top of page

"All Work is Love Made Visible"

---- Frances Hesselbein





My dear friend, Frances Hesselbein, passed away on December 11, 2022 at the age of 107. Frances, known world-wide as an exemplar of servant leadership, gained recognition as a result of her leadership with the Girl Scouts USA as its CEO from 1976 to 1988. After retiring from the Girl Scouts, she was instrumental in establishing the Peter Drucker Foundation, in honor of her close friend and mentor. Peter's only requirement was that Frances be its CEO.


Later the name of the foundation was changed to the Leader to Leader Institute and finally to the Frances Hesselbein Institute. It is now known as the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum and is located at the University of PIttsburgh's Oakland Campus. Prior to the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, Frances worked every week in her Park Avenue office in Manhattan, New York City.


I was fortunate to attend Frances' funeral in Johnstown, PA, where she grew up and lived until moving up in the leadership ranks of the Girl Scouts, USA. A separate memorial service was held in Manhattan at St. Bart's Church located across the street from her office. Here is the link to that service: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXPWmyILOAo


What follows are some excerpts from an article I wrote in 2015 about Frances for the Johnstown Magazine. I trust it gives you a sense of her incredible life as a servant leader.


What do Norman Rockwell, Oprah Winfrey, Sidney Poitier, Sam Walton, Hank Aaron, Frank Sinatra, and Johnstown native Frances Hesselbein have in common? Answer: Each one is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Honor. And that’s not all for Ms. Hesselbein. Over the years she has received 23 honorary doctoral degrees from prestigious colleges and universities across the nation; was named the Pennsylvania Society’s “Daughter of Pennsylvania;” was appointed in 2009 to the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy, a two-year teaching assignment, at West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership (the first ever woman and non-graduate to serve in this capacity); was presented with the International Leadership Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; was awarded the John F. Kennedy Memorial Fellowship in 2007; was the first recipient of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Security Award in 2003; and received from The Chapel of Four Chaplains The Legion of Honor Gold Medallion in 1999.


The list goes on. In addition, the University of Pittsburgh established the Hesselbein Global Academy for Leadership and Civil Engagement in 2009. Finally, this past March, Frances was chosen as one of Fortune Magazine’s World's 50 Greatest Leaders.

Who is this woman who goes to work every day at 320 Park Avenue, Manhattan, New York as the President and CEO of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute (formerly known as the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management and then the Leader to Leader Institute)?


How is it that this diminutive, five-foot, once member of “Junior Pitt’s” women’s basketball team became not only the national leader of the Girl Scouts of the USA but a person who Jim Collins, her friend and author of the bestselling book, Good To Great, describes this way?:

“It matters not the group—Fortune 500 CEOs, philanthropists, college students, social sector leaders, or military general offices in a war zone—Frances has the same effect on people. She inspires and teaches, not just because of what she says, but because of who she is.”


Frances' experiences in Johnstown prepared Frances for a life in leadership, eventually guiding her to become the CEO of the Girl Scouts USA. That journey took a circuitous route; one that began in a way that she never imagined would lead to the organization’s top role. It started one day by turning down an offer by a local Girl Scout neighborhood chairman to become a Girl Scout Leader. Frances said no several times before finally agreeing to, “do it for six weeks,” until they get a real leader, she thought.


And so, what was to be a six week stint as the leader of the Second Presbyterian’s Girl Scout Troop 17, led to more appointments: first as the Executive Director of the Talus Rock Girl Scout council in 1970, then to the same position in the Penn Laurel council in eastern Pennsylvania in 1974, and, finally as CEO of the Girls Scouts of the USA in 1976. In addition, prior to accepting the CEO position, she was a member of the National Board of Directors, was chairman of the National Program Committee, and served on an international committee for nine years.


I first met Frances by phone in 2002. This connection came by way of another Johnstown native, Bob Livingston. Bob was a student in Geneva College’s M.S. in Organizational Leadership (MSOL) Program, at the time, and once told me that he knew Frances having grown up in her neighborhood. I was aware of Frances’ work as a leadership author, speaker and practitioner and I asked Bob if he thought she would agree to be a keynote speaker at an annual leadership conference that our MSOL Program sponsored. Bob consented to write her a letter asking if she would consider my request.


A few weeks later, I received a copy of his letter with Frances’ handwritten response, “Yes, I would be honored to do so.” When I contacted her to discuss the details of our conference, I mentioned that I spent several years in the mid to late 1960s, while a teenager, living in a small town outside of Johnstown. When she asked me, “What town?,” I told her it was South Fork, and the phone went silent. A few moments later she said, “I was born in South Fork!” Thus, began a friendship which I am pleased and grateful to say continues to this day.


When Frances became CEO in 1976, she knew that the Girl Scouts of the USA was in massive need of transformation. So they set out to make the changes necessary for the organization to thrive well into the future. Applying the leadership principles she and the local and national teams had acquired through experience (learning by doing as a local Girl Scout Leader), the lessons of life taught to her by her family and growing up in Johnstown, and from the writings and advice of her mentor, the father of modern management Peter Drucker, she worked to establish organizational structures and a culture that encouraged shared authority and decision making, that emphasized a spirit of service, and, above all, that embraced inclusion.


Frances first met Peter Drucker in 1981. She had been invited by the Chancellor of New York University, along with 50 other foundation and social sector presidents to hear Peter speak. While there, Frances had the privilege of meeting Peter. This led to Peter becoming deeply involved with the Girl Scouts USA, as he met its leaders and shared his management insights with them for the next eight years. For Frances, it marked the beginning of a mentor relationship that lasted until his death in 2005.


