Frances Hesselbein Oral History Interviews


Part one

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SCARPINO: Both recorders are on and the needles are moving and so as I said when the recorder was off, I’m going to start with a short statement so everybody knows who we are. Today is Friday, March 4th, 2011. My name is Philip Scarpino. I’m the Director of Oral History for Indiana University’s Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. Today I have the privilege to be interviewing Miss Frances Hesselbein who has a long and distinguished career as a leader and in leadership development. There will be a biographical summary included with this interview, but a few of the highlights of Miss Hesselbein’s distinguished career include 1976 to 1990, CEO, Girl Scouts of the United States of America; 1990 to 2000, Founding President and CEO, Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, later changed to the Leader to Leader Institute; 2000 to 2010, Chair of the Board of the Leader to Leader Institute; recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States government, 1998; and the International Leadership Association Lifetime Achievement Award, 2008.

So, Miss Hesselbein, I thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview and I want to ask your permission to do the following: to record the interview, to have the interview transcribed, and to deposit the recording and the transcription in the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives in the Tobias Center for the use of the patrons.

HESSELBEIN: Delighted to be with you.

SCARPINO: Thank you very much. So I’m going to talk to you about leadership and embed our discussion in the context of your distinguished career. Ordinarily I start with easy questions, but I think in your case I’m going to start with some hard ones. [laughing] I, in the interest of full disclosure, I attended your talk this morning and I’ve obviously done a lot of background reading. So I’d like to begin by asking you to talk about the qualities that you feel define effective leadership.

HESSELBEIN: May I begin by saying, giving you my definition of leadership?

SCARPINO: Absolutely.

HESSELBEIN: Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do. In the end, I mean, you and I spent most of our lives learning how to do, and teaching other people how to do, yet we know in the end it’s the quality and character of the leader that determines the performance, the results. So I think your first question about the quality of a leader is critical. It’s not the skills, how long have you been somewhere. What do you, in fact, okay, what we do, why do we do what we do, a reason for being.

SCARPINO: And when you look at a leader and assess the quality of leadership, what do you look for? What do you want to see?

HESSELBEIN: I listen very carefully and I hope I will hear a leader talking about us and ours and we do this and we do that. If every sentence begins with I, I think this, I do this, I am, arrogant leader of the past in my opinion. When I listen to how does the leader talk about his or her own people. What about (word inaudible)? In the first five minutes we can tell if a leader is mission-focused, values-based, demographics-driven. Does he talk about the whats? What I do, what I think, what, what, what. Or, does that leader begin with why do we do what we do? A reason for being. Our purpose.

SCARPINO: In doing the, some of the background reading before we sat down here today, I noticed your emphasis on mission, and the importance of defining mission. What do you tell people about mission when you go out and talk about leadership?

HESSELBEIN: Everything begins with mission. Everything is centered by mission. Mission is solely, why do we do what we do? A reason for being. And if you’re with an organization talking with some of the leaders and you say, what is your mission? They say, ah, ah, I know we have one, now where is it? You try to find the nearest door. But when mission—and Peter Drucker is marvelous—I think, I say, mission statement should be short, powerful, compelling, that people remember, to fit on a T-shirt. Now which do you think they remember? Of course, T-shirt.

SCARPINO: Right. What do you think are some of the key mistakes or key miscalculations that leaders make that undermine their ability to lead?

HESSELBEIN: First, not being mission-focused and values-based. See you see you can’t have your values on a plaque in the board room, or in the annual report. You live them. And I think one of the first things effective executive, effective leader does, work with the people. If we have a long, rambling mission statement, we distill it. So we have eight or nine or ten words or fewer. It’s actually why do we do what we do. A reason for being. It’s solely it. And then it’s the preface to everything you write. You should be able to walk into a large company, organization, in the cafeteria, the guy on the loading dock, the computer specialist, we say to them, what is the mission of your organization? If we are the organization of the future, out it comes. So exciting. My favorite one for a long time was International Red Cross in Geneva. To serve the most vulnerable. They could have had one of the page-long, we serve everybody—all the cultures, all the… no, to serve the most vulnerable. That says it all.

SCARPINO: It truly does, doesn’t it?


SCARPINO: Can you give an example or a couple of examples of leaders that you think measure up well against your standards?

HESSELBEIN: Yes. I’ll give you an example of a corporate leader. I serve on the board of Mutual of America, a life insurance company, and they’re in New York. They’ve given us our offices for 20 years. They have a passionate belief in corporate social responsibility. They agree with Peter that the community is the responsibility of a corporation. Of course they have to be effective, efficient, successful in the working corporation, but, as Peter would say, they also acknowledge their responsibility for the community, and they have the highest per capita giving in the United Way by their people. If there’s a run for cancer or a walk for diabetes, hundreds of their people are out there in their Mutual of America T-shirts. It’s Tom Moran, their President, CEO, Chairman, is also the Chairman of Concern Worldwide, a very dynamic global foundation, and they’re determined to do something about hunger in the poorest countries. Now he goes to some of these countries. They’re just part of every good thing that happens in New York, and they are very, very successful in their business. We just had a board meeting where much exuberance from insurance statements. Now that isn’t happening these days very much.

