Lessons in Leadership

Mentored by Frances

IMG_1069.JPGI am one of thousands—perhaps by now tens of thousands—who will tell you they were mentored by Frances Hesselbein, whom Forbes magazine has called “America’s greatest leader.” A few years ago, at a tribute dinner for Frances, US Army General Eric K. Shinseki joked that he and scores of other well-known public figures belonged to a club called “Mentored by Frances.” Humor aside, I have no doubt this is true. Frances is a world class master of leadership development.

I often draw on the things I learned from Frances, particularly her dictum that one should lead by example. Easier said than done, but that’s the point of much that Frances advises. She is a phrasemaker whose pithy sayings stick in one’s head like charms, urging us to aspire to greatness. At this point, I’m fortunate to have known Frances for 35 years. That’s a lot of advice and a lot of lucky charms. Here are the five I treasure most.

Manage for the Mission — I’ve spent most of my life working in and consulting with nonprofit organizations. This is the single most important thing to keep in mind if you want your nonprofit to be successful. Sometimes it means taking more time than anticipated, so you can be inclusive or build support for an idea. Sometimes it means forgoing a donation or earned income opportunity. Whenever there’s a question about what to do, this is the criterion on which you base your decision.

Leadership Is How to Be, Not How to Do — Always be aware that people look to you for signals on how to behave and what to think, especially in difficult situations. You can set a good example or a poor one. Whichever it is, how you handle yourself—not the things you say—is what people will remember.

We Do Not Learn from Our Successes — Failure provides valuable information that can contribute to a success later on. Good leaders make it safe for people to admit problems and focus on fixing things, rather than hiding mistakes out of fear or shame, only to have them grow into greater hurdles.

Challenge Up, Support Down — This may not be original to Frances, but I know that she was saying it years before 2009, which is the first reference I find for it on the Web. I love this one because it crystallizes one of the main functions of a leader or manager—to be an advocate for followers. It doesn’t mean you must support every thing a follower does, good or bad, but it does mean you provide public support and work with the person in private to correct any problems.

To Serve Is to Live — This is Frances’s Twitter handle and one of her more recent aphorisms. Lewis Howe is credited with saying “to live is to serve” and I think that Frances’s reversal means something different than what Howe had in mind. Howe is saying that service is a condition of life. Everyone has someone or something that must be served. Frances is saying that life is the result of service, that a focus on serving others gives meaning to one’s life. (Perhaps that’s contributed to her many years of productivity.)

Certainly, Frances Hesselbein’s life has meaning not only for the things she herself has accomplished, but for the things that she has inspired others to accomplish. In the end, this attention to developing leadership abilities in others will amplify Frances’s contribution and have an outsized impact on the world. And it increases the impact of each member in the Mentored by Frances club, a non-exclusive group if there ever was one—and we’re proud of it.

Surveillance Meets White America

surveillance drone

Photo by Kevin Baird via Flickr Creative Commons

The other day I was sitting in my living room in Brooklyn looking out over the East River toward Manhattan. Suddenly, a small plane streaked into my field of vision. It startled me because it was flying very low and appeared to be headed into the building across the street. Then, thank goodness, it dipped behind the building and out of sight.

I rushed to the window to see better, then realized that it was flying very low over the East River—and that it was not a plane at all but a huge drone. It was much larger than a helicopter and looked like a flying saucer with four, rigid legs. It had little lights on the rim and was eerily reminiscent of some science fiction film from the 1950s.

As I watched, I saw a half dozen or so police boats out in the harbor, blocking the mouth of the East River to water traffic, and several more up under the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking watercraft from coming down the river to enter the drone space. There were clumps of flashing red lights at various points along the FDR Drive, which runs the length of the river on the Manhattan side.

Since the river was completely clear of civilian traffic, I’m assuming this was a practice run. I’ve seen many emergency drills around the city over the last decade, but never a drone. This one flew back and forth, up and down, obviously piloted remotely from elsewhere—maybe from the emergency bunker that Giuliani built at the Brooklyn end of the bridge shortly after 9/11. If young guys wearing camouflage and toting machine guns in Grand Central Station is unsettling—and it is—this drone was absolutely dystopian.

Drones Are Everywhere

Drone at Sunset

Photo: Ed Schipul via Flickr Creative Commons

I was reminded of that movie from 1991 called Boyz N the Hood, where you constantly hear the sound of surveillance helicopters in the background, flying over the black neighborhood of South Central LA. While writing this, I couldn’t recall the exact name of that film, so I Googled it and, what do you know, I uncovered an article from The Atlantic in 2012 called “Eyes Over Compton,” about the LA County Sheriff’s Department secretly testing mass surveillance technology, taking high-rez photos over Compton, CA. Just a coincidence, I’m sure, that most of those who live in Compton are black.

So now it has apparently come to this. Surveillance drones over everyone’s neighborhoods, justified by the tired rationale of keeping us safe. When did safety become our highest priority and who decided it, anyway? People come to New York to be free—to remake themselves into who they wish to be, separate from family, stereotypes and the baggage of the past. That’s the same reason many of our ancestors came to the US in the first place.

Of course, some of our forebears came here against their will, packed into ships like cargo. One way or another, they’ve lived under surveillance since the beginning, whether they were in South Central or Compton, Ferguson or Staten Island. It’s time the rest of us, of every culture and background, stopped living in denial about what’s up in the Republic. The Surveillance State is knocking at our door. How shall we answer?