grew up in Johnstown, PA, a town well known for the disastrous 1889 Johnstown flood, and perhaps less well known for its role in establishing one of the most significant modern non-profits, the American Red Cross. Her father died when she was 17, and she needed to go to work to support her family. She held a variety of jobs thought suitable for women of the time, and in due course married John Hesselbein, whose family owned the local newspaper the Johnstown Tribune. They had one son, also named John.
With a young boy at home and no daughters, Hesselbein wavered at being asked to take over a local Girl Scouts troop whose leader was departing to become a missionary. There weren’t any other candidates, and she agreed (one gets the impression a little reluctantly) to take on the troop for 6 months. As an article by Sally Helgesen about that time in her life says, “She prepared herself by reading Girl Scout history and found inspiration in founder Juliette Low, who told girls in 1912 that they could “be anything they wanted to be,” including an aviator. Because Hesselbein had been mocked as a child at school for declaring her desire to become a pilot, the statement inspired her. “Imagine a woman saying that in 1912!”
Her leadership style, guiding and supporting rather than telling people what to do, began to consolidate in those early days. She was energized by the troop she led, sticking with them until they went to high school, by which time Hesselbein had set her sights on bigger targets.
As Chair of the Regional Council of the Girl Scouts, she introduced wave after wave of innovations, including enlisting both local business and union leaders in supporting her efforts – the kind of networking among potential opponents that became a hallmark of her leadership style. Her relationship with Peter Drucker began then, as she assigned his 1967 book The Effective Executive to every member of her staff, declaring that these were exactly the behaviors they needed to practice.
By 1976, with a proven track record of accomplishment, she felt confident enough to apply for the position of National Executive Director of the Girl Scouts of America. Her pitch to the selection committee was that the Scouts required nothing short of a revolution. Families with stay-at-home mothers were becoming less the norm; attention was starting to be paid to opportunities for girls from diverse backgrounds and the Girl Scouts were at risk of becoming irrelevant. She never expected to be hired, so was free with her controversial opinions!
She got the job and began what would become a transformation for the ages. She commissioned studies, rethought the traditional curriculum of the Scouts and moved it away from the domestic spheres to more career-oriented learning, such as science and math. She also dismantled the formal hierarchical structure that had characterized Girl Scout leadership, replacing the rigid hierarchies with what she called “webs of inclusion.”
She was CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA from 1976-1990. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 for her leadership of the scouts and service as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity and opportunity.”
She actually met Peter Drucker in person for the first time in 1981, at a speech he was giving at the Union Club in New York. As she described, “I arrived at exactly 5:30,” she recalls, “because that was the time on the invitation. I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where 5:30 means 5:30. But when I walked in, it was just me and two bartenders. Then I heard a deep voice behind me saying, ‘I am Peter Drucker.’ Apparently 5:30 means 5:30 in Vienna too. We were the only ones there.”
She was so surprised, she recalled, that “I forgot my manners and just blurted out, ‘Do you know how important you are to the Girl Scouts?’ I said that if he read any of our planning or strategy papers or looked at our management structure, he would find we reflected his philosophy.” That encounter formed the basis for a relationship that lasted until Drucker’s death in 2005. His encouragement that the Girl Scouts were doing some of the most important societal work of all proved fundamental to the ambitious transformation she launched.
You would think after all that, retiring in her 70’s, that she would be done. But fate had other plans for her. Partnering with Peter Drucker and with other supporters, they launched the highly influential Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management. It was renamed the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute after his death and she continued to serve in a leadership role till the very end.
Meetings and Projects
Frances was a frequent staple guest at leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith’s table. Marshall, also a huge student and collaborator of Peter Drucker’s always maintained that Hesselbein was the best leader he had ever met- by a wide margin.
I got to know a bit more about Hesselbein in a Fireside Chat (my very first!) with Sally Helgesen, a companion of hers. Frances was being touted as capable of running General Motors (a big accolade for a nonprofit leader at the time!). Sally talked about some of the remarkable lessons Frances left with her, which inspired Sally’s own book The Web of Inclusion.
Apparently, it was impossible not to be near Frances without getting roped into one or another special project. One that I worked on personally was a book, called Work is Love Made Visible. Co-edited by Frances, Marshall Goldsmith and Sarah McArthur, the book is a collection of essays by a number of pre-eminent thought leaders deliberately focused on their more private journeys toward finding their purpose and the unique ways they might add value in the world. It’s been well reviewed and is definitely worth a look.
As Sally Helgesen’s wonderful story about Frances concludes, service was her passion and her calling and she wasn’t going to let anyone forget that. At a book party for Marshall (at the Four Seasons, no less) that I attended as well, Sally recounts the following conversation:
A reporter fell into conversation with an executive who had just left the top position at a large international nonprofit.
“You sound as if you’ve retired,” said the reporter.
“Shhhh!” the man cautioned, glancing over his shoulder with an almost fearful expression. “Don’t let Frances hear you say that!”
“Why, what’s the problem?”
“When I called to tell her, I said, ‘Frances, I’m going to re— ’ but she cut me off in the middle of the word. ‘You and I do not retire,’ she told me. ‘You and I are called to serve, and we will serve until the pine box lid is closed upon us.’”
I will let that be the coda to this story.
We have lost a shining example of wonderful leadership and are thankful for the legacy she has left us.