University of Pittsburgh

To Serve is To Live

What if every corporation, every organization, every individual took responsibility for the well-being of the whole community? Pitt alumnus Frances Hesselbein would say, simply, that’s leadership. The University of Pittsburgh is honoring her life’s work by establishing a new student venture to serve this vision of a better world for everyone.

Written by Cindy Gill


Hesselbein guides a leadership seminar at West Point.

Hesselbein guides a leadership seminar at West Point.

The President of the United States stands on a podium in the East Room of the White House, speaking to an attentive audience. The elegant room is lit by several grand crystal chandeliers; its floor-to-ceiling windows are adorned with gold curtains that bathe the setting in a glow of warm light. The audience, too, contains luminaries—a group of exceptional individuals, sitting in the front row, who are about to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The medal recognizes extraordinary contributions to U.S. national interests, to world peace, and to cultural and other significant endeavors.

On this January day, the honorees include several prominent human rights activists, a distinguished statesman, a highly decorated four-star Navy admiral, a few famous philanthropists—and, among others, a petite woman born in a steel-and-coal town in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.

On the podium, the President extols the qualities of each honoree. Regarding the Pennsylvania native—Pitt alumnus Frances Hesselbein—he says, in part: “She has shared her remarkable recipe for inclusion and excellence with countless organizations whose bottom line is measured not in dollars, but in changed lives.” Among the noted hallmarks of her leadership style are an openness to innovation, a willingness to share responsibility, and a respect for diversity. “With skill and sensitivity, Frances Hesselbein has shown us all how to summon the best from ourselves and our fellow citizens,” he says. Then he calls her forward, describing her as a “pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity, and opportunity.”

And so it was that, on Jan. 15, 1998, Hesselbein walked to the podium to shake hands with then-President William Jefferson Clinton. As she approached, her thoughts flowed back to a moment long ago when her journey to leadership began.

When Hesselbein was a child, her favorite place to visit was a special room in her grandparents’ home in South Fork, Pa. It was a music room, with high ceilings, stained glass windows, and a pipe organ. On a shelf, too high to reach, sat two colorful Chinese vases that completely captivated the young leader-to-be. She wanted to play with them. But her Grandmother Wicks wouldn’t allow this.

One day, when the youngster made a particular fuss about wanting the vases, her grandmother sat next to her and lovingly explained why the vases were so special. Years earlier, when Frances’ mother was still a child, Mr. Yee—a native of China who was the local laundryman—came to the door. He was holding a package that contained the two vases, and he told Mrs. Wicks that he wanted her to have them. He was returning to China to be with his family, and she had been a singular source of kindness and respect in a town where he had often been treated with disrespect. The vases, he said, were all that he had brought with him when he arrived in this country, and he wanted Mrs. Wicks to have them. There were tears in his eyes as he said goodbye, explaining that he had been in town for 10 years and, during that time, she was the only one who ever called him “Mr. Yee.”

Upon hearing this story, the granddaughter Frances understood that the vases were gifts representing something truly valuable—a common bond of worth and respect among all human beings. The story changed the way she saw the world. It was, she wrote years later, “the defining moment that would stay with me, would shape my life with passion for diversity, for inclusion.”

That lesson continued to be enriched and reinforced by the loving environment fostered by her parents and grandparents, and she also explored the larger world through books and her public-school education. As a teenager, she aspired to write for the theater; and, at age 17, she enrolled at the fledging University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown campus to pursue that dream.

Today, Hesselbein describes that freshman period as magic, saying, “It was everything I ever hoped for” in recalling the opportunity to spend entire days devoted to learning and exploring new ideas. “Every day was a gift.”

Then, six weeks into her new college career, tragedy struck. Her father died, and she had to make a choice. “I could leave full-time classes, get a job, and take care of my family,” says Hesselbein, “or I could go to Philadelphia, where my aunt was eager to have me live with her and attend college there.”

Her choice was to stay in town, find a job, take evening and Saturday classes, and support her mother and two siblings—“the family,” she says, “I knew my father would want me to keep together.” Making the right choices, living one’s values: These qualities, it turns out, are key to Hesselbein’s leadership philosophy, and they would continue to play a significant role in her journey to leadership.

Hesselbein (center) at the Global Academy's 2009 Student Leadership Summit surrounded by the inaugural group of young leaders.

Hesselbein (center) at the Global Academy's 2009 Student Leadership Summit surrounded by the inaugural group of young leaders.

Although her life had changed, she found inspiration and opportunity all around her, especially at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where two of her professors and their spouses began to look out for her, encourage her to excel, and celebrate her successes. “The University of Pittsburgh took a 17-yearold girl and shared with her this vision of lifelong learning, civic engagement, service, and a wider world,” Hesselbein says.

