Frances Hesselbein: A Top Global Leader

Issue Date: 
July 27, 2015

Listed as one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” by Fortune magazine, Pitt alumnus and leadership expert Frances Hesselbein shares the honor with other impressive peers. 

The 2015 list, published this spring, includes a cross-section of iconic leaders, among them Pope Francis, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerburg, cofounder and CEO of Facebook—and Pitt’s Frances Hesselbein. 

Her life story is, indeed, remarkable. At the age of 17, Hesselbein scraped together $235 to attend one semester at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown, which at the time comprised just two floors in Johnstown High School. Six weeks into that first semester, Hesselbein’s father passed away, and she had to trade full-time classes for a full-time job. She managed to take evening and Saturday classes, and she credits her time at Pitt for inspiring a passion in her for lifelong learning. 

“It was the most amazingly rich education, and those two floors became magic—an inspiring symbol of excellence and equal access,” said Hesselbein. “My journey began long ago at my beloved Pitt and continues to this day.” 

Hesselbein climbed the ranks of the Girl Scouts of America, beginning as a volunteer troop leader and eventually becoming the organization’s national executive director in 1976. She was responsible for modernizing many of the Girl Scouts’ practices to reflect the changing role of women at that time. Former President Bill Clinton awarded Hesselbein the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her accomplishments as a leader, and she has received 22 honorary doctoral degrees from universities across the country. 

These days, Hesselbein remains as busy as ever. She is president and chief executive officer of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, editor-in-chief of the quarterly Leader to Leader journal, and a board member of many nonprofit and private sector organizations. Her career in leadership was significantly influenced by the late Peter Drucker, known as the founder of modern management.  He was both a mentor and inspiration to Hesselbein in her growth as an outstanding leader.

The University of Pittsburgh remains a vital part of Hesselbein’s life, especially through Pitt’s Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement Summit, which concluded its seventh annual gathering on July 21.

The four-day summit brought together 47 student leaders from the United States and 25 other countries to engage in intergenerational and cross-cultural leadership development. Professional mentors from businesses, the government, the armed services, and nonprofit organizations worked directly with students throughout the summit. Hesselbein, speaking over a live feed from New York City on July 20, delivered the keynote lecture titled, “Called to Serve: A Lifetime of Influence and Impact.” 

“Today, the Hesselbein Global Leadership Academy is all about leadership, ethics, and destiny,” said Hesselbein. “Our times call for ethical leaders with a moral compass that works full-time.”

Hesselbein recently donated to Pitt the records of her work with the Girl Scouts and materials from her Leadership Institute. Also included are personal items such as paper records, videocassettes, audiotapes, photographs, and CDs that she collected throughout her career. The archives are accessible at the University of Pittsburgh Library System Archive Services Center,  

Hesselbein—as the Fortune recognition affirms—is a remarkably vital leader with peak global stature. She has been leading for a long time. But, she says, “Age is irrelevant; it is what you do with your life that matters.”