SCARPINO: Not very often is it?

HESSELBEIN: But, yes. So they inspire me. Not only are they enormously generous in their gifts, they have a very powerful belief in diversity. You get off any floor of their building and you reach for any part. It doesn’t matter which floor. It’s the face of America deliberately. Beautifully balanced and staff morale very high.

SCARPINO: And you said the CEO’s name was Tom Morant?

HESSELBEIN: M o r a n.

SCARPINO: Good. The transcriber will be very grateful for that spelling. [laughing]


SCARPINO: Moran. How would you describe your own leadership style?



HESSELBEIN: Well, I would say it’s not about me, it’s about them. Mission-focused, values-based, and knowing you can’t just talk about values, you live them. When you live your values it’s amazing how your people respond. Now if you state your values, you want oh, respect for all people, then you treat your people so and so, it’s cost. Your people become disillusioned very quickly. You have to live your values.

SCARPINO: You mentioned values-based and one of the values that you just dropped into the conversation was respect. What other values do you think it’s important for a leader to live or that you personally live?

HESSELBEIN: Well, I think respect for all people, inclusion, and by that I even mean down to the structure of the organization. Our people are inflexible fluids, circular management systems, and it is amazing how when the leader lives the values what happens to the people. So I would say my leadership style is very open and mission-focused, values-based, and every day of my life I know I have to live my values. Say one thing and behave another way and you have terrible staff morale. Respect for all people and this is demonstrated in every action. I would say a very circular management structure. The old hierarchy is dead, it’s long dead.

SCARPINO: What’s the difference between a circular management structure and a hierarchical management structure?

HESSELBEIN: Well, even the language. Circular management is all about us and we move across the organization and the old hierarchy and the leader of the past: I am the leader and let me tell you what you’re going to do. I have several tattoos on my shoulders. Now, they’re invisible ink. You can’t read them.

SCARPINO: [laughing] That’s a good way to have a tattoo.

HESSELBEIN: But I know they’re there. One is Peter Drucker—ask, don’t tell. Because he says the leader of the past, the leader of the future asks, the leader of the past tells. And another of Peter’s wonderful quotes—think first, speak last. Now think of all the mistakes we’ve made and go back and think if I only had waited. Think first. And then working in teams. No hierarchy. And having mission, everybody. My sense of mission and values and also everybody has learning opportunities. Not just the management team, but it’s a learning organization of the future.

SCARPINO: Do you think that a measure of an effective leader is creating an environment in which his or her people buy into the mission? Is that part of the responsibility of a leader?

HESSELBEIN: Otherwise you fail. It has to become theirs, absolutely. It’s not just the leader who has mission-focused values. In fact, when we’re successful they feed it back to us.

SCARPINO: Can you think of an example when that’s happened in your career where you were successful enough that your folks fed useful things back to you?

HESSELBEIN: All the time. Let me think of a real exciting (pause) I can think of a time when it was very important for many reasons to change the Girl Scout logo and pin. Now this was very emotional for some people. I had members who would, that would be wearing the pin, the traditional pin, and say you can’t change it. My grandmother wore this pin. But there were reasons why it was essential. The Boy Scouts of America had posters everywhere—“Scouting USA” — without any reference to them, and we were getting, I was getting letters from people saying I sent you a check. Why did the Boy Scouts thank me because their address was there. So we asked them politely if underneath “Scouting USA” it could say “Boy Scouts of America.” They said no, they couldn’t see any reason. They couldn’t understand the concern.

So instead of fighting that battle we decided the time had come for a logo, a pin, that was, say we’re part of the future. We are for girls only and we are diverse, we’re female, future, diverse, and so Saul Bass who at that time was the greatest corporate logo, these other words they used, but the sign, the symbolism, very important. So we got the best of the boys and he developed this beautiful Girl Scout pin logo, and there were three faces on it. The other has, background was a shield and on the front were arrows. It was a very militaristic look. So we changed it and on the face of it were same trefoil background but were three faces, obviously female, obviously diverse, and they were all facing the future.

So instead of wasting tons of time and money we want to move ahead, one of the best decisions, but what you do with—we have three and a quarter million members—what do you do with the people who don’t agree? We presented the new plan at the conference, a couple of thousands of people there, and I could see people sitting with their arms crossed ready to do battle, and Saul presented the rationale for this and it’s beautifully done, and then I got up and said I hope you love it. Would like you to know that for the people who prefer the traditional pin, not the old one, but prefer the traditional pin it will be manufactured as long as one person wants it. That’s a calming act, and we walked out in that big conference gibbering. But you had to respect the people who loved the history, the tradition.

