Frances Hesselbein, whose leadership of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America from 1976 to 1990 turned a failing not-for-profit into one of the greatest socially serving institutions of the 20th and 21st centuries, died on December 11th, 2022 at her home in Easton, PA. Surrounded by loved ones, she was 107. Throughout her storied career, Frances Hesselbein often changed the life of a Girl Scout, an aspiring student, a military officer, or a business executive with a single conversation.
Frances Hesselbein was revered as a model of servant leadership and was considered visionary for her recognition that confronting and building a better reality required respect, civil discourse, and a shared mission.
General Lloyd Austin reflected, “In the more than 25 years that I’ve had conversations with Frances, and learned from her, she has been irreplaceable.” Jim Collins said, “Frances taught me that one of the greatest sources of energy is leadership done in a spirit of service. Her most enduring impact is through the multitude of leaders—in business, in the military, in the social sectors—inspired by the guiding principle of her life: to serve is to live.”
Frances Hesselbein first defined “leadership as a matter of how to be, not how to do” at a conference in 1982. Peter Drucker, who was speaking at the same conference, hailed the definition as “the most important thing said all day, and the best definition of leadership I have heard.” As it happened, Frances’ leadership of the Girl Scouts was heavily influenced by Peter F. Drucker who, in 1990, told Businessweek that she could run any organization and called her the “greatest leader he had ever met.” Their mutual respect and shared leadership principles later were embedded in the creation of the Drucker Foundation.
Born and raised in Johnstown, PA, Hesselbein began her education in Johnstown and at the University of Pittsburgh Junior College and yet received her “advanced” education during her 107-year-long life. In that time, and much like Peter Drucker, Frances received numerous honorary degrees and awards – including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Frances never intended to leave the mountains of western Pennsylvania, and turned down most of the important jobs offered to her during her career at least once. When a neighbor first asked her to lead a local Girl Scout troop, she declined—until she learned she was the last hope: either she would step in, or the group of ten-year-old girls from modest families who met in a church basement would have to be disbanded. She agreed to stand in for six weeks, and ended up staying until the girls graduated high school.
In 1970, she declined a request to run the local Girl Scout council. She’d never take a “professional” job, she said. Then she was told the council would lose the United Way partnership if Frances weren’t there. “Okay,” she said, “I’ll do it for 6 months until you get a real leader.” She entered her first day, with copies of Peter Drucker’s, The Effective Executive and handed it to everyone in the organization. She stayed for four years, fell in love with learning about management and became the first woman leader of a regional United Way campaign. Note: Frances had first read Peter’s writings in 1968, one year after the Effective Executive was published, and commented “he is writing this for the Girl Scouts.”
When Frances was invited to interview for the Girl Scouts CEO role, she declined. Her husband countered saying that if she wanted to decline the job, he’d drive her to New York City to decline in person. In the interview, Frances told the board that society had changed dramatically, but the Girl Scouts had not. Girls were preparing for college and careers in unprecedented numbers, and they needed information on thorny topics like sex and drugs. The handbook needed to be thrown out and rewritten. The membership needed to reflect America in its entirety and the volunteers needed to be respected. Girls and the Girl Scouts needed to feel good about themselves and what they could contribute. The organization was in an existential crisis. Her frank assessment of what needed to be done earned her the role and forever changed the Girl Scouts.
On July 4th, 1976, Frances began in her role as the CEO of the Girl Scouts of America. She was the first CEO from inside the Girl Scouts. Previous CEOs had staggering leadership credentials. One was founding director of the US Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. Another had an MIT PhD and worked in wartime technology.
Frances was keenly aware that she didn’t have, nor could she magically obtain, all the knowledge it would take to turn around the organization. With Drucker’s principles in mind, and his book under her arm, Frances dismantled the hierarchical leadership structure in favor of what she called “circular management.” Rather than rungs on a ladder, staff at all levels would be beads on concentric bracelets, with multiple contacts who could advance ideas from local councils toward the national decision makers at the center of the organization. She launched an effort so that when girls of all backgrounds look at the Girl Scouts, they would find themselves, just like any inclusive community. She tripled the minority membership, added 130,000 volunteers, added badges for math and science, turned the cookie business into hundreds of millions per year, and weathered a hoax scandal about needles in cookie boxes. She made tough decisions, like selling campgrounds that volunteers adored in their youth but were no longer getting use. And she changed the pin that so many had loved to reflect everyone’s profile.
