Frances Hesselbein (née Richards) was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1915, the oldest of three children. Her education includes classes at the University of Pittsburgh’s Johnstown Campus, though after her father died she left school and supported her family. She married John D. Hesselbein, an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh, who worked for the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat and later opened his own documentary-filmmaking and photography studio. While assisting her husband at the studio and raising their son, John, Hesselbein was approached by a local group of women with the request to take over the leadership of a local Girl Scout troop. Despite not having a girl in the troop herself, Hesselbein agreed and took charge since the troop would be disbanded without a leader. She stayed with that group of girls until they graduated high school. Later, she was asked to take on the role of Talus Rock Council Executive Director in Johnstown, which she accepted. Following a successful period in this position, she was invited to apply for the position of National Executive Director (CEO) of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. She served in that role from 1976-1990 as the first woman to be appointed to that position from within the organization.
During her time with the Girl Scouts, Hesselbein helped to transform the organization. She had the uniform redesigned as well as the logo, worked to increase minority representation, and also helped create the Daisy program for 6-year-old girls. Membership in the Girl Scouts increased greatly under Hesselbein’s leadership as well, reaching up to 2.25 million girls in all. Hesselbein also implemented her leadership strategy of "Banning the Hierarchy", incorporating the idea of "Circular Management." This strategy, among others, would follow Hesselbein when she retired from the Girl Scouts.
After leaving the Girl Scouts in 1990, Hesselbein was invited to work on a new project. Her friend Peter Drucker, often called “The Father of Modern Management” for his business expertise, was to be honored by a new nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting leadership and management skills and tools, which would eventually be called the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management. Hesselbein led the organization through the 1990s in different roles. In 2003, it was renamed the Leader to Leader Institute though the mission of the institute remained the same. In 2012, it would become the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, which is the current name of the organization. To this day, Hesselbein continues to serve as the President and CEO of the institution.
Hesselbein is very active in various nonprofit organizations in addition to her work at the Hesselbein Institute. She has worked with retired members of the military to promote the Generals in Transition and the Invest in America programs. She has also served on the boards of nonprofits and corporations, including the Bright China Social Fund and Mutual of America Life Insurance Company. Working with her alma mater, Hesselbein helped establish the Frances Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement at the University of Pittsburgh, inviting students around the world to participate in sessions focused on creating the leaders of tomorrow.
Frances Hesselbein has received a number of awards, including 22 honorary doctorates. In 1998 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, as "a pioneer for women, diversity, and opportunity." She also served as the West Point Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership, a two-year appointment. Hesselbein was the first woman and the first non-graduate to hold this position. Hesselbein has also been named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania.