A True Leader Is Not the Same as a Brand

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

One Saturday morning at 7 a.m., I was sitting, bleary-eyed, in my office at PBS. It was 2010 and I was writing part of a grant proposal for the next five years of PBS KIDS Digital funding. Our team had a terrific set of goals and was excited about starting this next chapter of research and innovation, but after many long nights and weekends, I was exhausted.
I took a few deep breaths, closed my documents, and opened up a video clip of Fred Rogers testifying before the U.S. Senate in defense of public media funding in 1969. In his signature steady and soothing voice, the host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood walked through his argument for why non-commercial media was necessary for our children. Six minutes later, I was writing again -- re-inspired, and reminded of why I have chosen this career field.

Simon Sinek's talk poses that true leaders and entrepreneurs are single-minded about the "why" of what they do. I can't think of anyone for whom this was more clear that than Fred Rogers. At the moment of his Senate hearing, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood had only been airing on PBS for a year, so he stood before senators without the legacy we attach to him today.

Fred Rogers made the case for public media because he felt there must be an alternative -- television that could inspire children to learn more about their communities and themselves, not a medium to help sell products. He also believed that television could help children learn about their feelings and how to express them. In that testimony, he quoted lyrics from his composition, "What do you do with the mad that you feel," a song that gave thousands of children an achievable model for self-control. His belief in how this giant megaphone of the day's new media could help young children (and their families) navigate the confusing world around them was so clear and so consistent, not only did the Senate subcommittee sit up and take notice, he went on to produce more than a thousand episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. He helped families navigate issues of death, divorce, difference, and confusion, ultimately reminding each child that he or she was unique, special, and loved.

Fred Rogers was committed to raising children to be good citizens, not good consumers. -- Sara DeWitt

It is clear that my personal hero, Fred Rogers, is an example who fits fully into Simon Sinek's model of a great leader. He understood why he had created his television show, and did embody Sinek's "golden circle" through his work. Fred Rogers was incredibly successful: his show earned high ratings and he was the recipient of Emmys, honorary degrees, and a Peabody.
But ultimately Fred Rogers does not fit into Sinek's statement, "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." This is where Sinek's model for leadership makes too big of a leap. A leader is not the same as a brand. There are pioneers and leaders who understand the WHY and who inspire others. And then there are companies that have done a great job in identifying their core consumers' desire to tie a product to their own self-expression. Though a buyer may be pleased with a product, and may even believe that their purchase communicates something else to the world, that buyer is not "inspired." That buyer was persuaded.

In addition to considering the success of companies like Apple, Sinek spoke of the attendees of the March on Washington who heard Martin Luther King Jr. Many of these people were inspired to support social good, and went on to encourage others to review their attitudes and beliefs. Again, social change leadership and successful business brands fall into different categories. Both can be worthy of admiration and study, but we can't lump them together. Inspiring leaders to promote social good is not the same as inspiring employees to sell merchandise.

Fred Rogers made the conscious decision not to work in commercial television because he believed that advertising to children would undermine the medium's potential to nurture them. He felt it was dangerous for children to believe that their self-worth was tied up in their toys, their clothes, or even how they wore their hair. "It's YOU I like," he repeated to them, believing that helping children appreciate their own individuality was essential to their healthy growth. Fred Rogers was committed to raising children to be good citizens, not good consumers.

I think one of Sinek's most inspired moments was about employees. He noted that a person who can do the job will work for a paycheck, but someone who believes in the "why" will give their blood, sweat and tears to the job. I look around my office every day and see the truth in this statement. When you believe that your work actually has an impact, that it may improve the lives of others, that's when your true potential can be realized. Theologian Frederick Buechner says, "Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world's greatest need." I count myself among the many ranks of educators, parents, community leaders, philanthropists, children's media professionals, and yes, business leaders who were inspired by Fred Rogers' tireless work to meet the emotional needs of children.

Some business leaders inspire our work. But some unique individuals inspire our vocation.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.