Frances Hesselbein

In Search of Leadership

VTR Date: February 11, 2012

Frances Hesselbein discusses teaching and acquiring leadership skills.


Guest: Frances Hesselbein
AIR DATE: 02/11/2012
VTR: 01/19/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I must say that in this crucial 2012 election year perhaps no choice will be more compelling for American voters to make than which of our candidates for President of the United States possesses more of the qualities that together promise real national leadership in the trying times just ahead.

And if leadership is the overwhelming issue before us, surely one of the best persons to parse it with us today is the head of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, formerly known as The Leader to Leader Institute and as The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management.

Frances Hesselbein was CEO and an outstanding leader of the Girl Scouts of the USA for many years, has written wisely and widely on her life in leadership, has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for that wonderfully productive life, and most recently has been teaching at West Point as Chair for the Study of Leadership at the United States Military Academy.

Indeed, it’s the “study of leadership” at West Point that particularly intrigues me with its implication of change. What I think of immediately is “nature” versus “nurture”. And I would begin today by asking my guest whether her experience over these many years really does indicate that leadership can be taught…and acquired? What do you say?

HESSELBEIN: Peter Drucker always said, “Leadership cannot be taught, but it can be learned.


HESSELBEIN: Isn’t that profound?

HEFFNER: But how then learned if not taught?

HESSELBEIN: The best way, the most effective way is through the gift of example of leaders around us. I think when we can observe a leader, we listen carefully. We watch how the leader responds to other people. We watch for that respect for all people … we hope to find. And I think when we have the privilege of being with leaders, real leaders we learn far more than we could reading about them.

But you and I were talking about John Gardner


HESSELBEIN: … John W. Gardner … read John Gardner and it would be hard to avoid being some kind of leader.

HEFFNER: Well I think of his books and I think of the programs John and I did together here on The Open Mind when he wrote about leadership, when he wrote about other themes in life … and you mentioned before watching and having respect for others … and I gather that’s one of your …


HEFFNER: The marks of leadership.

HESSELBEIN: Respect for all people, it can’t just be talk.

HEFFNER: But how does that fit in to the notion that politicians today seem to embrace … that leadership needs to be tough and rough and there needs to be hard-boiled opposition to the other guy.

HESSELBEIN: It’s why they’re failing. It’s why they fail. If we really believe that leadership is a matter of “how to be”, not “how to do”, that it’s the quality and character of the leader that determines the performance, the results … then we can understand why these people … very intelligent people, are failing.

HEFFNER: Why do you think they’re failing? I mean, I don’t mean “How do you think they’re failing?”, why do you think they’re not adopting what you’ve learned are the best principles of leadership?

HESSELBEIN: I … for some of them, perhaps, it is failing to learn from the best of leaders and literature. And having a feeling that it’s all about them.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting.

HESSELBEIN: Not about the mission. The organization. The country. The future. Knowing you have a leader who is mission focused, respect for all people … determined that whatever he or she does will help sustain the democracy … that such a healthy focus and they make an enormous difference.

Now the opposite … “Well, it’s all about me. And I know everything and so I will just tell them” … they’ve already failed.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting because there are so many people who feel now … we’re in this Presidential election year … you and I don’t know yet who is going to be chosen as the Republican standard bearer … we can be pretty sure that the Democrats will re-nominate President Obama.

But there has been so much criticism of Obama as, ah, not leading the way we thought he would lead.

Do you feel otherwise? Do you think his restraint, because certainly the criticism that has been made is that he has been too restrained … and that a leader fights and pushes and attacks.

HESSELBEIN: That has not been my observation or my feeling. I am very pleased that he is my President. And I respect … I love my country … and I respect the leader my country has put into office. So all of this … “Oh, he isn’t enough this way or he’s too much that way”. Why don’t we look at the country? Listen to what he’s trying to say and be honest about what he has achieved.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re capable of doing that?

HESSELBEIN: Yes, I think many of us are.

HEFFNER: But now wait a minute, Frances … I’m … I’m asking … when I say “we” you know I’m talking about America today. I’m not talking about the olden times … as my class would say.

HESSELBEIN: No. But I am saying, right now what some people call “The Millennials” …


HESSELBEIN: … the 18 to 28 or 30 … right now … and there is scientific research to support what I am saying … right now … that generation is more like the 1930’s and ‘40’s generation that we now call “the Greatest Generation”.

So I have enormous hope that this … the Millennials, or Warren Bennis calls them The Crucible Generation … I have great hope.

HEFFNER: That’s so interesting because I, I was going to quote your remarks about that from, from your comments on what you call “The Seasons and Generations of Leadership” and that’s from the, the Winter edition of Leader to Leader …


HEFFNER: … you, you do say that. Why … why this generation, why this younger generation now?

