Mr. Rogers, Virtue Ethics and Servant Leadership

Introduction

Moral choices influence every aspect of our lives. They are the foundation of the world’s religions, taught to us by our parents, and an integral part of our public institutions. Bad moral choices affect us all and bad moral actors are all around us. They are in our prisons, our legal and political systems, and our workplaces. Bad actors discriminate, harass, bully, victimize us, and cause major suffering in the world. In recent decades, the ancient philosophy of virtue ethics, which dates back to the days of Aristotle, has returned to the forefront of modern ethics philosophy. We are experiencing a renewed interest in this ethical concept and its applicability to the modern workplace. Perhaps this re-interest stems from Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who hosted Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood from 1968-2001. Children across three generations – from the Baby Boomers to the Millennials – regularly tuned in to watch Mr. Rogers. The concepts they learned arguably fit well within the scope of virtue ethics theory and likely formed the basis for how these children developed as individuals, and how they ultimately chose which leadership philosophy best suited them.

In Managing Business Ethics, we studied three ethics theories: consequentialist theory, where the focus is on the results or consequences of the decision or action; deontological theory, where the focus is on the duty of the actor to do what is “right” and fair; and virtue ethics, where the focus is on the integrity and character of the person and not the act itself. For the purposes of this essay, I will solely focus on virtue ethics. I will also write about the connection between virtue ethics and servant leadership. According to Simon Sinek, servant leaders are leaders who focus on the premise that human beings come first, not numbers, and therefore make the best leaders. The best leaders put others before themselves. Sinek argues that companies led by servant leaders are the most successful companies. I would argue that Fred Rogers is a servant leader and a number of the children who watched Fred Rogers’ television program may have gone on to become servant leaders as a direct result of the example set for them by Fred Rogers during their childhood.

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Analysis

Virtue ethics focus “more on the integrity of the moral actor (the person) than on the moral act itself (the decision or behavior). The goal is to be a good person because that is the type of person you wish to be.” “There are two basic approaches to integrating ethics in business: the action-based approach, and the agent-based approach….the agent-based approach concerns the fundamental character and motivations of the individual agent. Under the agent-based approach, moral behavior is not limited to adherence to a rule or guideline but rather involves the individual rationally pursuing moral excellence as a goal in and of itself.” In other words, the individual strives to be a good person, actively engages in steps to become a good person and develops himself to become a moral agent, forming relationships with others who are also moral agents, and contributes to an environment that values this concept of virtue ethics. These actors intentionally engage in actions designed to habitualize the best character traits with the goal that these acts will ultimately become the norms everyone exhibits. How do we learn virtue ethics? We learn by following good role models.

The documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is currently showing in theaters around the country. This documentary chronicles the life story of Fred Rogers, bringing this American icon back into the news. “‘Radical kindness’ is … what Mr. Rogers practiced…. His gentle and personal manner masked a commitment to bring love and acceptance to every child … [He] taught children how to be compassionate and kind [and] that being genuine and true to your principles is far more powerful than any technology or short cut. But even more importantly, Rogers showed how to be principled without being strident. He was never negative, yet he made it clear that certain beliefs and practices were harmful and ill-advised.” Fred Rogers held a personal value system that very much falls within the scope of virtue ethics, and he used his TV program to teach his values (virtues) to the nation’s children for 33 years. Rogers’ teachings radically differed from the standard business values of his time.

In Humanizing Business, author Geoff Moore wrote that capitalist business organizations had a long-standing tendency toward avarice. Moore suggested that this idea of avarice originated from a 1930 essay written by the founder of the theory of Keynesian economics, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes’ essay titled, The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, advocated that it was necessary to legitimate avarice to the extent that economic goals [were] paramount and social goals (or even social considerations) [were] relegated to an inferior position.” Keynes’ economic principles were representative of how society viewed business practices in the early twentieth century; however, the tide was beginning to turn despite Keynes’ essay encouraging the interests of business over people. For it was also in the 1930s that Edwin Sutherland, a sociologist, delivered an address to the American Sociological Society regarding the emergence of corporate crime. Sutherland reproached his colleagues for their views that corporate malfeasance did not rise to the level of criminal activity. Although his efforts were ultimately futile because at that time no one was willing to send “gentlemen” to prison for undefined crimes, Sutherland nonetheless set the stage for future corporate reform. Throughout the next several decades, business laws and regulations developed over the subject of acceptable corporate practices, and by the 1970s, the press was actively running stories on business misconduct.

