Mentored by Frances
I 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.