Frances and Peter met for the first time in 1979. She was invited to an event that Peter Drucker was to speak at, hosted by NYU at the University Club. The invitation said 5:30 p.m. and if you grow up in Johnstown, you arrive at 5:30. Frances walked in and found herself alone with the bartender and a man at the bar. She turned, the man introduced himself, “I am Peter Drucker.”
Frances described her reaction to that fateful meeting: “I forgot my manners. Instead of saying, how do you do? I blurted out, Do you realize how important you are to our 335 Girl Scout councils?” If you visit any council, you will see every book you’ve ever written. If you look at our national planning management, corporate management materials, you will find your philosophy flows right through it.” Peter smiled, and responded: “You are very daring. I would be afraid to do that. Tell me, does it work?” And their journey together began.
Peter visited the Girl Scouts on many occasions. Some of his comments included:
– “I have never seen an organization before without an ounce of hate.”
– “You’re remarkable. You do not see your selves life size. You do not understand, appreciate the significance of the work you do. For we live in a society that pretends to care about its children and it does not. For a little while, you give a girl a chance to be a girl in society.”
In 1990, Frances retired from the Girl Scouts, and described The Effective Executive as her guiding light in managing the early challenges she faced, and Peter Drucker as an integral part of the transformation.
Six weeks later, she was brainstorming in Claremont, California with Bob Buford, founder of The Leadership Network, Dick Schubert, the CEO of American Red Cross, and Peter F. Drucker. The four of them agreed that the greatest challenge was to redefine the social sector as an equal partner in business and government. The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management was launched, and at Peter’s insistence, Frances began her journey as leader of the foundation where she worked for the remainder of her life. Peter served on the board of the foundation, and the first book they wrote together was, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask Your Organization.
From 2008–2011, Frances Hesselbein also served as the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. She was the first woman, and the first non-graduate, to serve in this chair position. She influenced a generation of senior military leaders, and mentored multiple Service Chiefs of Staff, Presidential Appointees, and the Current Secretary of Defense.
While running the Drucker Forum, active at WestPoint, and editing and writing 35+ books and being the editor-in-chief of the Leader to Leader journal, she also served on many private and service sector boards, including Mutual of America Life Insurance Company, the Bright China Social Fund, California Institute of Advanced Management, and Teachers College, Columbia University President’s Advisory Council. She served as the Chairman of the National Board of Directors for Volunteers of America from 2002–2006. Reflecting on the outsized impact Frances has had, former US Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Eric Shinseki said, “she bent the arc of American history.”
In the same and yet different ways, Frances Hesselbein’s and Peter Drucker’s lives – lives that started in the hills of western Pennsylvania and on the other side of the world in Austria, ended up having an extraordinary impact on society. Frances as an extraordinary light that guided so many people with her simple focus on “how to be, not how to do,” while Peter as an outsized thinker who was the father of management and influenced “a few people to be better, do better, and deliver better.” While Frances thought of Peter Drucker as “the greatest thought leader of our time,” Peter Drucker often referenced Frances Hesselbein as “the greatest leader.” In the end, their relationship meant that Frances brought all of Peter’s wisdom into the not-for-profit world and Peter brought Frances’s service mindset into our leadership and management lexicon.
In remembering Peter recently, Frances said, “There was something about Peter’s ability to sit in a room during a meeting where everybody would be talking. At some point in the conversation, Peter would speak and summarize his thoughts in three sentences. In those three sentences, he would steal the wisdom and the direction. When asked how he was able to so accurately predict the future, Peter would say, ‘I never predict, I simply look out the window and see what is visible but not yet seen by others.’”
They were each extraordinary people that we were so fortunate to have learned from and enjoyed.
 In 2017, the foundation was renamed The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum, offering leadership resources and inspiration to leaders working in every sector of industry and across the globe. The Forum is currently in the Johnson Institute for Responsibility at GSPIA in the University of Pittsburgh, which also manages the Frances Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement and the award-winning quarterly journal Leader to Leader.
About the author:
Elizabeth Haas Edersheim
Author “The Definitive Drucker”