SCARPINO: What was the man’s name who designed the pin?


SCARPINO: Bass, okay, thank you.

HESSELBEIN: B a s s. Oh, he’s done many of the aeroplanes. All kinds of marvelous.

SCARPINO: Do you think that leaders are born or made?

HESSELBEIN: I would say, to put it differently, leadership cannot be taught, but it can be learned.

SCARPINO: And how do you make the distinction between teaching and learning?

HESSELBEIN: Think about it.


HESSELBEIN: Think about it. In action, in the work, we can learn more about great leaders, how they work with people, how they carry their message, all the beautiful things that are part of leadership, and you don’t learn that in a book. I’m one of your students. I watch you. I’m learning all about leadership. But Peter always said it can be learned but it cannot be taught.

SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you, this question is going to require a little bit of lead-in. In April 2004, you attended the Agora conference and you gave a talk, but you also did question and answer, and the questions and answers were recorded and transcribed and you made some pretty remarkable comments on leadership in reply to a question. You said, in my opinion and experience, leaders have no power. We have great influence. We have language. We have inclusion, persuasion, but if we’re talking about power in the corporate terms in the good old days I think for effective organizations and leaders of the future, we have no power. There’s no place any longer for a demanding and controlling leader. So I have no power, but I have influence and I have a voice and I can speak.


SCARPINO: So, just for the benefit of somebody who listens to this recording, could you briefly say what this conference was, the Agora Conference, where it was and why you were there?

HESSELBEIN: I’ve been to several hundred since. I was there to give a keynote and it was a very significant conference. As happens so often, asked to talk about leadership, management. And I think for a long time the language has been changing, the language of leadership.

SCARPINO: And you’ve been a part of changing the language of leadership.

HESSELBEIN: We no longer, how can I put it? We no longer see ourselves as the leader. We have a team. We include our people and the more inclusion, more excitement in learning. But I would, I think you said how do you define the leader? Someone who sees his people as our greatest asset. Never a cost—asset. And then his job is to build this remarkable scene where you don’t have a leader, you have leaders that are being dispersed right across the organization. And you never hear a person charged with leadership or hear them say I am your leader. The inclusive language, bringing people together and around a mission and values and the really great leaders never walk into a room, present to the management team, this is my vision of the future. This is our plan for the future. Surprise, never. Everyone has been a part of it and we move it across the organization. So in the planning there is such excitement because we’re all part of it, appropriately. I’m trying to go back to your original question of define leadership for you.


HESSELBEIN: And nothing since then, which is about 33 years, nothing since then has caused me to change my mind.

SCARPINO: You said in that talk that, you said, I have no power but I have influence, and again for the benefit of somebody who listens to this and wants some insight, how do you see the difference between power and influence?

HESSELBEIN: Oh, power is, now hear this, and you give an order and you control. It is your idea, your ideas, your thinking, your action and you give them their marching orders. Peter loved that term—marching orders. He’d say to me, give me my marching orders. That’s the leader of the future who even smiles at the thought of the word power. Understands that the more engaged, the more involved people are in the decision-making the greater the impact, the greater the success, and so instead of this morning I am presenting to you the plan for 2012-13. Are there any questions? Pretty bad. For weeks that leader has been working with her team. They finally, across the different groups, finally flowing from a mission several powerful corporate goals these people have developed, as part of the plan and work, they have developed objectives and action steps how it will be taken. There’s something about understanding clearly the structure of governance and management. They’re not the same. Governance has final responsibility. So governance does not play a part in management’s development of objectives. The board, CEO, have developed the goals and objectives. Only they can do that, then it’s management’s turn to pick up the strategy from it. They do a brilliant job of developing objectives, action steps, and you come full circle. When we don’t have that it’s, someone who says I have the power to do this, but that when you look at their bottom line and who has succeeded, they’re not there.

SCARPINO: Do you think that there’s a difference, or I’ll rephrase this. Do you think that there are both differences and similarities in the way men and women approach leadership?

HESSELBEIN: No. I certainly reject the terminology. Male leaders, women leaders, we’re not categories. I feel there are leaders, and some are men and some are women, and we’re not a category. I never, ever permit myself to be called a woman leader. I say no, I’m a leader who is a woman. My gender does not define my work. It adds a very special dimension. It doesn’t define you.

SCARPINO: What, how would you explain the special dimension that it adds?

