Lessons in leadership from Frances Hesselbein, part 1

“To serve is to live.”Frances Hesselbein
Frances Hesselbein had the fastest, clearest, most direct, and most meaningful answer of anyone I remember asking her passion. Five minutes into our pre-lunch conversation and she went right to the point.
Experience and, I believe, only experience enables people to encapsulate great meaning in a minimum of words. I was immediately struck by the power and meaning in these few short words: “to serve is to live.” If you read her writings, you see these five words a lot, but they carry more meaning when she says them directly after you ask her passion. Most of the next couple hours’ conversation was reviewing and approaching the words from different perspectives.
I knew many people call her the best leader they’ve met, in particular my mentor, Marshall Goldsmith, and his client, Alan Mulaly. She worked with Peter Drucker. She was CEO of the Girl Scouts in the 70s and 80s and, I understand, turned the organization around and was a major figure in increasing minorities and moving from home economics to including things like science, math, and professional matters. President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her office walls are packed with her publications, pictures with Presidents (I noticed pictures with Reagan, Clinton, and Obama. There may have been others I missed), dignitaries, Generals, and more.
I first met Frances about a decade ago, when she spoke to one of my classes at Columbia Business School. In January I was pleasantly surprised to see she favorited one of my tweets. I ran into her at Marshall’s release party for his book Triggers, where she invited me to visit.
This 99-year-old woman taught me some great lessons—many just from simple, effective behaviors she probably didn’t realize I could learn from—and I’ll explore them over the next few posts.
EDIT: I’m appending parts 2–5 to save the clicks:
Frances invited me to her office. The first day I went, I approached the front desk. The security guy was friendly. As he processed my ID he said, “Oh yeah, Frances gets big visitors. Sometimes Generals come in. Four stars, ones from TV. They all have to wait for her.”
Her office is in a big Park Avenue high-rise office building in the 50s. The lobby had fifty-foot ceilings, or something really high, and clear glass walls looking out on Park Avenue.
Her executive assistant came down to tell me that there was nothing serious, but Frances had to go to the doctor that morning after being on her feet all day at West Point the day before.
She took me up to the office to reschedule. The next time available was a lunch a couple days later. As long as Frances was healthy, I liked the idea of moving to a lunch from coffee.
I had brought a copy of my book, ReModel: Create mental models to improve your life and lead simply and effectively, so I left it there. I inscribed:

To Frances:
You inspired people who inspired me. I hope this inspires you.
Joshua Spodek
A week later I got an email from Frances. To this point her executive assistant had handled logistics. Frances wrote:
Subject: Thank You!
Dear Joshua:
Thank you for your new book, ReModel. I love the way you help all of us create “mental models.”
I look forward to lunch next week.
I doubt I have to tell you that when someone who decorated Generals wait to see reads your books and sends a thoughtful, personal note that she read your book, you feel honored and flattered.
I understand that Jack Welch engendered great satisfaction and loyalty by giving hand-written notes to people at GE, with attention to detail of their work, including to people many levels down on the organization chart.
So the big lesson I learned was to show appreciation, and even just attention. Of course everyone knows that, but to feel it from the experience of her caliber, who didn’t need to do it, and spend time doing it, I learned it more deeply.
You might also think the higher you get on an organization chart the less you have to pay attention to people who aren’t directly above you, or that the way to get there is to pay attention only to them. When someone at the top of the field who has nothing to gain besides the integrity of doing what she feels right does it, you conclude that she reached the top that way.
The feeling motivates me to make it a habit.
Part 3:
Over lunch Frances described to me her background. I had wondered how she got started, why when the CEO of Ford, Alan Mulaly, gave her a car, she picked it up near Pittsburgh.
She told me about growing up near there and going to the University of Pittsburgh. If I remember right, she didn’t finish. It struck me because she is yet another prominent leader who didn’t graduate college.
She’s surrounded by the best and brightest—leading them, responding to their requests for advice—and didn’t get there through traditional education.
One of my main inspirations for teaching and coaching leadership end entrepreneurship experientially and actively was seeing the high emotional awareness and skills of the guests on the TV show Inside the Actors Studio, then hearing during their interviews how the majority of them got kicked out, left, or somehow didn’t finish school. Yet most of them described learning their craft somehow. The more I researched the names they mentioned—Stanislavsky, Stassberg, and Adler, later learning about Meisner—the more I learned about a style of learning different than I had come across, valuable for leadership skills, but absent even from top business schools.
With five Ivy League degrees including an MBA and a PhD, I’ve invested a lot in traditional education. It’s given me a lot, but Frances Hesselbein is yet another example of great leadership emerging independently of traditional education. It’s amazing how much it misses in its focus on credentials, grades, and facts over performance and skills. To see how most of its testing helps administrators at the expense of students and teachers.
It’s funny to say I’m not that impressed with something I put decades of my life into, and I value a lot of what I learned, but it missed teaching me important parts of life—meaning, value, importance, purpose, passion, etc—in favor of a lot of facts.
Anyway, the lesson from Frances was not to criticize traditional education but to reinforce seeing what more is available. Meeting with her reinforced my interest in developing and distributing leadership and entrepreneurship training and coaching different, more effective, and equally tried and true as traditional.
Now I’m getting ahead of myself, thinking about how I’m about to introduce my online course soon, after inspiring reviews from the first round of pilot testers, but that’s another story.
Part 4:
What do say about yourself when you’ve hung out with half a dozen Presidents of the United States, won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, learned from Peter Drucker, been called the best leader in the world by CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, befriended four-star Generals, and things like that?
Do you keep it to yourself, as modesty would suggest? How do you mention those things without bragging, or sounding like you are?
Frances talked about them throughout the conversation. She didn’t go out of her way to, nor did she sound like she was bragging, but she didn’t avoid them either.
I noticed only one other person I could think of did that, Marshall Goldsmith. He grew up in Kentucky, so I thought his motivation was like a newly rich person showing off his wealth. But he learned leadership from her, so maybe they shared a common reason. I was curious.
At the risk of speaking too bluntly, I pointed out this commonality in their communication styles and asked why she did it.
She answered very simply, without a thought, “I do it when it adds a dimension.”
Those few words clarified it in an instant. Bragging is about yourself. She wasn’t bragging because her point of mentioning these things wasn’t about herself. It was about the conversation and the other person. If talking about something added a dimension and helped the other person, she would talk about it. From that perspective, why wouldn’t she? Why consider the risk of bragging when you aren’t thinking about yourself? There is no risk because you aren’t coming from the same place.
This perspective fit with her philosophy, To Serve Is To Live, because her speaking, as I understood it, is part of her serving and leading. She speaks as necessary to serve the conversation and other person.
No wonder I enjoyed the conversation so much. She was speaking to serve the conversation.
Her practice, serving the conversation, was the opposite of what it looked like from the outside, talking about herself.
I decided to try to emulate her, to speak to serve the conversation.
Part 5:
“What do I say to a 99-year-old woman?”
“What do I say to a famous person?”
“What do I say to someone who could help my career without seeming selfish?”
All I could think to ask was what it’s like to be 99, which seemed irrelevant and the same question people have asked her for a decade. I don’t like when people find out I don’t eat meat and ask me where I get my protein. Again? How unimaginative and boring. Do they not realize how many people ask the same question? I’m sure people ask you similar annoying questions.
I don’t want her thinking that of me.
How do you prepare to talk to someone important that you hardly know?
Who hasn’t frozen at talking to someone important? Felt intimidated? Missed an opportunity?
You want to make a good impression. You don’t want to sound like everyone else, but not too different either.
Clients and students often ask when preparing for interviews.

