The Leader of the Future

Building a sustainable organization is one of a leader’s primary responsibilities.
— Frances Hesselbein

I wanted to title this post: “This Lady Knows Leadership,” but that is an understatement. Frances Hesselbein’s leadership acumen is amazing. Her resume is staggering. Her writings are penetrating.

Hesselbein served as the CEO of the Girl Scouts for thirteen years, tripling its racial and ethnic diversity during her tenure. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 for her impact as ‘‘a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity, and opportunity.’’ She served for years as President and CEO of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, the organization founded as the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management. In 2017 the institute chose "to transfer many of its assets to the University of Pittsburgh to establish The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum."

At 101 her focus is still crystal clear:

  • Leadership: Leadership is a matter of how to be . . . not how to do.
  • Philosophy: To serve is to live.
  • Mission: To build global leaders.

I learned of Mrs. Hesselbein’s work from the Leader to Leader Journal, for which she serves as Editor-In-Chief, and from her work, The Leader of the Future. When I picked up a copy of Hesselbein on Leadership, I devoured it. The book is a treasury of leadership wisdom, much of it directed toward helping leaders build sustainable organizations and steer them to a preferable future. It includes a valuable checklist to that end.

Hesselbein’s Checklist For The Future

Mrs. Hesselbein’s offers a 30-point checklist for a successful journey to the future. The list is worth the price of the book (and more). Here are ten points of the thirty she mentions:

1. Revisit the mission.

Because everything begins and flows from mission, leaders must periodically revisit and refine it. Is the mission clear, short, powerful, and compelling? Hesselbein highlights the mission of the Red Cross as an exemplar for its focus, brevity, and clarity: “To provide compassionate care to those in need.”

2. Mobilize the total organization around the mission.

Leaders must relentlessly communicate the mission until everyone knows it. Everyone must be able to share the organizational mission—“why it does what it does, its reason for being, its purpose.”

3. Develop powerful strategic goals.

Developing no more than five powerful strategic goals will streamline and communicate the board’s vision of the desired future for the organization.

4. Focus!

There is no shortage of organizational initiatives vying for attention. Focus “on those few initiatives that will make a difference . . . . Focus is key.”

5. Deploy people and allocate resources for impact.

Evaluate carefully and choose wisely. Only deploy people and allocate resources where they will have an impact, that is, only where they can further the mission and achieve the few powerful goals.

6. Practice Peter Drucker’s “planned abandonment.”

Jettison current polices, practices, and assumptions as soon as it becomes clear they will have little relevance in the future.

7. Provide carefully planned continuing learning opportunities.

Board members as well as the entire staff and workforce need carefully planned continuing learning opportunities designed to increase their capacities and unleash their creative energy.

8. Reevaluate performance measurements.

Performance measurements must move beyond the old forms and assumptions and toward creative and inclusive approaches to “measuring what we value and valuing what we measure.”

9. Groom successors.

The leader’s daily challenge is to develop a pool of gifted potential leaders, not just “a chosen one.”

10. Pay attention to your leadership language.

Leaders must use a common leadership and management language within the organization and beyond with people and organizations in the public, private, and non-profit sectors around the world.

Leadership For Today

Hesselbein’s checklist is, in her own words, “only a beginning,” but it is the kind of beginning that helps leaders serve well and move their organizations toward a preferred future.

Since Hesselbein has said her list is "only a beginning" and “Leadership is a matter of how to be...not how to do,” I have included a three-point checklist on “how to be” from God's book of wisdom:

1. Be a listener.

God says, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.”

Listening takes many forms. Hans Finzel puts it well,

The more people you lead, the more you must listen. Effective leadership has more to do with listening than with talking. Leaders, by their very nature, tend to be removed from the front lines of battle in the organization. Therefore, they must listen to those who are in the trenches and rely on that information to make wise decisions.  Yet the pressures of leadership work against that at every turn.

Leaders listen to their and their cheerleaders and their critics.

2. Be a learner.

God says, “Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you” and “Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.”

3. Be a lover.

God says, “Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.”

As Tim Sanders notes in his New York Times best-selling book by the same title, "Love is the killer app." The best leaders know it and practice it.

Like Frances Hesselbein, leaders who want a better tomorrow will listen, learn, and love. They will do the hard work to move themselves and their organizations to a preferable future.

What’s your next step to get there?


1. The bulk of this post was drawn from “When the Roll Is Called In 2010” in Hesselbein On Leadership, by Frances Hesselbein. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2002. Pages 85-91.
2. “Listen to advice…” from Proverbs 19:20.
3. “Hans Finzel puts it well …” from The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make by Hans Finzel, Colorado Springs: David C. Cook. 2007. Page 138.
4. “Get wisdom…” from Proverbs 4:5-6 ESV
5. “Buy the truth…” from Proverbs 23:23 ESV