HESSELBEIN: I think sometimes we listen well. But you see it’s hard to say all women do this. You and I know some women who are leaders and they are just about the biggest bulldogs barking around that you can find, and you find some men who listen, who do this beautiful job of encouraging you, of making sure their people learn. They listen to, they’re engaged, part of it. So I think that separating us by gender is part of the past. Some of, some men I know have some of the qualities we used to say well women are very good at this, or they are very good at what they do. But it’s the whole idea of respect for all people, the idea of engagement, of listening, of encouraging people to engage but also have a remarkable plan for the education of all of our people.

SCARPINO: I’m going to switch gears a little bit now and now I’m going to drop back to the easy questions and just ask a little bit about your background. So, when and where were you born?

HESSELBEIN: I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, mountains of western Pennsylvania. Loved where my ancestors had been there since the Revolutionary War.

SCARPINO: So they were there for the Great Flood.

HESSELBEIN: Oh, of both sides. Plus my husband’s family. I loved where I grew up and my mother’s family had always been there and I never wanted to leave, and because in the late 1880s, early 1900s, men had flocked to Johnstown to work in the steel mills and coal mines. So you had this wonderfully diverse community, rare at that time, and my grandparents, my mother’s parents, lived nine miles away. So I grew up in with grandparents and seven aunts and uncles and I was never going to leave. My grandmother took me to the family cemetery. So I had this wonderful history of our family and they all fought every war. You would see tombstones. One tombstone I liked particularly was one of the Luke family members, and he wrote his own caption for his headstone. My debts are paid. Let’s see, my debts are paid, my grave you see, prepare yourselves to follow me. Which I thought was so funny and there had to be a reason for the money to be there, but there was something about big coal and steel, big labor, big mountains, big hearts and we had the kind of diversity that normally communities would not have.

SCARPINO: What was your family name before you married?

HESSELBEIN: Richards. R i c h a r d s

SCARPINO: And where did your people come from before Johnstown?

HESSELBEIN: My father’s people came first from Connecticut, an oxcart to Ohio. We’re part of, he helped found Hiram College. I used to love stories my grandmother would tell me about what happened to people and she had a trunk of Civil War letters from the seven Pringle brothers who all went to serve and their wives, six were married. Breaks your heart. So growing up there where there was great diversity and great inclusion and it was actually an open, healthy, wonderful place to grow up. Never wanted to leave it.

SCARPINO: What did your parents do?

HESSELBEIN: My mother, of course, she took care of the housekeeping. My father was a soldier. I love the history of, in my book you’ll read about my father and the stories he used to tell children. He was, in those days sports weren’t professional in small towns so he was a star fullback on the Willoughby High School football team in Ohio, and they offered him a job of coaching the team. Well he went to school and playing of course but coaching, and which I now, it’s so funny but instead and he had the scholarship Hiram College, coach their team, go to school, four year scholarship. So he dropped out of Hiram to go into the Army. He loved the Army and, but he came out. At that time in Johnstown there was terrible, terrible, ethnic violence. The Pols hated the Russians, the Russians hated the Italians. Here were these mining towns filled with, and from all over the world there were murders and bombings, everything. So the president, President Schwarzkopf’s people were very effective and so the president, General Schwarzkopf’s father, was given a job, and there were no state police force people in the country, and that’s what Johnstown needs, and he put out a call particularly for infantry, pardon me, for the men who were part of the mountains.

SCARPINO: Calvary.



HESSELBEIN: So they particularly were interested in cavalry men. They put out the call. 2000 men volunteered, wanted to be part of the first state police force. Two hundred were accepted and my father was one of the 200, and he was sent into Johnstown area to try to quell the rebellion, and his horse was Old High and Pennsylvania archives say Burgess Harmon Richards, an officer of great character and quality, courage, character and courage.

SCARPINO: Burgess Harmon Richards.

HESSELBEIN: Yes. So, he came from a long line.

SCARPINO: So is that how he got to Johnstown was as a member of the state police in that state?

HESSELBEIN: Yes. Called into the coal mining towns.

SCARPINO: Now was this right after World War I? Have I got the timeframe right?

HESSELBEIN: Yes. It could have been.

SCARPINO: So he served during World War I and then came back.

HESSELBEIN: He served in the Spanish-American War.

SCARPINO: Oh, my goodness. Okay, I didn’t have the timeframe right. Thank you.

HESSELBEIN: He was a generation older. He was almost 40 when I was born. So he could have been another generation. And he was a beautiful writer. Wrote the most beautiful stories. Had a great sense of history. Our ancestor was John Adams, John and Abigail, and he wrote wonderfully and when they had ethnic riots in the coal fields, these miners from all over the world were not afraid of guns but they were terrified of those big dark horses galloping. So you have two state policemen galloping into a coal mining town that’s erupting. They were, it was the most wonderful example of someone with initiative, say I think this is what we ought to do. When he left there he did a very special—oh, and I have photographs of him in his uniform with the state police on his big horse and the miners, particularly from Poland and Russia, they called the state police the Black Hussars because in their country the hussars, soldiers were called, and they wore black uniforms. So here were these guys, black uniforms and big giant horses. So there’s a wonderful book called The Black Hussars. It’s the history of the state police in Pennsylvania. So my father always served.

