[Author’s Note: The following is reprinted from Sharing Guy’s Journey, my personal blog. This tribute to Frances Hesselbein was published on November 1, 2016 as Frances Hesselbein: Knowledge Sharing at Its Best. It is re-printed here — with an additional note — to emphasize the critical importance of leadership development in knowledge services and in the work of the knowledge strategist.]
Readers of these posts are aware that my professional focus (and often much of my personal attention) is on knowledge services.
We define knowledge services simply: it is an approach to managing what we know by pulling together information management, knowledge management (KM), and strategic learning. It works for us as individuals, and in the larger scheme of things, knowledge services benefits any organization or group in which the discipline is practiced. As a compound noun, we describe knowledge services in the singular (“knowledge services is…”) and with the convergence of these three splendid practices — information management, KM, and strategic learning — we position ourselves for using knowledge for its best purposes, however we wish to define those purposes.
Indeed, the best way to describe knowledge services is to think about the concept as what I’ve come to call “knowledge sharing,” that is, the efforts we all make to ensure that that our knowledge “helps.” When we share knowledge — and learn from the knowledge others share — we are able to move things along, to get things done.
It is in this frame of mind that I offer this post to honor one of the most successful practitioners of knowledge sharing I know. She is Frances Hesselbein, President and CEO of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute (founded in 1990 as The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management and renamed in 2012 to honor Mrs. Hesselbein). I’ve known Frances Hesselbein for several years now, and I am impressed — as is everyone who knows her — with the many honors and awards she has received. And who wouldn’t be? Among these have been the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Clinton in 1998 for her leadership as CEO of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976-1990, and her distinction in 2015 by Fortune as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders.
And it is that connection with the Girl Scouts that brings us to what I’m writing here, for I want to connect the excellence of Mrs. Hesselbein’s work with girls and young women when she managed the Girl Scouts with a previous post (Ada and Michelle — Let’s Focus on Girls Education). When Mrs. Hesselbein came to the Girl Scouts in 1976, the organization was having some difficulties and when she — using her well-developed leadership skills — took over, she was able to realign the organization through a major turnaround. As described by Sally Helgesen in Strategy + Business in May, 2015, the Girl Scouts was attempting to deal with “a declining membership, a dearth of volunteers, and a growing reputation for irrelevance.” Turnaround? Absolutely, for under Frances Hesselbein’s guidance the organization became — as Helgesen described her success — “a cohesive and growing enterprise, focused in helping girls from diverse backgrounds achieve their highest potential through a contemporary program that emphasized leadership, science, technology, and math.”
So for those of us who know and respect Mrs. Hesselbein, leadership is the thing, the very essence of any description of her success. In fact there are many of us who, out of respect for her many years of success in the field, have come to think of Mrs. Hesselbein as sort of the “dean” of leadership development today. Yet there is another side to the story when we talk about her leadership success, one that matches up with that knowledge sharing I referred to earlier. As we commit to our goal for educating girls and young women and, not to put too fine a point on it, combining that goal with enabling all women to connect with leadership, it is in Mrs. Hesselbein’s outstanding talent for sharing knowledge that we realize just how important it is to link leadership and knowledge sharing.
An example? On October 13 of last year I was fortunate to hear her opening keynote address for the Global Women’s Leadership Summit. Mrs. Hesselbein’s theme was clear from the first: leaders today — and those who aspire to leadership — understand that our modern society requires a new commitment to leadership, a framework for leadership that refutes the low level of trust and the high level of cynicism being experienced in all of society. And, not surprising to her audience, Mrs. Hesselbein recommended a solution. This pioneer in leadership (and in knowledge sharing as well, as I am characterizing her) described for conference attendees a plan, a list she referred to as her Imperatives of Leadership.
I heard five specific imperatives from Frances Hesselbein:
- Challenge the gospel of the status quo. It is her own “imperative” but Mrs. Hesselbein was generous to recognize (here and often in her address) the strong connection and friendship she had with Peter Drucker and here she shared a singularly appropriate line of thought. In any organization, those in leadership positions must keep the organization’s vision, mission, and values at the very center of the organization, enabling the leaders to build — as they move the organization forward — the organization as an organ of the future.
- Build collaborations, alliances, and partnerships. Mrs. Hesselbein has worked in 68 countries and how does she do it all? She uses technology to keep innovative dialogue alive and strong, and she makes no secret of the importance and value of education and learning. In her address, she quoted William Butler Yeats (“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”). Following this thought, she admonished all with leadership responsibility to look “beyond the walls of the organization” by simply asking: “And who does that?” Her response was clear and to the point, taking us back to strategic learning and knowledge sharing: “Learning leaders,” she said, and left no doubt in her listeners’ minds about who she expected to take charge when it is time to light the fire.
- For her third leadership direction, Mrs. Hesselbein related her comment (for those of us who know a little of her history) to all of the work she has undertaken throughout her professional career. “Build a richly diverse enterprise,” she said. If there is a single goal of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, it would be to provide equal access. It is a task that cannot be delegated, simply because — as she stated it — “civility and good manners come directly ‘from the front’ and leaders are responsible for equal access and diversity in the organizations they lead.” Or, perhaps more to the point for today’s audience: “Are we building today the richly diverse community for the future?”
- For leaders, the objective must be to manage and to understand the power of the vision, mission, and values of the organization. That’s what innovates the organization’s leaders, Mrs. Hesselbein said, reminding her listeners of Drucker’s critical dictum: we manage not only for the success of our immediate organizations but for the greater good. As leaders we are not in the role of describing for the organization’s workers “how to do.” The goal is to demonstrate for them “how to be,” a thought that led to another thought from Drucker, that innovation is the change that creates a new dimension of performance. In our current society, we look around and we see that now is the time to lead, to develop our checklist to the leaders of the future so that we enable them to establish and adhere to values-based and demographic-driven leadership principles for leading the organization and its people.
- With the last of her leadership imperatives, Frances Hesselbein brought us around to communication, that critical foundation for just about everything we do in the organizations for which we are responsible. She gave considerable attention to the idea that communication is “being heard” and she stated unapologetically that “we need leaders who practice listening.” Successful leaders, she said, are those who are listeners and unifiers, and through them “we find common ground.” Of course leaders share success but true leaders, she made clear, also accept responsibility for shortcomings and failures when they share success.
“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.”
[Additional note: It was a remarkable address for that important conference, and it meant a lot to me to be able to hear what Mrs. Hesselbein had to say. And I was even happier when she generously chose to take her (and my) focus on today’s millennials even further. Thanks to her kindness, a few weeks later Mrs. Hesselbein hosted my students from Columbia University in the City of New York in a conference on “Leadership Imperatives for Millennials.” For our students (some of whom are pictured here, with Mrs. Hesselbein) she took those imperatives developed for the Global Women’s Leadership Summit and built an entire conference program around them, describing specifically how these leadership directions will guide today’s graduate students in their work as knowledge strategists in the future. The reactions from the students were nothing short of phenomenal (in fact, the word “mesmerizing” came up several times when students spoke with me about the conference), for Mrs. Hesselbein graciously and frequently turned the floor over to the students and — even when they were asking questions — invited them to connect their understanding of their future work as knowledge strategists to the positive qualities she identifies in the workplace aptitudes demonstrated by today’s millennials.]