Leaders strive to be known for creating spaces where people feel understood, important, and celebrated
University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2025
It is universally agreed that Fred Rogers was everyone’s neighbor.
Fred Rogers (known to millions as Mister Rogers) hosted children’s TV shows from the 1960s to early 2000s that educated virtually every business leader, school administrator, and politician who shapes our world today. This outsize influence came as no accident for the larger-than-life figure who connected with others in unique and special ways. Rogers was memorable, sincere, and above all else, a trustworthy companion to those who watched his shows.
Ask any leader what superpower they wish they had (or had more of) and virtually all will answer with some variation of “empathy” or “connecting with others.” Leaders, now more than ever, are judged by how their conduct inspires others to bring their true selves to work and be comfortable in environments that might be daunting, uninviting, or intimidating. Leaders strive to be known for creating spaces where people feel understood, important, and celebrated. Doing so is difficult to pull off, even for Mister Rogers.
Early in his career, a frustrated Fred Rogers was struggling to find the secret to connecting with children through television, so he turned to friends for help. Rogers asked Gabby Hayes, a prominent actor known for playing the ever-loyal character in western films, what Hayes thought about when looking into the camera. Hayes responded, “one little buckaroo.”
Who was this “one little buckaroo” that Hayes was trying to connect with? Undeniably, “one little buckaroo” was more than just another cowboy to Hayes, whose characters embodied the trust and sincerity that Rogers was after. Hayes achieved these traits and connections by steering away from generic performances that get lost against the backdrop of the other generic performances people encounter every day. Instead, Hayes created memorable and sincere connections with his audience by focusing on the omnipresent, most important person in the room – that one little buckaroo. His advice to Rogers: “to connect with others, make them the most important in the room.”
Armed with this advice, Rogers crafted every single detail in his shows around one person: that one little buckaroo. Rogers distilled his scripts to simple language that children could follow. His speech slowed, so that no child would be left behind. His actions became methodical and deliberate so children would not be distracted or startled by quick scene changes. Rogers obtained the superpower of empathy simply by inviting others to enter into a world where they were celebrated, worth everything, and the most important person in the room.
A senior executive at a previous employer of mine once quoted Fred Rogers, saying “the most important person in the room is the person right in front of you.” We can all think about two scenarios: one where someone made us feel like just another person in the room and another where someone made us feel like the most important person in the room.
Next time you find yourself struggling to connect with others, ensure those around you feel understood, important, and celebrated. Think about that one little buckaroo and make them the most important person in the room.