SCARPINO: And you said it was the grandfather of General Schwarzkopf who got this police force started?

HESSELBEIN: His father.

SCARPINO: His father, okay. What kind of an impact do you think that your parents had on your values and outlook as you began your journey toward leadership?

HESSELBEIN: Oh, enormous. Enormous. My father, you see when we chased him to tell stories to our children, history, his whole life, and because on both sides and in every war since the American Revolution, our people have fought. Had a tremendous impact. Today when I say to serve is to live is the way I would describe my philosophy. That’s where it began.

SCARPINO: With your dad’s example. Mm hmm.

HESSELBEIN: My grandmother, but my father. He and my grandmother had the greatest impact upon my life and my work.

SCARPINO: So let me ask you about your grandmother then and as I recall, your grandmother lived in South Fork which is a few miles outside of Johnstown, and I heard you tell a story this morning that I’ve also read in the background research I did about some statues and a Mr. Yi and the impact that that had on you. Could you relate that for the purposes of this interview?

HESSELBEIN: Yes. As you know, I lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and nine miles away was a very little coal mining railroad town, South Fork. Now, if you know history, you know there was a disastrous South Fork flood in 1889. Well my grandparents lived in this little railroad mining town. My grandfather was fascinating. He had come from England. He played the pipe organ at his church. He had his own men’s clothing store. I always have to smile. He sold Hart Schaffner and Marx suits to coal miners, and he respected them highly.

When he was 38 years old they prevailed upon him to run for Justice of the Peace. The town was too small to have a mayor. So he did and ran every six years and the year he was 92 he ran for his last six-year term. He died two years before he completed it. But he was fascinating. He played a pipe organ at the Methodist church. He and my grandmother had this wonderful big house for their seven children and he built a music room 18 feet high for a small church-size pipe organ. He decided that was what you did, and it just added so much to our growing up to visit and all around the top where the room where it had been dark were stained glass windows so the light would filter in. It was just magic, and on the shelf above the keyboard were two very old, beautiful Chinese vases, and eight years old, every Saturday I would, didn’t want to be anywhere else but with my grandmother, and every Saturday I would say may I please play with the vases or may I please touch the Chinese vases. Please. And every Saturday, no Frances, no one may ever touch them. So one Saturday I guess I was feeling very assertive and I actually stamped my foot at my grandmother and I said I want those vases, and instead of scolding me, she took me over to the love seat opposite the pipe organ. We’re facing the vases and she said let me tell you about the Chinese vases. So she told me a story. She said when your mother was your age, eight...

SCARPINO: About eight years old.

HESSELBEIN: Eight years old, and her little sisters—there were three of them—would come home from school and they would be crying, and she would say what happened? The bad boys, the bad boys are calling Mr. Yi bad names. So, in this little tiny town, there was a Chinese laundryman who lived in a little white shed that was his laundry, and every Tuesday he picked up my grandfather’s shirts and brought them back Thursday beautifully washed, starched, ironed and sometimes my mother and her little sisters would come home from school crying their hearts out because the bad boys were chasing Mr. Yi, calling him bad names. Chinky Chinky Chinaman and so forth. Now Mr. Yi had come from China. He wore traditional Chinese garb and he had a long queue and he lived all by himself. Slept in his laundry.

So one day on the kitchen door there was a knock. My grandmother goes to the door and there is Mr. Yi. He’s carrying a big bundle wrapped in newspaper. My grandmother, as she would, said oh Mr. Yi please come in, do sit down. He stood there, he handed her the package. My grandmother opened the package and there were two beautiful, very old Chinese vases, and he said these are for you. She said well Mr. Yi, they’re far too valuable. I could not accept them. I want you to have them and she looked at him and said, but Mr. Yi, why do you want me to have them?

He said, Mrs. Wicks, I have been here 10 years. They won’t let me bring my wife and my children here, and I miss them too much. I’m going back to China, and the only thing I brought with me were the two vases. I want you to have them. My grandmother said, Mr. Yi why would you want me to have the vases? He had tears. He said, Mrs. Wicks, I have been in this town 10 years and you are the only person who ever called me Mr. Yi. Oh, I cried my heart out. My grandmother held me, and when my grandmother, that’s when I learned. That was the defining moment when I learned respect for all people when I was eight years old. Now when my grandmother died she left a little card. I want Frances to have Mr. Yi’s vases. So they’re on the shelf in my home in eastern Pennsylvania, and when I go there I walk in my living room. Do you ever think I look at those vases without thinking about my grandmother, Mr. Yi, and that defining moment?

SCARPINO: That was nice that she gave you those vases and that you still have them.

