Celebrated Leader Frances Hesselbein On What Great Leadership Is And Is Not

Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Today’s True Leadership”

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

The subject of leadership is arguably among the most covered and analyzed topics of our day. But I’ve found that much of what we read, and the prescriptions given for great leadership, often leave out mention of the single most important ingredient to great leadership—and that is how leaders actually live their lives. This includes how they communicate and relate to others, how they demonstrate their values, and the ways in which they articulate and pursue their ultimate mission and vision of how they wish to be of service to others.

To learn more about true leadership in action (not just what we’re taught in books), I caught up this month with Frances Hesselbein for her unique perspective and insights, honed over many years of groundbreaking and celebrated impact. Our interview focuses on what great leadership is and also, what it is not.

One of the most highly respected experts in the field of contemporary leadership development, Frances Hesselbein is the Chairman of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum at the University of Pittsburgh and the co-Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning quarterly journal, Leader to Leader. President Clinton awarded Hesselbein our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her leadership as CEO of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976–1990, as well as her service as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity and opportunity.” In 2022 she was awarded The President’s Volunteer Service Award.

The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum reflects the vision of a university-based center for teaching, applied research, and public service where leaders and aspiring leaders from around the world can gather to advance the art and science of leadership and put these principles to practice in public service. The Forum provides leadership development opportunities for graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, hosts a public lecture series, and publishes the award-winning journal Leader to Leader.

Hesselbein shares below her special take on leadership, mission, values and success:

Kathy Caprino:Frances, so much has been written and taught about leadership over the years, and your many books and interviews have shared your leadership insights and experiences. I’d love to know—what is your ultimate definition of great leadership, in a nutshell?

Frances Hesselbein: I have been inspired by great leaders like Abraham Lincoln and great management thinkers, such as Peter Drucker and many others. However, when I first started as the CEO of the Girl Scouts USA in 1976, I realized I could not move forward with only quoting these great leaders. I had to define leadership for myself.

Our personal definition of leadership drives what we do and why we do it. This definition is found within us. For me, “leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.” A great leader does not preach about their values; they live them. In the end, it is the quality and character of a leader that determines their performance and results. It is all about ethics, collaboration and transformation. Great leaders are consistent with their actions and values. We don’t voice a wonderful sentiment and then behave in an opposite way. That’s when morale, motivation and productivity go down in an organization, company or movement. A great leader is the living embodiment of their values.

Caprino: What are the 3 most important teachings we can give emerging leaders that they aren’t receiving today, that would help them make a greater positive impact?

Hesselbein: Emerging leaders should listen, have courage, and practice horizontal leadership.

Listen: In addition to listening to others, I suggest to all emerging leaders to listen carefully to the voice within themselves. It tells them where they should be going and what they should be doing. When we try to push that voice down, we waste time and effort not doing what we were called to do: lead.

Courage: We have the courage to always place the mission first, to be demographics driven and to be values based. We don’t cut corners and do just two out of the three. The mission is our reason for being. Therefore, we don’t take a project if it doesn’t further the mission no matter how nice it is. We say “thank you” and keep moving. It takes a certain courage to close one door because it doesn’t support the mission and trust that another door will open.

Horizontal leadership: It is not one leader, but many leaders contributing to the mission and values of their organization. Leaders give other people the opportunities to learn, grow and lead and are exemplary in their leadership. Horizontal leadership is more than banning the hierarchal structure. It is about leading beyond the walls and leading together to address critical needs and issues in the community.

It is also important for emerging leaders to keep in mind what “making a greater positive impact” means. The outcome we should be striving for is changing lives. Changing lives is our bottom line, not squeezing nickels. Changing lives motivates and energizes our institutions, as we are ultimately striving for “significance, not success,” as Peter Drucker would say.

Caprino: What is the worst mistake that you’re seeing leaders make and why do they make it?

Hesselbein: The worst mistake I see leaders make is abandoning the mission. Some leaders find themselves taking on projects or clients that are not aligned with the mission because of the money that is attached to it. You must always stay true to the mission. The mission is your reason for being.

