Four Leadership Lessons From Mister Rogers

Updated: Jun 8, 2019

The world can use another Mister Rogers. Tweet This

There’s so much negative emotion in the world today. Politics alone is a huge source of anger and drama. I feel bad for young people who don’t remember a time when we had leaders without blatant aggression and prominent “look at me” stripes.


Fred McFeely Rogers was a one-of-a-kind. And what a perfect middle name for someone who during his television career became the ambassador of kindness. There’s a good movie about Fred titled, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (See trailer below.)


Many of today’s leaders are troubled or overly provocative.


Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was low-key, understated and scandal-free. Yet, he was one of the most inspirational people of his time.


A minister and a television personality, Rogers hosted a show on PBS for three decades. He touched the lives of millions of children and adults alike.


Mister Rogers had an almost preternatural gentle demeanor.


He almost always wore sneakers and a sweater on his show. Not many people know that the original reason for wearing sneakers was that they made less noise than street shoes, when Rogers was walking around the set.


The man was soft spoken and kind. He doesn’t fit the mold of today’s leaders.


And yet, he became an international role model for millions of people. Here’s how it happened.


Four reasons why Mister Rogers endures


Rogers got into television because he hated it. He didn’t think that the medium was being used very well and wanted to offer improvements.

He said, “I’m very concerned that our society is much more interested in information than wonder…in noise rather than silence.”


Rogers believed that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This is an especially interesting observation for someone who had a career in television.


Mister Rogers was an interesting man.


Fred had Yo Yo Ma on his show, not just to play the cello, but to show viewers how to love the cello. Rogers composed most of the music on the show.


Francois Clemmons, who played “Officer Clemmons” on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, was the first black and gay person to have a recurring role on a kids TV show.


The show aired 895 episodes from 1968 to 2001. A lifetime vegetarian, Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer at age 74 in 2003.


Over time, all leaders reveal their stripes. Fred Rogers realized that the ways we communicate are “expressions of care” and that “feelings are [both] mention-able and manageable.”


Rogers consistently exhibited four characteristics that make a leader great. We would all do well to adapt and refine these qualities.


Respect


Mister Rogers respected everyone.


He listened to people and made it clear that he heard them. By all accounts, Rogers was thoughtful and was generous with his time. It’s said that he answered every piece of fan mail personally.


When he was awarded a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, Rogers asked the audience to take ten seconds to think about those who helped them achieve things. Awardees today would never give up any of their microphone time. That’s the kind of person Mister Rogers was.


Empathy


Rogers once visited a teenage boy who had cerebral palsy. The disease has terrible effects on the brain. The boy couldn’t walk or talk. He had taken to hitting himself and acting out in other ways.


But the boy had always loved Mister Rogers and the TV star visited him during a business trip. The mother made arrangements for her son to meet Mister Rogers.


The boy was very nervous about meeting his hero. When Rogers arrived, the boy began acting out and his mother had to take him from the room. But Mister Rogers did not leave. He waited patiently and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers made a request.


He said to the boy, “Will you do something for me, please?”


The boy communicated using a computer. He answered, “Yes.” Of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers.


So Mister Rogers said, “I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?”


The boy didn’t know how to respond. Nobody had ever asked him for something like that. No one had ever asked the boy for anything. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers.


The boy said he would try. Through the magic of empathy, the boy believed Mister Rogers was close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.


Passion


Rogers was a masterful storyteller both on his show and in life.


He employed stories to make difficult issues clear to people as in his now legendary fight for the funding of public broadcasting.


Rogers moved Senator John Pastore, then Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, to restore funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting when the TV star testified before Congress. Watch the video below to see Fred Rogers’ full impact on Pastore.


Listen at 4:45 when the hard-boiled Senator admits that Rogers’ appeal is getting to him.

Funding for PBS was increased from the intended $10 million to $20 million because of Rogers’ testimony.


Fred’s legendary fight for the funding of public broadcasting is an example of how passion doesn’t need to be fiery rhetoric with unintended consequences.


Optimism


Fred Rogers looked for the positive aspects in everything, especially people.


“When I was a boy,” Rogers said, “I would see scary things in the news and my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”


“I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”


We were fortunate to have Fred Rogers helping us. He was, in his own words, someone who “helped you become who you are… someone who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.”


His lessons are especially applicable in the business world. When you’re a leader who is trying to make a change, you set the culture of an organization by the behavior you demonstrate every single day.


There will only ever be one Mister Rogers. But aspects of his personality and behavior can live on in us.


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