HESSELBEIN: And they were old then. I imagine at this point they are well over 200 years old.

SCARPINO: Do you let anybody touch them?




SCARPINO: You became your grandmother.

HESSELBEIN: I try to be as much like my grandmother as I can. She was my role model. Respect for all people. Listening. She was the perfect ask, don’t tell.

SCARPINO: If I did my math right, you must have been in high school during the Great Depression in Johnstown, Pennsylvania? Okay. Did being a teenager during the depression years have any impact on the way you saw the world and on your journey towards leadership?

HESSELBEIN: Oh, I’m sure it did but I, you accept your world as it is and say what can I do to make a difference. I’ve told this story about University of Pittsburgh Junior College, that I think it’s wonderful in Pittsburgh they looked 70 miles east, they saw a big coal town, wonderful people, very few opportunities to learn. So instead of saying well we’ll just keep everything in Pittsburgh, they negotiated two floors of a beautiful, beautiful huge high school on the river, and you walked up some marvelous steps to get there, and it was the most inspiring and beautiful. It was a cathedral. And University of Pittsburgh brought some young professors and they had a two-year junior college. Well I never had a more inspiring period of my life.

SCARPINO: You enrolled there at age 17? Is that right?

HESSELBEIN: And six weeks after school my father died, and after the funeral my grandparents in that music room I described, and two aunts and uncles, my mother and little brother and sister all sat around in a circle, and my Aunt Frances said your uncle and I would like you to come to, when the semester’s over, we would like you to come to Philadelphia and go to college, live with us. We will take care of everything and they were just so welcoming. Everyone was so positive. And my grandfather said and your mother, now strange they were not speaking—I’m only 17—they’re not speaking to my mother. They’re speaking to this young girl. And my grandfather said and we want your mother and Trudy and John to come here, live with us until you finish school and then you can bring everyone together, and everyone’s so warm and positive and looking at me to make the decision. So I thought about it and said I think my father would want me to keep the family together and so when this semester is over, I’ll get a job in the daytime. In the evening and Saturdays I’ll take the classes. And I often think about this; they didn’t argue. They respected my decision. But the generosity and the caring, and there were two young professors and their wives who sort of adopted me.

SCARPINO: What were their names?

HESSELBEIN: Doren Tharp and Nathan Shappee and they not only paid for courses, but they would let me what they called audit courses.

SCARPINO: Which means sit in and not pay.

HESSELBEIN: And the whole room full of teachers, getting and taking courses, and whatever. So it was incredibly rich and wonderful.

SCARPINO: Did you graduate from?

HESSELBEIN: No. No, because I chose the courses they were giving and there was no point, and I had, by the time it was over I had more than enough credits to graduate, but not, and that didn’t bother me at all. Learning was my passion, and it was, and now when we have that Hesselbein Global Academy University in Pittsburgh, I go back to those days.

SCARPINO: And that Hesselbein Global Academy is a relatively recent creation, right?

HESSELBEIN: Two years ago. Just like West Point. One was July, one was August.

SCARPINO: And that’s based at the main campus of the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh. Okay. I should probably just tell you in the interest of full disclosure that my father grew up in Pittsburgh.

HESSELBEIN: Oh, really?

SCARPINO: You know where the old Forbes Field was?


SCARPINO: My uncle was head usher there. I got to see Roberto Clemente play before he died. [laughing]

HESSELBEIN: Wonderful.

SCARPINO: So, for whatever that’s worth. Did you, when you were a high school and a college student, did you ever think of yourself as a leader? Did you ever imagine yourself as a leader?

HESSELBEIN: Never, never. I was never the class president. I was never a cheerleader. I know exactly how I was going to, what I was going to be.

SCARPINO: And what was that?

HESSELBEIN: I was going to write poetry for the rest of my life. Nothing else. And by the time I got to Junior Pitt, when I was in junior high school I wrote a poem every month for the school paper. I knew exactly, and when I got to Junior Pitt I changed. I was going write for the theater. That’s all. Nothing. So that was what I was thinking of myself. Never, never the leader. Never. Writing was everything.

SCARPINO: You enjoyed writing.


SCARPINO: Do you still like to write?

HESSELBEIN: Oh, it’s my life—writing and speaking—except writing about myself. That’s painful.

SCARPINO: You find that difficult to do?

HESSELBEIN: Horrible. Agonizing. To be that personal and intimate—my publisher’s terms—to write about yourself is so painful.

SCARPINO: It is hard, isn’t it, to do that?

HESSELBEIN: Oh, doing my autobiography, it came out last week, oh, but it’s very interesting that when I was 17, 18, 19, never, and I loved learning. Didn’t worry me that I didn’t have the paper certificate but being there and learning. Today, my office walls, I have 20 honorary doctoral degrees and I always smile and I think of that little 17-year-old kid.

