Leadership Lessons from Mister Rogers–A Sage

Jann FreedLeading Leave a Comment

Similar to several other people, I have been obsessed with Mister Rogers!  While my sons did not watch Mister Rogers often (I discouraged most TV and video games perhaps to a fault), I am now reading and watching all I can find about the man and it is easy to do.  (His commencement speeches such as at Dartmouth and Marquette are worth watching.)

Last year, there was a great documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and I blogged about it.  You can read it here.  In the post, I said:

The new documentary and every interview I watched with Mister Rogers reflected how he was always teaching people how to handle the highs and lows of life–the joys and sorrows that are inevitable.  He understood the integration of life and work and how the choices we make in life shape who we are and who we become.  Mister Rogers believed that “what was essential is invisible to the eye.”

Recently, I went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks playing Mister Rogers based on a true story.  I read movie reviews and I read and listened interviews with Tom Hanks and articles about him about playing Mister Rogers.  I even asked a professional colleague of mine who is also a movie buff what he thought of the movie.  “It conveyed the power of what can happen when you truly engage another person’s humanity, without making excuses for them.” 

All of this research led me to summarize some leadership lessons from Mister Rogers–things we should keep in mind if we are in a leadership position. My definition of leader is if you are in a position to influence the lives of others, you are a leader.  In addition to bosses, this includes parents, coaches, teachers, pastors, among others.

  1.  Slow down and focus.  Hanks said one of the hardest parts for him in this role was to slow down the pace which was Mister Roger’s being intentional.  Hanks had to get the cadence correct. After watching hours of recordings, Hanks said, “Mister Rogers was always talking to a single kid, a single person two feet on the other side of the camera screen.  They said when you were talking to Fred, you felt a though you were the only person in the world who mattered to him.”
  2. Choose words carefully.  Every word was important to Fred and he made sure the right words were used.  For example, it was not a show. He used the word “program,” never “show.” “An atmosphere,” he said.
  3. Be comfortable with silence.  Use silence to listen.  Not only was his pace slow, but he demonstrated how to be comfortable with silence.  This is basically a mindfulness/meditation practice.  He used silence as a way to listen to others instead of him doing all of the talking.
  4. Be consistent in behaviors.  Create rituals.  From the moment Mister Rogers walked onto the show, his behaviors were consistent so the audience knew what to expect.  He created rituals so the audience could anticipate and again expect.
  5. Validate ALL feelings.  Fred empowered the audience by validating all feelings.  He acknowledged that all feelings were valid.  The important skill was to know what to do about the feelings and to handle them in a healthy way.
  6. Be authentic.  There was a line in the movie that keeps ruminating in my head.  The narrator asks Mister Rogers (Hanks) how different he is from the “character” he plays in the show.  And Hanks just looks at him with a puzzled look because Mister Rogers in not a character, but he is Mister Rogers-every quirky and common thing about him.
  7. Be curious by being interested. Mister Rogers was curious and he demonstrated this in many ways.  One way was how he asked questions.  Asking questions is a great way to learn and to teach.  He was driven by curiosity in people, places, things, and topics–some difficult topics such as war, divorce, and death.  He was the perfect example of how being interested is interesting.
  8. Create. “I think that the need to create has to do with a gap,” Fred said. “A gap between what is and what might be. Or what you’d like to be. I think that the need to create is the need to bridge that gap.” … “He wrote or co-wrote all the scripts for the program — all 33 years of it. He wrote the melodies. He wrote the lyrics.”  Mister Rogers was trying to create “an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are.” … “I really don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody. If people are comfortable in that atmosphere, they can grow from there, in their own way.”

In an article in the New York Times Magazine, Jeanne Marie Laskas said, “I know anything worthwhile I do as a parent is rooted in Fred’s teaching about tending soil. The same goes for anything good I do as a teacher … I’ve been working to create an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are. I don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody.  A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil. It’s not the kind of thing you read in the pedagogy journals.”

But it’s all connected. The soil, the atmosphere, the fundamental human urge to create. It all goes to Fred’s notion of a gap between what is and what might be. For Fred, creating is an expression of optimism, an act of faith. Faith in progress, in invention, in some basic urge to constantly make life better. Perhaps the best way to understand just how radical his message would be is to think of what happens when soil isn’t tended. A barren landscape. A toxic soil. An atmosphere devoid of love and of acceptance, where a person’s internal wars go unnoticed and unattended. What sort of creations come out of those people, stuck in that place?”

So leaders need to: 

  • Slow down and focus.

  • Choose words carefully.

  • Be comfortable with silence and use silence to listen.

  • Be consistent with behaviors and create rituals.

  • Validate all feelings.

  • Be authentic.

  • Be curious by being interested.

  • Create.

But as his wife, Joanne, was quick to point out, Mister Rogers was NOT a saint and she wanted people to know that.  “If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked,” Joanne said. Disciplined, focused, a perfectionist — an artist.”

Since leaders are responsible for creating a culture where people can be their best selves, it is wise to remember what Mister Rogers would say, “A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil.”

How well are you “tending the soil” for the people under your influence?