What Business Leaders can Learn from Mister Rogers


On May 1st, 1969, Mister Rogers testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, defending public broadcast from budget cuts that were seemingly inevitable. The argument, presented in just six minutes, resulted in a $20 million dollar win, and nearly 50 years after the fact, Mister Rogers is still heralded as a champion for public media. 


Most lawyers, renowned for their relentless aggression in the courtroom, can’t claim to have ever had a win like that. So how did this soft-spoken, unassuming, cardigan-wearing man manage it in approximately six minutes and twelve seconds? 


With assertiveness and authenticity. 


There’s a misconception that many of us believe to be true: that kindness and ferocity are mutually exclusive. That to be fiercely protective of or passionate about something, you must forsake kindness, benevolence and compassion. That simply isn’t true. In an interview with salon.com, David Newell, the man who played Mr. McFeely, the Delivery Man in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, said, “Fred was a gentle man, but he had a backbone of steel, you know.”


All it takes is six minutes to prove that point. Head over to YouTube, search “Mister Rogers testifies” and see for yourself.


This misconception is perpetuated by the way we see strong leadership depicted in film and on TV: fast-talking, no-nonsense, side-eyeing wise-crack cracking walk-with-me-talk-with-me characters who don’t suffer fools gladly. Traits like decisiveness are depicted as ruthlessness. What should be constructive criticism is delivered with scathing disregard for the recipient’s feelings. Anything resembling a moment of genuine vulnerability is hastily dismissed. These are the characters we’re supposed to glorify.


Is it any wonder, then, that Jon Ronson’s best-selling book “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry” and other studies have begun to explore the concept that many corporate and governmental leaders are psychopaths? There’s no denying that the attributes we’ve begun to associate with leadership are also, apparently, tell-tale signs of, you know, psychopathy. 


So why is this…a thing?


For the same reason so many of us believe that kindness and ferocity are contradictory, we often mistake aggression for assertiveness. People who behave aggressively, by being antagonistic or hostile or just downright mean in the workplace would likely deem themselves assertive. They operate under the impression that in order to have your ideas heard, in order to establish yourself as a confident leader, in order to get ahead…you’ve got to be a bit mean. People who hesitate to define or defend healthy boundaries, who opt to back down from anything resembling confrontation and let go of the issues that cause them stress or befuddlement, often do so because they want to avoid being deemed aggressive. For many people, speaking up or speaking out feels like defiance. 


The ability to share and inquire and request clarity and say no, however, are all examples of assertiveness, and the kind of behaviour required from employees in any workplace that aims to be functional, enduring and successful.  


So how do we accomplish this? How do we replace aggression with assertiveness and authenticity in our workplaces?


By learning, once more, from the example set by our favourite neighbor. 


The lessons Mister Rogers taught through song, puppetry and pleasant conversation often focused on the importance of being able to recognize and identify our own emotions (even, and especially, the tough ones). In school, children are taught basic math and how to read, but when it comes to their ability to navigate complex social dynamics, they’re often left to their own devices. Recess and locker rooms and the godforsaken lunchroom are where they begin to learn (often the hard way) what’s expected of them if they want to fit in, the childhood version of succeeding. We all grow up simply doing the best we can with what we have, and what we have is sadly limited information, a lot of preconceived notions and stifling stereotypes.


It’s no wonder so many of us make it into the workforce feeling as though our ability to show up authentically is simply too daunting a prospect. So we make ourselves bigger, or we make ourselves smaller, and as soon as that happens, seeing things eye to eye becomes a futile endeavour. 


When we lack authenticity, we fail to connect. When we fail to connect, we fail to be creative. Teams who can’t trust one another can’t thrive, and yet the notion of spending time or money on providing team training around emotional intelligence is still a novel concept in many industries. That must change. An assertive employee is a self-assured employee, and a self-assured employee is one who’s enabled and encouraged and expected to show up to work as their authentic selves. Taking the time to help people become the best, most authentic version of themselves is well worth the time, money and any other necessary resources. An employee’s emotional quotient, their EQ, was ranked sixth in the World Economic Forum’s list of the top 10 skills employees will need to succeed in the fourth industrial revolution. So, if the aim of your business is to increase retention and engagement and create prominent leaders, it’s high time to supply employees with access to EQ training.


It was, after all, Mister Rogers’ emotional intelligence that enabled him to remain composed and steadfast, assertive and authentic in the face of the U.S. Senate, and in the end it earned his industry $20 million. What could raising the collective emotional intelligence of your workforce do for your business?

Meghan Campbell