I recently saw the documentary “Won’t You be My Neighbor” which chronicles the life of Fred Rogers and the making of his children’s television show, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood”, which aired in the United States on public television from 1968 to 2001. The documentary was both enjoyable and inspirational, and I would highly recommend it. I didn’t attend thinking that I would write a blog on Mister Rogers, but after seeing the film and doing some additional research on Fred Rogers, his story can serve as a case study for exceptional leadership. (This also serves as a nice contrast to the July 3 blog around sportsmanship and leadership.)
Some quick background … Fred Rogers was an ordained minister who began working in TV because he felt it could be used as a vehicle for reaching young children. Over a decade he developed the ideas, characters and music that ultimately became the TV show Mister Rogers Neighborhood. The show initially aired on a local public television station in Pittsburgh but was soon picked up and aired nationally on PBS.
What made Fred Rogers an exceptional leader and what can we learn from him? What you’ll read and come to learn about Fred Rogers is that he was not flashy but practiced and perfected fundamental leadership concepts that allowed him to achieve success in his vision. Here are a few qualities of strong and effective leaders that he embodied.
Vision, Focus, and Determination … Great leaders have a compelling vision and Mister Rogers had a compelling yet simple vision of delivering messages of kindness and love to children via television. It took him many years of determination and focus to formulate his ideas, gain experience in television and hone his message before he was able to launch this vision. He worked in television on both children’s shows and music/variety programs to develop a wide range of skills (writing songs, puppeteering, voice acting) that ultimately grew into the idea for his show. His show aired locally in Pittsburgh in 1968, when he was almost 40 years old, after over 15 years of different roles around television and children’s education.
Trust and Communication … In my opinion, these are THE two foundational elements of leadership. In order to launch and sustain a national children’s program for over 20 years, Mister Rogers had to earn and maintain the trust of his colleagues (television programmers) and his customers – young children and their parents. No easy task there. He did this through honest, genuine communication, first of his vision and then through his program. Two things here – first, if you are not familiar with the program, Mister Rogers was the primary actor, puppeteer and central figure in EVERY show. Second, this television program wasn’t just smiles and small talk – it was rich with content relevant to children including controversial subjects such as divorce, death, war, tragedy, and discrimination, with guidance for children on understanding and handling the emotions that come along with them. He delivered it in a calm, patient way, through the creative use of unthreatening characters – people characters and puppets – and through song.
Innovation … Mister Rogers was a pioneer and innovator. As shared and seen in the documentary, his television sets and props were very simple. Puppets and songs were by no means new but the way he brought them together along with simple sets, engaging messages, and regular guest characters was different than any other children’s programming.
Authenticity and Humility … Finally, Mister Rogers was authentic. As witnessed by his colleagues, collaborators, and guests on the program, he was the same person off-stage as he was on-stage. His principles, his style and his message were not an act, but were consistent in all aspects of his life and over his entire life. Like anyone, he had some detractors, but his character is what seemed to set him apart and was a big part of the trust he gained over the years. In the documentary, they show video footage of him appearing in front of congress in 1968 to argue for funding that was about to be cut. (Here’s the LINK.) Take note of his ability to speak with emotion and passion rather than simply reading his prepared statement and see how he wins over a powerful senator.
And humility? Pretty simple. It was all about the kids.