Part 2: Lessons in Leadership from Frances Hesselbein

When someone at the top of the field who has nothing to gain besides the integrity of doing what she feels right does it, you conclude that she reached the top that way.


Joshua Spodek
03/26/2018

This is part 2 of a 5 part series on lessons from the woman Drucker said was the best CEO in American history.

Frances Hesselbein, the former CEO of Girl Scouts of America, invited me to her office. The first day I went, I approached the front desk. The security guy was friendly. As he processed my ID he said, “Oh yeah, Frances gets big visitors. Sometimes Generals come in. Four stars, ones from TV. They all have to wait for her.”

Impressive!

Her office is in a big Park Avenue high-rise office building in the 50s. The lobby had fifty-foot ceilings, or something really high, and clear glass walls looking out on Park Avenue.

Her executive assistant came down to tell me that there was nothing serious, but Frances had to go to the doctor that morning after being on her feet all day at West Point the day before.

She took me up to the office to reschedule. The next time available was a lunch a couple days later. As long as Frances was healthy, I liked the idea of moving to a lunch from coffee.

I had brought a copy of my book, ReModel: Create mental models to improve your life and lead simply and effectively, so I left it there. I inscribed:

To Frances:

You inspired people who inspired me. I hope this inspires you.

Joshua Spodek

A week later I got an email from Frances. To this point her executive assistant had handled logistics. Frances wrote:

Subject: Thank You!

Dear Joshua:

Thank you for your new book, ReModel. I love the way you help all of us create “mental models.”

I look forward to lunch next week.

Gratefully,

Frances

I doubt I have to tell you that when someone who decorated Generals wait to see reads your books and sends a thoughtful, personal note that she read your book, you feel honored and flattered.

I understand that Jack Welch engendered great satisfaction and loyalty by giving hand-written notes to people at GE, with attention to detail of their work, including to people many levels down on the organization chart.

So the big lesson I learned was to show appreciation, and even just attention. Of course everyone knows that, but to feel it from the experience of her caliber, who didn’t need to do it, and spend time doing it, I learned it more deeply.

You might also think the higher you get on an organization chart the less you have to pay attention to people who aren’t directly above you, or that the way to get there is to pay attention only to them. When someone at the top of the field who has nothing to gain besides the integrity of doing what she feels right does it, you conclude that she reached the top that way.

The feeling motivates me to make it a habit.

Page 1 of my book begins "I had met Frances Hesselbein when she spoke to my leadership class in business school," more than a decade ago.

(You can read the rest of the story at the book's page and clicking "Look inside").

She and her style of servant leadership have influenced my practice significantly, especially from seeing her in action in person, also from the company she keeps, such as Marshall Goldsmith, General Lloyd Austin III, Jim Collins, and more.

In the past few years we've become friends, which I hope shows up in my book. Two of my first thoughts about Frances and leadership are:

  • To serve is to live, her fundamental phrase about how she leads and lives. The more I interact with her, the more depth the phrase takes.
  • She communicates in a few words what other leaders struggle to understand and communicate for years. She has more experience at every level of organizational and personal leadership than you and she's reflected enough to express what she's learned, apparently effortlessly.

Through her I posted my first Leader to Leader journal article.

Through her I helped lead leadership workshops at West Point.

One thing missing from the audio recording is her full expression in her non-verbal communication, especially her eyes. She's incredibly charming. In person you can see that she leads with more tools than just words.

I can't describe how much I've learned from her. I hope you catch some of that wisdom from her in my series on Lessons from Frances Hesselbein.