Rooted in the Past and Focused on the Future-A Visit with Frances Hesselbein

 Note: Frances Hesselbein is the President and CEO of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, founded as The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management and renamed in 2012 to honor Hesselbein’s legacy and ongoing contributions. Mrs. Hesselbein was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honor, in 1998 for her leadership as CEO of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976–1990, as well as her service as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity and opportunity.” Her contributions were also recognized by the first President Bush, who appointed her to two Presidential Commissions on National and Community Service.


What do you talk about with a living legend? Recenty walking into the home of my friend and colleague Frances Hesselbein, I am like the proverbial “kid in a candy store.” This is not our first meeting but being in her home in Easton, PA feels like I am seeing this icon through a totally different lens.  

She has left the door unlocked for me and I quietly enter and call her name. Frances is still getting ready so she directs me into her living room. She has told me the story of finding this quiet residence and her request for a double living room for entertaining. I sit down on a small loveseat and await her entrance. I literally don’t move because surrounding me are awards in every shape and color and books, lots and lots of books, and I am taking it all in.

Frances enters the room and joins me on the loveseat. Since I have had some time to reflect on everything surrounding us, I ask Frances what is her most cherished possession in her home. She shares the story of the Ming vases that have been passed down to her by her mother. These vases provide me with insight on Frances’ lifelong commitment to diversity and inclusion. She also talks about a beautiful piece of furniture that has origins back to her ancestor, John Adams. She loves our country.

Mrs. Hesselbein takes tremendous pride in her American roots but it is our conversation about the future that captivates me. We have never talked about politics. So, despite the golden rule about not talking about politics or religion, I ask Frances a simple question. How does she stay so committed to her work when the political conversation in 2017 is so filled with skepticism about our nations current leadership?  She takes a deep breath and says our country has a “bright future”.

It is in that moment that I realize what I admire most about Frances. It is her undying commitment to modeling the way for future leaders, including me. In her words, we need to simply focus on the positives and deal with the negatives. Each time we are together, she articulates the core model of leadership that she and Peter Drucker have shared with so many others. In a “Leader to Leader” article in 2011, Frances wrote:

“Occasionally, I casually remark in speeches that I have tattoos on both shoulders. I pause and wait for the audience’s shock to become apparent, and then go on to mention that the tattoos are in invisible ink—you can’t see them, but I know they are there—several of them.

Always the first tattoo is the reminder, “To serve is to live.” Another is Peter Drucker’s, “Think first, speak last.” Another comes from Drucker’s saying, “The leader of the future asks; the leader of the past tells.” So my tattoo is, “Ask, don’t tell.” On the other shoulder is my own distillation from long ago that is ever more significant today: “Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.” Below it, “We manage for the mission, we manage for innovation, and we manage for diversity.” (“Or we are part of the past” is the unwritten end of the last invisible tattoo.)”
— Frances Hesselbein

We talk about her efforts at West Point and her pride in the work being done at the University of Pittsburgh, home of the Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement. These two opportunities have allowed her to keep connected to the next generation of leaders. She talks about using humor as a way to bridge the generational gap and the various exchanges she has had with young people about leadership.

And what I realize at that moment, that perhaps what connects us so deeply is our shared passion for inspiring the next generation of leaders. Surprisingly, Frances is a champion of millennials, whom she believes are greatly misunderstood. She cites the research at the Pugh Institute that clearly states that Gen Z’ers (born in and after 1998, the oldest of Gen Zs are currently entering college and finishing high school) are more like the Greatest Generation (WW II) than any other generation. She talks about the students who take her up on her offer to visit her at her Park Avenue office and how she is inspired about the impact they will have on our global community.

This is a woman who walks her talk. As I leave her home, she gives me a tour of some of her most favorite possessions. A map depicting her family’s origin, homemade family quilts, a Navaho talking stick given to her by a military leader and her Christmas ornament collection from the White House. She allows me to take a “selfie” which will become another of my treasured possessions… photos I have taken with a living legend and dear friend.