Meet Frances Hesselbein

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Recently I had the chance to listen to Frances Hesselbein live via a webinar.  Hesselbein is the former CEO of Girl Scouts of America, the current President of the Leader to Leader Institute (formerly the Peter Drucker Foundation of Nonprofit Management) and its founding President.  She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Leader to Leader.  Hesselbein was one of Peter Drucker’s best friends and they often used each other as examples of effective leaders.

I tried several times to interview Hesselbein so that I could include her in my study of leadership sages.  Finally it was explained to me that since she is over 90 years, she is extremely selective in how and with whom she spends her time which I totally respect and understood. So having the chance to hear her live was an opportunity.

Since it is Women’s History Month, Hesselbein was the featured speaker on an international webinar.  Women from all over the world were calling in to ask her questions.  For me, it was fun to hear her voice which was hard to hear, but still powerful.  She spoke with intention as if she were choosing each word purposefully.  I could hear the wisdom in her words and I could sense that listeners were on the edge of their seats waiting for what she was going to share with us.

She talked about how the world has become less civil and this has destroyed our ability to converse with one another.  In fact, she said this has become her focus for her current work.  I was amazed that even at her age, she has the courage, energy, and determination to tackle this issue.   Hesselbein said, “It is discouraging because we have the lowest level of trust and the highest level of cynicism in organizations today.  Conversations have been negative and unacceptable.”   She reminded us that Peter Drucker used to say that “good manners are the lubricating oil of effective organizations.”

Leaders will fail if they focus on themselves.  If we focus on the people we serve, it is not about me—it’s about them.  That was Drucker’s philosophy.” 

Hesselbein said that the leader of the future asks.  The leader of the past tells. 

Then she told us about her tattoos—invisible tattoos.  Hesselbein explained how she imagines that she has two tattoos—one on each shoulder.  One shoulder says: 

Think first.  Speak last. 

And the other shoulder says:  Ask—don’t tell. 

She said these were constant reminders of what she needed to do as a leader.  I found it interesting to listen to a sage over the age of 90 talk about tattoos!  But I liked the image.

Then the facilitator asked Hesselbein for her closing comments.  She spoke softly and slowly, but this is what she said: 

"This is a call for action.  We need to stay connected.  We need to learn, to grow, and to serve.  My motto is “to serve is to live.” While we need to acknowledge the darkness of our times, we need to be determined to be part of the bright future that we will help to define.  We have so much to learn from each other.  I call this circular learning.  We need to love and to be grateful."

In my opinion, this is sage advice.

Now, what tattoos—related to leadership– would you select for each shoulder?

I will share my two invisible tattoos if you share yours.





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  • Sara Hugley

    When you told us about this in class–this is what I wrote for my tattoos in my journal: Be humble & Love always. Showing humility in every situation is key in being an effective leader, and I think showing love means showing empathy, listening attentively, and having a servant’s heart. I find that picking two small phrases can be simple, yet they do have many meanings that can be thought of, which makes them very difficult to achieve. What are yours, Dr. Freed?

  • Ly Baccam

    Too bad we don’t have more of this type of leaders in our society in general. Our educational system does not promote such learning at early stages of our lives, so great leaders like Frances Hesselbein is a dying breed.
    I am working on getting my invisible tatoos similar to Frances Hesselbein.

  • Max M

    I would like to steal the “Ask-don’t tell” tattoo. This idea has been discussed many times in class and in our readings. It is very important for good leaders to always be asking questions. It is hard to improve if you are not open to new ideas. My other tattoo would have something to do with the word “integrity”. This is one of Dr. Freed’s favorite words and everyone should make it one of their own favorite words.

  • Jim Cobb

    On the wall in my bedroom is a plaque that reads, “The day you take complete responsibility for yourself, the day you stop making any excuses, that’s the day you start to the top.” This is something great to see everyday upon waking. My two tattoos would relate to this. On my left shoulder would be, “No excuses” and my right would read, “keep moving forward”. Using a Civil War analogy I like to refer to General Grant after the battle of the Wilderness in 1864. The battle was a terrible Union defeat but after it was over he kept his troops moving forward; he was the first Union general to do this (until then every Union general had retreated after a defeat). From then on Grant kept pushing forward even after many more defeats. It was this perseverance in the face of defeat that ultimately won the war for the Union.

  • Chrys Bregar

    It sounds like you had a great experience, Dr. Freed. I think one of my tattoos would be something like “stay curious” because I’ve seen too many leaders who think they know everything when they don’t! The second would probably “remember reciprocity”, though that seems awfully long for a tattoo. I recently read Walter Winks essay Jesus and Alinsky in which he tells the reader to “never adopt a strategy you would not want your opponents to use against you.” That seemed like good advice for any leader.

  • Ivy Paul

    Good reference, Chrys! I really liked that essay.
    Ms. Hesselbein sounds like such a remarkable lady! I think her words about our need to converse more civilly are very wise.
    I’m far too indecisive to ever get a real tattoo, so I’m glad these are invisible ones… I choose the words “Remember” and “Vision.” “Remember” relates to my concern for those in the world whom we can too easily forget. I want to remember my persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ, the poor, the oppressed, and those in my immediate circles who feel pushed aside. I like the word “Remember” for my invisible tattoo because it is a reminder to lead with love, to think before speaking harshly, look beyond the superficial, etc. The word “Vision” is of course a powerful word in leadership and comes from one of my favorite Scripture passages, Habakkuk 2:3: But these things I plan won’t happen right away. Slowly, steadily, surely, the time approaches when the vision will be fulfilled. If it seems slow, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed.

  • Michael O’Rourke

    It seems she hit on many of the points Dr. Freed discusses in class. I can picture Dr. Freed getting two tattoo’s soon, so when she is speaking on webinars at the young age of 90 she can show everyone. I think one of my tattoos would say “Own it” and the other would say “Lead but Understand”.

  • Joe Russell

    “It is discouraging because we have the lowest level of trust and the highest level of cynicism in organizations today. Conversations have been negative and unacceptable.” I couldn’t have said this better myself. I have found myself thinking the same thing. With Wall St CEO’s only concerned about making money and the expensive of everyone elses’ trust, it has never seemed more true. We need more leaders that are willing to look out for other people and make decisions that will impact others positively.

  • Quinn Adair

    This was some good food for thought. I would have to go with “Be Grateful” and “Enjoy Others.” It is imperative that we are able to converse with one another and establish a better foundation of trust. I think Ms. Hesselbein would appreciate that I just finished a box of Thin Mint cookies.

  • Amy Schmitt

    I really liked her last last comments: “This is a call for action. We need to stay connected. We need to learn, to grow, and to serve. My motto is “to serve is to live.”… We have so much to learn from each other. I call this circular learning. We need to love and to be grateful.”
    Her words and our discussions in class on servant leadership really resonate with me and always remind me of the motto of FFA I learned in high school that I still remember–“Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.” This short phrase ties in a lot of leadership ideas.
    Hmm…still thinking about my 2 tattoos, maybe the FFA quote from above and I really enjoyed everyone’s ideas! Maybe borrow “Stay Curious.”–kind of ties into having fun, learning, and being a kid.

  • Kathryn Bruxvoort

    Mine would probably be “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” and “The only thing you can control is yourself”. I like the idea of having such a strong reminder of these things to carry with you throughout life. I loved reading everyone’s tattoo ideas and I think we can all benefit from remembering even just a few of them.