SCARPINO: Do you think your grandma would be proud of you?

HESSELBEIN: She would be pleased with some of the things I’ve done. Anytime I’ve helped someone, and you know, I, just that we should live. To serve is to live. I never heard her say that, but I know she was there when I was developing it.

SCARPINO: You met and married John Hesselbein. I’m always careful when I’m interviewing men that when I ask them when they were married because they don’t remember, but how did you meet Mr. Hesselbein?

HESSELBEIN: I was 17 and we were graduating from high school in Johnstown, and I had the lead in the play, graduating class play, and the teacher had a very special former student she loved in dramatics and that was John Hesselbein. So he was a sophomore at Pitt, so she asked him when he’d be in Johnstown would he speak to her dramatics class? So this 19-year-old person spoke to us and she had us do a scene for him and he criticized it, and anyway, he started ringing my bell and inviting me to fraternity dances at Pitt and so forth, and my father at that time—you don’t hear the phrase now, but people went steady, just went with one person.

SCARPINO: That’s right. I remember that term.

HESSELBEIN: My father didn’t approve so when John wanted me just to date him, I said I’m sorry my father doesn’t approve. So I can remember going to a Penn State Kappa Sigma dance in State College with a young man named Schenkemeyer.

SCARPINO: Schenkemeyer.

HESSELBEIN: There’s a big German population in Johnstown and to the same fraternity in Pittsburgh which John, then for some reason John was in Penn State at that, and walked in and on Eddie Schenkemeyer’s dresser was my same photograph that John had in his fraternity house, but after my father died I was working. I sort of decided one was enough.

SCARPINO: [laughing] So what year did you get married in?

HESSELBEIN: (pause) I was married when I was 22.

SCARPINO: Okay, now we can…

HESSELBEIN: And John was 24.

SCARPINO: And you had a son.


SCARPINO: What’s his name?

HESSELBEIN: Well, what else? John.

SCARPINO: Oh. [laughing]

HESSELBEIN: And he is a soldier, totally incapacitated in Sacramento. He lies on a hospital bed. Can’t even sit up in bed. He has a couple of pillows. From his neck down nothing works. His lungs are drawn 24 hours a day. His heart is failing. We saw him every night and I visit him frequently. He often says as we’re going to say goodbye, hey Mom, remember, I was a soldier, I am a soldier, I will always be a soldier.

SCARPINO: Where did he serve?

HESSELBEIN: He was in Germany his last time. And he lives in Sacramento. But he joined the Army and when my book came out last week I had, I said John, how many books would you like? Need 40. I said, four? He said, no 40. I said, John, what could you possibly do with 40 books? He said Mom, he said understand, Army buddies.

SCARPINO: So he’s going to take, I assume 39, and keep one for himself and give 39 to his Army buddies. Well that’s nice.


SCARPINO: I want to talk to you about the Girls Scouts, and I’m wondering, we have about 10 minutes before we need to walk over to lunch. Are you still okay for a few more minutes?


SCARPINO: You began to volunteer with the Girl Scouts in the early sixties, but did you do anything prior to that that got you involved in service or leadership?

HESSELBEIN: I was a mother of a little boy.

SCARPINO: Right. So as a mother of a little boy how were you drawn to Girl Scout Troop 17?

HESSELBEIN: I wasn’t. I was bullied…

SCARPINO: Bullied? [laughing]

HESSELBEIN: …by a Girl Scout neighborhood chairman who kept asking me to be a leader, and I kept saying I’m sorry I don’t know anything about little girls. I had a little boy and so it was that the neighborhood chairman saw me and said, we’ve just lost the leader of Troop 17. She has resigned. She’s going to India to be a missionary. We have 30 little girls, 10 years old, in the basement of the Second Presbyterian Church. We’re going to have to disband this troop. Thirty little girls, 10 years old. So I said okay. I’ll take them for six weeks, and then we’ll find a real leader. We stayed together till they all graduated from high school.

SCARPINO: So it was about eight years that you were with them.

HESSELBEIN: And recently when a video tape was made on my life, To Serve is To Live, three of them are in it. We’ve kept connected all these years. So along the way I became, after a year or two I was chairman of the local Girl Scout Council and then the National Board.

SCARPINO: So you were on the National Board?

HESSELBEIN: Mm hmm. And was on some world committees that one met in Switzerland twice a year. I chaired the program committee and was part of delegations to India, all kinds of international assignments.

SCARPINO: So how did you go from making an initial commitment of a few weeks to not only staying for eight years but serving on the National Board, representing the Girl Scouts internationally?

HESSELBEIN: I don’t know. Doors opened. I never tried to get one, I don’t know. Doors were opened and I had a husband and a son who were very supportive. Now when I came home and said I’ve just been invited to go to India, but of course I’m not going. Of course you are. Anyway, I went off the National Board and when Johnny was growing up and after the war, wherever my husband served as a combat or crew photographer…

SCARPINO: Your husband was a combat photographer in World War II?

