Those of us practicing knowledge services have long understood the role of leadership in the success of our efforts. Whether it’s KM, knowledge strategy development and implementation, or any of the other management methodologies relating to successful knowledge sharing, we learned long ago that it’s leadership that makes knowledge services happen. If we want to achieve excellence in knowledge sharing in order to develop any workplace into a knowledge culture, the effort builds almost exclusively on leadership.
And what teachers we’ve had! The list is enormous, and obviously – for those of us with a slight “leaning” for what’s gone before, a touch of historical learning affects how we think about what we do currently. Of course we preserve (or try to preserve) what we learned from Peter Drucker, David Lilienthal, and so many others, far too many in fact to name here.
Yet standing at the top of the list continues to be Frances Hesselbein, probably the most practical among our leadership specialists. And certainly she is the person I consider the most humanistically-focused of all who’ve come before us. For many years, Mrs. Hesselbein was the President of The Drucker Foundation (succeeding Drucker himself), and in 2012, the organization was renamed The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum in her honor.
The Forum is now affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, as part of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership. Its mission is clearly stated:
The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum at the University of Pittsburgh is a continuation of the legacy of Frances Hesselbein and reflects the vision of a university-based center for teaching, applied research, and public service where leaders and aspiring leaders from around the world can gather to advance the art and science of leadership and put these principles to practice in public service.
And I think it’s pretty evident in this journal entry that over the years not only have I become a big fan – professionally speaking – of Frances Hesselbein, we’ve become friends as well. I am greatly honored by that friendship. As for her guidance and professional example, her many books and articles (and the important – award-winning – journal Leader to Leader, for which Hesselbein is Co-Editor-in-Chief) continue to inspire me in my work and my thoughts about how leadership and knowledge services connect. Even today I delight in dipping into The Leader of the Future: New Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the Next Era, which Hesselbein edited with Marshall Goldsmith and Richard Beckhard and published by The Drucker Foundation in 1996.
Dated? Not at all, and even the brightest, most quick-witted, and enthusiastic of today’s young managers (and MBA students) can find much of value as they read these thirty-one short essays. And we can match what’s in that book to the latest from Hesselbein, who has just been interviewed in a podcast for Forbes. In Kathy Caprino’s Celebrated Leader Frances Hesselbein on What Great Leadership Is and Is Not (Forbes, August 25, 2022). Caprino – a career and leadership coach, writer, speaker, and educator dedicated to the advancement of women in business – includes the podcast in her series “Today’s True Leadership.” The link here (click on the title) also includes the text of the podcast.
For me, as I seek to connect how knowledge services and leadership come together for knowledge sharing success, I’m particularly taken with three points in the podcast.
First, I love Mrs. Hesselbein’s definition of leadership:
Our personal definition of leadership drives what we do and why we do it. This definition is found within us. For me, “leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.” A great leader does not preach about their values; they live them. In the end, it is the quality and character of a leader that determines their performance and results. It is all about ethics, collaboration and transformation. Great leaders are consistent with their actions and values. We don’t voice a wonderful sentiment and then behave in an opposite way. That’s when morale, motivation and productivity go down in an organization, company or movement. A great leader is the living embodiment of their values.
My second “take-away” is even more basic: the three “elements” – we might call them – of successful leadership: we must listen, we must have courage, and we must practice what Hesselbein calls “horizontal leadership”:
Listen: In addition to listening to others, I suggest to all emerging leaders to listen carefully to the voice within themselves. It tells them where they should be going and what they should be doing. When we try to push that voice down, we waste time and effort not doing what we were called to do: lead.
Courage: We have the courage to always place the mission first, to be demographics-driven and to be values-based. We don’t cut corners and do just two out of the three. The mission is our reason for being. Therefore, we don’t take a project if it doesn’t further the mission no matter how nice it is. We say “thank you” and keep moving. It takes a certain courage to close one door because it doesn’t support the mission and trust that another door will open.
Horizontal leadership: It is not one leader, but many leaders contributing to the mission and values of their organization. Leaders give other people the opportunities to learn, grow and lead and are exemplary in their leadership. Horizontal leadership is more than banning the hierarchal structure. It is about leading beyond the walls and leading together to address critical needs and issues in the community.
It is also important for emerging leaders to keep in mind what “making a greater positive impact” means. The outcome we should be striving for is changing lives. Changing lives is our bottom line, not squeezing nickels. Changing lives motivates and energizes our institutions, as we are ultimately striving for “significance, not success,” as Peter Drucker would say.
And my final lesson from Hesselbein’s podcast? Simple. It has always been my contention that generosity is one of the most critical attributes of knowledge services, and so it is with leadership. Here is how she describes the value of generosity in leadership and in knowledge services:
We all have a defining moment in our lives that helped us know what is important to us. My moment happened when I was just 8 years old. I remember I would coax my grandmother to let me play with two beautiful old Chinese vases that would sit above her pipe organ keyboard in her home, and she always said no.
Finally, on one Saturday visit, feeling very assertive, I stamped my foot at my grandmother and demanded that I be allowed to play with the vases. Instead of scolding me, my grandmother led me over to a small love seat facing the pipe organ, put her arms around me, and told me this story.
“Long ago, in this little town was a Chinese laundry man, who lived alone in his small laundry. Each week he picked up your grandfather’s shirts and brought them back in a few days, washed, starched, ironed perfectly. Mr. Yee wore traditional Chinese dress, a long tunic, a cap with his hair in a queue. When your mother was eight years old, some days she and her little sisters would come home from school crying that the bad boys were chasing Mr. Yee and calling him bad names.
“The boys would tease him, calling him, ‘Chinkey, Chinkey Chinaman,’ and other unkind names, and they would try to pull his queue. One day, there was a knock on the kitchen door. When I opened it, there stood Mr. Yee, with a large package in his arms. I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Yee, please come in. Won’t you sit down?’ but Mr. Yee just stood there and handed me the package, saying, ‘This is for you.’
“I opened the package, and in it were two beautiful old Chinese vases. I said, ‘Mr. Yee, these are too valuable. I couldn’t accept them.’ He said, ‘I want you to have them.’ I asked why. He told me, ‘Mrs. Wicks, I have been in this town for ten years and you are the only one who ever called me Mr. Yee. And now I am going back home. They won’t let me bring my wife and children here and I miss them too much, so I am going back to China. The vases are all I brought with me. I want you to have them.’ There were tears in his eyes as he said good-bye.”
In my grandmother’s arms, I cried my heart out for poor Mr. Yee. That was long ago—the defining moment when I learned respect for all people, the defining moment that would stay with me, would shape my life with passion for diversity, for inclusion.
The person who had the greatest impact upon my life, my career, and my work was my grandmother. People always expect me to talk about John W. Gardner, Peter Drucker, or Warren Bennis — all the great thought leaders who have been part of my journey. Yet from my ﬁrst consciousness of relations with other people, my grandmother has been my leadership model. She listened very carefully.
With us grandchildren at just six or seven years old, she looked into our eyes and she listened to us as though it was the most important thing she could be doing at that moment, and she never cut us off. She listened to us with total concentration and warm response and we learned to listen because we wanted to be like Mama Wicks. That kind of sensitivity and appreciation of others was a very important lesson, learned very early.
I suggest parents listen and give their children the attention they need to develop confidence. In that way, a child learns early on that what they have to say matters.
For Frances Hesselbein, her grandmother’s lesson is a lesson for us all.