Despite massive problems and conflicts across the globe, Frances Hesselbein, considered one of the country’s greatest leaders, said she remains hopeful for the future because students at Lafayette and other colleges are eager to challenge systems and improve society.
“This is the crucible generation,” said Hesselbein, who spoke at Colton Chapel last month as this year’s senior class speaker, made possible by the Class of 1963 Guest Speaker Fund. “This generation is more like the generation of the 1930s and ’40s than any we’ve seen since, and we call them the Greatest Generation.”
CEO of the Francis Hesselbein Leadership Institute, she is credited with leading a turnaround of the Girl Scouts of the USA and increasing minority membership while CEO of the organization from 1976 to 1990.
As homage to Hesselbein, the senior class purchased 1,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies from a local troop in Easton and distributed them free to the about 300 people who attended her talk. Former Student Government president Matthew Grandon ’12 (Lemoyne, Pa.) says Hesselbein, who has a home in Easton, was a natural choice for this year’s speaker.
“The senior class council was interested in a speaker who not only would provide an excellent, inspirational message but also would demonstrate the qualities of how to be an effective leader throughout one’s entire life,” says Grandon.
Hesselbein, who shared her motto, “To live is to serve,” said leadership is how to be, not how to do. “It is the character and the quality of the leader” that determine results, said Hesselbein, who recounted the moment that defined her as the leader she is today.
While growing up in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, she often admired two Oriental vases her grandmother, Sadie Pringle, kept on a shelf in her house. She longed to touch them but was never allowed. One day, she stomped her feet in protest, prompting first a scolding, and then a revelation.
Many years ago, a man named Mr. Yee ran a dry cleaning store in town, her grandmother told her. He was often harassed and one day a group of boys chased him down the street, calling him derogatory names while trying to pull his queue (a ponytail sometimes worn by Chinese men). That night, he appeared at Sadie’s house and announced he was going back to China to be with his family. He then gave her the vases. “But why me?” Sadie asked.
“Because you were the only one who ever called me Mr. Yee.”
“That was when I learned inclusion and respect for all people,” said Hesselbein, who as CEO of the Girl Scouts revamped the handbook “so every girl in the country who opened it could see themselves in it. The richness of diversity provides not a challenge but opportunities for relevance.”
Named “Best Nonprofit Manager in America” by Fortune Magazine, Hesselbein was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, in 1988. She is also the first woman and first civilian appointed as the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
While in that position, Hesselbein brought in thought leaders from a variety of industries to conduct discussions as a way of expanding students’ world perspectives and exposing them to different styles of leadership. A hallmark of any successful leader, Hesselbein said, is respect toward others.
“No matter how someone speaks to us, we must never respond in kind, but with respect,” she said. “If what they say is reprehensible, walk away. No matter how upset we are, we must never lose that sense of respect for all people.”
Afterward, Grandon predicted that the impact of Hesselbein’s transformational speech “will be revealed through the successes of each attendee in the coming years.”