RIP Frances Hesselbein, one of my great inspirations

December 12, 2022 by Joshua
in Leadership, Stories

I received this email this morning from the Director of Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership and Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs:

Frances Hesselbein

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of the passing of Frances Hesselbein, our mentor, friend, and the namesake of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum. Frances was an inspiration to all of us, and I am certain that we will all remember her many years of service and her lifelong commitment to values-based leadership. Her eternal optimism—as she frequently said, “even my blood type is B positive!”—serves as a beacon in these difficult times. [. . .]

I believe that the best way to honor Frances is to recommit ourselves to her creed – to serve is to live. This battle cry is at the center of all we do at the Forum, and I look forward to staying in contact with you about the many ways we are carrying forth Frances’ legacy.

Here is Pitt’s obituary: Frances Hesselbein, a Pitt visionary and one of the world’s ‘greatest leaders,’ has died at 107. I’ll note that she suggested not saying her age, as she considered it impolite to mention a woman’s age. She was born during World War I, meaning she lived through the Depression, World War II, the Baby Boom, Vietnam, and then my entire life.


I met Frances in 2007, when she guest spoke at a leadership class I took at Columbia Business School. I remember her being 92 and I didn’t think I’d see much more of her. Instead, I met her in person at a book launch by Marshall Goldsmith. She invited me to meet her for coffee in an interaction that became the opening story for my first (non-self-published) book, Leadership Step by Step. I’ll copy that introduction below, with its talk of girl scouts, glinting swords, and four-star generals.

She introduced me to General Lloyd Austin, who invited to co-lead workshops at West Point. He went on to endorse my book and then become the United States Secretary of Defense. She called him her top living leader. Her top leader ever was Abraham Lincoln.

Frances Hesselbein

I didn’t learn much about Abraham Lincoln growing up, but my interest in learning about slavery as the system that evolved into our current polluting system and abolition as a model for ending it led me to learn more about him, especially his evolution to promoting and passing the Thirteenth Amendment. Disconnecting my apartment from the electric grid and using less power led me to read two 600-plus page biographies of him and another 600-plus page work on abolition, which woke me up to his leadership. Now I’m learning more.

I wrote Frances a week ago through our mutual friend Sarah, taking car of her:

I forget how much I told you I was learning about Abraham Lincoln, but the more I learn about him, the more I learn how he navigated and led this nation and the world through some of the greatest challenges humans have faced. The more I learn about his leadership, the more I think of Frances, thinking, for instance, “I saw how effective her leadership and heard her say how highly she regarded his. Why didn’t I learn more about him before!”

I haven’t visited her in a long time, in part because she was in Pennsylvania the past times I heard where she was. I’ve been thinking of visiting her and sharing my gratitude for her sharing so valuable a lead to learn more leadership from Lincoln and my humility in waiting so long to act on it.

Sarah read that passage to Frances after we spoke one week ago today. Sarah and I talked about the look in Frances’s eye when she was about to suggest you do something you couldn’t help but say yes to.

I think of Frances as the fountainhead of the line of leadership coaches I learned from, particularly Marshall. Both of them supported me when I started my coaching career. She invited me to her Christmas parties in her home in Easton, Pennsylvania, which I loved attending, as well as her lovely Park Avenue office.

I’ve posted about her many times in this blog. Here are all of them, including her appearing on my podcast.

We Who Choose To Lead Are Humanity's Best Hope to Save Civilization

She helped edit both pieces I published in her Leader to Leader journal: We Who Choose to Lead Are Humanity’s Best Hope to Save Civilization in the current issue and Leadership Step by Step in the fall 2017 issue.

I’ll miss her. I’ll do my best to carry on her legacy: to Serve Is to Live.


The beginning of chapter 1 of Leadership Step by Step:

I had met Frances Hesselbein when she spoke to my leadership class in business school, but hadn’t gotten to know her.

Frances rose to become the CEO of the Girl Scouts for fourteen years from starting as a local volunteer. Turning them around, among other achievements, won her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 21 honorary doctorates, and more. She’s the President and CEO of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute (renamed in her honor from the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management). In short, I could learn a lot from her.

As it happened, I got my chance while writing this book, a decade after she spoke to my class. I reintroduced myself to her at Marshall Goldsmith’s book launch. He’s my mentor. She is his. We chatted and she invited me for coffee at her Park Avenue office. Of course I accepted. To call the place impressive would understate what you see there: her books translated into dozens of languages are framed on the tops of each wall. Below them are photographs of her with U.S. Presidents, many-starred Generals, and heads of industry. Around eye level are military swords glinting in the sun above framed notes from the dignitaries who gave them to her.

She sat me on her couch. An assistant set up her chair beside me, putting maybe two feet away a woman whom great leaders have called the best leader they’ve met. The chat I expected could have felt heavy, even intimidating. Her friendly, disarming smile masked the challenge of what she asked when she sat and looked me in the eye: “So, what do you want to talk about?”

I felt like it was a command performance and I was on stage. What do you say when one of the world’s great leaders asks you to lead?

I had wondered this question for weeks, since she invited me. Our only interaction between her business school talk and the book launch was online, when she tweeted about a blog post of mine—a pleasant surprise. I couldn’t imagine how she found it. Six months later, I saw her at the book launch. We spoke briefly (Me: “How did you know to tweet about my post?” Her: “Oh yes, I have a girl who does that”). She lived up to her gracious reputation, emptying her purse on a library table to find me her business card. People must have wondered who the young man getting her attention was.

I accepted the invitation for coffee enthusiastically. Only when preparing to go did I think about what to say—not so easy with a Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree. My first thought was to ask for tips on leading, but I didn’t want to waste her time with what I could read in her books. What could I talk about when I barely knew her? Then I remembered, “Wait a minute. I teach this!

My leadership course includes teaching how to make meaningful connections. I call the exercise Meaningful Connection, which is in this book and which I’ve taught and practiced for years, maybe not with people who hang out in the White House, but I still knew what to do.

That’s the value of technique. You can fall back on it when you don’t know what to do, which calmed me—even in the high-ceilinged marble lobby when the guard reinforced her status: “Frances? Yeah, she’s big. Four-star Generals wait for her. General Shinseki waited over there.”

Without technique, her question in that office would have made me nervous. Instead, I knew what to say. “I feel like leadership is a passion of yours,” I began, leading into the exercise. The conversation lasted over two hours—well beyond the originally-scheduled thirty minutes. She took me to lunch, where everyone treated her with reverence. We talked about leadership, service, passion, teaching, the “hallowed ground” of West Point, where she teaches and speaks regularly, and her friendship with Alan Mullaly, the former CEO of Ford. Eventually, her assistant interrupted us to insist we finish because her next appointment was waiting.

“I don’t remember a more delightful conversation,” she said as we wrapped up. She was fascinating, insightful, charming, and generous. Not only did she answer in few words questions that I had pondered for years—that’s the value of experience—she invited me to West Point, referred me to a retired General who ran one of its leadership programs, and referred me to the editor of her institute’s journal, Leader to Leader. The technique worked. I knew what to say and how to behave to make the opportunity enjoyable and productive for both of us.


My conversation with her on my podcast:


Tributes: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Today Show

Here are tributes to her from the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Today Show. Click the images to go to the stories.

Pitt’s homage:

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