Opening Doors of Opportunity
By Lena Anthony
Photograph courtesy of Frances Hesselbein
Volume 147, Number 2, March/April 2013, Page 5
Frances Hesselbein was never president of her student council, and she grew up wanting to be a poet. Yet she went on to become an inspiring and collaborative leader. “I never saw myself as a leader,” says Mrs. Hesselbein. “In my case, someone opened a door for me, and I went through it.”
That door was the opportunity to lead Girl Scout Troop 17 in Johnstown, Pa., which had lost its troop leader and was in danger of being disbanded. Mrs. Hesselbein did not want the job at first. “I protested, but this woman recruiting me pleaded with me that 30 little 10-year-old girls were going to lose their troop if I didn’t take the job,” recalls Mrs. Hesselbein, a member of the Mary Washington Colonial Chapter, New York, N.Y.
She agreed to take the position for six weeks, but Mrs. Hesselbein ended up staying on for eight years until the girls graduated from high school.
In 1970, Mrs. Hesselbein became the executive director of western Pennsylvania’s Talus Rock Girl Scout Council. From there, she continued to climb the ranks within the organization, serving on a variety of committees and boards that took her around the world. In 1976, she became CEO of Girls Scouts of the United States of America.
In her 13 years as CEO, Mrs. Hesselbein is widely credited for turning around the organization and bringing the Girl Scouts into a new age. Among her accomplishments was increasing diversity among the membership and staff. Taking guidance from Peter Drucker’s management teachings, Mrs. Hesselbein also transformed the management structure to encourage teamwork and collaboration.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Mrs. Hesselbein with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, recognizing her for her role with the Girl Scouts and her service as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity and opportunity.”
Mrs. Hesselbein says receiving the award was one of the greatest moments of her life, and she wears the medal on her lapel every day.
The award also recognized her work in founding the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management (now called the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute), which provides leadership training and resources to nonprofit leaders and their partners in business and government. Since its founding in 1990, the organization has published 29 leadership books in 30 languages. Mrs. Hesselbein used to travel regularly to lead seminars or give speeches to audiences around the world, but now she uses global webinars to reach her audience. (A recent webinar was attended by 400 leaders from 40 countries.)
Last year, Mrs. Hesselbein completed a two-year appointment as the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She is the first woman, as well as the first nongraduate of West Point, to serve in this role.
“That was one of the greatest honors of my life,” she says. “I do a great deal of work with the military, and I was inspired working with the cadets.”
Mrs. Hesselbein is proud of her family’s service to their country. Her ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. More recently, her father and brother were both soldiers, as was her son, John, who died in 2011.
Mrs. Hesselbein’s love of country is what drew her to the DAR. “I love the DAR because they’re keeping the history of our country alive in a way that no one else is,” she says. “They’re living it.”
In her free time, Mrs. Hesselbein is dedicated to improving the public education system in America. She “adopted” a New York City school, raising money for a new library and new textbooks. The following year, the school graduated 52 seniors, nine of whom received college scholarships. “It always has been and always will be about opening doors of opportunity,” she says.