Early in my leadership career, women role models were few and far between. One woman who helped me truly understand my power as a leader is Frances Hesselbein, Chairman of the Board of Governors, Leader to Leader Institute, Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Former CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA . Initially, I only knew her through videos and books. However, through a series a unexpected twists and turns in my leadership career, I ended up meeting her and learning from her. Among the many lessons I learned from observing her in action, three of the most powerful leadership lessons were simple ones that stayed with me day-to-day. Each lesson learned has a wonderful story behind it that captures her way of being a role model in every action.

1. Leaders, at their best, are unpretentious, warm and friendly. It saddens me when I see women leaders rise in stature and unfortunately, forget the most valuable gifts we have as leaders by nature if we develop them and let it show: The ability to connect with others; to nurture; to encourage; to be real.

STORY: Arriving Early.
At a conference some years ago, I arrived customarily very early before people were gathering for the session. A prominent university president from a prestigious school was coming to speak. Prior to his arrival, there must have been an entourage of seven or eight people who showed up to set up his presentation. At the last minute as the lights went down, I saw him escorted in from the side. He was ready. He presented. When he finished speaking, he was escorted out the side door during a light round of applause. He left never knowing who was there to meet him.

What a contrast when Frances Hesselbein appeared on the last day. It was about 6:45 a.m. One other attendee, crazy like me, arrived early also. Just as we were sitting down at a table in the front, Frances walked in. Unattended. No entourage. Her smile warmed the room and her greeting was something like, “Good morning! I’m so glad to see you. I’ll join you for tea.” Then she checked the podium out. I watched her eye the lights and the room set-up to make sure she could see her audience of “friends.” She sat down with us and asked questions about what we had learned. She listened intently. She took notes. She asked us what messages we thought the group most needed. She took more notes. She invited us to ask questions after her talk, just in case she had forgotten anything we thought was important.

She captured the hearts of everyone that day and taught us a great deal about leadership. She received a standing ovation. She stayed to personally meet all her new friends.

2. Every person is important. It is easy for a leader to be dazzled and preoccupied by statistics and reports, overlooking that most often, there are human stories and lives behind each of them. Great leaders put a high value on each and every person that makes the team operate. Frances has always encouraged of the “circular organization” — one that reflects a culture of inclusion. Being unpretentious, warm, and friendly — and valuing everybody is a great way to begin building such a place.

STORY – The Book Signing.
Frances Hesselbein is well known for the internationally acclaimed Leader to Leader Institute Book Series: Leader of the Future, Organization of the Future, and Community of the Future are all now printed in multiple editions and many languages. With co-editors, she brings together leaders from public, private, and non-profit sectors to share the latest thinking on the future in this series of books that serves the world and our important work in the twenty-first Century.

Shortly after first edition of Organization of the Future was published, Frances came to speak to 100 senior women leaders at a Leadership California Conference. Everyone attending received a copy of the new book. When she finished her remarks, she had a room full of deeply moved women. She stepped from the stage, finding a comfortable place to sit down. Then she invited each person to sit down with her. She talked with them about their work for a few minutes, then wrote a personal message in each one of those 100 books. When they came to take her way to lunch, with still a long line of women waiting, her reply held her message. “I can eat later,” she said, “This is far more important.”

3. Being accessible and ready to help is an exceptional leadership quality. In an age of many handlers, leaders — yes, women too — isolate themselves from the people they serve. Being able to reach them often depends on who you know or working your way through layers of staff. Some of this perhaps is for good reason, but finding ways to be accessible to people matters. It leaves lasting impressions on customers and those wonderful people that work for you too.

STORY – Getting Through.
I’ll never forget the first time I personally talked with Frances Hesselbein. I was working on a project for a client and we needed help from someone with her influence. My client asked me to call her. Having worked with other high level executives like Frances Hesselbein, I assumed it would involve working my way through layers of people and scheduling time with an appointment secretary. I phoned her office in New York. I announced myself and asked to speak with her. “Just a minute, please,” said the friendly voice. In an instance, Frances Hesselbein answered the phone. She talked to me with great interest and treated me like a valued friend. I told her what we needed. Her reply: “Let me make a phone call or two. Debbe, I think we’re going to do something wonderful.” I will call you shortly. Within an hour, her call came. Problem solved.

These are just a few small leadership treasures that Frances Hesselbein has given me. Every time I meet someone who knows of her or has personally been touched by her light, they, too, are filled with gifts of her influence. Most of all, she shows the world that leadership, at its best, is about person-to-person relationship…It’s real. It’s bold. It’s caring. It’s ready for whatever challenges are revealed.

Frances Hesselbein’s sweeping influences continue and are characterized by the announcement that she has been appointed Chair for the Study of Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. From the press release…

“Bringing an element of diversity to the role, Mrs. Hesselbein is not only the first woman appointee; she is also the first non-graduate of West Point to hold the position of Chair for the Study of Leadership. Gen. Eric K. Shinseki (U.S. Army, Ret.) was appointed the first Chair for the Study of Leadership, followed by Duke University’s Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski.”

What lessons have you learn from your mentors and teachers that have
shaped your leadership style and approach?

Warm wishes to you all,


Debbe Kennedy
Founder, Global Dialogue Center and
Leadership Solutions Companies
author, Putting Our Differences to Work:
The Fastest Way to Innovation, Leadership and High Performance

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benjamin breeland

Ms. Kennedy,

Thanks for sharing those lessons with me. You were smart to choose Mrs. Hesselbein as your mentor. These are excellent lessons for all of us.


Amanda Blount

Very good lessons. And just recently I was told women did not make good leaders because our emotions made us weak. Hummm. I wish I had read this before that moment. Maybe my reaction would have been more nuturing…. and not so “emotional” and “caring” LOL ๐Ÿ™‚

Debbe Kennedy

Dear Benjamin, Thank you so much for writing. You are right, I am very fortunate to have had Frances Hesselbein as a mentor. I still wonder at how it happened. I’m so pleased to know you too see these are excellent lessons for us all! It means a lot to learn from your perspective. Best… Debbe

Dear Armanda, I think I’ve been told similar things before too. ๐Ÿ™‚ A male mentor taught me a valuable truth one time that withstands all such notions and other doubting influences. He said, “Develop a reputation for delivering exceptional results. It speaks for itself.” Best wishes to you! Debbe

Tracey Lawrence

In a time when our society is crying out for leadership, it’s important to be reminded of what makes the best leaders. Thanks for this, Debbe.

Debbe Kennedy

Dear Tracey, Thanks for stopping by. You are so right about the call for leadership. I think it is calling to all of us at every level, don’t you?