Frances Hesselbein, 1915-2022
An Homage to my Hero
I learned on Monday that Frances Hesselbein had died, aged 107, in her beloved Easton, Pennsylvania.
Turns of good fortune are often associated with people we meet, who then proceed to change our lives. My first encounter with Frances proved to be one of these turns.
I had arranged to interview her for a book I was writing about women’s leadership, a novel topic in that spring of 1988. We met at the New York office of the Girl Scouts of the USA, where she was Executive Director. We began on an awkward note. I’d asked to do a diary study of her leadership style, which required that I shadow her for several days. She had cleared her calendar so I could interview her, which meant there would be no activities to shadow. We rebooked, and over the course of the next three days I proceeded to get a master class in inclusive leadership, a concept that had not been articulated back then.
But even without that descriptor, Frances knew precisely what she was doing, as for example when she invited her junior communications staff to sit through an interview she was conducting via speaker phone with a reporter from the New York Times who was seeking to gin up some controversy about– of all things– Girl Scout cookies. “I want even the youngest among them to see how to handle reporters,” she explained when I asked her about it. “Young staffers learn best by watching how things are done, but in many organizations they are never in the room with senior leaders.”
That was Frances: highly intentional in everything she did, her actions and words fully thought-through. I recall a lunch with her in the Cosmopolitan Club, where she explained the leadership structure she had put in place at GSUSA. She created, on the table cloth before us, consecutive circles with salt and pepper shakers and small dishes, then connected them with spokes composed of forks. The idea, she said, was to take people out of boxes, while also creating the maximum number of connections between them. Only then could relationships fully develop and information freely flow. We christened the structure a web of inclusion.
Frances was 72 when I met her and very much in her prime. She kept up the pace until she was in her mid-90s. I used to wonder what motivated her to get up day after day, year after year, working long hours while also meeting people after her long, full days. It took well over a decade before I understood that her words about mission and service were not just the source of her influence but her stamina as well. I’d no clue at the time how powerfully motivating such concepts could be.
In addition to instructing me in the practice of inclusion and imbuing in me an ethic of service, Frances completely changed my understanding of longevity. She gloried in her maturity. She had, I suppose, learned from her mentor Peter Drucker the power of being the oldest person in the room, although as with many women of her era she never spoke directly about her age. Her style and grooming were always impeccable and, like another well-seasoned powerhouse Nancy Pelosi, she wore high heels well into her 80s. I never saw her at a social function without a glass of champagne, including at the two 100th birthday bashes friends threw for her, one at the now unhappily-shuttered Four Seasons, the other at the Rainbow Room.
She made being an older woman– even an old woman– look like a glamorous adventure, as well as an opportunity to extend a life of service and contribution.
I learned an enormous amount from Frances, but the true reason meeting her constituted a turn of good fortune for me is that I’ve met almost everyone I’ve come to know in the years since through her, directly or indirectly. She redefined my web of connections to a head-spinning degree, broadening and strengthening it and embedding me in circles of colleagues and friends who have unlocked my potential as well as my desire to contribute.
Thank you, my friend. May you rest in peace, and may the perpetual light shine upon you.
I have written many times about Frances, including how she inspired my personal mantra Mid-Career at 65 in a previous newsletter. I profiled her life for Strategy & Business in Frances Hesselbein’s Merit Badge in Leadership and I detailed her leadership style in The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership. Above all, I recommend Frances’s beautiful and instructive memoir, My Life in Leadership.