Leaders Must Always Envision a Bright Future

My journey — lifelong learning, civic engagement and ‘to serve is to live’ philosophy — began long ago...

This column originally published on Leader To Leader Journal and has been updated for MMN.

Occasionally, I casually remark in speeches that I have tattoos on both shoulders. I pause and wait for the audience’s shock to become apparent, and then go on to mention that the tattoos are in invisible ink—you can’t see them, but I know they are there—several of them.

Always the first tattoo is the reminder, “To serve is to live.” Another is Peter Drucker’s, “Think first, speak last.”

Another comes from Drucker’s saying, “The leader of the future asks; the leader of the past tells.” So my tattoo is, “Ask, don’t tell.” On the other shoulder is my own distillation from long ago that is ever more significant today: “Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.”

Below it, “We manage for the mission, we manage for innovation, and we manage for diversity.” (“Or we are part of the past” is the unwritten end of the last invisible tattoo.)

A guest list of leaders

When I think about great leadership, I think back to an autumn night in 2011, where 135 guests came together over dinner to celebrate my birthday in New York. (I don’t do birthdays, so Liz Edersheim and Ken Witty, the co-conspirators who planned and managed the event, did all of it without my involvement. Even in calling it “the Celebration.”) I was told to show up at 6:00 pm at Michael’s restaurant.

I had nothing to do with the guest list, yet everyone there, from General and Mrs. Eric Shinseki, some West Point faculty members, and Tom Moran (chairman, president, and CEO of Mutual of American Life Insurance Company) to the surgeon who saved my life long ago, had been a close and important part of the journey. And friends invited but unable to attend sent messages that touched my heart.

Ken Witty had gone into my personal archives, and there were huge photographs on easels around the room. One was of me at two years old, with blond bangs and a smile. Another showed me at Camp Blue Knob—the Girl Scout Camp on top of the second- highest mountain in Pennsylvania where I was camp director—with the richly diverse camp staff, assembled at a time when diversity was not as valued as it later became.

One photo was of being welcomed by the president of India when I chaired an International Conference sponsored by UNESCO and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girls Scouts in New Delhi, with college student Girl Guides and Girl Scouts from all over the world. Early Girl Scout uniforms, complete with little white gloves, added to this glimpse of the past of some of our early fellow travelers.

Guests loved the photographs of Halston, who designed a new Girl Scout uniform for adults as his contribution to our work, and six years later Bill Blass did the same, and they applauded clips of three presidents of the United States: President Reagan, the first President Bush, and President Clinton—all generous friends of the Girl Scouts of the USA and the Drucker Foundation/Leader to Leader Institute, and all fellow travelers along the way.

Related Reading: The Woman Drucker Said Was the Best CEO in America 

Tributes were given by Thomas Moran, General Eric Shinseki, Colonel Thomas Kolditz, Robert Buford, Cathy Kloninger, Frank Wicks, Tamara Woodbury, and Tina Doeffer, all moving and generous. This is a very personal column, for I wanted to share with you a beautiful moment on the journey we share.

I still find that evening with friends, family, and all of those present and celebrating an overwhelming, enormously loving, and moving moment always to be remembered. All guests now have a copy of the tribute DVD —“To Serve Is to Live.” You can view it on our website.

It was one of the most memorable days of my life.

The establishment of the Hesselbein Leadership Forum

Fast forward to the present, August 14, 2017, the day the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum was publicly announced. It was created in collaboration with my alma mater, The University of Pittsburgh.

Here’s a backgrounder and announcement from the University: Since 1990, Hesselbein has been at the helm of a leadership institute founded as the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management. In 2012, the organization was renamed to honor Hesselbein and her ongoing contributions. It continued its work and mission as The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute by providing social sector leaders with essential leadership wisdom, inspiration and resources to lead for innovation and to build vibrant social sector organizations. The institute has chosen to transfer many of its assets to the University of Pittsburgh to establish The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum.

The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) plans to provide a variety of opportunities for fostering and growing leadership with three primary areas of focus: developing leaders of character and competence; providing dynamic global mentorship, training and service opportunities; and engaging, informing and enhancing the leadership journey of incoming generations of leaders from around the world. To learn more about this partnership, click here. 

Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.

My journey — lifelong learning, civic engagement and ‘to serve is to live’ philosophy — began long ago at my beloved University of Pittsburgh and continues to this day. The establishment of The Hesselbein Forum is one of the greatest honors of my life.

Just two words convey my fond wishes for this journey that we will share: bright future. It will be bright because all of us together will find ways to make a difference—to serve is to live.