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Nonprofit Business Advisor, Strategies to Survive and Grow in Tough Times

Bright Future

By Frances Hesselbein Spring 2011
Occasionally, I casually remark in speeches that I have tattoos on both shoulders. I pause and wait for the audience’s shock to become apparent, and then go on to mention that the tattoos are in invisible ink—you can’t see them, but I know they are there—several of them.

Always the first tattoo is the reminder, “To serve is to live.” Another is Peter Drucker’s, “Think first, speak last.” Another comes from Drucker’s saying, “The leader of the future asks; the leader of the past tells.” So my tattoo is, “Ask, don’t tell.” On the other shoulder is my own distillation from long ago that is ever more significant today: “Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.” Below it, “We manage for the mission, we manage for innovation, and we manage for diversity.” (“Or we are part of the past” is the unwritten end of the last invisible tattoo.)

On our website, you can read accounts of the Celebration on November 1 at Michael’s restaurant in New York, where 135 guests came together over dinner to celebrate my birthday. (I don’t do birthdays, so Liz Edersheim and Ken Witty, the co-conspirators who planned and managed the event, did all of it without my involvement. Even in calling it “the Celebration.”) I was told to show up at 6:00 pm at Michael’s.

I had nothing to do with the guest list, yet everyone there, from General and Mrs. Eric Shinseki, some West Point faculty members, and Tom Moran (chairman, president, and CEO of Mutual of American Life Insurance Company) to the surgeon who saved my life long ago, had been a close and important part of the journey. And friends invited but unable to attend sent messages that touched my heart.

Ken Witty had gone into my personal archives, and there were huge photographs on easels around the room. One was of me at two years old, with blond bangs and a smile. Another showed me at Camp Blue Knob—the Girl Scout Camp on top of the second- highest mountain in Pennsylvania where I was camp director—with the richly diverse camp staff, assembled at a time when diversity was not as valued as it later became. One was of being welcomed by the president of India when I chaired an International Conference sponsored by UNES CO and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girls Scouts in New Delhi, with college student Girl Guides and Girl Scouts from all over the world. Early Girl Scout uniforms, complete with little white gloves, added to this glimpse of the past of some of our early fellow travelers.

Guests loved the photographs of Halston, who designed a new Girl Scout uniform for adults as his contribution to our work, and six years later Bill Blass did the same, and they applauded clips of three presidents of the United States: President Reagan, the first President Bush, and President Clinton—all generous friends of the Girl Scouts of the USA and the Drucker Foundation/Leader to Leader Institute, and all fellow travelers along the way. Tributes were given by Thomas Moran, General Eric Shinseki, Colonel Thomas Kolditz, Robert Buford, Cathy Kloninger, Frank Wicks, Tamara Woodbury, and Tina Doeffer, all moving and generous. This is a very personal column, for I wanted to share with you a beautiful moment on the journey we share. I still find that evening with friends, family, and all of those present and celebrating an overwhelming, enormously loving, and moving moment always to be remembered. All guests now have a copy of the tribute DVD —“To Serve Is to Live.” You can view it on our website.

Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.

By the time you read this, the December holidays will be over, with all of us having much to be grateful for. In January, my new book—My Life in Leadership: The Journey and Lessons Learned Along the Way—was published. It is my autobiography, and it was difficult to write something so personal, but my publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint, and Alan Shrader, my editor, gave me the courage to be as personal as I needed to be. So it’s done, it’s out there, it is the story of my life.

April 28 will be the last event in my two-year appointment to the West Point Class of ’51 Chair for the Study of Leadership. The list of leaders who have traveled to West Point with me to engage in our Leadership Dialogues and the few yet to come before the end of April is remarkable:

Thomas Moran

LTG Lloyd Austin III

Alan Mulally

Dr. Leonard Schlesinger

Jim Collins

Marshall Goldsmith

Working with cadets and faculty at West Point has been one of the most inspiring privileges of my life. Now I look forward to 2011 with all of you. Just two words convey my fond wishes for the new decade we will share: bright future. It will be bright because all of us together will find ways to make a difference—to serve is to live.


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