Caprino: You’ve won over 25 illustrious awards including several Presidential and Lifetime achievement awards, published over 35 books, and done so much to contribute to our world of work, and have a truly unique birdseye view of leading with impact. I’m interested to know what situations or events in your early childhood and life do you think contributed most to your leadership strength and capabilities, and your confidence to lead?

Hesselbein: We all have a defining moment in our lives that helped us know what is important to us. My moment happened when I was just 8 years old. I remember I would coax my grandmother to let me play with two beautiful old Chinese vases that would sit above her pipe organ keyboard in her home, and she always said no.

Finally, on one Saturday visit, feeling very assertive, I stamped my foot at my grandmother and demanded that I be allowed to play with the vases. Instead of scolding me, my grandmother led me over to a small love seat facing the pipe organ, put her arms around me, and told me this story.

“Long ago, in this little town was a Chinese laundry man, 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, ironed perfectly. Mr. Yee wore traditional Chinese dress, a long tunic, a cap with his hair in a queue. When your mother was eight years old, some days she and her little sisters would come home from school crying that the bad boys were chasing Mr. Yee and calling him bad names.

The boys would tease him, calling him, ‘Chinkey, Chinkey Chinaman,’ and other unkind names, and they would try to pull his queue. One day, there was a knock on the kitchen door. When I opened it, there 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 them.’ He said, ‘I want you to have them.’ I asked why. He told me, ‘Mrs. Wicks, I have been in this town for ten years and you are the only one who ever called me Mr. Yee. And now I am going back home. 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.”

In my grandmother’s arms, I cried my heart out for poor Mr. Yee. That was long ago—the defining moment when I learned respect for all people, the defining moment that would stay with me, would shape my life with passion for diversity, for inclusion.

The person who had the greatest impact upon my life, my career, and my work was my grandmother. People always expect me to talk about John W. Gardner, Peter Drucker, or Warren Bennis—all the great thought leaders who have been part of my journey. Yet from my first consciousness of relations with other people, my grandmother has been my leadership model. She listened very carefully.

With us grandchildren at just six or seven years old, she looked into our eyes and she listened to us as though it was the most important thing she could be doing at that moment, and she never cut us off. She listened to us with total concentration and warm response and we learned to listen because we wanted to be like Mama Wicks. That kind of sensitivity and appreciation of others was a very important lesson, learned very early.

I suggest parents listen and give their children the attention they need to develop confidence. In that way, a child learns early on that what they have to say matters.

Caprino: What leaders have you seen or work with recently whom you feel truly embody ideal leadership behavior/values/principles, based on your experience?

Hesselbein: I’ve had the opportunity to work with many great leaders during my career, but recently, I’ve been most inspired by the young people I meet and work with. I continue to serve as Chairman of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum, in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at my beloved University of Pittsburgh. The Forum is training the next generation of servant leaders, which is so important for ensuring our bright future.

I am also inspired by the young leaders we publish in Leader to Leader, for which I have served as Editor-in-Chief for over 25 years and which is now published by the Forum. Leaders like LaShyra “Lash” Nolen, the first Black woman elected student council president at Harvard Medical School. Lash wrote about her leadership journey in our 100th issue, which began when she was just 10 years old and is grounded in a commitment to equity, community, and social justice.

As a young woman, she has already made a profound difference in the lives of her peers and her patients, and her work demonstrates that leaders can effect change at every level. I am so inspired by her leadership.

Caprino: Frances, do you have any last words for emerging female leaders who continue to face gender bias and discrimination in their workplaces and work cultures, but will not be deterred from their ultimate leadership visions?

Hesselbein: As leaders who are women, we begin by acknowledging that we bring a special dimension to the work of our organization. Our contribution to furthering the mission is enhanced by our gender—any effective leader brings her life experience and point of view to bear.

Diversity of gender, race, culture, and background in our leadership teams strengthens and enriches our organizations. But that is not the reason we, as leaders who are women, do what we do. The mission that defines why we do what we do has no gender.

Women have something to contribute beyond gender. I never thought of myself as the woman in all my board positions (though indeed I was); rather, I knew I brought a special perspective to the deliberations and the decisions in addition to my knowledge and expertise.

For more information, visit the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum and sign up to receive Leader to Leader communication.

Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, author, speaker and podcast host helping professional women rise and reach their most rewarding goals.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.