Lessons from a Lifetime in Leadership

Jim Kouzes thinks Frances Hesselbein is a national treasure. Stephen Covey said she is, “extraordinary.” The father of modern management, Peter Drucker thought she was the greatest leader in the country. The President of the United States awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Frances Hesselbein’s autobiography, “My Life in Leadership,” is both a personal story and a textbook in leadership.

During our conversation, Frances affirmed the themes of her life. I’m sharing personal takeaways more than reviewing her book.


Both the practice of leadership and leadership development are shaped by Hesselbein’s twelve word definition of leadership, “Leadership is a matter of how to be not how to do.


“You can’t develop a plan, ‘give’ it to ‘the people,’ and expect them feel that it’s theirs.” During our conversation she used the term; “engage,” like the trinity. She always said it in triplicate, “engage, engage, engage.”

She adds, “We learned that the more we include our constituents in the development of program resources, the more acceptable and the more successful they are.”

Facing opposition

When you face resistance, Frances says, “Save the face and the dignity of the people who oppose the initiative.”

I asked Frances how she responds to people that resist initiatives. Her response to them is, “Let’s talk about it.”

Facing forward

You might think Frances’ posture toward resistance weak. You’d be dead wrong. She lives by Drucker’s principle, “Honoring the past but intensely defining the future …”

Frances frequently says, “Honor the past.” That doesn’t mean she lives in the past. One lesson I took from her book is let the future not the past shape your direction.

Random quote:

We embraced, “The philosophy of no surprises.”

“… we worked to focus on those areas that would make the greatest difference.”

“Bigness doesn’t inspire anyone.”

“Listening is the essential element of effective leadership.”


If you enjoy biographies and leadership, I think you’ll enjoy, “My Life in Leadership: The Journey and Lessons Learned Along the Way.”


Bonus: I was recently elected to the International Board of Directors for an orphanage in South Africa. Some readers may find Frances’ suggestions on questions every potential director should ask useful. 10 Questions potential directors should ask.


Related Post from my conversation with Frances:

Finding Vitality

Two Surprising Events