In my Leadership and Ethics class at Olin College in the spring, a petite woman came up from behind me and introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Frances Hesselbein. I have a favor to ask of you. I need someone to sit in the front row so that I can make a connection with someone in the audience.” At barely five feet tall, Hesselbein is a compelling leader. I followed her to the front of the room.
Hesselbein served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976-1990. In 1998 she was awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for “her commitment to inclusiveness and to upholding the Girl Scout mission of empowering each Scout to reach her highest potential.” Under Hesselbein’s leadership minority Girl Scout participation tripled and overall membership ballooned.
She currently serves as CEO and President of the Leader to Leader Institute in New York City, formerly known as the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management. Hesselbeing serves on many nonprofit and corporate boards, among them are the Boards of the Center for Social Initiative at the Harvard Business School and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Management at the Kennedy School.
Hesselbein began her talk at Olin with an anecdote about one of her experiences at the United States Military Academy at West Point where she is the 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership. She teaches cadets every six weeks about leadership, bringing in prominent civic and social leaders from all backgrounds, to talk with students. Hesselbein is the first woman and non-graduate to serve in the faculty position. Hesselbein recalled, “One cadet came up to me after a talk I gave and said to me, ‘How are you always so positive?’ I responded with a little joke, ‘Well, my blood type is B+,’ which is true!”
As a little girl growing up in Johnstown, Pa., just 60 miles outside of Pittsburgh, Hesselbein learned from her grandmother to teach everyone with respect. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown with a B.A. in English, Hesselbein’s first volunteer job as a Girl Scout troop leader was only to last six weeks. Going down the steps of the second Presbyterian Church basement and encountering 30 10-year-olds running around, Hesselbein remembers, “For the first and last time in my life I said, ‘I am your leader.’ We stayed together for eight years until they all graduated from high school.”
Hesselbein now devotes her time to talking to students and CEOs around the world about leadership. Despite a ten hour train ride, she arrived at Olin College eager to talk with students from Wellesley, Babson, and Olin Colleges about being a great leader. During her talk, Hesselbein emphasized upholding your values, serving your country, and making ethical decisions.
Especially in a shaky economy, Hesselbein says, “Principled, ethically effective leaders are needed now more than ever. We shouldn’t let the discouraging examples of leaders who do not live up to even our minimal expectations, bring us down.”
If Frances Hesselbein can teach any person one thing, it is how to be a leader. She will tell you, “Leadership is how to be, not how to do.” She says, “Our times call for ethical leaders with a moral compass that works at all times.” Whether dealing with corporate executives, non-profit organizations, 10-year-old girls, or military cadets, she has wisdom to offer everyone.
Hesselbein says, “I think we are called to serve. When we respond, we have a far richer life, when we make a difference in the lives of other people.”
Amanda Black graduated this spring from Wellesley College.