She continued to work and attend classes, integrating her newfound knowledge into her daily life. In time, she married John Hesselbein (BUS ’35), gave birth to a son, and settled into family life. Then, one day in the early 1960s, Hesselbein was asked to volunteer as the leader of local Girl Scout Troop 17. She agreed to stay for six weeks until, she says wryly, a real leader could be found. Instead, Hesselbein and Troop 17 stayed together for eight years until all of the troop’s young women graduated from high school. Then, in 1970, she was selected to become the executive director of western Pennsylvania’s Talus Rock Girl Scout Council, one of more than 300 such councils nationwide.

As the council’s new leader, she began to use Peter Drucker’s book The Effective Executive with her Girl Scout staff. Drucker, who later became her colleague and great supporter, was an influential management author, strategist, and philosopher. He viewed management as a liberal art, and he fused his management advice with lessons from sociology, psychology, philosophy, and religion. Today, he is still cited as “the father of modern management.” An organization’s work, he insisted, must flow from a purpose so simple that its mission statement can fit on a T-shirt. One of Hesselbein’s favorite examples is “To serve the most vulnerable,” the mission statement of the International Red Cross.

Drucker made no distinction between the leadership of corporations and other institutions, believing that all institutions have a responsibility for the whole society. To Hesselbein, his ideas made perfect sense and resonated with her experiences of the essentialness of diversity, inclusion, and service to others. “The first day I walked into the Girl Scout office, I had under my arm copies of The Effective Executive for every staff member,” she says. “We all thought that Peter Drucker was writing for us.”

Before this first professional position, Hesselbein served on the national Girl Scout board, represented the U.S. organization at world conferences, and presented national training sessions for board members. It was Hesselbein’s executive involvement with the Talus Rock Council that ultimately led to an even bigger opportunity, which sealed her reputation as a legendary leader.

In 1976, she was tapped to become CEO of the national organization, the Girl Scouts of the USA. Hesselbein accepted the post at a critical time. The 1960s and early 1970s brought dramatic changes in the role of women, the push for human rights, advances in technology and science, the rise of global competition, and many other societal shifts. Most organizations, including the Girl Scouts of the USA, had not kept pace with these rapid and turbulent changes. Membership had declined. Merit badges in party hosting and good grooming had become passé.

Hesselbein, who was the organization’s first national executive to be hired from within the ranks, recognized that transformation was necessary. “The old answers did not fit the new realities….The old structures were not right for the next decade, let alone the next century,” she once wrote about these shifting times.

So, Hesselbein began to create a new environment, informed by a lifetime of her own values, experience, and constant learning. After a thorough sixmonth study, Hesselbein and her team concluded that the core Girl Scout mission—to help each girl reach her highest potential—was still valid, but profound changes would be required for the organization to remain relevant. Among the challenges were obsolete programs and a nearly all-White membership; yet Hesselbein recalls these as “enormous opportunities.”

She began, she says, to manage from the center, looking across; not from the top, looking down. Everyone was learning together. It was “a more fluid, circular view of the world,” she wrote about that era, adding that “the days of turf battles, the star system, and the Lone Ranger are over. The day of the partnership is upon us.”

From that vantage point, Hesselbein worked together with everyone else in the organization to create what she calls “one great movement.” She reached out, for instance, to four distinguished educators to revise the organization’s program content. New proficiency badges were created in career-oriented topics, such as math, science, and technology. “Computer Fun became the most popular proficiency badge,” she wrote about the transition to a contemporary organization. The Girl Scout handbook was updated to appeal to a more diverse cross-section of young women. The organization even began to address difficult issues like drug abuse. In time, Hesselbein also guided the development of a partnership with Harvard Business School faculty to create a management seminar, and later a financial seminar, specifically for Girl Scout executives.

The results of her innovative leadership were obvious. Membership increased dramatically. Minority membership tripled, to 15 percent. Inside headquarters, the Girl Scouts’ board and executive posts were richly diverse. “The organization had achieved its highest membership, greatest diversity, and greatest cohesion,” says Hesselbein
proudly.

Among those she credits with helping her to achieve the national organization’s goals is Peter Drucker—in person, not simply in books. In 1981, about six years into her national executive role with the Girl Scouts, she met Drucker at an event at New York University, when they both arrived on time and were the only people in the reception room, apart from two bartenders. Their conversation prompted Drucker to offer some of his own time to assist the national Girl Scout organization and, for the next eight years, he spent several days annually sharing his expertise with the board and staff. He touted the Girl Scouts as the best-managed organization in the country, and he later said that Frances Hesselbein could run any business in America.

In January 1990, six weeks after she left the Girl Scouts—the largest organization for girls and women in the world—Hesselbein became CEO of the smallest foundation in the world, with no money and no staff, just a passionate vision and mission. The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, now known as the Leader to Leader Institute, works globally to promote ethical, values-based leadership. While the mission is specifically to strengthen the leadership of the social sector (nonprofit organizations), the institute promotes the
view that all three sectors—public, private, and social-sector organizations—are part of the same community and that all organizations have a responsibility for building a healthy, diverse, inclusive society that cares about all of its people. In other words, every corporation, every organization—public, private, or nonprofit—has responsibility for the whole community, the whole society.

