Hesselbein on Leadership

By Frances Hesselbein
Foreword by
June 2002
Harry Truman once defined leadership as the art of getting people to do what they might not otherwise do, and to like it.

That quotation comes to mind whenever I get a call from Frances Hesselbein. The phone rings, I pick up, and I hear Frances on the other end of the line. "Jim, I was hoping that you might consider . . . " Or, "The foundation would so value . . . " Or, "It would be wonderful if you would think about . . . " And before I even hear the end of the sentence, I know that I will very likely say yes. I also know that I'm going to like it.

I'm not the only person who has this experience. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to present at the Drucker Foundation annual conference, held in Los Angeles. The evening before the main event, I attended a reception. As I moved around the room full of remarkable people—thinkers, authors, corporate executives, directors of non-profits, government leaders—I asked, "What brings you here?" The answers invariably circled back to Frances Hesselbein. Later, at the reception dinner, Peter Drucker quipped that he made a practice of doing pretty much whatever Frances asks. Like Drucker, nearly all those in the room had reached a point of being masters of their own lives. Yet when Frances calls, they all have a great propensity to say yes, and to like it.

In this delightful collection of essays, Hesselbein shares her own perspectives on the art of leadership. Like many highly effective leaders, she has so much to teach us from her own example, but she is reticent to talk much about herself—a trait you will notice in these pages. So, allow me to paint a picture of her achievements, to set the context for what you will read in this book. She is a person of substantial accomplishment from whom we can all learn, all the more so because she would never say so herself.

In 1976, Hesselbein found herself at the center of an organization cascading toward irrelevance. I'm careful here not to say, "atop" the organization, as Frances would never think of her role that way. When describing her organization structure to a New York Times reporter, she put a glass at the center of a lunch table and created a set of concentric circles radiating outward—plates, cups, saucers—connected by knives, forks and spoons. "I'm here," she said, pointing to the glass in the middle. "I'm not on top of anything."

But however you think of the structure, Hesselbein became CEO of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. at the most perilous time in its then sixty-four year history. As John Byrne described in a Business Week feature (from which I have drawn extensively for this foreword), Hesselbein faced challenges at least as difficult as those faced by CEOs of decaying old-line corporations: declining market share, dissatisfied customers, economic weakness, and even hostile takeover threats. "Lurking in the background like a corporate raider," wrote Byrne, "was the Boy Scouts of America [which] had launched a feasibility study of extending its membership to girls."

With eight straight years of declining membership, the Girl Scouts were in danger of going the way of the Howard Johnson motor restaurants—a classic American icon of a by-gone age, increasingly passed by as people's needs and tastes changed. The Girl Scouts organization of 1976 was predominately white yet eager to serve all girls. The girls of America were fast becoming aware of their diversity, their talents and their ambitions. They worried less about preparing for marriage and more about preparing for college and work, less about household skills and more about how to respond to increasing peer pressure to have sex or take drugs. They wanted—needed—a highly contemporary organization that could help them become leaders in the world and responsible for their own lives.

Hesselbein came into her responsibility as a consummate insider. With twenty-five years of experience, first as a volunteer troop leader and later as a local council executive director and national board member, she disproves the myth that change leaders must be larger-than-life heroes who ride in from the outside on a white horse. Dyed in green (the color of the Girl Scouts), Hesselbein vowed to defend the timeless core values of the Girl Scouts and recommitted the organization to its enduring mission of helping girls reach their highest potential. Beyond that, however, everything else would be open for change.

And change she wrought. Hesselbein believed that any girl in America—be she low income or wealthy, urban or rural, black, white, Latina or whatever—should be able to picture herself in the Girl Scouts. "If I'm a Navajo child on a reservation, a newly arrived Vietnamese child, or a young girl in rural Appalachia, I have to be able to open [the Girl Scout handbook] and find myself there," she said. "That's a very powerful message that 'I'm not an outsider. I'm part of something big.'" The Girl Scouts not only changed materials like the Girl Scout handbooks (even translating them into multiple languages)  but also initiated a slew of new offerings. Proficiency badges sprouted up in topics like math, technology and computer science, to reinforce the fact that girls are—and should think of themselves as—smart, capable individuals. The organization artfully moved people to confront the brutal facts facing girls in modern America, such as teen pregnancy and alcohol use among minors, by creating materials on sensitive issues. The parent organization did not force these materials down people's throats, but simply gave the interdependent councils the opportunity to use the materials at their discretion. Most did.

