Sunday, December 11, 2022

In Memoriam: Frances Hesselbein, Former Chief Executive Officer, Girl Scouts of the USA

Frances Hesselbein led an extraordinary life dedicated to imparting lessons of leadership with compassion, generosity, and vision. She leaves behind a powerful legacy that lives on in generations of Girl Scout alums.

Frances Hesselbein, GSUSA National Executive Director, 1976-1990, in her office at the GSUSA national headquarters, circa 1980’s

We at Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) mourn the loss of an esteemed colleague and a revered member of our sisterhood: Frances Hesselbein, who proudly served as GSUSA’s national CEO from 1976 to 1990 and was most recently president and CEO of the eponymously named Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Born November 1, 1915, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Ms. Hesselbein rose from humble beginnings as a child of The Great Depression. As a teenager, nursing a burgeoning passion for the written word, she had designs on becoming a playwright and pursued her dream by attending the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Tragically, six weeks into her freshman year, her beloved father passed away. Fueled by a sense of responsibility, she secured a job to help support her family, and although she continued taking classes, she never received a formal degree. This early experience underscored for her the importance of sacrifice for a greater purpose.

Her Girl Scout career started in the late 1940s, when she assumed what she believed would be a temporary role as leader of a troop of 30 girls as a favor for a neighbor. That one month turned into eight years of service, propelled by the enthusiasm, ingenuity, and commitment she saw in the girls. It was during this period that Ms. Hesselbein became an impassioned champion of bringing girls impactful leadership development opportunities.
Frances Hesselbein, National Board, Girl Scouts of USA. 1966 Senior Girl Scout East-West International Conference. Honolulu, Hawaii Aug 1-23 1966

Between 1947 and 1976, Ms. Hesselbein took on increasing responsibility with Girl Scouts—moving from volunteer troop leader to council board member to board member and, ultimately, CEO of the national organization. In fact, she held the distinction of being the very first CEO to be appointed from within the Girl Scout organization, and she occupied the top staff position until 1990.

Frances Hesselbein, Dr. Gloria Scott (GSUSA National President, 1975-1978), and the First Lady Rosalynn Carter (GSUSA Honorary National President, 1977-1981) with Girl Scouts in White House, circa 1977

 Her tenure as CEO was marked by transformational innovation. She recognized that with every new generation of girls came an opportunity to ensure Girl Scouts remained relevant. She embraced a leadership approach reflective of the changing cultural tides―deploying many of the management and marketing techniques that she had spent years studying.

Among the innovations Ms. Hesselbein introduced at Girl Scouts were a unified planning and management system to unite Girl Scout councils and a revised handbook and career pamphlets to reflect contemporary concerns and highlight the importance of what we now refer to as STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—for girls.

Under her leadership, Girl Scouts introduced a new level of Girl Scouting—Daisies—for girls in kindergarten and first grade, a step that significantly expanded the overall reach of Girl Scouts. She not only grew opportunities for younger girls, but also intentionally created a more inclusive organization—one that tripled membership of BIPOC girls.

In a high-profile project that brought her passion for continuous learning to life, Ms. Hesselbein oversaw an ambitious transformation of the campground facilities in Briarcliff Manor, New York, into a modern, multi-purpose complex—now known as Edith Macy Center—that offers Girl Scout volunteers and staff ongoing and vital professional training opportunities to build skills critical for the successful implementation of the Girl Scouts mission.
Frances Hesselbein, left, and Jane Freeman (GSUSA National President, 1978-1984), right, posing at groundbreaking ceremony for Edith Macy Conference Center, 1980

A prolific writer, Ms. Hesselbein was the author of two memoirs—Hesselbein on Leadership and My Life in Leadership—and the co-editor of 27 books published in 29 languages, all of which continue to serve as authoritative guides on leadership today. True to her unwavering focus on leadership development for future trailblazers, she also helped to establish the Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement at the University of Pittsburgh.

Among the many accolades bestowed upon her throughout her career are more than 20 honorary doctoral degrees, appointments to two Presidential Commissions on National and Community Service by President George H.W. Bush, and, most recently, the President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Joe Biden. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the country’s highest civilian honor—for her leadership as CEO of GSUSA and for her service as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity, and opportunity.”

We are forever grateful for Ms. Hesselbein’s service to our Movement, her community, and her country. Through her exemplary life’s work, she served as a source of inspiration and truly embodied what it means to be a Girl Scout. While we grieve her loss, we also celebrate and honor her strength, her generosity, and her important place in Girl Scouts history—now and always.

Frances Hesselbein speaks to Girl Scout Seniors and Leaders at the National Center West, 1978