Fred Rogers

Imagine if the business world subscribed to the values of Fred Rogers.

Might a company like General Motors, largely criticized for its “silo” company culture, be a stronger organization with an integrated community of employees who felt they had a voice in day-to-day operations?

Pittsburgh educators and authors Ian and Donna Mitroff believe the corporate community has much to learn from the values at the heart of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Their textbook, “Fables and the Art of Leadership: Applying the Wisdom of Mister Rogers to the Workplace,” applies the philosophy of the sage teacher of children to the challenges in the workplace.

The Mitroffs, who are husband and wife, currently live in Oakland, Calif. They were back in Pittsburgh this month for the Fred Forward Conference, an annual gathering of some of the brightest thinkers and educators in the country who continue to promote the work of Fred Rogers.

Speaking to a group of educators at Pitt last week, they shared ways that business leaders might incorporate the simple lessons taught to children by Rogers. They also, quite naturally, offered a parable like this one to make the point.

Once upon a time, Lady Elaine Fairchild, the outspoken director of Make Believe’s Museum-Go-Round, discovered a land called Planet Purple. Planet Purple was a place where everything was the same—purple sky, purple cars, purple trees. Everyone ate purple pumpernickel pudding.

All the boys were named Paul and the girls were named Pauline and they spoke in monotone voices.

When Lady Elaine stepped out on Planet Purple, everyone ran because she seemed so strange and different from everything they knew. So she returned to Make Believe, not realizing that three of the purple inhabitants had stowed away with her.

What Paul, Pauline and Purple Panda discovered through their adventure is that differences in people and places can be a good thing, especially if one takes the time to experience and understand the feelings that go along with these differences.

When the trio returns home to Planet Purple, they find it difficult to convey their experience to others on the planet, but in time the purple people begin to value the feelings and differences between themselves and others.

Planet Purple organizations are everywhere today, say the Mitroffs. Their repressiveness is symbolized by a lack of color and diversity. These organizations are disconnected on an emotional level; employees are expected to accomplish tasks through thinking alone.

The alternative is a prism organization, one that requires a high degree of connectedness.

The Mitroffs outline many of the issues that arise in business and how conflicts—from crisis management to conflicting management styles—may be overcome through the “Seven C’s:” connect, concern, creativity, communication, consciousness, courage and community.

“This stuff makes more sense than what they teach in business school,” says Ian. “Our tagline is ‘he helped you when you were a kid; he can help you now that you are an adult.’”

Stories and fables are an effective way to approach difficult and sensitive issues. What they teach is more profound in scope than traditional management and leadership training taught in business schools today.

Changing the culture of the workplace won’t be easy, they add. In these highly charged political times, stories and fables have the power to move people from entrenched positions to a spirit of compromise.

The best companies to work for are the ones that create an integrated community of people who are empowered to volunteer their own areas of expertise.

The book is currently being promoted as a text for business schools, but the authors hope to develop a workshop format for use by businesses.

The Mitroffs bring more than 30 years of experience to the subject. Ian, a former professor at Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business and adjunct business professor at UC Berkley, is considered the founder of the discipline of Crisis Management.

Donna formerly worked at WQED in Pittsburgh and was vice president of WQED West and president of Mediascope. She is currently the president and founder of the children’s media consulting group, Mitroff & Associates.

Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared...