In an era of disillusionment with high-flying, big-talking leaders, maybe it’s time to find new models. Like Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a PBS series that was targeted to preschool children. Though Fred Rogers passed away a few years ago, his legacy includes teaching kids (and parents who also watched) some fundamental leadership lessons.
Adjust your approach. Some adults find Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to be slow and boring. That’s because the show is geared to the way children learn, not the adults sitting next to them on the sofa. Likewise, leaders must adjust their approach to suit the particular needs of the people they’re working with. Some of your team members may need very little direction and few check-ins. Others require more background information and time talking through not only what they’re doing, but how they need to do it. One-size leadership doesn’t fit all.
Don’t ignore difficult topics. Mr. Rogers tackled divorce, cancer, death and other topics that children encounter and adults find challenging to talk about. He dealt with these sensitive topics honestly and gently. If one of your direct reports has an issue, don’t side-step it. Ask open-ended questions and monitor your reaction, both verbal and nonverbal. The goal is that the conversation remains open and respectful. This is the only path to the root of the problem.
Really be with people. Fred Rogers had an uncanny ability to connect with kids, even though he did so through a TV screen. At the beginning of each episode, Mr. Rogers entered the house, took off his jacket and shoes and put on his signature cardigan sweater and slippers. He then sat down, made eye contact and smiled. These were the cues that he was ready to talk and listen. Give your people visible signs that you are fully present. Sit quietly, lean forward and relax. Remember that the most effective leaders are not the loud and flashy ones. They are the people who convey the sense that listening to you is the most important thing they could be doing at that particular moment.
Help people tap what’s within them. Mr. Rogers didn’t just tell kids they were special; he helped them draw from within to learn how to manage their feelings and interact with their world. He understood that rules were far less important than self-control and self-discipline. When teaching new information, Fred always started from a place of strength. He first shared what kids already knew about a topic, and then added new information. Be strength-based in all of your interactions – whether it’s onboarding a new team member, talking about a performance issue or mentoring a person up the career ladder.
Fred Rogers left this world with awards and accolades for his work on behalf of children. Yet he remained grounded in what was truly important, saying, “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.” Today, spend some time finding your good stuff and help others do the same.
Don’t know about Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, or want to re-watch your favorites? Go to pbs.org to watch 26 full-length classic episodes.
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