What doesn’t work

Most people default to researching the person online, or their company. Then when the interviewer asks “Do you have any questions for me?” they plan to impress them with a question that shows off their knowledge.
Many people try the advice to get the other person talking about themselves. Sounds useful, but what if the other person has nothing interesting to say? Or talks too much about irrelevant stuff? And how exactly do you do that? Do you just say “Tell me about yourself?” I haven’t found it works that well.
These tactics can sometimes work, but they don’t connect or engage people. They’re factual. No amount of research will give you more knowledge about their life than they have. People don’t hire people for facts, they hire them for their abilities to solve problems. If you want facts, you can use Wikipedia. Besides, how many people do you like because of how many facts they knew when you met?
We like people for the feelings they evoke in us. Did we enjoy meeting them? Did they make us laugh?

What worked

“Wait a minute. I teach this stuff!” The thought struck me as I walked to her office. I felt silly for forgetting one of my core exercise. I’m human, though. Status distracts and blinds me too.
“If I want to connect with her meaningfully, I should use my Meaningful Connection exercise,” I thought.
I’m glad I thought of it. When I got to her office, she sat me on her office couch, sat on the chair next to me, leaned forward so we were face to face, and said “So what would you like to talk about?”
She put me on the spot. That’s intense.
If I didn’t know what to say, or asked “So what’s it like to be 99?” or “Can you tell me about yourself?” Things wouldn’t have gone as well.
Instead, I used my exercise. I said, “Well, we’re here about leadership. It’s a passion of yours, right?”
She said it was.
I continued, “Marshall’s focus is mainly about coaching. He does it to help people one-on-one and loves the feeling of helping someone make long-term positive change. My focus is on teaching, which is one-to-many, and helping give people the skill to create meaning and value for themselves and others. It’s the best way I know to make the world a better place. When you lead, what is it for you?”
Without missing a beat she said, “To serve is to live.” Two of the five words were meaningful words so my next step was simple. I confirmed them and our conversation was meaningful and engaging for both of us within a minute. I wrote about how meaningful I found her philosophy a couple days ago.
Two hours later, when her Executive Assistant broke up our conversation for Frances’s next appointment, she said “I don’t remember the last time I had such a delightful conversation.”
Wow! Very kind words. Does she tell everyone that?
In those two hours we talked about leadership, relationships, value, meaning, work, and such things from many directions. We shared stories. She invited me to write for the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute’s journal Leader To Leader and she invited me to join her at West Point.
We wouldn’t have had as delightful a conversation if I showed off how I researched her or got her talking about whatever she happened to think of at the moment.
That’s the value of technique. You can fall back on it when you don’t know what else to say or do.

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