Frances Hesselbein: A Leader of Leaders, Who Cared For People First

February 6, 2023
Mike Stallard
Connection Heroes

Sitting in the historic St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan before the start of the memorial service for Frances Hesselbein, my thoughts turned to one of the last days I spent time with the remarkable woman who had led the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. back from decline decades earlier and transformed it into what Peter Drucker described as “the best-managed organization around.”

Frances and I liked to get together periodically for long lunches at Peacock Alley, a restaurant in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel near her office on Park Avenue. Arriving early to pick her up that day, I found her meeting with two women and a Girl Scout. Frances’ attention was entirely on the girl. They had this marvelous connection — the girl who looked to be in elementary school and the woman who, at that time, was over 100 years of age. It was my good fortune to witness how Frances, one of the world’s most respected leaders, used her inestimable powers of human connection and personal warmth to love this young girl to the point that she was visibly beaming with joy and wonder that this famous woman was focused on her.

I wasn’t surprised by the girl’s reaction. When Frances spoke with you, you felt like you were the only person in the room. She was optimistic (“My blood type is B positive,” she would often say), and she expected the best in others. Frances had a positive life force about her and her radiance lit up the people in her orbit.

Frances took my arm when it was time to head to lunch. During our brief walk across Park Avenue, she reminded me of her philosophy (and Twitter handle), “to serve is to live.” I knew that these were words she lived by. Frances served girls and women through her work with the Girl Scouts, from the time she agreed to be an interim Scout leader in the late 1940s through her retirement after 14 years as CEO in 1990, and beyond. She served leaders of not-for-profit organizations through the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute. She served military leaders and their families through her work at The U.S. Military Academy, where she taught and lectured on leadership, and the Military Child and Education Coalition.

We talked about a variety of issues over that nearly two-hour lunch. One that I clearly remember was her point of view on a matter of faith. Frances explained that she focused on people’s character rather than their religious beliefs. If they were serving others and the common good, she embraced them. As a result, she helped and worked with a wide variety of people all around the world who professed different beliefs in God or no belief at all. Their character was what mattered most to her.

Near the end of our lunch I told Frances that I had come across a translation of a Bible verse that reminded me of her. The Old Testament verse described King David’s leadership of the people of Israel. David, as you may recall, was the shepherd boy who defeated Goliath, the seemingly undefeatable Philistine giant who was taunting the Israelite troops, and went on to become Israel’s king. I shared with Frances how verse 72 of Psalm 78 in the New Living Translation captured King David this way:

He cared for them with a true heart and led them with skillful hands.

Frances thought about it for a minute, then, in dramatic fashion, leaned forward toward me, saying, “He cared for people first.”

This could be said about Frances too. As an effective leader, she excelled at management tasks such as communicating an inspiring vision and mission, and setting goals and aligning people and tasks to accomplish them. In addition, she excelled in developing strong, supportive relationships that connected with people and, as a result, they trusted her and wanted to follow her. That is what made her a truly great leader.

It wasn’t just who she served through her life’s work but how she served that reflected Frances cared about people first. She believed in the inherent value of every human being and that they deserved to feel connected and included, irrespective of any differences. To her, valuing all people and giving them a voice in matters that were important to them was the right thing to do. She also understood that it was the wise thing to do because people who feel they belong are spiritually and emotionally empowered to do their best work. And work they did! People gave their best efforts for Frances because she helped them feel they were part of a worthy mission and showed them she cared about them.

As one of the best examples of a leader who connected with people and cultivated a culture of connection, Frances is profiled in both of my books, Connection Culture and Fired Up or Burned Out. In leading the Girls Scouts, the way Frances cared about people was evident through her attitudes, words and actions. Here are a few:

  • She kept up with what was going on in the lives of those around her and personally reached out to anyone when congratulations or consolation were in order.
  • She invested in training to help people learn and grow.
  • Frances approached communication in an inclusive way, believing that it was imperative to listen and respond to one another and to expand information out in ever-larger circles across the organization. Rather than lecturing, her style was to ask insightful questions to draw out relevant issues.
  • In planning and allocating resources, she introduced a circular management process that involved nearly everyone within the organization.

Frances encouraged leaders to listen to the people they served and the people they were responsible for leading. When writing about the art of listening, she gave this advice: “Banish the ‘but.’” This is especially important when you are giving feedback. “‘But’ is nobody’s friend — listener or speaker. ‘And’ provides the graceful transition, the non-threatening bridge to mutual appreciation, the communication that builds effective relationships.”

Frances was able to continue spreading her leadership legacy when Peter Drucker recruited her to be the head of the Drucker Foundation (which was renamed the Leader to Leader Institute, and then the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute in 2012). Through its activities, including publication of the award-winning Leader to Leader journal, the institute is dedicated to carrying out the passion that both of them shared for strengthening leadership in the social sector. That dedication was further recognized in 1998 when Frances was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton for her work as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity, and opportunity.”

Michael Stallard and Frances Hesselbein

During the memorial service and at the reception that followed, my heart was full as I listened to others tell their stories of how Frances touched their lives. Frances frequently encouraged others to “shine a light” and that was a recurring theme as we shared our remembrances. It was the light of her life that shined brightly and left a radiant glow on those she met.

Frances had a big impact on me by encouraging me to continue advocating for the importance of human connection in organizational cultures and the connection culture leadership model I developed. I will always be grateful that Leader to Leader published several of my articles over the years. Her friendship and example as a leader inspire me to “shine a light” through my work and in how I interact with others.

There are many things I will remember about Frances: her tremendous personal warmth, her wisdom and intelligence, her belief that our purpose on earth is “to love and be loved, in that order,” her “to serve is to live” mantra, and her powerful “defining moment” story about how her grandmother taught her to respect all people. But it is those words she said in a serious tone with unwavering conviction while leaning forward and looking directly into my eyes — he cared for people first — that are burned into my memory of who Frances was at her core as a human being and leader. How fortunate was I to know Frances for a few of her 107 years on this earth.

Portions of this article were excerpted from the 2nd edition of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Lead Photo Credit: Girl Scouts of the USA

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