In the news were stories that covered the 1972 burglary of the DNC Headquarters, illegal political contributions made to foreign governments, price fixing, environmental damage, and health and safety violations. America’s views on corporate misdeeds were evolving, and consumer advocates like Ralph Nader suddenly caught the attention of the media as never before. The reputation of business leaders, once revered, plummeted. All the while, in the background, Fred Rogers, in his role as a servant leader, was teaching virtue ethics to America’s future leaders – its children. Though Rogers did not actually change the world at that time, the influence he exerted on the children watching his program quite probably affected who they later became as individuals and how they chose their leadership philosophy. Thus, the renewed interest in virtue ethics and servant leadership is arguably an extension of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Servant leadership has been defined by the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership as, “… a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. Servant leaders “remov[e] self-interest and personal glory … [and] inspire trust. [Servant leaders] focus first on the success of [the] organization and …team. James Kouzes and Barry Posner describe the five leadership practices that are key to good leadership in their book, The Leadership Challenge. One of these key leadership practices is “modeling the way,” arguably one of the foundational principles of servant leadership. Kouzes and Posner conclude that great leaders model their own value systems, i.e. virtue ethics, and in this way, leaders transform the values (virtues) of the business, and therefore humanize it. It is clear that Fred Rogers modelled the way in each episode he aired, humbly serving as a virtuous servant leader and role model to the children who tuned in to watch.

As a servant leader, albeit one who served in a non-traditional role by using the medium of television, Rogers held a deep belief that every human being had inherent dignity. He used virtue ethics principles to elevate people instead of to bring them down. Rogers was not afraid to tackle tough issues like racial discrimination or assassination. For example, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he televised a skit that informed children about assassination because he recognized that inherent need in children to receive answers to confusing and sometimes ugly situations. Rogers was a courageous leader who believed in speaking up, even when doing so was difficult or unpleasant.

Conclusion

In this course, we have studied ethics by approaching the topic in a number of different ways. Eugene Soltes attempts to get inside the mind of the white-collar criminal in his book, Why They Do It. He spends quite a bit of time on the evolution of business regulations over the last 100 years. He points out that corporate executives still spend a lot of their time performing tasks that are in legal grey areas. He concludes that there are many instances where an act may be legally sound (usually due to lack of laws or regulations prohibiting it) but nevertheless remains right on the ethical line. Soltes goes on to describe an individualistic mindset common among the many executives whom he interviewed and presented as case studies. He argues that perhaps these individualistic characteristics – self-interest, power seeking, and over-emphasis on the corporate, personal, and financial bottom line – were what led to the descent of seemingly law-abiding executive citizens into a life of corporate crime.

Edward O. Wilson, on the other hand, broaches the topic by studying the evolution of man himself. In The Social Conquest, Wilson details the pre- and early-history of humans, as we rose to become homo sapiens. Wilson theorizes that we became who we are as modern human beings when we achieved eusociality (the true human condition); however, he argues that pre-man’s earliest individualistic character traits remain to some extent in modern human DNA. If Wilson is correct, it may be that the corporate executives described by Soltes still retained a fair number of individualist traits. If that is the case, how will we as human beings, who are genetically predisposed to individualistic character traits, ever achieve a society based on virtue ethics?

Aristotle was among the first to philosophize on the idea that a system based on virtue ethics could lead to a well-run society filled with moral actors; however, he lived in a period when religious teachings were prominent. In the United States, religious moral teachings are no longer an integral part of the daily culture. The concept of separation of church and state means that people in our social venues and in our government and public institutions are reluctant to discuss or teach morals at all. Instead, there is a tendency for American society to pursue a more secular moralistic approach. This does not mean that virtue ethics are irrelevant. Virtue ethics are an integral part of the modern workplace, albeit approached secularly. This fact would seem to be antithetical to what you might expect of a secularly focused, capitalistic society that developed through the philosophy of Keynesian avarice – unless you consider the influence of Fred Rogers.

Fred Rogers, through his popular and long-running television program, was able to influence society in ways that few can. He knew who he was as a person and was not afraid to display and teach his values in episode after episode. He was consistent in his message when the lessons were easy (love yourself, love your neighbor) and in times of turmoil (racism and the assassination of a beloved president). Rogers consistently taught virtue ethics through servant leadership to three generations of American children. As a result, Fred Rogers directly influenced those individuals who have gone on to fill important leadership positions. Although we concluded many times in class that it is almost impossible for a leader to change a person’s belief system – that a leader can only enforce behavior – Rogers seems to have found a way to do it. Perhaps his teachings have set the stage for virtue-centric workplaces today and in the future.

Bibliography

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  2. Kasanoff, Bruce. ‘There’s A Lot We Can Learn From Mr. Rogers.’ Forbes. January 22, 2018. Accessed July 13, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucekasanoff/2018/01/20/radical-kindness-looks-like-mr-rogers/.
  3. Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987.
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  10. Walker, Carol A. ‘New Managers Need a Philosophy About How They’ll Lead.’ Harvard Business Review. September 15, 2015. Accessed July 13, 2018. https://hbr.org/2015/09/new-managers-need-a-philosophy-about-how-theyll-lead.
  11. Weinstein, Bruce. ‘How Mister Rogers Can Make You A More Effective Leader.’ Forbes. July 04, 2018. Accessed July 13, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bruceweinstein/2018/07/02/how-mister-rogers-can-make-you-a-more-effective-leader/.
  12. ‘What Is Servant Leadership?’ Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Accessed July 13, 2018. https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/.
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