Their regard for one another was mutual. Peter was once asked, “Who was the greatest leader he had ever known?” His answer—Frances Hesselbein. “Oh, you mean in the non-profit sector,” the interviewer replied. Peter countered, “Frances could manage any company in America.”


As I mentioned earlier, it was a spirit of inclusion that drove her transformational vision of the future for the Girl Scouts USA. For her, inclusion meant replacing old hierarchical, top down authority with a model of shared governance and decision making that utilized the input of Girl Scout leaders nationwide (Frances calls this model “Circular Management”). It meant finding ways to encourage girls of all races and ethnic backgrounds in the U.S. to become Girl Scouts. It meant making sure that adults in Girl Scouts leadership included members of those same racial and ethnic backgrounds.


Once again, her commitment to inclusion was not something that occurred by accident. It was a view of life that was nurtured by the influence of her family and the encounters that she experienced while living in Johnstown.


One such experience, which Frances calls her “defining moment,” came while visiting her grandmother, Mama Wicks, who lived in South Fork. Frances was very close to her grandparents and spent considerable time in their home while growing up. In her Mama Wicks’ home were two beautiful Chinese vases that stood on a shelf above the pipe organ. Frances was particularly fond of these vases and often she would ask her grandmother Wicks if she could play with them. Each time her grandmother would say no. During one visit, at eight years old, she again asked to play with the vases, then stamped her foot on the floor and insisted that she be allowed to do so. Her grandmother took her aside, sat down with Frances and told her this story:


“Long ago, when your mother was your age, some days she and her little sisters would come home from school crying that some bad boys were chasing Mr. Yee and calling him bad names. Now in this little town was a Chinese laundryman, who lived alone in his small laundry. Each week he picked up your grandfather’s shirts and brought them back in a few days, washed, starched, and ironed perfectly. Mr. Yee wore traditional Chinese dress—a long tunic and a cap with his hair in a queue. The boys would chase him, yelling, “Chinky, Chinky Chinaman,” and worse, try to pull his queue.


One day where was a knock on the kitchen door. When I opened it, here stood Mr. Yee, with a large package in his arms. I said, “Oh, Mr. Yee, please come in. Won’t you sit down?” But Mr. Yee just stood there and handed me the package, saying, “This is for you.” I opened the package, and in it were two beautiful old Chinese Vases. I said, “Mr. Yee, these are too valuable, I couldn’t accept then,” His answer was, “I want you to have them.” I asked, “Why do you want me to have them?”


He said, “Mrs. Wicks, I have been in this town for ten years, and you are the only one who ever called me Mr. Yee. They won’t let me bring my wife and children here, and I miss them too much, so I am going back to China. The vases are all I brought with me. I want you to have them.” There were tears in his eyes as he said good-bye.”


For Frances, at the young age of eight, that story taught her the lesson of respect for all people and became the basis for her commitment to diversity and inclusion.


Frances also felt that the Girl Scouts USA was seriously out-of-date. At the time of her appointment as CEO in 1976, the program handbooks in use had been developed for the Girl Scouts in 1964 and not revised since. To address this concern, she brought together a team of outstanding, contemporary writers, researchers, and illustrators to create new program workbooks that were relevant to the young girls of the mid-1970s. These handbooks were heavy in math, science, and technology. And throughout each workbook were illustrations that represented the diversity of girls who were members of local troops.


To make the appearance of the Girls Scouts more current, Frances and her team convinced Fashion designer Roy Halston to create new uniforms in the late 1970s. Later, they had Bill Blass furnish another new look in the 1980s. Even the Girl Scout pin was redesigned by Saul Bass, noted graphic designer.


All of these changes and more led to an energized, growing organization that embraced the future with a hopeful sense that the Girl Scouts USA could make a real difference in the lives of its troop members. As a result, by 1990, the Girls Scouts grew in numbers to 2.3 million girls and 788,000 adult leaders.


Shortly after she resigned her post as CEO of the Girl Scouts USA in 1990, she and two other Drucker followers, Bob Buford and Dick Schubert, met one day to discuss how they could create a mechanism through which the work’s and philosophy of Peter Drucker could be extended and applied across the nonprofit-social sector. Peter had significantly influenced the lives of each of them and all three believed that the social sector would benefit immensely if given exposure to his management and leadership wisdom. The result of this meeting was the establishment of the Peter Drucker Foundation. When Peter was introduced to their idea, the only condition placed on its founding was his insistence that that Frances be its President and CEO. Peter would be its honorary chairman.


Since its beginning, the foundation has gone through two name changes. In 2002, it was renamed the Leader to Leader Institute. Then in 2012, at the insistence of its Board of Directors, it became the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute.


So, who is this woman Frances Hesselbein? She was born in South Fork, raised in Johnstown, became a local Girl Scout Leader, then assumed regional and state-wide positions within the Girl Scout organization, finally becoming its National CEO in 1976. Frances and her team transformed the Girl Scouts into an exciting, relevant, and inclusive association that grew to over 2.3 million scouts and 788,000 adult leaders, whose mission was “To help each girl reach her own highest potential.” She helped to found the Peter Drucker institute in 1990 (now named the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute) and has been the CEO since its inception. She has received numerous honors and awards. She is the author or co-author of 27 books. She learned much of what it meant to be a leader from her family and her experiences living in Johnstown.


She is the person who the late Steven Covey called “…extraordinary. She is a pioneer for women, for diversity, and for leadership that changes lives. Frances is a model for living one’s values.” She defines leadership as “…a matter of how to be, not how to do. It is the quality and character of the leader that determines the performance, the results.” And she is someone who I have the privilege and honor of calling a true friend.


"To Serve is to Live"
---- Frances Hesselbein


Related Posts

bottom of page