Leadership, Communication and Mister Rogers
[Editor's Note: Happy New Year! I went to see "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (Mister Rogers) over the holidays. I would heartily recommend it as an uplifting and thought-provoking start to the new year. It reminded me of an article we have shared previously about Mister Rogers and leadership, and communication. Some of the most important points about what made Fred Rogers such a great communicator:
- Be present
- Be curious and interested
- Be direct, open, and honest
- Be compassionate
- As Mister Rogers said..."If you can mention it, you can manage it"
Many of you may be faced or will be facing difficult decisions about how and what information to share with your managers and employees. The following article may seem to some to be an unusual addition to our collection, but it has a poignant message for CEOs and business owners from that renowned management guru, Mister Rogers. Simple, direct, honest and open communication is always best. Even if you can't fix it, explain it. I once asked my then toddler daughter why she liked to watch Mister Rogers. She replied, "Because he talks to me, Daddy."
This following article, when we first shared it in 2003, evoked a visceral response and had the highest reader response rate of any other single Issues for Growth e-letter. February 19th marks the 52nd anniversary of the debut of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Somehow, in today's world, when we need direct, honest, open communication, it seems like a great time to republish this. -dpm]
He Was Not Afraid of the Dark¹
If you remember Mister Rogers as being as warm, fuzzy and innocuous as a cardigan sweater, then you did not really know Mister Rogers. It is true that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was an island of tranquility in a children's mediasphere of robots and antic sponges. And in real life, Fred Rogers, who died last week of stomach cancer at age 74, was evidently as sweet and mild mannered as the kindly neighbor he played on TV. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he didn't smoke, drink or eat meat, prayed every day and went to bed by 9:30 each night. To cynics and parodists, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a namby-pamby zone of pint-size feel-goodism, and Mister Rogers himself a wimpy Stuart Smalley for tots.
But part of what made Mister Rogers' Neighborhood great and unique is that, for all its beautiful days in the neighborhood, it was also the darkest work of popular culture made for preschoolers since perhaps the Brothers Grimm. Mister Rogers was softer than anyone else in children's TV because so many of the messages he had to impart were harder. That your parents might someday decide not to live together anymore. That dogs and guppies and people all someday will die. That sometimes you will feel ashamed and other times you will be so mad you will want to bite someone. He even calmed fears that may seem silly but to a child are real and consuming - like being afraid to take a bath because you might be sucked down the pipes. Mister Rogers gently sang, "You can never go down/Can never go down/Can never go down the drain."
In other words, Fred Rogers knew that childhood, which we mis-remember as carefree and innocent, is a time of roiling passions, anguish and terror.
His show, the first version of which debuted in 1963, was his professional way of doing what he had done as a boy in Latrobe, Pa., when he played with puppets to calm himself after hearing scary news reports. And perhaps one reason his death touched adults so deeply is the feeling that Mister Rogers left us when we could especially use someone to teach us to manage our children's fears, and our own.
The last original episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood aired on Aug. 31, 2001 - a scant 11 days before we needed him to explain the biggest Big Inexplicable yet. He returned to tape public-service announcements on how to talk to kids about the Sept. 11 anniversary, but the anxiety has only built since then. War jitters, a polarized country and world, and misinformation everywhere, have rendered literal our most childlike, monsters-under-the-bed fears: that a tall building can collapse like a house of cards, that something bad can seep in ghostlike through your window and hurt you. ...
... We relied on Mister Rogers to explain death and hurt and sadness, not to eradicate them. All of us, including CEOs, business owners and senior executives, might take a few lessons from Mister Rogers. For instance, that an explanation of a bad thing is only reassuring if it is straightforward and direct. Mister Rogers spoke softly, but he never soft-pedaled. And he knew how to be both compassionate and authoritative. He was "Mister" Rogers, after all, never "Fred." He wore a tie even when he dressed down. He also respected children's intelligence, and while he used the Land of Make-Believe to teach lessons, he never puffed up kids with false promises and fantasy. There is no more un-Disneyfied sentiment in children's pop culture than the title of his song "Wishes Don't Make Things Come True."
The PBS' website offered tips for helping children cope with Fred Rogers' death. "You may be surprised," it said, "(as adults) to find that you're more upset than your child." But that should surprise no one. Kids, after all, have hundreds of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood reruns to help them through their spooky moments (Check out YouTube). But who is out there today, in any neighborhood, to reassure grownups that we can never go down the drain?
¹ In a nervous age of orange alerts, who will take the place of Mister Rogers?
By James Poniewozik Monday, Mar. 03, 2003 Time Online Edition