Lovett H. Weems Jr. highlights leadership lessons from the life of Frances Hesselbein and her impact on the Girl Scouts. She was a passionate servant who advocated for inclusivity and modeled shared leadership and moral leadership.
I spoke once at a citywide religious observance that sought to bring together all the churches of that community. It was an impressive gathering in many ways. However, what struck me was that the only persons of color present were those in a Girl Scout troop that shared in a presentation of flags. I could not help but think of Frances Hesselbein that day.
Frances Hesselbein, who died in December, was born Frances Willard Richards in 1915. Unaware that she was named for the most famous Methodist woman of the last decades of the nineteenth century and thinking Willard was a boy’s name, she told her first grade teacher her middle name was Ann after her mother. It was an early act of independence. It turns out that her grandfather was such an admirer of Frances Willard’s temperance work that he named a daughter after her, and a generation later Frances’s father did the same. Both Frances Willard and her namesake Frances Hesselbein are now known as magnificent leaders.
Frances Hesselbein rose from humble beginnings as a child of the Great Depression. As a teenager, she began college at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Six weeks into her first year, her father died of malaria. She dropped out of school and took a job at a department store to help support her mother and two younger siblings. She never received a college degree. In the late 1930s, she married John D. Hesselbein, a photographer. For years, they ran a photography studio. In the late 1940s, a neighbor asked her to take over a local Girl Scout troop that was about to lose its leader. At first, Hesselbein declined saying, “I’m the mother of a little boy and know nothing about little girls.” The neighbor responded that the troop of two dozen 10-year-old girls, who gathered weekly, would be disbanded without a leader. Hesselbein agreed to serve for six weeks until “a real leader” could be found. Ultimately, she stayed with the girls for eight years, through their high school graduation.
Hesselbein began working in the local and regional ranks of the Girl Scouts until she was hired in 1976 as chief executive of the national organization, where she served until 1990. She then became cofounder and president of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, which became the Leader to Leader Institute and later became the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum at the University of Pittsburgh. She continued in such leader development work until nearly the end of her life.
She received many honors through the years. She was awarded over 20 honorary doctoral degrees and was recognized with awards and appointments by every president from George H.W. Bush to Joe Biden. In 2015, Fortune magazine ranked her as one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” But people living these leadership lessons she taught and practiced may be the greatest tribute to her life.
When she became their president, the Girl Scouts were in the midst of a membership decline. Among the factors was an inability of Girl Scouts to reach people of color and those who were poor. A major part of their turnaround came from a commitment that the Girl Scouts would represent the increasingly diverse population of America more accurately than it had in the past. It was a matter of principle for Hesselbein, and it was also a matter of good leadership. She realized that the future of the Girl Scouts would not be strong if the organization did not broaden its base.
It was Hesselbein who came up with one of the great leadership questions of all time. She asked of everyone associated with Girl Scouts this question: “When the girls of a community look at the Girl Scouts, do they see themselves?” She once sent me a poster the U.S. Army was using. It showed a group of recruits with her caption, “When they look at us, can they find themselves?”
When Hesselbein stepped down as leader of the Girl Scouts in 1990, the increase in girls and volunteers was nearly 200,000 more than when she began. She is credited with tripling the number of Girl Scouts of color and with recruiting from immigrant communities and public housing projects.
To serve is to live
Hesselbein’s personal motto was, “To serve is to live.” For her the bottom line was measured not in dollars but in changed lives. When President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, he said she “devoted herself to changing lives for the better” and called her “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity, and opportunity.” The institute now named for her has as its mission, “Building a society of healthy children, strong families, decent housing, good schools, and work that dignifies.”
Hesselbein practiced and promoted what she described as a “circular management” style, rather than a traditional hierarchical reporting structure. This included more people in decision-making. “The more power you give away, the more you have,” she said. “I truly believe in participatory leadership, in sharing leadership to the outermost edges of the circle.”
Applying shared leadership to the needs of the nation, she said, “In the future it will not be the one big message, the one big voice, but millions of us, in our own way, healing, unifying, and experiencing that one defining moment where we recognize that sustaining the democracy is the common bottom line.”
When the Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement at the University of Pittsburgh opened in 2009, she said “our times call for ethical leaders with a moral compass that works full time.” She liked to say that “leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.” A person who worked with her said, “She has truly helped all of us to understand that leadership is deeply personal and an act of love and care for others.”
Hesselbein never stopped applying her leadership lessons, including moral leadership, to the crises in the nation. “Today, in the darkness of our times when we observe the lowest level of trust and the highest level of cynicism,” Hesselbein said. “The call for leaders who are healers and unifiers must be heard. We must find the language that heals, the inclusion that unifies. It is a critical time for leaders at every level to make the difference.”
Her beloved maternal grandfather played the pipe organ at his Methodist church every Sunday. It is fitting that her funeral was held at Franklin Street United Methodist Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on December 29, 2022. She was 107 years old when she died. Perhaps that’s why she liked to say, “Age is irrelevant; it is what you do with your life that matters.”
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