by Dorothy Marcic
A hero died last month. It was a man I admired and worked for back in the 1970s as a production assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers didn’t have any of the characteristics of an action hero: tall, muscular, forceful or dominating. In fact, he was rather small-boned, quiet and thoughtful. Yet his style of leadership influenced a significant part of today’s young adults who are now in the work force. I only wish he had impacted even more kids.
Think of the effect he must have had on generations of employees. Consider that who we see as our “heroes” has a lot to do with the kind of leaders we become or what we look for in our own leaders. Over the years, when I told people I had worked for Fred Rogers, the reactions were polarized into admiration for him or aversion. I came to see Rogers as a Rorschach test for how we see the world. People who believed that strong leadership was always necessary or that average people were not capable of individually or collectively deciding their own destinies tended to intensely dislike Rogers. Others who believe in the ability of groups to determine their own futures or of individuals to make their own decisions without a strong authority figure directing them - those people admired Fred Rogers.
Some viewed Rogers as not manly enough. His television persona was parodied on late night television. But whose definition of masculinity is that? I saw him as someone in the vein of Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi - gentle but strong leaders.
So what are the qualities of workplace behavior that Fred Rogers helped shape? He showed children how important it is to listen thoughtfully to someone else, when he would look directly at the camera and ask pointed questions. He gave models of conflict resolution when King Friday would get angry at Lady Aberlin. He showed how important it was for members of the organization - whether in The Neighborhood or the Make Believe kingdom - to care about one another and to collaborate on problems.
He was perhaps the first children’s television star who emphasized feelings, understanding them and learning to deal with them. Many people will remember the show about the fear of being sucked down the bathtub drain or about going to the dentist. Fred Rogers acknowledged those fears and helped children gain courage. And finally, he showed what reality is, clearly distinguishing between fantasy and the real world.
Dorothy Marcic and Mr. McFeely on the set of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the early 1970s
Aren’t these qualities lacking in some of our leaders and CEOs these days? I think too many who rose to the rank of CEO were weaned on Superman and Batman, seeing themselves as indestructible. How else can you explain the behaviors of Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco or Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom? Men who lived in a fantasy world where the normal rules of transparency and accounting practices did not apply to them.
The really effective leaders we have today are more strong but selfless and tend therefore not to be in the news. What are the great corporate success stories these days? They include Darwin Smith of Kimberly-Clark or Kurt Walgreen of Walgreen’s, both of whom oversaw dramatic transformations of their companies from mediocre to star quality. Not by manufacturing deals that could never be actualized, but instead by facing reality, collaborating with employees to create a compelling vision and then having the courage to execute it; listening to the public, the market and workers. Aren’t those the very qualities Fred Rogers taught us? He will be sorely missed.
Dorothy Marcic is a faculty member at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of 10 books and has consulted with companies and universities.
--The Tennessean March 9, 2003