Hesselbein grasped a central paradox of change: the organizations that best adapt to a changing world first and foremost know what should not change. They have a fixed anchor of guiding principles around which they can more easily change everything else. They know the difference between what is truly sacred and what is not, between what should never change and what should be always open for change, between "what we stand for" and "how we do things." Had she marched in with a big "change program," full of herself as the great change leader, her efforts likely would have failed. Instead, she began with a rededication to the guiding values and enduring mission of the Girl Scouts as the framework for change, giving people an anchor point of stability. Yes, there would be change, but it would all be done in the spirit of reinvigorating the soul of the institution, not destroying it.

Equally important, she exercised the discipline to say no to changes and opportunities that did not fit the central mission. When a charity organization sought to partner with the Girl Scouts, envisioning an army of smiling girls going to door to door to canvass for the greater good, Hesselbein commended the desire to make a difference, but gave a polite and firm no.

Hesselbein understood that to "do good" does not mean doing all good. To deliver the best results—and, as she continually reminds us in these essays, it is imperative to think in terms of results—requires the discipline to focus only on those activities that meet three basic tests. First, the opportunity must fit squarely in the middle of the mission. Second, the enterprise must have the capability to execute on the opportunity better than any other organization. (If not, then leave the opportunity to others.) And third, the opportunity must make sense within the context of the economic engine and resources of the institution. Hesselbein pounded out a simple mantra: "We are here for only one reason: to help a girl reach her highest potential." She steadfastly steered the Girl Scouts into those activities—and only those activities—where it could make a unique and significant contribution of value to its members. And throughout, she bolstered the financial health of the Girl Scouts, mindful of Peter Drucker's adage that the foundation for doing good is doing well.

And, indeed, the results came. Not just financial—for that is not the point in a mission-driven enterprise—but equally in terms of membership, volunteer dedication, and the enduring impact on the lives of girls. Under her leadership, the Girl Scouts regained its preeminent position, with a girl membership of 2.25 million and a workforce (mainly volunteers) of 780,000. Equally important, the organization had attained greater diversity and cohesion than at any time in its history—each side of the coin reinforcing the other, in a powerful yin and yang combination. Finally, she set up the organization to be successful long into the future, beyond her tenure. Today, in 2002, the Girl Scouts of the USA has grown to nearly four million members, including nearly one million adult member volunteers.

When I think of what makes the Girl Scouts and, later, the Drucker Foundation tick at their best, I think first of the people that freely give of themselves to the mission of each organization. The theme of relationships runs as a common thread through nearly every page of these essays. For in the end, commitment to mission ultimately means commitment to other people who share the mission with you. To fail the mission is one thing, to fail other people is entirely another. And it is this magical combination of the right people engaged in common cause that Frances orchestrates as well as anyone—a fact that is borne out in her remarkable record of results.

Which brings me to the final and most important point about Hesselbein on Leadership. Like all of the very best executives, her ambition is first and foremost for the organization, the cause, the work—not herself. This is the central reason why she is able to get so many people to do what they might not otherwise do, and to like it. After all, in a world where the very best people are ultimately volunteers, why on earth should they give over their creative energies to advance the greater glory of a leader whose ambition is first and foremost self-centric? They shouldn't, and they don't.

Early in this book, Frances tells the story of a young person who approaches her after a presentation to ask, "Why should I not be cynical?" The answer to that question comes in Hesselbein's cardinal rule: leadership is much less about what you do, and much more about who you are. If you view leadership as a bag of manipulative tricks or charismatic behaviors to advance your own personal interests, then people have every right to be cynical. But if your leadership flows first and foremost from inner character and integrity of ambition, then you can justly ask people to lend themselves to your organization and its mission. As one of those rare individuals who displays consistency between her teachings and her own practice, there is perhaps no better answer to the question "Why should I not be cynical?" than the example of Frances Hesselbein herself.

Jim Collins
Boulder, Colorado
June 2002

Copyright © 2002 Jim Collins, All rights reserved.