In a famous episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, the incomparable Fred Rodgers invited a boy with a physical disability named Jeff Erlanger onto his show. The boy, who was confined to a wheel chair, shared about his experiences and the two connected over an unscripted and very human moment. For many children watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, this was likely their first chance to empathize with what it would be like to face a physical disability in a world designed for people without them. Most remarkably of all, though, was that this kind of encounter on Roger’s show wasn’t unusual. It was actually the norm.
- In one episode, Fred used the recent death of his dog Mitzy to help children reconcile with death in their own lives.
- Throughout the entire length of his show’s long history, Fred went out of his way to showcase the talents and experiences of people of color.
- In a 1969 episode, Fred put his feet in a pool together with one of his black co-stars: François Clemmons. The statement was clear and powerful: At the time, many public pools around the country were segregated.
Mister Rogers' message of kindness and empathy continues to resonate today, long after his passing. His messages left a positive impact on the lives of countless children and helped to create a more compassionate and understanding world. When you look at how he was able to do this, however, you’ll find a great irony. Fred never actively tried to make himself famous. He grew his impact not by putting himself front and center, but by getting out of the way. The show might have been called Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but Rogers never saw himself as the star of the show. Instead, the star was his audience: the children watching from living rooms around the world. They were the heroes. It was his focus on putting others in the spotlight that earned him the respect and praise he still receives to this day.
Fred Rogers recast himself as the guide, not the hero, of the show, and if we desire to become great leaders, we must do the same.
So, what does it mean to play the guide?
Author and business strategist Donald Miller’s book, “Hero on a Mission,” notes four characters that are always at play in the story around us: the hero, the victim, the villain, and the guide. The hero is often ignorant, weak, and untested, but they are also hopeful. He or she must learn to overcome obstacles within themselves in order to succeed. The victim is the foil to the hero. Rather than fighting through adversity and growing, the victim gives up. Victims frequently feel restless, stuck, and uncertain. The villain faces the same insecurities as others, but rather than overcoming them, or even giving into them, they seek revenge and vindication to bring others down to their level. Villains are resentful, brooding, and go out of their way to make others feel small and insignificant. I am sure you could name people who fill each of these roles in the world around you.
The guide is different. The guide is the person who helps the hero win. The guide has also faced difficulties but he or she overcame those difficulties, learned from them, and now uses those experiences to guide others through similar situations. If the hero is the foil to the victim, the guide is the foil to the villain.
I don’t know what role you are playing right now. If we are being honest, all of us have played each role at different times in life. It’s natural. But, as I mentioned earlier, the one thing that separates great leaders is, at some point, they made a choice to take on that final role. They have become guides. Their life is about helping others reach their goals.
To be a guide is to embody the qualities of empathy, compassion, and selflessness. It means taking the time to truly understand someone else's perspective, meet them where they are, and lead them toward growth. It means acknowledging that we don't have all the answers and that we too are willing to learn from others.
When we recast ourselves as guides, we shift our focus from our own personal narrative to the stories of those we interact with every day. We learn to listen more deeply and notice those around us who are in need of help.
Lasting and true peace, joy, and purpose can only find us when we learn to stop putting ourselves in the center of the story, and look for someone else to encourage. You are not the hero in the story, and if you think you are, it might be time for a new role.
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