6 Lessons I Learned at Lunch With One of the Top Leaders in America
Experience trumps everything in leadership.
Is Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, whose stock price went up 18 times under his watch, a fair judge of good leadership? How about Peter Drucker, the “founder of modern management”? How about Marshall Goldsmith, named the #1 leadership thinker in the world in 2015?
If we can accept them as reasonable judges, they all named Frances — advisor to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, fourteen-year CEO of the Girl Scouts, holder of almost two dozen honorary degrees, and more — as the best leader in the country.
In Peter Drucker’s words: “Frances Hesselbein could manage any company in America.”
I had lunch with her last week and you can tell why they said so. I wish I could convey her mix of small-town charm with simple communication that conveys more experience in fewer words than any businessperson I’ve met.
Instead I’ll convey the highlights from the notes I scribbled immediately after.
First, I’ll note that hustling will get you far in life. She had invited me for coffee at 10am for under an hour. Having been born geeky and analytical, I’ve worked hard over more than a decade to develop social skills. One sign I’ve done okay is that by noon the conversation hadn’t let up and she invited me to lunch with her.
Lesson 1: Live Passionately
When I asked her about her passion, a question I ask a lot and most people have to think about to answer, she said without a pause
To serve is to live.
First, she knew her passion immediately. Second, she stated it clearly. Third, she lived by it. Her phrase, “to serve is to live,” embodies how she leads others, by supporting and helping them.
Lesson 2: Simplicity
She told many stories of people she interacted with, from Presidents and Fortune 10 CEOs to desperately poor recipients of aid in Africa. She spoke of none more reverentially than her family, especially her Grandmother. And of the places she described, she spoke of none more reverentially than her hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
The lesson I learned: you can learn as much from the people and places around you as from the most exotic in the world, so why not learn now?
Lesson 3: Make the Other Person Feel Included
You don’t have a job. You are called.
She wasn’t saying that only about me. She said that about everyone who speaks with the passion I did, including herself and all the people she worked with.
She included me in her circle of accomplished people. Just after sharing a vulnerability — daring to teach a course in hustling — her inclusion felt all the more powerful.
Do you think I want to work with her more after that? Isn’t that what you want to convey as a leader?
Lesson 4: Know Your Role Models
Frances didn’t hesitate to name Abraham Lincoln as her hero. She also didn’t hesitate to name General Lloyd Austin, Commander of CENTCOM (that’s high, very high), as her hero.
She generously named Peter Drucker, Marshall Goldsmith, and enough others, you’d think she was following everyone else.
You could tell she learned from everyone.
Lesson 5: Who Are You Helping?
Her gravest pronouncement was to quote a statistic so powerful I don’t know if I remember it wrong: that only 1 in 800 fifteen-year-old black or Hispanic boys are in school in this country.
Whatever the number, she cared and she focused on it. She adopted a school in the Bronx and promotes organizations that help more.
She doesn’t let you forget your community.
Lesson 6: Charm Their Socks Off
We’re more than a generation apart and could have had a boring, formal coffee. Yet her smile, eye contact, jokes, off-the-record personal stories (sorry I can’t share them), and other invitations of familiarity broke that down.
She was fun, charming, engaging, and showed no signs of affectation, even when talking about the gleaming swords, folded flags, honorary degrees, White House pictures, and other objects that could have overloaded her with pride. With her they were just things that came along with how she lived her life.
We all have things from how we live our lives. Why not share them with people around us?