Seven Leadership Lessons from Mr. Rogers

In June, a movie was released in select theaters across the country: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It was a well-done documentary on the life and career of Fred Rogers, the man who hosted the show we came to know as kids—Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. My entire family enjoyed the inside story of how this person caught his vision to impart into the lives of young children between 2 and 6 years old.

Photo via PBS/Facebook

Surprisingly, we were given a leadership clinic from his life. Below, I’ve outlined some insights and applications you and I can employ in our own leadership:

1. Be sure your leadership addresses a tangible problem.

As a recent college graduate, Fred Rogers planned to enroll in seminary, when he visited a television studio and became enamored by this new piece of technology. He immediately told his parents he planned to wait on seminary and get into television. He saw it as a tool to connect with young people who were beginning to experience trauma. His first year was 1968. Americans were watching the Vietnam War on the 6:00 news; two significant assassinations took place (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.) higher divorce rates, riots and other societal changes spread across the land. His career didn’t stem from the love of entertainment. It was from a desire to meet real needs in the hearts of children and solve real problems as they grew up. Fred actually hosted an entire episode where he explained what an assassination is. He dealt with issues no other children’s program did at the time.

Question: How does your leadership address real problems around you?

2. Your most natural leadership will stem from your own past pain.

Between the ages of 10-13, Fred Rogers gained a lot of weight. Consequently, he was the target of bullies who made fun of how fat he was. They called him, “Fat Fred.” He recalls those memories without any bitterness, but built his career helping children who endured similar hardships. He saw himself as someone who filled gaps in their life—especially when Mom or Dad didn’t have the language to respond to the pain. He said, “No matter what our job is, we are all supposed to be repairers of creation.”

Question: How does your current leadership style stem from your own past pain?

3. Never fear lobbying for your deepest values.

In the early 1970s, Pubic Television was in jeopardy of losing $20 million in funding for their programming. PBS found themselves in a hearing before a congressional committee in an attempt to keep the network alive. When the committee heard one attorney after another merely reading statements in their defense, one senator said he didn’t want to hear one more person read something to them. At that point, Fred Rogers took his turn. Instead of reading, he spoke straight from his heart and right to the hearts of the bureaucrats. He was poised yet passionate and spoke directly to the men on the panel. When he finished, one senator replied, “I think this is just wonderful. Looks like you just earned yourself the $20 million.”

Question: Are you doing anything so valuable that you’d lobby to keep it alive?

4. Practice the Law of Reciprocals

When Fred launched into TV, he noticed that nearly all the other children’s programs consisted of fast-paced action, lots of noise, and people throwing pies into the faces of others. He never condemned those shows, but instead decided to complement them. He did the opposite. Just like a reciprocal in math is an inverted fraction, leaders do well to offer people what they can’t find elsewhere. Leadership rises based on providing the scarcest resource. Mr. Rogers’ show offered an extremely slow-paced show; it was never noisy, it had low production value and it was simple. His producer literally said in recollection: “We took the elements that made up children’s TV at the time and we did the opposite.” What a great idea: Don’t emulate. Complement.

Question: How does your leadership complement what’s going on around you?

5. If you can’t replace what is broken, learn to redeem it.

Even as early as the 1960s and 1970s, Fred Rogers could see that television had the power to accomplish constructive or destructive goals in the minds of kids. While he knew the hours in front of the TV could take kids away from time with parents, he also believed “TV can be used for good or ill.” So, he labored tirelessly for decades (between 1968-2001) to offset the violence, pain and destruction on that screen in our family rooms. He always felt that if you can’t replace it, redeem it.

Question: How can your leadership either replace or redeem something destructive?

6. When you lead many people, think of one person.

Mr. Rogers explained how he remained so steady and personal in front of the camera for so many years. He said he always imagined one child he was speaking to, not millions of them. It enabled him to keep a human and intimate style as if he were speaking to only you, as a kid. The outcomes are amazing. When kids were asked later what this did for them they said, “This made me trust him.”

Question: As you lead larger teams or groups, do people feel that you speak to them?

7. Find a place where your leadership is seen as a calling.

There were times when Fred Rogers told his wife and even his producer he wasn’t sure if he was even making a difference. He’d cry when he was overcome with the thought of not “moving the needle” for kids in society. But he kept going because he saw his job as more than a job—it was a calling. When Fred Rogers was blamed by the press for all the entitled, lazy Millennials who felt they were special just for showing up, he never got defensive, but he did clarify his message: “What my message has always been is this: you don’t have to perform in some extraordinary way to be loved.” He stayed clear and true to his original mission.

Question: Is your leadership role a mere job to you or a calling?

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Seven Leadership Lessons from Mr. Rogers