HESSELBEIN: Mm hmm. And he had come out of college, was the night city editor of Johnstown Democrat where his father was the managing editor of the Johnstown Tribune, a very distinguished newspaper family, in the Navy combat air crew photographer and when he came out he opened his own studio where he did all kinds of photography, and he became a very famous filmmaker making documentaries. So I just did something I called helping John in the studio and Johnny helped also, and John became one of the six most distinguished documentarian. He was a Robert Flaherty Fellow. So we all just pitched in. Whatever door opened we went through it.

SCARPINO: So, why do you think, what do you think people saw when they looked at you that caused them to open those doors for you?

HESSELBEIN: I don’t know. Probably what I had been willing to do in the past. Less to do with me than the service to people.

SCARPINO: In 1970, you were selected to be Executive Director of Western Pennsylvania’s Talus Rock Girl Scout Council, and you accepted that appointment.

HESSELBEIN: I didn’t want to. The Girl Scout Council. I had just come off the National Board. The local Council of Johnstown had a CEO who was not dishonest, just made an awful lot of mistakes financially. So, for a whole year the job was vacant. No, cross that. It was vacant. So one day the Chairman of United Way, the President of United Way and the president of a bank all invited me to have lunch. Mind you all of them were like that.

SCARPINO: They probably wanted more than a hamburger. [laughing]

HESSELBEIN: Yeah. Oh, having lunch and they said I know you will be very pleased we have found a new Executive Director for the Girl Scout Council. I said, oh, I’m so happy. Who is it? They said you. I said, I’m very sorry. I’m a volunteer. I would never, ever, take a professional position. And one of them said well that’s too bad, isn’t it, because if you don’t take it, the Girl Scouts will no longer be partner to United Way.

SCARPINO: So there was a little arm twisting involved in this.

HESSELBEIN: Worse. So I said all right, I’ll take it for six months. We’ll find a real leader. One month later I knew it was the great adventure. My first morning when I walked in the door, we had eight staff. Under my arm I had The Effective Executive book.

SCARPINO: Peter Drucker.

HESSELBEIN: Peter Drucker’s, I knew who he was but I had every book he had ever written, every film he ever made. So, that’s how we began and six years later I find myself in New York.

SCARPINO: So what attracted you to Peter Drucker’s work?

HESSELBEIN: His philosophy and the way he distilled language.

SCARPINO: And what did you admire about his philosophy?

HESSELBEIN: Well, it was running on parallel tracks with mine. The way he distilled language. The way he respected people. The power of mission and values. It’s as though someone, it’s though he was invented just for us.

SCARPINO: So when you read Drucker the first time, did you think God, he wrote this for me?

HESSELBEIN: The first time I read him I had no idea who he was. I thought this is exactly right. So, in 1990, as I left the Girl Scouts of the USA after 13 exuberant years, two friends and I founded the Peter Drucker Foundation to move Peter across the country and around the world.

SCARPINO: I’m going to talk to you about that in a few minutes, but you described your time with the Girls Scouts as an exuberant experience. What made it that way?

HESSELBEIN: The people. The people and the openness and because I walked in and I had my circular management chart under my arm, and there was such openness. They were thrilled to throw out the old hierarchy, and we distilled, everything was so open and we had, we were very careful, we made massive, massive changes but always based on solid, remarkable, professional studies. All kinds of people were thrilled to work with us. And no, it was an incredible, incredible time, and at that time I remember a very distinguished business leader came to me and said, because I was talking about diversity. In those days that wasn’t everybody’s favorite subject any more than it is today. He said Frances, you know I really care about you and I care about the Girl Scouts, but I have to tell you this if you keep talking about diversity you will never raise any money. No one wants to hear about this. And I said thank you.

SCARPINO: Do you want to say who that distinguished business leader was?

HESSELBEIN: No, but I’ll tell you this. I recruited John Creedon, the new president of Met Life.

SCARPINO: Creedon?

HESSELBEIN: Creedon. And we went out and raised 10 million dollars and built a lovely conference center for girls.

SCARPINO: I promised you that I would have you over to lunch at noon, so I’m going to sort of glue this together and we’ll come back. So in 1976 you were appointed Chief Executive Officer of the National Organization of the Girl Scouts of the United States, which was a critical time in their history.

HESSELBEIN: It was terribly…

SCARPINO: And at that point then what I’m going to do is turn these recorders off, and it’s just a little bit before noon. Could we get back together about 1:15?



HESSELBEIN: I have to get something hot.

SCARPINO: You betcha.

HESSELBEIN: I need some hot food.

SCARPINO: Let’s get these things turned off.