Tapped to lead the Girl Scouts of the USA in 1976, Frances Hesselbein was charged with saving an organization bogged down by bureaucracy and grappling with a dearth of diversity and eight straight years of declining membership. Under her guidance, the number of minority scouts tripled and overall membership soared to 2.3 million girls. She also moved the goalpost for America’s Girl Scouts from getting ready for marriage to mastering career skills—bringing an organization teetering on the brink of obsolescence back to relevancy. Her efforts won the admiration of management guru Peter Drucker, who dubbed Hesselbein “the greatest leader in the country.”
After leaving the Girl Scouts, Hesselbein went on to serve as the founding CEO of The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, now known as the Leader to Leader Institute. Her accolades—far too numerous to list in full—include receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, for demonstrating, as President Clinton put it at the time, “how to summon the best from ourselves and our fellow citizens.” In a recent interview with Chief Executive, Hesselbein shared four of the leadership practices that she found most effective during the course of her career.
Abolish Hierarchy. One of the first things Hesselbein did at the Girl Scouts was to dispense with its traditional pyramid-style management structure in favor of a flatter approach she describes as “circular, flexible and fluid.” “We threw out up-down, top-bottom, subordinate-superior,” she says. “Inclusion is far more powerful—it brings engagement.”
Respect for All People. “Demonstrating respect is basic to democracy,” says Hesselbein, who pointed to recent personal attacks in politics as evidence that decorum is increasingly rare. “We don’t have to agree with everything everyone says, but we do need to be civil. The ugliness, the personal attacks we see in the media between politicians and between political parties—these are things that should never be said by leaders anywhere about anyone. And it’s something we should all be concerned about and doing something to change.”
Learn to Let Go of the Past. Effective leadership begins with analysis—taking a hard look at where the organization has been, where it is now, where it wants to be in the future and, perhaps most importantly, what has to happen to get there. “A project may have been fabulously successful five years ago, or even last year; but, if it’s no longer meeting those needs, we must say, ‘Thank you very much,’ and throw it away,’ ” says Hesselbein. “We must always focus on preparing for the future and what we can do today that will make the greatest difference.”
Lead by Example. The most effective leaders are less about words than action, says Hesselbein, who notes that the quality and character of a leader ultimately determines performance. “You have to live your values,” she says. “Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.”