Drucker died in 2005, but the Leader to Leader Institute continues to promote Drucker’s philosophy of sharing the organization’s values and expertise with global leaders. Hesselbein travels extensively around the country, making presentations and participating in seminars about twice a week. She also schedules three trips abroad each year and has found allies for the institute’s efforts worldwide. Each country is chosen, she says, “because of the significance of its work in building the leaders of the future, the organizations of the future, and the society of the future.”

In fact, one of Hesselbein’s and the institute’s key priorities is to encourage and nurture future leaders. Her optimism is fueled by what she sees in today’s youth. “The emerging leaders I encounter are sending a powerful message of leadership, of building trust, of ethics in action, of the power of diversity, of inclusion, of courage, of celebrating the intellect, of leading from the front into an uncertain time,” she wrote in a 2008 Leader to Leader journal entry.

An integral part of Hesselbein’s philosophy is that ethical, values-based leadership is crucial for democracy. Last year, she was appointed 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 and the first nonacademy graduate to serve in this leadership position, guiding seminars on leadership with the academy’s students. “Frances Hesselbein’s optimism resonates with cadets,” says Major Katie Matthew, who is on the West Point faculty. “She says it’s okay to be optimistic, despite political and economic struggles.”

Now the University of Pittsburgh is partnering with Hesselbein in a new venture to produce even greater numbers of experienced, ethical leaders equipped to address critical global issues. Hesselbein wants to encourage visionary and ethical leadership in the millennial generation she admires. “They can’t wait to tell me where they are volunteering. Not one says, ‘You didn’t say enough about how to get rich.’ They take for granted that to serve is to live,” she says about today’s undergraduates. She considers them to be the next “Greatest Generation.”

In 2009, the Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement was established by Pitt to honor her and advance her life’s work. The mission is to inspire, develop, and reward accomplished student leaders to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Global mentorships, training, and service opportunities will be integral to the experience.

In July, the Hesselbein Global Academy held its first summit for outstanding students at the Pittsburgh campus. For four days, business and government leaders from public, private, and social sectors around the world shared their talents and expertise with 44 dynamic student leaders from the United States, Canada, and abroad who were selected to participate in Pitt’s inaugural Student Leadership Summit, part of the Hesselbein Global Academy venture. Pitt students in attendance were junior Sudipta Devanath, majoring in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology; sophomore Joseph Garbarino, a political science major; junior Molly Humphreys, majoring in mathematics education and business; junior Alexa Jennings, a business marketing and management major; doctoral student Michael Smith, studying pharmacy; and junior Aster Teclay, a political science and business major.

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg spoke during the summit’s inaugural ceremony, remarking that, in addition to inspiring student leaders, Hesselbein’s Global Academy “honors the life’s work of a national and international treasure, Frances Hesselbein. No one has done more to advance effective approaches to leadership.” This heralded daughter of Pitt has received numerous awards from the University, including an honorary doctoral degree, a University medallion as a distinguished alumnus, and induction into the inaugural
group of preeminent alumni called Legacy Laureates.

Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s vice provost and dean of students, was instrumental in launching the Hesselbein Global Academy and is essential to its ongoing development. She leads the effort on the Pittsburgh campus and coordinates activities with faculty and mentors in partnership with Hesselbein and her team. “We find students who have been making an incredible impact and give them the opportunity to work with strong leaders in our nation,” says Humphrey. “The result is that these students will gain even stronger leadership skills and will ultimately have an enduring impact far beyond their own communities.”

The academy’s future plans include an endowment to offer global internships, placing students in yearlong posts in the service sector. “We’ll raise the money,” predicts Hesselbein, “because the program is not just for students, but also for the betterment of communities all over the world.” She says she’s inspired by a vision of how a decade of academy graduates could change the world. “We will have 500 graduates by our 10th anniversary reunion,” she says. “And as I told our inaugural class, some will be there in person, and some will be there in spirit. But I give you my word, we will celebrate.”

At the Leader to Leader Institute’s headquarters in New York City, Hesselbein’s Park Avenue office is full of framed accolades, 20 honorary doctoral degrees, photographs with U.S. presidents and other world leaders. Among her many honors are the International Leadership Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a TEMPO International Leadership Award for a “lifetime of remarkable work to develop and strengthen the talents of women worldwide,” and induction into Enterprising Women magazine’s Hall of Fame.

There, too, on the wall hangs a beribboned Presidential Medal of Freedom, the national honor she received from President Clinton at the White House in 1998. But accolades are not what drives her or what attracts her legion of admirers. Instead, she says, “You have to have values that aren’t on a plaque. You have to live your values. After all, leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do. To serve is to live.”

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