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Frances Hesselbein's "Life In Leadership" -- A Review

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Frances Hesselbein - My Life In Leadership
My Life in Leadership: The Journey and Lessons Learned Along the Way, Frances Hesselbein, Jossey-Bass, 2011

Frances Hesselbein has become an iconic nonprofit leader. From her nearly 20 years of leadership with the Girl Scouts (13 years as national CEO) to her current position as founding president of the Leader to Leader Institute (formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation), Hesselbein has shown herself to be a born leader.

Hesselbein would probably disagree with the "born" part. She would say she has learned from the best leaders around. And that is true, but finding one's way to those leaders and enlisting them as mentors is part of that inborn ability and drive to lead in my opinion.

Hesselbein perhaps left her most lasting mark on the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. From 1976 to 1990, she turned that organization into a modern, diversified, and efficient national voice for girls. As a result of her vision and activism, Hesselbein was named Fortune Magazine's "Best Nonprofit Manager in America," and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.

Today, Hesselbein continues to write, edit, and speak about leadership to nonprofits, the U.S. military, and business leaders around the world. My Life in Leadership recounts her early history and what she has learned about leadership throughout her long career.

I was fascinated by Hesselbein's story, partly because I had the pleasure of serving in a local Girl Scout Council during the years of her tenure as National CEO. Hesselbein's story helped me better understand why I have always said that the Girl Scouts is the best managed organization I ever worked for. I have worked in business, education and nonprofits during my career, and none measured up to the sheer organizational beauty of the Girl Scouts.

So how did Hesselbein do it? Her beginnings were modest. She dropped out of college after one year to help support her family after her father died. Later she married and raised a family. Eventually she became a Girl Scout volunteer, leading a troop and serving on the board of directors of her local Girl Scout Council. When the Council lost its Executive Director, the board turned to Hesselbein and asked her to step in. Insisting she was "just" a volunteer, she agreed to do it for six months until a leader was found. The rest is history. Seven years later she became the National CEO despite the fact that the national organization rarely appointed insiders to that post.

Hesselbein came from sturdy stock and a family with a long history of public service. Her belief in service sustained her through all of her positions, and her drive to learn everything she could prepared her for leadership.

Here are some of the leadership lessons Hesselbein learned and taught all of us who have been fortunate to work with and for her:

  • Find the best minds in whatever field and take them as mentors. Hesselbein was devouring the works of Peter Drucker long before she ever met him. Not only that, she asked her staff to read his books as well. She developed strategies, management techniques, and organizational structures based on his insights. One of those was called "planned abandonment," which Hessebein describes as "keeping mission, values, and vision--the soul of the organization--centered and aligned as we abandon the vestiges of the past that spell irrelevance in the future."

  • Let go of hierarchy. As a result of that planned abandonment, Hesselbein developed "circular management" where the leader sat in the middle of the organizational chart...not at the top. Of this approach, she says, "We developed leaders at every level, and we discovered that circular management liberates the energy of our people, liberated the human spirit."

  • Make learning central to your organization. Hesselbein, when she became national CEO of the Girl Scouts, set out to transform a dated program into a contemporary one to meet the needs of the girls...the customers. But she knew that the Girl Scouts needed to be able to keep changing when necessary. To that end, she invested time and money in the training and development of staff and volunteers. As Hesselbein says, "The first item in your budget should be learning, education, and the development of your people." To provide that development, Hesselbein reached out to the best: Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, John W. Garner, and faculty at Harvard, among others.

  • Respect the feelings of your dissidents. The Girl Scouts was a venerable institution when Hesselbein arrived, with strong traditions that many did not want to give up. When the national staff developed a new logo and a new Girl Scout pin, many of the professional staff and volunteers resisted. Rather than fighting about it, Hesselbein promised that the traditional pin would still be manufactured and provided to anyone who wanted it. In a similar way, later when some councils wanted to extend Scouting to five-year olds (the Daisy Girl Scouts), many councils were adamantly opposed. Again, Hesselbein simply provided the new program only to those who requested it, leaving the rest alone. As a result, antagonism turned to cooperation and soon most councils had adopted the new program.

  • Do your research. Hesselbein was a strong believer in research before change. That involved other lessons such as listen to the customer, and focus on needs, not your own assumptions. She hired experts to research and then ran pilots to test ideas and/or programs. In my own local council, this research orientation paid off handsomely when we did a comprehensive survey of all stakeholders before devising our long term plans; and when, in the wake of the "cookie crisis" when some consumers said they found needles in Girl Scout cookies, we did another survey of volunteers and customers about how the crisis had affected them. We learned that, unlike what we thought, the public was unfazed and wanted their cookies while the volunteers were nervous and needed to be reassured.
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