HESSELBEIN: Well, if we pick up Warren Bennis term … the country, all the generations have been though a crucible … we are now in 2012 and facing … sometimes in speeches I say, “I think right now, at times, we are at the lowest level of trust and the highest level of cynicism”.

Now you can’t sustain a democracy with that balance … or imbalance. So I look for … who are the people … speaking or doing something about it? It’s this generation.

And a Pew Center Study of that generation … and indeed, this isn’t just observation … scientific research … the generation right now is more like the 1930’s and ‘40’s.

And it is so disturbing to most Americans, I believe … to hear this kind of language, the lack of respect. The ugliness, the not quite honest statements. Our country deserves better.

HEFFNER: That’s so interesting … yes, surely our country deserves better. Survival requires it. I’m certain you feel that way.

Our generation … my wife and I have certainly always felt we were blessed. And as I read you biographical materials, it’s clear you were too. Blessed …


HEFFNER: … by struggle. Blessed by …


HEFFNER: … hard times, blessed by Depression and by war.

HESSELBEIN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And it sounds so darn strange to say that.

HESSELBEIN: No. When you … if you read by stuff, you’ll find my Grandmother there …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

HESSELBEIN: … her family … seven Pringle brothers, 19 to 28 when Lincoln called for volunteers … they didn’t’ say, “Three will go and four will stay home with wives and babies”. They all went.

So my family had a long history from the Revolution … both sides … War of 1812, both sides … the Civil War and my family kept letters and it’s heartbreaking sometimes when you read the letters from husbands and wives … the Battle of the Wilderness … but they loved their country. And when called, they served.

Today, I’m very inspired with the young men and women at West Point, the young men and women … and the older ones … in the United States Army … because I do a lot work with both. And I have enormous hope for the future because of the generation right now … the Millennials. And wherever I go … I find people serving.

HEFFNER: How did you become involved in the, in the larger theme of leadership. I know you acted it out in your work … all through your life you have … certainly with the Girl Scouts … you didn’t expect to end up as “The Leader” …

HESSELBEIN: Well, I must say, reluctantly … I never planned … I was going to write poetry all of my life and just be quiet in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Obviously I know nothing about career planning, because my life has been totally different.

I never said, “I will be a leader”. I was never a leader in high school or junior college. I wrote a lot, thought a lot, loved it. But, there’s something called providence.

One day, three men in this little Johnstown, Pennsylvania calling me to inform me they have now found the leader for the United Way campaign … they’d never had a woman before.

Well, I, I can tell you … a month later … I’m called upon to become … the new CEO of the Girl Scouts of the US … of … pardon me … of Talus Rock Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania … and I explained to them … I’m sorry, but I can’t. I was a Troop leader, Troop 17 with 30 little ten year olds … but finally they pushed hard enough and I said, “Yes.”

And that year, instead of having my Co-Chair, my Vice Chairman … a distinguished business leader as always … before they had this women, I asked the president of the United Steel Workers to be my Vice-Chairman .

It was the only time organized labor had a leadership role, and he was wonderful and that year we had the highest per capita giving in any … of United Way … because we engaged the whole community.

And the women worked very hard because they were sure … maybe the men would not support me, as they should. Well, they did. And the women and the steel workers … everyone in the marvelous big-hearted town came together.

HEFFNER: And I gather you feel that some of the reasons why they did and why you succeeded, was adherence to those principles … the most impressive one that I can think of is … that respect for others.

HESSELBEIN: And appreciation of and then involvement … engagement. You don’t just use part of the community, you bring everyone together. And when you engage people, and they own it, it’s amazing how they grow … to whatever the wonderful challenge is … they make it their own.

HEFFNER: Switching … in a sense, but not really switching back to this question of where we are today …


HEFFNER: … you’re unhappy with the viciousness and the partisanship of our contemporary political scene.

HESSELBEIN: I love my country and we don’t behave that way.

HEFFNER: But we do behave that way.

HESSELBEIN: We should not. We should not.

HEFFNER: Do you think Americans will make those who do pay a price?

HESSELBEIN: Eventually … plainly we’re going to say, “I’m sorry, but enough of this”.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re going to say that in 2012?

HESSELBEIN: Well, even my blood type is B-positive. So I hope so. If not … people of our country will find a way. This … no one is happy with this kind language, behavior, lack of respect.

I think of the other countries around the world. They have taken us as their model and they’re looking at us and saying “What happened? How could they do this?”

