A Leader Redefines Management in Place of the Old Chain of Command, Frances Hesselbein Urges Diversity, an Eye on the Basic Mission, and a Participatory Atmosphere Where All Feel Comfortable Bringing Questions to the Boss

By Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 22, 1992 | Go to article overview

A Leader Redefines Management in Place of the Old Chain of Command, Frances Hesselbein Urges Diversity, an Eye on the Basic Mission, and a Participatory Atmosphere Where All Feel Comfortable Bringing Questions to the Boss


Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


`LEADERSHIP is a matter of how to be - not how to do it." Frances Hesselbein distilled this definition years ago while preparing a speech on the subject. "Since then, everything I've done and observed simply reaffirms that," she says.

Mrs. Hesselbein, former national executive director of the Girl Scouts of the USA, is now president of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management.

"Leadership is not a basket of tricks or strategies or skills that you pull out," she explains during an interview at her New York office. "Leadership begins with the quality of the person."

Soon after Hesselbein retired from more than 13 years leading the Girl Scouts, management guru Peter Drucker told Business Week: "If I had to put somebody in to take Roger Smith's place at GM {General Motors}, I would pick Frances." He cited her strong customer focus and proven ability to turn around large, tradition-bound organizations.

When Hesselbein took the helm of the Girl Scouts in 1976, membership was on a steady decline, and the organization was serving mostly white, middle-class communities.

She recommitted the Girl Scouts to its mission of "helping each girl reach her own highest potential" and updated everything from the girls' uniforms to the organization chart. Overall membership skyrocketed and minority membership tripled.

Hesselbein, who is soft-spoken and elegant but unassuming, now spends much of her time giving lectures across the country, visiting business-school campuses, and giving management advice to nonprofit groups.

Her experience with the Girl Scouts, where she began as a volunteer in the early 1950s, has provided powerful lessons in leadership and management.

Hesselbein's ideas are now studied at business schools throughout the United States. Harvard Business School has turned her work with the Girl Scouts into a case study.

All this from a woman who attended the University of Pittsburgh but never graduated. She now has five honorary doctorate degrees. Building on diversity

Inclusiveness is the essence of Hesselbein's leadership style. "One of the management imperatives in the '90s is managing diversity," she says. "Whatever the organization, when the constituents of that organization look at the board and management staff, they need to find themselves."

Corporations and nonprofit organizations that build on the richness of diversity are going to be the ones that thrive in the 21st century, Hesselbein predicts.

Along with managing diversity, "managing for the mission" is one of Hesselbein's favorite phrases. "Everything flows from the mission," she says.

"The real leader redefines or defines the mission in a very powerful way so that people understand it; it permeates the organization."

Hesselbein is well-known for redesigning the traditional organization chart. She threw out the hierarchical chain of command in favor of a circular management structure, dubbed the "bubble chart." The traditional hierarchy is flattened and replaced by a circle with the boss in the middle, surrounded by staff.

This circular management system is the key to successful leadership, Hesselbein says.

"The more power you give away, the more you have," she says. "I truly believe in participatory leadership, in sharing leadership to the outermost edges of the circle. …

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