The Good Neighbor

I’m posting a talk, which I gave nearly two years ago. Whoops! Forgot to publish it!

This was an original talk for Lead Night 2021 which was hosted by OU President’s Community Scholars (PCS). The event was held on March 11, 2021 and included four TED Talk-style presentations. The theme was “Leadership Unmasked” (very 2021, 😉 ) and we were given a seven minute time limit. Slides and remarks are below.

(Song plays: Theme to Mister Rogers Neighborhood)

Fred Rogers walked into his living room to that same song 905 times. As a young boy growing up, in addition to many strong women in my life, I was fortunate to also be raised by three strong men: my father, my grandfather, and Fred Rogers. Each and every day, I would sit down to watch Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and each time he would extend an invitation, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

I learned all kinds of cool things from Mister Rogers. I particularly liked the factory visits. There was a framed picture in Mister Rogers living room, which he would use to transport you to a new part of the neighborhood.

Through these I got to see how macaroni was made, and crayons were made, and how wagons were made. It was high quality content in 1989.

You age out of watching Mister Rogers around five years old. As I became an adult, I began to question my childhood hero. Surely the real Mister Rogers wasn’t the same as the character Mister Rogers, correct? Surely, it was a mask.
When you watch Fred’s television program as an adult, you see what Mister Rogers was doing with different eyes. I want to pass on three big lessons that you can learn from Mister Rogers:

Be vulnerable

Remember that episode I mentioned where Mister Rogers visits the crayon factory? He’s a clip from later in the episode where he draws with some crayons.

I’m not very good at it. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the fun of doing it that’s important. I hope that you will take advantage of using your time at OU to try new things even if you think you are not good at them. Take a class in ballroom dancing or golf. Learn an instrument. Eat a corndog at OU-Texas. Befriend someone from a different country. 

Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.- Brene Brown 

Being vulnerable takes courage. As leaders not only will you be asked to be vulnerable but you’ll likely find yourselves in positions where your friends feel the courage to tell you something in a moment of vulnerability, and I hope that meet those opportunity with empathy.

Fred Rogers was authentically himself. But in order to get kids to open up, he would put on his closest version to a mask—his puppets. Here in this clip, Fred uses Daniel Striped Tiger, a small tiger cub who often doubted his own abilities, to talk to a child about his pet cat passing away.

[Clip no longer available]

Have a bedrock of principles

Have a bedrock of principles.

A bedrock of principles. What do I mean by that?

J Rufus Fears - It is the set of values in which you live your entire life

My Classics Professor at OU, Dr. Rufus Fears, said it was this: “It is a set of values in which you live your entire life.”

For world leaders like Winston Churchill and Pericles and Abraham Lincoln that bedrock of principles was “democratic freedom.” Government of the people, by the people, and for the people. For you, maybe it’s social equality, or justice, or education or climate issues.

It’s no secret that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He anchored everything in his belief of radical acceptance: to love thy neighbor as one’s self.

Fred never directly mentioned his religious beliefs on the show, yet he built the entire show around the idea of unconditional love, and used the show as a platform for sharing his countercultural beliefs that revolved around caring nonviolently for one another, animals, and the earth. 

Surprising to many, Fred was indeed a radical pacifist who, during times of war, such as Vietnam or the Gulf War aired entire weekly segments devoted to conflict: for Fred, the answer was always peace.

In 1969, at a time when black citizens were not permitted to share a public pool with white citizens, Mister Rogers was invited Officer Clemmons, a character in the neighborhood, to dip their feet together in a pool.

Be kind

Finally, Fred Rogers, in his later years, would often tell this story. When Henry James’s nephew was about to go off to school for the first time, he came to his uncle and asked, “Do you have any advice for me?” Henry James answered, “I have three pieces of advice. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

As leaders, we have big dreams. How can I make an impact? What are the steps? Maybe I need to be elected to office or become an influencer or author a book in order to be successful. Mister Rogers says be a good neighbor.

When I moved into the dorms as a freshman at OU, I assumed what I was paying for was direct access to how to do the work; A deeper understanding of how crayons are made, except sub that out for chemistry, or calculus, or philosophy, or (in my case) media; advertising.

What I figured out along the way was that college was much more than prep a “career.” It was a gathering of people from all over the world who had the same goal of bettering themselves and their future through education. Our university is a neighborhood; one that is desperate for leaders that are more neighborly.