HEFFNER: And yet, Frances, the, the fact of the matter is …you turn on the television set … we’re taping this program mid-January, 2012. You and I go home this evening to our respective television sets and turn on the last of the South Carolina debates …


HEFFNER: … a pretty good bet … safe bet … that we might make is that the same attack, attack, attack … will mar … I was going to say “mark”, but “mar” the event, and more is promised for the actual Presidential race itself. Your prediction is that we’ll tire of it.

HESSELBEIN: I think enough of us … and you and I have to be two of them … enough of us will say, “This is not the way our country deserves …

HEFFNER: Well, do you think … let, let me be very specific … and I certainly … I can appreciate if you say, “Look that’s political, I don’t want to do that.

Going back to the way that the President … Obama … has comported himself and the constant, carping criticism … he should have been tougher, he should have been tougher instead of compromising, instead of compromising here and then compromising from the compromise that you’ve already made. What do you think about that criticism, that that’s not leadership. Compromise is not leadership.

HESSELBEIN: I think some of the criticism is based on the racism in our country.

HEFFNER: You know you’re the first person who sat here to say that … even though I’ve certainly felt that.

HESSELBEIN: Well, no one wants to say it, but there are studies about the rising racism and classism in the United States. And I think we should judge our President, as I’m sure his actions, what he is doing, how … and we do not let racism creep into it.

HEFFNER: You’ve seen that, you’ve observed that. That’s your sense of what’s happening.

HESSELBEIN: Yes. Yes. And in our country we have the greatest institutions in the world. We have some of the greatest leaders in the world. And we all need to get together and say, “That’s not good enough”.

HEFFNER: You know, four years ago … I certainly knew it had happened election day because we sat up, as everyone did and watched …


HEFFNER: … the next morning though, when I opened the door and there was The New York Times with its headline of “Obama Elected”, I swear I cried because I thought, “Thank god my country has done the right thing”. And I wasn’t talking about Obama versus McCain …


HEFFNER: … I was talking about the question of being able …

HESSELBEIN: Yup. The right person at the right time.

HEFFNER: And without consideration of, of race. But now you feel we are backing away from …

HESSELBEIN: Some, some of us are. Not the country … but enough of us are that it is obvious and right out in our faces and that’s why I think if you’re a newspaper magazine, you’re very careful about what you print and how you print it, because you could be used …

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean.

HESSELBEIN: Well, suppose I write a letter to the editor, or maybe I’m asked to write observations and these pieces are not what you would want to share … they’re very personal and vituperative and nothing that should be in … not that we’re censoring, which is the limit …. And I just think our people deserve the best editorials, the most objective reporting.

The other night I saw something … Monday night I was trying to find a program of PBS and it stopped at C-SPAN. And there was General Martin Dempsey, Chief of Staff, speaking at Duke.

It caught me. I, I stayed there and for the first time I can remember, I sat there with a pad and took copious notes. It was the most objective … I felt as an American citizen I was just so lucky to have caught General Dempsey. And he talked about the Army and the citizens of this country, but he was talking about how the Army used to be and now it leads from the bottom up, not the top down.

And … but the way he talked about his country. I was just wishing, I made notes until he finished. The next morning I called a staff meeting of our Institute and I said, “I want to share with you something that happened last night”, so I shared the major points he made … it was a great learning experience for our people.

So when someone like that, in a leadership position, speaks, how do we share it? Now that was a very small, tiny, act of mine … but every time there’s something positive and healing … I think you and I have to be healers and unifiers.

HEFFNER: Accent the positive, eliminate the negative?

HESSELBEIN: All right.

HEFFNER: You’re the kind of person who always believes that the glass is half full. I’m afraid …

HESSELBEIN: No. No. Pardon me … I believe it’s flowing over.

HEFFNER: Ah. (Laughter) Better yet.

HESSELBEIN: None of this half full business.

HEFFNER: Better yet. Maybe that’s why you’ve been so successful as a leader and if, as you’ll forgive me … as a teacher of leading. It can be learned by observation.

HESSELBEIN: And together.

HEFFNER: That’s why, I guess, you’ve been so impressed with your experience with the West Point … at West Point.

HESSELBEIN: Yes. Yes. When I step on those grounds … I’ll say it … I say to myself … “I am on hallowed ground”. Now in 1802 … the first classes were held at West Point …

HEFFNER: … and you, do you want to believe that the first classes were held then and I’m being given the signal that I’ve got to say “Good bye to you now because our time is up”.

HESSELBEIN: Well, I hate to say … I’m not saying “good bye to you … I’m saying … thank you very much and I hope we meet again.

HEFFNER: And I hope and trust we’ll meet again at this table. Thank you, Frances Hesselbein.

HESSELBEIN: I’m deeply honored … thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

And do visit the Open Mind Website at to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.